Session 4A: Romantics as News

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4A. Romantics as News: Authorship and New Media Technologies

Special Session: Lisa M. Wilson (Buffalo)
Lisa M.Wilson (Buffalo): "Mary Robinson and the Della Cruscans: Romantic Media Technologies and the Construction of a Female Poet-Celebrity"
Suzanne Ferriss (Nova Southeastern): "L.E.L.: Fame, Femininity and Female Authorship"
Ghislaine McDayter (Bucknell): "Convulsions in Rhyme: Byromania, Hysteria and Literary Commodification"

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"Romantics as News: Authorship and New Media Technologies"

The late eighteenth century saw a proliferation of media technologies that substantially changed both female and male authors' abilities to market themselves and their work. More than ever before, public figures of all sorts might attempt to make a name for themselves through the press-including authors. This period became known as the "age of personality," as Coleridge put it, at least in part because such coverage was readily for sale.

This panel evaluates the construction of celebrity authorship in Romantic print culture, focusing on four prominent and popular literary figures: Mary "Perdita" Robinson, "L.E.L." (Laetitia Elizabeth Landon), Germaine de Stael, and Byron. Wilson argues that, as a woman who negotiated the world of the demi-rep as well as that of the Romantic female author, Mary Robinson was uniquely positioned take advantage of new media technologies like the puff, the anonymous review, and the literary newspapers when shaping a writerly image for public consumption. Taking the case of Laetitia Elizabeth Landon as exemplary, Ferriss argues that a particular image of female literary celebrity-the famous but solitary poetess-pervades her work and substantially influenced Victorian women poets. Gardiner examines the European press coverage of de Stael's death; she argues that her obituaries inevitably included moral lessons about the dangers of cosmopolitan French (and female) excessiveness and extend the textualization of her life and celebrity begun in the French press. Studying Byron's unprecedented fame through contemporary fan letters, literary journals and scandal rags, McDayter argues that such papers became the forum in which issues of celebrity, popular culture and mass hysteria were first debated about in British culture.

Taken together, these papers demonstrate the importance of journalistic print culture in creating Romantic literary celebrity, and so argue for interdependence of these "high" and "low" forms of literary output. They also complicate the gendered dichotomy between pseudonyous hack authorship and Romantic genius posited by recent literary historians. Because literary celebrity of Robinson, Landon, de Stael and Byron was based as much on notoriety and successful self-marketing as on genius-claims, their audiences are continually uncertain about whether to label them effeminate hacks or a legitimate literary geniuses. Their success reveals the contradictions inherent in the discourse of Romantic authorship, which demanded that authors market themselves successfully-without appearing to do so.

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Convulsions in Rhyme: Byromania, Hysteria and Literary Commodification
Ghislaine McDayter

In the literary section of the Examiner dated September 12, 1815, a small notice alerts the public to the recent availability of a ìfine and elegantly executedî reproduction of Byronís portrait. Unaware of the public furore that was to circulate around the poet in the spring of the following year ñ generated by his scandalous separation from his wife and the rumours of incest with his half sister Augusta ñ the printing house informs the Examinerís readers that it has provided for only a limited quantity of facsimiles. The printers may well have cursed themselves for their failure to anticipate the public appetite for all things Byronic; even in the midst of his disgrace, Byronís scandal was not reflected by any public distaste for consuming Byronic artefacts ñ portrats, poetry, cartoons or gossip. In fact, it increased the rate of commodification ten fold, making Byronís hauntingly melancholic countenance the most recognizable face of the day.

Indeed, the flood of representations of the poet on the market during the months of scandal acts as a form of compensation for the resounding silence of the poet himself. What came to be called the ìByron Mysteryî by writers such as Harriet Beecher Stowe was marked by the poetís absolute refusal to engage with it personally; it was his readers who could not say too much. As a result of this silence, Byronís commodified countenance began to speak for him, and the scandal unfolded with ìelegant engravingsî of the poet, reproduced in journals, biographies and cartoons, that grew ever more deeply marked by the publicís reading of the poetís private character. The portraits spoke for Byron by etching into his body the characteristic signs of melancholy, debauchery, or martyrdom, depending upon the shifts in public opinion. It was thus Byronís public which began the long process of hystericizing his figure that continued throughout his short life and long after his death: for them, his body would become the marker, the trace of the truth, that he himself could not, or would not speak. Upon his body could be read the unspeakable crime that, notoriously, neither Byron, nor his hero the Giaour could ìdare give utterance.

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Last updated May 31, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell