Novels of the Romantic Age
The fiction written during the Romantic period is often studied in ways that focus on its historical context but skirt around the issue of its relationship to concepts of Romanticism itself, although many critics regard some concept of Romanticism as central to the interpretation of literature written between 1785 and 1832. Since what we have come to identify as ‘Romanticism’ is based mainly on readings of the poetry of the period, I intend to discuss not only whether some significant novels of this period can be considered ‘Romantic’ in a similar way to much of its poetry, but also whether these significant novels enlarge the received notion of what the canon of the Romantic age comprises.
One has to ask whether the ‘novels of the Romantic age’ can be said to form a coherent group. Recent criticism has tended to group novels of the era thematically, focusing, for instance, on regional novels, such as those by Maria Edgeworth and Sydney Owenson, which are set in Ireland, and by Walter Scott in Scotland; on fiction by women writers, including Austen, Frances Burney, Edgeworth, Mary Shelley and others; or on novelists who engage with some of the political upheavals of the 1790s, such as William Godwin, Elizabeth Hamilton, Mary Hays, Thomas Holcroft and Mary Wollstonecraft. The majority of novels written during this era share some thematic preoccupations, such as sensibility, nationalism, the Gothic, and the sublime in nature to an extent that is unique to the period. A significant number of interesting novels that are not classified as ‘Gothic novels’ or ‘novels of sensibility’ nonetheless engage with these preoccupations satirically: Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1818) and Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey (1818) both make a central feature of Gothic conventions and language, while Matthew Lewis’s uber-Gothic novel The Monk (1796) also pokes fun at many conventional Gothic tropes and plot devices. Yet more novels are frequently classified under one sub-genre but gesture towards others: Godwin’s Caleb Williams is seen as the great Jacobin novel of the 1790s, but it is also a Gothic novel, while Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, set in Scotland, could be described as regional Gothic. Tropes such as the sublime landscape and ancient castle are practically ubiquitous in regional novels as well as in Gothic ones.
In his comprehensive study English Fiction of the Romantic Period, Gary Kelly attempts to characterize the Romantic novel in his description of Jane Austen as the ‘representative Romantic novelist’:
she deals superbly with the central thematic and formal issues of the novel of the period – the gentrification of the professional classes and the professionalization of the gentry, the place of women in a professionalized culture that denies them any significant role in public or professional life, the establishment of a ‘national’ culture of distinction and discrimination in the face of fashion and commercialised culture, the re-siting of the authentic self in an inward moral and intellectual being so cultivated as to be able to negotiate successfully the varieties of social experience and cultural discriminations, the establishment of a standard speech based on writing, and resolution of the relationship of authoritative narration and detailed representation of subjective experience.1
However, while this description fits many novels of the Romantic age, at least to some extent, the characteristics he lists contrast sharply with what he later refers to as ‘the central characteristics and achievements of Romantic poetry … intense, transcendent and reflexive subjectivity, supernatural naturalism and discursive self-consciousness’.2 In a subsequent essay discussing ‘Romantic Fiction’, Kelly concludes by comparing these two versions of Romanticism, that of poetry and that of fiction, to imply that the predominant aims of the literature of the period were those of its novelists, whom he considers to have achieved as much or more than its poets in exploring domestic affections, local life, and national culture. These aims are not, however, the central concerns in a Gothic novel such as Vathek any more than in a poem such as ‘Kubla Khan’; whereas ‘the domestic affections and local quotidian life’,3 for instance, are as much if differently explored in Wordsworth’s poems as they are in Austen’s novels.
The majority of the novels of the Romantic age tend to support Kelly’s view that their predominant ideology is a bourgeois one, since the almost inevitable resolution of the plot with one or more marriages would seem to valorize middle-class ‘quotidian’ life and the ‘domestic affections’, while the ‘realism’ of many novels also tends to deflate romantic idealism through collision with the commonplace. This deflation occurs in Radcliffe’s novels through the marriage plot and her characteristic device of the ‘supernatural explained’, where she accounts for supernatural events in rational terms, and in Austen’s, through her ‘punishment’ of sensibility in heroines such as Marianne in Sense and Sensibility (1811).
A related Romantic project was to valorize the poet and to resist the marginalization of the artist in an increasingly industrialized, mercantile, and bourgeois-dominated British society. This is expressed in autobiographical and semi-autobiographical poems by male poets including Wordsworth and Byron, and epitomized in the construction of the poet as Promethean creator. Many of the most influential and widely read fiction-writers of the period, including Austen, Burney, Edgeworth, Radcliffe, Scott, and Mary Shelley, implicitly or overtly support the changes in British society, although with qualifications, stressing the importance of family life and rational judgement, and implicitly or overtly condemn the perceived ‘Romantic’ personality cultivated and cult-ified by many Romantic poets.
In English Fiction of the Romantic Period, Kelly reveals the limitations of his aforementioned generalizations, since his list of sub-genres of Romantic fiction is an assemblage of contraries: Jacobin novels, anti-Jacobin novels, Gothic, Gothic Romance, novels of sensibility, national tales, moral tales, tales of fashionable life, tales of the heart, tales of real life, historical romances, tales for youth, tales of wonder, Scotch novels, ‘silver fork’ novels, ‘Newgate’ novels, and the Romantic quasi-novel. Several of these kinds of novel have little, if anything, in common with Romantic poetry: ‘Anti-Jacobin novels’, and ‘tales of real life’, in particular, were thematically and formally in opposition to the Romantic cult of the imagination and sensibility. Yet Gothic novels, for example those by Ann Radcliffe, have much that is in common with Romantic poetry, in terms of both language and themes – for instance the transcendentalizing of nature, and the significance accorded to an emotional response to such landscapes.
Another difficulty in relating the Romantic period novel to a Romantic agenda set by poetry is that during the period, especially in the 1780s and 1790s, the novel was not seen as high art in the way that poetry was, a perception that has lingered on in recent literary criticism. Coleridge, a regular reviewer of fiction for the Critical Review, satirized both fiction-readers and fiction-reading, wittily articulating a prevalent view of the novel as an adverse, if transient, mental and moral influence, and moreover a pointless waste of the reader’s time:
For as to the devotees of the circulating libraries, I dare not compliment their passtime, or rather killtime, with the name of reading. Call it rather a sort of beggarly day-dreaming, during which the mind of the dreamer furnishes for itself nothing but laziness and a little mawkish sensibility; … this genus comprizes as its species, gaming, swinging, or swaying on a chair or gate; spitting over a bridge; smoking; snuff-taking …4
While Coleridge’s attitude is fairly light-hearted, many other more conservative critics contemporary to him expressed serious moral criticism of the genre as a whole.
Early in the twentieth century, when J.M.S. Tompkins wrote her groundbreaking survey of The Popular Novel in England 1770–1800, she made no claims for the quality of the works she included, and rather proclaimed their lack of merit; Ian Watt, in the last chapter of his seminal book on eighteenth-century fiction The Rise of the Novel, dismisses the ‘mediocre’ fiction of the Romantic period, of which only Austen’s novels are said to have been of central importance to the development of the genre in the nineteenth century. Many readers will still consider Austen’s restrained realism as a mark of ‘great fiction’, and may view the reverse, the prolixity, emotionalism and unrestrained qualities of novels by writers such as Burney, as a sign of their lack of artistry.
Austen’s own defence of the Romantic-era novel, in Northanger Abbey, has a surprisingly polemical tone, and is perhaps the most frequently quoted contemporary vindication of novels as a genre. Its unusual status in Austen’s novels, as an overt authorial comment on the form in which she is writing, testifies to the strength of compulsion that she, as a novelist, felt herself to be under to make such a justification of her work: ‘there seems to be almost a general wish of decrying the capacity, and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.’5 Austen refutes the denigration of novels as intellectually and artistically inferior by simply producing as evidence the artistry of Burney and Edgeworth, the two most respected novelists of the day. This expectation of the reader’s concurrence with her assessment of the two novelists suggests the existence of a growing counter-current in opinion towards the belief that the novel did indeed have artistic value.
Of the novels of the Romantic period that have best survived the test of time, and still attract a large readership, it seems to be the more supposedly un-Romantic novelists who predominate – Austen has worn better than the Gothic novelists, although the latter were as popular in their day. In most studies charting the history of the novel, Gothic fiction, novels of sensibility, historical romance, and other kinds of non-realistic fiction have a secondary place. Yet these latter genres seem to manifest a clearer relationship to Romantic poetry, in terms of both content and style, than the more socially realistic novels. Sentimental and Gothic novelists such as Ann Radcliffe and Charlotte Smith wrote lyrical prose, interspersed with poetic quotations from English ‘classics’ such as Shakespeare and with their own poetry, and endorsed a Romantic belief in the significance of subjective experience, while ‘realistic’ novelists, such as Maria Edgeworth and Austen, often dealt with more commonplace subjects, in more prosaic terms.
Realism was, according to Margaret Anne Doody in The True Story of the Novel, ‘new in the eighteenth century and dominant in the nineteenth’.6 She refers to it as ‘prescriptive realism’, suggesting that this constrained novelists to write only about what seems plausible or probable in everyday life. Yet sub-genres of fiction that resisted such realism abounded in the Romantic period: the Oriental tale, the Gothic novel, the ‘historical romance’, and science fiction. These works were, however, censured by contemporary critics both for their lack of realism and for their detrimental moral influence on the reader. A lack of realism, in the perception of some cultural arbiters, who included many literary reviewers and educational reformers as well as some novelists, could exacerbate an immoral influence on the readers of a particular work; and a novel’s artistry was at that time assessed on the basis of its moral tendency as well as its formal and stylistic qualities. The journal The British Critic (which was funded by a Conservative government) condemned Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796)7 in terms that linked its immorality and its unrealism: ‘Lust, murder, incest, and every atrocity that can disgrace human nature, brought together, without the apology of probability, or even possibility, for their introduction….’8 Coleridge’s negative assessment of Ann Radcliffe’s novels in The Critical Review indicates that realism or plausibility in fiction had become an automatic expectation, although in his own poems he clearly does not aim to confine himself to what can be observed in real life:
It was not difficult to foresee that the modern romance, even supported by the skill of the most ingenious of its votaries, would soon experience the fate of every attempt to please by what is unnatural, and by a departure from that observance of real life, which has placed the works of Fielding, Smollett, and some other writers, among the permanent sources of amusement.9
It seems significant that Coleridge chose from among eighteenth-century novelists two of those whose works least resemble his own Romantic poetry, in order to imply that non-realism and the novel are best not mixed.
Although the term Romantic was not used during the period itself to describe either a cultural movement or the authors now commonly thought of as Romantic, the term ‘romance’ was frequently used by writers and critics (for example by Coleridge in his review, above) and had a specific, although often debated, meaning when used to describe a work of fiction or a fictional genre. Clara Reeve’s The Progress of Romance (1785) is a survey, in the form of a Platonic dialogue, of prose fiction written before 1780, which attempts to define the difference between the novel and the romance: ‘The Romance is an heroic fable, which treats of fabulous persons and things. – The Novel is a picture of real life and manners, and of the times in which it is written.’10 Some confusion arises, however, when Reeve divides specific fictional works of the eighteenth century into one or other category – for instance, A Tale of a Tub, Gulliver’s Travels, Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, and The Castle of Otranto are all considered to be novels, despite having some qualities of romance or mock-romance, whereas Dr Johnson’s rather comparable Rasselas is not.11 The term ‘romance’ or, as Coleridge has it, ‘modern romance’, was frequently used by critics, and by novelists in sub-titling their work, to describe novels that we might now see as particularly ‘unrealistic’ – especially Gothic novels, such as Radcliffe’s The Romance> of the Forest, A Sicilian Romance, and The Mysteries of Udolpho, a Romance, and historical novels, such as Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), sub-titled ‘a Romance’. On the other hand, ‘realistic’ novelists and novelists of ‘manners’, would frequently sub-title their works ‘a Novel’, which appears on the title page of all of Austen’s novels that were published during her lifetime. Any assumption, however, that ‘romance’ and ‘realistic novel’ were always oppositional is misleading, since major ‘hybrid’ novels such as Scott’s combined and integrated both romance and realism.
Gillian Beer, in her monograph The Romance, charts the changing nature and status of romance from medieval to recent times. She says of the use of romance conventions during the Romantic age: ‘The Romantic attitude to the romance and its associated forms is distinguished by conscious revivalism – revivalism in both senses of the word, since it is present both as pedantic antiquarianism and as a restoring to spiritual life.’12 This ‘conscious revivalism’ describes cultural trends such as antiquarianism as well as retrospectively defined movements such as Orientalism. In poetry, this antiquarianism and exoticism was variously characterized by collections of old ballads and oral poetry, such as Percy’s Reliques (1765), by works of pseudo-antiquity such as MacPherson’s Ossian poems (1760–63), and by works that drew on the popular ballad such as Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798). Antiquarianism and exoticism appeared in novels of the period largely in terms of their setting: in remote historical novels set in the medieval past, such as Scott’s Ivanhoe (1820) and Godwin’s St Leon (1799), in Gothic novels set in medieval Italy, such as the Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), or in novels set in the East, such as William Beckford’s Vathek (1785). Many novelists, including Beckford, Edgeworth, Owenson, and Scott, appended scholarly notes or glossaries to their works, which create a distance between the voice of the ‘editor-narrator’, with whom the reader can identify as the voice of reasoned objectivity, and the otherness of past customs or exotic locations. Supposedly informative notes could also provide a superficially orthodox point of view, which might then be challenged by a sympathetic portrayal of the alternative culture, as in Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. Alternatively, such factual notes could become an instrument of propaganda, as they are in Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl. Remote settings, such as Roman Catholic Europe or the Islamic East, were also an often used and readily decipherable code through which to criticize English social institutions or comment controversially on contemporary events such as the French Revolution, without risking imprisonment by explicitly criticizing church or king in defiance of the anti-treason test acts, which were in effect from 1795 to 1828. Ann Radcliffe, in a rare use of a footnote in The Romance of the Forest, draws the reader’s attention to the French Revolution in order to remind the reader that the France in which she sets the novel is pre-revolutionary, but this also serves to bring contemporary political turmoil to the forefront of the reader’s mind, inviting a possible interpretation of the novel in the light of such events.
Radcliffe and Romantic Gothic
Ann Radcliffe’s Gothic novels have much in common with some Romantic poetry, such as Wordsworth’s, especially in terms of the significance given to nature, the language of the picturesque and the sublime used to describe it, and the quasi-religious association attached to the beautiful and the terrifying in nature. Radcliffe was a source of inspiration to several Romantic poets, including Keats, who referred to her as ‘Mother Radcliffe’ in a letter to George Keats (14 February 1819). In another letter to Reynolds (14 March 1818), he promises that ‘I am going among scenery whence I intend to tip you the Damosel Radcliffe – I’ll cavern you, and grotto you, and waterfall you, and wood you, and water you, and immense rock you, and tremendous sound you, and solitude you.’ The second quoted letter suggests Radcliffe’s status as a signifier for a whole set of generic conventions and motifs. Her fiction also influenced many novelists, including Jane Austen, who in Northanger Abbey satirizes Radcliffe’s hyperbolic language while also weaving elements of Radcliffe’s plots into her own.
In Radcliffe’s novels, a Romantic appreciation for nature and a volatile emotional sensibility serve as a kind of moral index among her characters: heroines such as Adeline (The Romance of the Forest, 1791) and Emily St Aubert (The Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794), and idealized, benevolent paternal figures (M. St. Aubert and La Luc), share an almost debilitating emotional susceptibility to nature, an appreciation which extends to its more threatening or terrifying manifestations, such as thunderstorms, as well as its beauties. Radcliffe’s villains, evil aristocratic figures like Montoni and the Marquis de Montalt, are impervious to natural beauty; and the responses to nature from her lower-class characters, servants or peasants, are limited to a caricatured patriotism, expressed in conventional and often erroneous terms (for instance, Adeline’s servant Peter mistakes mountains for ‘hills’).
In Radcliffe’s second novel, A Sicilian Romance (1790), a sublime landscape produces an enjoyable melancholy in Mme de Menon, which reciprocally enhances her perception of the landscape to an almost hallucinatory degree:
Fancy caught the thrilling sensation, and at her touch the towering steeps became shaded with unreal glooms; the caverns more darkly frowned – the projecting cliffs assumed a more terrific aspect, and the wild overhanging shrubs waved to the gale in deeper murmurs. The scene inspired Madame with reverential awe….13
In this passage, as elsewhere in Radcliffe’s novels, nature is implicitly represented as an earthly manifestation of the divine. Like Radcliffe, poets who make a similar use of nature, such as Wordsworth or Keats, advocate an anti-rationalist, intuitive emotional response to nature in order to grasp deeper truths about the world.
In Radcliffe’s novels, moreover, compassionate empathy with other human beings, as well as an appreciation for nature, is an aesthetic experience as well as a virtue, in a way that is comparable to Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Wanderer’, which aestheticizes an emotional response to the hardship or sadness suffered by others. In Wordsworth’s poetry, this heightened responsiveness to nature and to compassion is the preserve of certain privileged individuals, such as the Wanderer or the poet-narrator. Significantly, Radcliffe’s sensitive heroines are also themselves poets, whose impromptu verses, interpolated into the novels, seem curiously unreflective of the heroines’ predicaments, usually focusing instead on the landscape or on mythical situations – like Wordsworth’s Wanderer and the poem’s narrator, their poetic sensibility seems to preclude pragmatic action.
The Romantic qualities of Radcliffe’s novels are inevitably suppressed at their conclusions, when Gothic and supernatural elements are dispelled, the villains justly punished, and the heroines sequestered in happy bourgeois marriages with tidy inherited fortunes to secure their futures. Radcliffe was, moreover, notorious among her contemporaries as a rationalizer of the supernatural in her novels, to a degree that some reviewers such as Coleridge found yet more implausible than the supernatural events themselves (it is to this that he refers as ‘crying wolf in the review quoted previously, and which Matthew Lewis parodied in The Monk). In The Mysteries of Udolpho the device of the ‘supernatural explained’ is used frequently at the novel’s conclusion to de-mystify occurrences that include the apparently rotting corpse (a wax figure) behind the veil, and the disappearance of a servant (who was kidnapped by smugglers) from a supposedly haunted room. However, in Radcliffe’s novels the presence of the supernatural is never altogether expelled, since it remains inscribed in the potential offered by nature for human contact with the divine.
Radcliffe’s luminous descriptions of landscape were influenced by the paintings of the Italian artist Salvator Rosa (1615–73), whose works later came to epitomize the Romantic conception of the ‘picturesque’ as wild, rugged and asymmetrical, and Radcliffe refers the reader un-ironically to Salvator to emphasize particularly picturesque scenes in several of her novels. Scott also does this, but ironically, in Waverley, when his hero meets the robber chief, Donald Bean Lean: ‘Waverley prepared himself to meet a stern, gigantic, ferocious figure, such as Salvator himself would have chosen to be the central object of a group of banditti.’ Waverley’s romantic expectations, however, are abruptly deflated as, in fact, ‘Donald Bean Lean was the very reverse … thin in person and low in stature’.14 Owenson too brings in Salvator as testifying to a certain type of beauty ascribed to the Irish landscape: ‘if the glowing fancy of Claude Loraine would have dwelt enraptured on the paradisial charms of English landscape, the superior genius of Salvator Rosa would have reposed its eagle wing amidst those scenes of mysterious sublimity with which the wildly magnificent landscape of Ireland abounds.’15
Radcliffe also explicitly associates the highest forms of aesthetic pleasure with terror and horror, following Edmund Burke’s concept of ‘the sublime’, as he influentially defined it in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1756) – ‘fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant with terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime’.16 In Radcliffe’s The Romance of the Forest (1791), for instance, the heroine Adeline wishes to experience the ‘dreadful sublimity’ of a thunderstorm in the mountains, albeit from a place of safety.17 The contemplation of a picturesque or sublime spectacle is often associated in Radcliffe’s novels both with melancholy reverie and with a pleasure akin to religious ecstasy, in a way that is typical of many other popular and influential works of this era, including Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774, first translated into English in 1779 as The Sorrows of Werter) and Wordsworth’s Prelude (composed 1798?-1850, first published 1850).18 In Goethe’s fiction, as in Radcliffe’s, susceptibility to nature and to melancholy are presented as virtues: in The Sorrows of Young Werther, Werther’s acute enjoyment of walking in the mountains at the start of the novel is one of his most endearing characteristics, while his growing nihilism later on corresponds to his increasing inability to respond to nature.19
Political novels of the 1790s : Wollstonecraft and Godwin
Many novels, as well as poems, of the Romantic period, especially those written during the 1790s, participated in the conflict between conservative and radical politics in Britain that escalated following the French Revolution in 1789. The two intellectual standpoints were in many ways epitomized by the sentimental conservatism of Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), on the one hand, and the rationalism and political radicalism (or ‘Jacobinism’) of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man and Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice on the other. Even novels without an overt political agenda participate in this debate – for instance, although Radcliffe makes use of Burke’s earlier ideas on the sublime, she questions and subverts the chivalric code and the location of authority within the aristocracy that Burke defends in his Reflections. The latter work contained a warm advocacy of a society that is based not on a rationally devised constitution guaranteeing equal rights, but rather on uncritical respect for monarchical power and an unspoken chivalric code. Burke re-appropriates the term ‘prejudice’ and gives it a positive gloss, and conversely denigrates ‘reason’ and ‘enlightenment’.20
One of the first published ripostes to Burke’s polemic was Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), in which she directly attacked Burke’s privileging of sensibility and sentiment over reason. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) she criticized this at greater length, particularly emphasizing the detrimental effects for women of his advocacy of chivalry and sentiment, an issue against which she had already protested in her first fictional work, Mary (1788). In the first chapter of this novel, she parodies the kind of sentimental novels that encourage sensibility in their female readers:
If my readers would excuse the sportiveness of fancy and give me credit for genius, I would go on and tell them such tales as would force the sweet tears of sensibility to flow in copious showers down beautiful cheeks, to the discomposure of rouge etc. etc.
A special kind of sensibility is, however, championed as a virtue in her eponymous heroine of Mary:
Sensibility is the most exquisite feeling of which the human soul is susceptible: when it pervades us, we feel happy; and could it last unmixed, we might form some conjecture of the bliss of those paradisiacal days, when the obedient passions were under the dominion of reason, and the impulse of the heart did not need correction.21
Wollstonecraft here links sensibility with reason and well-disciplined emotions, as opposed to ‘passions’, so that her seeming ambivalence towards sensibility is nonetheless self-consistent, and, in Mary as well as in her non-fiction, she makes a distinction between feelings that are ‘artless’ and ‘unaffected’ as opposed to those that are artificially cultivated. In Wollstonecraft’s unfinished second novel, The Wrongs of Woman, or, Maria22 (published posthumously in 1798), the heroine’s sensibility is portrayed as both a virtue and a liability in its excess, which is fostered in middle-class women by the limitations of their education. In this novel Wollstonecraft re-appropriates a familiar Gothic motif, which opens with her heroine confined in a madhouse by a scheming villain, but reverses generic expectations with the revelation that the villain is Maria’s husband, and that this horror takes place in middle-class England. Even more sub-versively, Wollstonecraft defends the right of a woman thus circumstanced to look outside of her marriage for love. In both of her novels she condemns a society in which, as she saw it, intelligent, sensitive women could be freely abused by men and were prevented from seeking fulfilment through other channels.
William Godwin’s philosophical treatise An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice23 , was one of the most significant polemics, alongside Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1792), to be written following the French Revolution and in reaction against Burke’s Reflections. The brand of rationalist idealism advocated in Political Justice influenced Wordsworth and Coleridge as well as overt radicals such as Wollstonecraft in the 1790s, and also inspired a later generation of writers, including Mary and Percy Shelley, the daughter and son-in-law of Godwin and Wollstonecraft. In his first novel Things as they Are, or the Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794), Godwin sought to express his critique of society, outlined in Political Justice, through the powerful medium of fiction, through which he hoped to reach a wider readership than he had with his political treatise, since novels were rapidly gaining a mass readership and could be rented cheaply from circulating libraries. In his 1794 preface to the novel, Godwin stated its potentially inflammatory purpose:
It is now known to philosophers, that the spirit and character of the government intrudes itself into every rank of society. But this is a truth highly worthy to be communicated to persons whom books of philosophy and science are never likely to reach. Accordingly it was proposed, in the invention of the following work, to comprehend … a general review of the modes of domestic and unrecorded despotism by which man becomes the destroyer of man.24
Almost 40 years later, in his preface to the 1832 edition, Godwin focused instead on the psychological genesis of the novel, and de-emphasized the political message set out in the 1794 preface. By 1832, Godwin perhaps realized that his novel was dominated by its suspenseful plot, which overshadows the political aim set out in the 1794 preface, and makes the novel seem too sensational to be read as a realistic portrayal of ‘domestic despotism’.
In order to serve as an exposé of ‘things as they are’, or at least to explore the ramifications of an extreme abuse of existing social institutions and power structures, Godwin’s characters and situations need to seem ‘socially typical, the consequence of systemic injustice’.25 But Godwin closes off the possibility of perceiving either the narrator Caleb or the aristocratic anti-hero Falkland as representatives of their respective social classes, since the atypical characteristics and abilities of both men are emphasized throughout the novel. Both men are obsessive, Caleb with satisfying his ‘curiosity’, Falkland with his ‘reputation’, and both, ultimately, with each other. Falkland is a talented poet and conversationalist, the perfect cultivated patrician, while Caleb has seemingly inexhaustible talents, acting over the course of the novel as secretary, librarian, journalist, teacher of geography and mathematics, carpenter and watchmaker, and disguising himself variously as a tramp, an Irishman and a Jew. The ending of the novel seems strangely ambivalent, if the novel is to be interpreted as a social critique; Falkland’s tyrannous abuse of power does not prevail, but this is because Caleb confronts him and he confesses to his previous crimes – in other words, his unjust persecution of Caleb comes to an end because of personal individual acts, rather than because of the workings of social justice.
Godwin’s portrayal of Falkland’s obsession with honour and reputation as the originating cause of the evils of despotism in the novel can nevertheless be read as a critique of Burke’s idea that English society is best as it is, based on a foundation of supposedly traditional chivalry and ‘prejudice’. Caleb criticizes Falkland’s hypocritical adherence to a notion of chivalry that has motivated him to kill and lie, against his other principles, in order to preserve his ‘honour’ – an honour that consists more in reputation, or the preservation of his ‘good name’, than in genuine virtue. Yet Caleb, too, is concerned to protect his own ‘good name’ and reputation, although he never admits this to be common ground between himself and Falkland. Caleb’s self-analysis seems inconsistent in another revealing way, since, although he insists on the ‘innocence’ of the curiosity that leads him to ‘spy on’ his master Falkland, he seems to extract a sadistic pleasure from the power he wields over him. And, while Caleb announces himself at the start of the novel as the victim of persecution, for the first volume he appears to be the persecutor and Falkland the victim, although these roles are reversed for most of the latter two volumes. Godwin at several points describes the pleasure Caleb takes in the sensation of fear combined with illicit power which he experiences while spying on Falkland, in a way that corresponds to the Burkean sublime, as a tingling sensation which fills him with extraordinary energy.26
In Caleb Williams, Godwin reprises a number of conventional Gothic motifs and settings: dark secrets, despotic tyrants, imprisonment, and pursuit in gloomy ancestral estates, dark dungeons and wild landscapes – and, like many Gothic novels, Caleb Williams explores ‘the nature of power, the source of its authority in the oppressive past’27 . However, the way in which these Gothic tropes are deployed is often atypical of Gothic novels, since they are not located in a Roman Catholic or continental past, but in contemporary England, and this reversal of Gothic convention can make for trenchant social criticism. The description of Caleb’s ‘dungeon’ is based upon Godwin’s observation28 of prisons he had actually visited, since several of his friends had been arrested while he was writing the novel, and many others were imprisoned in cells resembling Caleb’s dungeon:
Our dungeons were cells, 7/4 feet by 6/4, below the surface of the ground, damp, without window, light or air, except from a few holes worked for that purpose in the door. In some of these miserable receptacles three persons were put to sleep together.29
This reverses a number of Gothic conventions: first, Godwin is very precise in describing the cell, including its dimensions to the nearest six inches, a specificity which resists the Gothic tendency to describe in terms such as ‘indescribable’; second, the language is the reverse of Gothic hyperbole, and most of the salient details are given by negatives (‘without window, light or air’); and third, whereas Gothic novels usually locate their dungeons in the safely remote world of medieval continental Europe, Godwin is describing the uncomfortable reality of such horrors in modern England, leading to the disconcerting likening of English prisons to the recently demolished Bastille. At times, Godwin achieves an Austen-esque type of understatement quite unlike the excessive emotional language typical of Gothic fiction: when Caleb has just escaped his prison, and is forced to spend a day standing concealed in a shallow cavern to evade detection by his erstwhile guards, the perilous situation and his state of hunger and exhaustion are described as productive of ‘no very agreeable sensations’.30 However, the hyperbolic language of Caleb’s paranoia – for instance, he eventually starts to believe that Falkland is omniscient – became Godwin’s most lasting contribution to Gothic fiction, influencing writers such as his daughter Mary Shelley and the American Gothic novelist Charles Brockden Brown.
Nationalism and the regional novel : Edgeworth, Owenson, and Scott
Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800),31 Sydney Owenson’s The Wild Irish Girl: A National Tale (1806), and many of Scott’s novels (1814 onwards) are all usually linked under the banner of the ‘regional novel’, as all three share an interest in representing and valorizing recent or passing cultures that were perceived to be ‘other’ than English within the newly united Britain. (The Act of Union between England and Scotland was passed in 1707, and that between Britain and Ireland in 1800.) All three novelists differ from one another in the degree to which they realistically specify the society and individualize the inhabitants of the regions they describe. Owenson’s novel is overtly pro-Irish, and romanticizes the landscape and the people, whereas Edgeworth satirically exposes both a decaying Irish feudal system in Castle Rackrent and also the abuses of the Irish by their English landlords and their corrupt bailiffs in The Absentee. Scott treads a kind of middle ground in his Scottish novels, where the past is alternatively a site of nostalgia or social criticism. However, the three novelists ultimately seem to advocate a conciliatory approach to the divisions and differences between England and the ‘regions’ of Scotland and Ireland: Owenson concludes her novel with a symbolic Anglo-Irish union, in the marriage between the dispossessed Irish princess Glorvina and the narrator, who is the English heir to her family’s former lands. Scott similarly ends Waverley with a marriage between the English hero Edward Waverley and Rose Bradwardine, the daughter of the old-style Scottish laird. Edgeworth, in her ‘Irish’ novels, tends to idealize by contrast a course of action similar to that taken by her own Anglo-Irish landowning family, who lived on and managed their property, and were accepted and even liked by their Irish tenants.
In both The Wild Irish Girl and Waverley, Ireland and Scotland are portrayed as seen for the first time by young, aristocratic Englishmen, who fall in love with beautiful, musical, patriotic native heroines, as well as with the country itself. In both novels, a central feature of the novel’s landscape is the Gothic convention the ancient castle, in surroundings described in highly wrought language, and in terms of the picturesque and the sublime – and these otherworldly settings contribute to the ‘otherness’ of the scene for both English hero and English readers. Owenson heightens the hero’s first glimpse of the heroine, the Irish princess Glorvina, by linking it with his awe at the sublimity of the landscape: to the hero, ‘all still seemed the vision of awakened imagination – surrounded by a scenery, grand even to the boldest majesty of nature, and wild even to desolation’. His newly awakened sentimental appreciation for landscape is contrasted with his former life of cynical leisure in England, which he learns, through Glorvina and Ireland, to perceive as consisting of ‘hackneyed modes’, ‘vicious pursuits’ and ‘unimportant avocations’.32
Scott describes Waverley, coming across Flora as she gazes on a waterfall, in a way that similarly links the hero’s appreciation of the natural sublime with his appreciation of Flora’s beauty, and thus associates his love with the element of danger or pain present in the vertiginous landscape:
At a short turning, the path, which had for some furlongs lost sight of the brook, suddenly placed Waverley in front of a romantic water-fall. … After a broken cataract of about twenty feet, the stream was received in a large natural basin. … Eddying round this reservoir, the brook found its way as if over a broken part of the ledge, and formed a second fall, which seemed to seek the very abyss …
However, whereas The Wild Irish Girl is, as a whole, enthusiastically and even naively romantic, about both Ireland and love, in Waverley Scott deconstructs the hero’s patriotic and romantic idealism. The hero of The Wild Irish Girl, Horatio, begins the novel as a cynical louche jaded by society, and experiences an emotional reawakening through his encounter with both the heroine and the landscape. In Waverley, on the other hand, Edward Waverley is full of romantic illusions at the outset of the novel, but through his encounter with Flora Mclvor and her brother, and his involvement in their political and military campaign, he loses some of this idealism, and by the end of the novel he is sequestered in happy bourgeois marriage to the less glamorous second heroine Rose Bradwardine. His idealistic aspirations and romantic illusions are treated ironically throughout the novel. Following Waverley’s encounter with Flora at the waterfall, Scott describes, in terms of approbation, Flora’s pragmatic and rather un-romantic reaction to Waverley’s evident admiration:
Flora, like every beautiful woman, was conscious of her own power, and pleased with its effects, which she could easily discern from the respectful, yet confused address of the young soldier. But as she possessed excellent sense, she gave the romance of the scene, and other accidental circumstances, full weight in appreciating the feelings with which Waverley seemed obviously to be impressed.33
Scott’s later novel The Heart of Midlothian (1818), a hybrid of historical realism and romantic fable, is yet more deconstructive of the Romantic personality. Whereas Waverley’s romantic leanings signify merely his immaturity, in The Heart of Midlothian, the anti-hero George Staunton’s quasi-Byronic ‘Romantic temperament’ is signalled by his volatility, melancholia, and self-dramatizing language and gestures, and is a cause of disruption and danger to other characters. The heroine, Jeanie Deans, distrusts Staunton, and her character could be described as the opposite of his – placid, honest, self-disciplined, and religious.
Authenticity and anti-Romanticism : Burney and Austen
Austen, like Scott, frequently ironizes and undercuts Romantic sensibilities and character traits in her fiction, and in novels such as Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion she vindicates characters who practise self-control and adhere to social codes. However, although the ‘excessive’ (and partly self-cultivated) emotionalism of Marianne Dashwood is suspect, heroines such as Fanny and Anne, and even Marianne’s counterpoint Elinor, are in their own way equally sensitive. In Austen’s fiction, a lot of value is accorded to authentic subjective feeling, while artificiality, sentimentalism, or pursuit of emotional desire to the exclusion of concern for others are represented as being both risible and harmful.
The representation of the ‘authentic’ inner self and the emphasis on its value are central concerns in much fiction and poetry of the Romantic era, and in many novels the ‘action’ and plot are determined by the portrayal of the inner life and subjectivity of the central character, usually a heroine, as women were seen as being especially sensitive, and were, moreover, restricted to a largely ‘private’ life by societal constraints. Thus the field of action for many heroines of this era lies in their power to make correct choices in a moral or emotional sphere. Frances Burney’s novelistic career spans a large part of the period under discussion: her first novel, Evelina, was published in 1788, and her last, The Wanderer, in 1814. Like Austen (on whom she was a significant influence), she portrays the inner or ‘moral’ life of her heroines as the gauge of their merit, in resistance to superficial or meretricious standards of female worth imposed by their social peers, such as beauty, wealth, or ‘accomplishments’. The heroine’s ‘true’ worth is, in these novels, a way of ultimately triumphing over the judgements and restrictions imposed on them by their immediate society, in order to win the love (and sometimes also the money) of the hero. This can be seen as a manifestation of one major strand of Romantic idealism, the privileging of the ‘true’ inner self over the ‘social’ persona that interacts in society. This plot structure, however, had been an important strand in a novelistic tradition since Richardson’s Pamela (1740), in which the intrinsic merit and idealism of a servant girl, who resists several violent attempts to corrupt her ‘virtue’, eventually triumphs over worldly pressure and wins marriage to her would-be rapist, as well as access to his wealth. Burney’s first novel, Evelina, which charts the progress of its naive but intelligent and beautiful heroine from her uncertain ‘Entrance into the World’ (the novel’s sub-title) to marriage, wealth, and legitimacy, is further associated with this tradition by its epistolary form, which facilitates the direct expression of the heroine’s private thoughts.34 Burney’s second novel, Cecilia (1782), follows a roughly similar plot trajectory, except that the heroine’s trials are greater, and, instead of gaining a fortune by marriage, she begins the novel an heiress but loses her fortune by the end of the novel. In this novel Burney leaves the epistolary form, but nonetheless maintains the reader’s intimacy with the heroine’s inner life through what has come to be termed ‘free indirect discourse’, that is, the reporting of a character’s thoughts in the language that we associate with their character rather than in the narrator’s voice.
As Kelly points out, the use of ‘free indirect discourse’ by novelists from Burney onwards invited readers to identify strongly with the hero or heroine, as well as, briefly, with other characters.35 This method of revealing a character’s mental processes usually gives the reader an even greater sense of psychological authenticity, since thoughts are reported ‘directly’ and are not filtered through a character’s self-conscious story-telling persona, as would be the case with a first-person narrative.
Austen is known to have been an admirer of Burney’s novels: Austen’s name appears on the list of subscribers to Camilla (1796), and she cites both Cecilia (1782) and Camilla in Northanger Abbey as great works of fiction. Burney’s final novel, The Wanderer (1814),36 was published in the same year as Austen’s Mansfield Park. These later novels by Austen and Burney are less comic than their earlier works, and their respective later heroines are more Romantically idealistic and appreciative of nature. As Margaret Ann Doody points out in Frances Burney: The Life in the Works, the title of Burney’s The Wanderer (1814) refers to ‘the truly Romantic figure’,37 along-side Wordsworth’s ‘Wanderer’, Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’, and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820).38 Doody analyses Burney’s description of Juliet wandering on Salisbury Plain, where she meditates on her life, and contrasts the ‘sophisticated civilization represented by Wilton’, the town where Juliet has been staying, and the ‘grand, strange and primitive’, represented by Stonehenge, in a way that trivializes the former in comparison with the latter.39 Juliet’s loneliness is emphasized in this situation, which adequately reflects the alienation she experiences in daily life, because she is happier here than she is in most human company. However, the novel’s co-heroine manqué, Elinor, seems almost a parody of the Romantic pursuit of self-realization, personal happiness, and radical political ideals. Although she is not self-satisfied or uncharitable as are most of the novel’s other characters, the kindness she shows Juliet is generated more by egotism than altruism.
Burney, however, is pragmatically realistic in her concentration on hours, pay and conditions for working women, and she extends the social criticism begun in Cecilia (1782) – in which the heroine befriends a builder’s wife, Mrs Hill – by making Juliet of The Wanderer earn her own living out of necessity, first by teaching music and then as a seamstress. Both types of employment gave Burney the opportunity to represent the many ways in which the rich are complacent, insensitive and cruel to the poor and dependent, as well as revealing the relentless drudgery of normal working conditions for working women.
Austen’s two most obviously ‘serious’ novels, Mansfield Park (1814) and Persuasion (1818), describe sensitive, introspective heroines, the characterization of whom could be seen as somewhat akin to constructions of selfhood in Romantic poetry. Fanny Price in Mansfield Park displays, at times, a Wordsworthian appreciation of nature and solitary contemplation, and meditates aloud on the wonders of nature and memory to an unappreciative Mary Crawford.40 In many other ways, however, Austen appears not to endorse such poetically ‘Romantic’ states of mind. In Mansfield Park, the concept of ‘propriety’ is given a strong positive emphasis, and both this word and its antonym, ‘impropriety’, are used frequently and significantly – an emphasis that suggests the importance of self-control and conformity in one’s outward behaviour to societal norms. This form of discipline is antithetical to the Romantic ‘cult of the self which privileges individual desire. The novel thus presents a conflict for the heroine as well as other characters between the benefits of expressing or acting on one’s feelings and opinions and the benefits of controlling them, a conflict that is also played out in Austen’s earlier novel Sense and Sensibility (1811). Austen ultimately resolves this conflict by placing Fanny in a position where it is acceptable for her to express herself – as Edmund’s wife and equal and also as the moral superior to the figure of male authority who remains at Mansfield, Sir Thomas. However, she has been able to achieve this position not only simply because her superiority has at last been recognized but also because of her self-control during most of the novel – indeed, her self-control and self-abnegation are necessary to her superiority.
The relevance to Romantic poetry of Austen’s portrayal of the conflict between self-expression and self-control is made explicit in Persuasion, during a scene in which the heroine Anne Elliott recommends that Captain Benwick, who has recently been bereaved of his fiancée, read instructive essays rather than Romantic poetry in order not to exacerbate his grief:
he repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness, and looked so entirely as if he meant to be understood, that she ventured to hope he did not always read only poetry; and to say, that she thought it was the misfortune of poetry, to be seldom safely enjoyed by those who enjoyed it completely; and that the strong feelings which alone could estimate it truly, were the very feelings which ought to taste it but sparingly. … she ventured to recommend … such works of our best moralists, such collections of the finest letters, such memoirs of characters of worth and suffering, as occurred to her at the moment as calculated to rouse and fortify the mind by the highest precepts, and the strongest examples of moral and religious endurances.41
Ironically, later in the novel Benwick comes to epitomize male inconstancy, and is cited as an example of this in a later conversation between Anne and Captain Harville (whose sister had been Benwick’s fiancée) after Benwick rapidly recovers his broken heart and gets engaged to the shallow Louisa Musgrove.42 Austen’s negative characterization of Benwick’s emotional volatility reflects her attitude to his reading-matter, Romantic poetry, which, it is implied, encourages him to prolong a grief that is more pleasurable than sincere.
Austen’s earlier fiction is also in many ways a satirical antidote to the preoccupations of Romantic literature. Beginning in her juvenilia in the 1790s, Austen mercilessly parodies novelistic portrayals of sensibility, and then goes on in Northanger Abbey to target the un-realism and sensationalism of Gothic fiction, although, as many recent critics have pointed out, Catherine’s intuitive perception of General Tilney as a Gothic villain is to some extent justified by the cruelty of his subsequent behaviour towards her. Marianne in Sense and Sensibility (1811) is Austen’s most Romantic heroine, with a propensity for violent emotion and a desire for emotional expression and fulfilment at all costs, yet she is taught that such behaviour can be self-destructive and also have negative consequences for those around her.43 However, Austen’s satire of Marianne is directed toward the manner in which Marianne seeks emotional fulfilment, and does not denigrate this as an aim in itself. Her characterization of Elinor represents an alternative and more pragmatic possibility for realizing this goal, rather than a championing of ‘sense’ as a kind of cold reason that precludes intense feeling.
Frankenstein and the Romantic dialectic
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) also engages with the central conflict present in Austen’s novels, between the relative value of restraining or pursuing individual desire. In spite of its fantastic story and poetic prose, in Frankenstein Shelley seems to advocate a vision of rational domestic harmony similar to that which triumphs at the end of Austen’s novels, and constructs this vision as oppositional to the Romantic ambitions that lead to the creation of the monster.
Like many Romantic novels and poems, Frankenstein contains intense, lyrical descriptions of sublime landscapes and sensations, such as that of Frankenstein’s walk to the summit of Montanvert:
It is a scene terrifically desolate. In a thousand spots the traces of the winter avalanche may be perceived, where trees lie broken and strewed on the ground; some entirely destroyed, others bent, leaning upon the jutting rocks of the mountain, or transversely upon other trees…. The sea, or rather the vast river of ice, wound among its dependent mountains, whose aerial summits hung over its recesses. Their icy and glittering peaks shone in the sunlight over the clouds. My heart, which was before sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy.44
However, this description, and others like it, jars with the natural sublimity represented in many other Romantic works: this is a vision of destruction and barrenness, yet paradoxically it fills Frankenstein with ‘something like joy’, reflecting his estrangement from more natural sources of pleasure. Later, when Frankenstein is on the Rhine with Henry Clerval, he is unable to enjoy the lush scenery that delights his companion. The omnipresence of ice here is a re-echoing of the desolate arctic scenes at the start and end of the novel, with which the monster is strongly associated.
Mary Shelley also, in this scene, suggests the transience of an emotion inspired by the merely visual, since Frankenstein is immediately cast back into despair by an encounter with his monster. The monster usually reappears in overtly sublime landscapes; indeed he says that he can live happily among the glaciers, although humans cannot. This link between the natural sublime and the monster implies a connection between the celebration of nature and sublimity by the Romantic poets and the inhumanity of the monster.
Frankenstein’s hubristic act of creation can be read as a critique of the egotism of poetic creation. While obsessively engaged in his work of building the monster and giving it life, Frankenstein cuts himself off from his family and from all other kinds of human affection. In the retrospective frame narrative of the opening chapters, Frankenstein reflects with hindsight that:
A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind, and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquility. I do not think the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to this rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections, and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind.45
‘Unlawful’ and ‘not befitting the human mind’ are very strong terms, effectively imposing a taboo upon knowledge or desire beyond the confines of ‘simple pleasures’ and domestic affections.
Mary Shelley sub-titled the novel ‘The Modern Prometheus’, inviting a reading of her novel as a critique of her husband’s Romantic self-image. According to Anne K. Mellor, Prometheus was ‘an often invoked self-image among the Romantic poets’ – in ‘Prometheus Unbound’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley, as well as in poems by Blake, Coleridge, and Byron. In one version of the myth, Prometheus shaped the first man, and later the first woman, out of clay. Mellor also points out that in choosing the name ‘Victor’ Mary Shelley was referring readers who were familiar with her husband’s work to Percy Shelley himself – Victor was an early pseudonym of his, and in his poetry Shelley frequently uses the words ‘victor’ and ‘victory’. Mellor goes on to draw attention to numerous other similarities between Frankenstein and the actual Percy Shelley.46
Like Victor Frankenstein, the Romantic poets invoked in their writing the potential for immortality through the use of their intellect and imagination, although for Frankenstein the product of his mind is to be an entire race and not just art. Far from achieving for Victor the immortality he craves, the creature destroys his peace of mind and eventually his family. This destruction results, more or less directly, from Victor’s abandonment of his creation at the moment of ‘birth’; the creature claims to have been born ‘benevolent and good’ and that he was only made a ‘fiend’ by lack of affection.47 In demonstrating how this corruption came about, Mary Shelley echoes Rousseau’s idea that humans are innately good but can be corrupted by society and bad education, and thus suggests that reason and imagination, without appropriate guidance, are insufficient to create happiness or moral good.
While Mary Shelley condemns Frankenstein’s egotistical acts of solitary creation, she conversely advocates bourgeois family life and ‘the domestic affections’ as the means of achieving happiness and futurity, through the conventional and legitimate method of conjugal procreation. The character of Clerval, Frankenstein’s friend and alter ego, is an idealization of the cultivated middle-class man, and he is also remarkably self-sacrificing: for instance, he nurses Frankenstein through a long illness even though this deprives him of benefiting from his stay at the university. In contrast with Clerval, Frankenstein pursues his thirst for knowledge and greatness at the expense of his family and friends, forgetting them for months at a time while pursuing his overriding obsession into ‘charnel houses’ and graves for body parts. Before his monster has been created, Frankenstein himself has come to seem monstrous.
The dialectic Mary Shelley sets up between bourgeois family values and Romantic idealism is, as I have said, central to many novels of the Romantic era; and in most fiction the advocacy of domesticity over free pursuit of desire seems to mark a key difference between the agendas of novelists and poets. As I suggested at the start of this chapter, Gary Kelly’s re-defined characterization of the ‘Romantic’ novel, which he sees as emphasizing the worth of everyday, middle-class family life, is oppositional to the kind of Romantic poetry that seeks to put into words the transcendence of the self over everyday matters.
The Gothic elements that are prevalent in much of the fiction of the Romantic period, and the outright fantasticality of a number of Gothic novels, seem something of an aberration from the ‘realism’ that is generally said to characterize much mid-eighteenth-century and Victorian fiction, and Gothic characteristics do seem to denote a kinship with similar features in the poetry of the period. On the other hand, many novels that contain elements of Gothic fantasy nevertheless conclude with happy marriages that seem to valorize bourgeois society and domesticity. The prevalence of the ‘courtship plot’, in some form, in fiction of the period suggests that, in some cases at least, it might be meaningless in terms of the novel’s overall ideology; but in most of the cases I have discussed the courtship plot is central to the novel as a whole, providing the heroine with scope to exercise significant moral judgement. The exceptional Romantic-era novels that do not end in this way, such as Beckford’s Vathek, Godwin’s Caleb Williams, Lewis’s The Monk, Shelley’s Frankenstein, Hogg’s Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, are usually dominated by a male hero or anti-hero who overreaches himself and tends to collapse into self-destruction or eternal damnation, which in a sense also valorizes marriage and domesticity by way of contrast. Wollstonecraft posed two radical alternatives to this pattern. Her first heroine, in Mary, is left at the end of the novel trapped in an unconsummated marriage to an absent and inadequate husband. Wollstonecraft’s second novel, Maria, was left unfinished at her death, but her draft endings show that she had contemplated concluding with either the heroine’s suicide or the establishment of an all-female family consisting of Maria, her daughter, and Jemima, the working-class woman who befriends Maria while she is confined in a madhouse.
The uniqueness of the Romantic period should not be overstated, however, since some of the major novelists at both the beginning and end of the Victorian period were to some extent neo-Romantic: for instance Anne, Charlotte, and Emily Brontë, and Joseph Conrad; and much of the Victorian poetry by Tennyson and Browning continued to echo the diction as well as the imagery and values of major poets of the Romantic age. The literary scene in the Romantic age, as in the succeeding Victorian period, was complex and at times contradictory.
Romantic Literature - Notes and Bibliography:
5. Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey (Harmondsworth, 1995), pp. 33—4.
11. Clara Reeve, The Progress of Romance (New York, 1970). pp. 53–4.
12. Gillian Beer, The Romance (London, 1970), p. 59.
13. Ann Radcliffe, A Sicilian Romance (Oxford, 1998), p. 104.
14. Walter Scott, Waverley (Harmondsworth, 1986), p. 80.
28. The description of Caleb’s ‘dungeon’ is no Gothic fantasy, but was based on Godwin’s personal observation of conditions in British jails: William St Clair, The Godwins and the Shelleys (Baltimore, 1989), pp. 114 and 118.
40. Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (Harmondsworth, 1996), p. 222.
41. Jane Austen, Persuasion (Harmondsworth, 1985), pp. 121–2.
42. Jane Austen, Persuasion (Harmondsworth, 1985). pp. 235–8.
44. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York, 1996), pp. 64–5.
45. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (New York, 1996). p. 32.
46. Anne K. Mellor, Mary Shelley (London, 1988), pp. 70–80.