Ashley Cross - Mary Robinson and the Genesis of Romanticism: Literary Dialogues and Debts, 1784–1821. Reviewed by David Sigler
University of Calgary
Ashley Cross’s new monograph, Mary Robinson and the Genesis of Romanticism, works in two directions at once: it scrutinizes the oeuvre of a single author, but it also presents Romantic-era writing as a network, something thoroughly collaborative, competitive, and communitarian. Cross, in presenting a study of Mary Robinson’s literary writings as she responded to her contemporaries and inspired her successors, gives us a model for understanding “authorial identity grounded in dialogic exchange” (3), and for apprehending Robinson’s writing across genres. Thus it offers a different vision of Robinson than has emerged in previous studies, such as Daniel Robinson’s The Poetry of Mary Robinson: Form and Fame (2011) and Paula Byrne’s more biographical Perdita: The Life of Mary Robinson (2004), both of which stress the unusualness of Robinson’s celebrity instead of her more typical struggle to be accepted, as a woman, as a serious literary writer. The book has an ingenious structure that allows Cross to interpenetrate discussion of Robinson’s works with discussion of works by other major Romantic-era writers, namely Robert Merry, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charlotte Smith, Robert Southey, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, William Wordsworth, Charlotte Dacre, and John Keats. Each of the chapters highlights one of Robinson’s interlocutions, such that Cross can persuasively position Robinson as someone with “intense intertextual engagements” and as “a key player in multiple circles,” and thus as a writer who played a “constitutive role in the formation of British Romanticism” (3). The resulting study is complex, rewarding, and represents the cutting edge of approaches to women’s writing in British Romanticism.
The book, which collects Cross’s published writings on Robinson between 2001 to 2012 and buttresses them with new material, represents Cross’s sustained study of Robinson’s texts and commercial and political contexts. Sharply breaking with a tradition of feminist scholarship that had situated Romantic-era women’s writing as its own separate tradition, Cross’s book epitomizes the current critical countertendency to think of women’s writing as foundational for or responsive to the works, such as Lyrical Ballads or “To Autumn,” that dominated the undergraduate syllabuses of our youths. Methodologically, Cross is building upon the foundations established in Beth Lau’s edited collection Fellow Romantics (2009) (of which Cross’s Coleridge chapter was a key component), Stephen C. Behrendt’s Romantic Women Poets and the Romantic Writing Community (2009), and Susan J. Wolfson’s monograph Romantic Interactions (2010). One can see Wolfson’s influence, especially, in Cross’s approach to the sonnet revival, which attends to the politics of poetic form. Cross, wearing the influence of these scholars on her sleeve, develops an “intersubjective” model for the exploration of Robinson’s work that emphasizes her “interactions, communities, and coteries” (3). Robinson was, explains Cross, “a writer who could only, paradoxically, achieve an authorial identity in conversation with others” through an oeuvre that “emphasizes intimacy,” and thus she “thus transformed dialogue [. . .] into a way of being in the world” (7, 9). Cross’s Robinson is ever responding to the leading writers of her era, entering collaborative creative partnerships, getting rebuked by her heroes, attempting to be taken seriously and to give her work a posthumous existence, exploiting the ephemerality of newspaper writing, strategizing pathways through a misogynist literary culture, and navigating a rapidly changing literary marketplace.
Although Cross frames her study with reference to the Derridean idea of “genesis” and Deleuzian processes of “becoming” (4), these theoretical models, once introduced, are dropped immediately. Yet a deconstructive impulse remains perceptible in Cross’s work, as she tracks Robinson’s transformation from being, in 1775, a derivative, “parasitic” poet (15), into the modern dialogist she would become once she entered into poetic conversations with Merry and Hannah Cowley. Once Robinson managed to muscle her way into the Della Cruscan literary circle, Cross explains, she began to disavow that affiliation through her poetic exploitation of images of sensibility that she shared with Coleridge, such as flowers, Aeolian harps, and nightingales. The shared imagery allowed Coleridge and Robinson alike, though in different ways, “to establish poetic authority,” amounting to “an even more complex relationship between Robinson and Coleridge than scholars have thus far articulated” (40, 47). Cross next considers how “Robinson textually engages Smith to shore up the legitimacy of women poets in [. . . the era’s] sonnet culture” (70). She examines Robinson’s and Southey’s turns as chief poetic correspondents at the Morning Post between 1797 and 1800, during which time they wrote a lot of formally and topically varied poetry. Such poetry, being firmly rooted in commercial considerations, “challenges traditional notions of Romantic organicism and offers an alternative view of Romantic poetic authority,” as Cross explains (86). In particular, the Annual Anthology assembled out of Morning Post poetry, a collection which was conceptually indebted to John Bell’s work in anthologizing the Della Cruscan newspaper poetry as The British Album, “exploited poetry’s double status as consumable commodity and as commodity critique” (97). Although Robinson was adapting Southey’s formal experiments, she is found, here, to be “nearer to Coleridge’s ballad-world than to the righteous poetic justice of Southey’s” (101).
Two chapters particularly dazzle and amount to major contributions to the existing scholarship on their texts—these are Cross’s analysis of how Robinson’s novel Walsingham rewrites William Godwin’s Caleb Williams, and of how The Natural Daughter rewrites Wollstonecraft’s Maria; or, The Wrongs of Woman. In these chapters, by taking seriously how “at the end of her life Robinson found it troubling to be represented as performative,” Cross implicitly challenges conventional scholarly wisdom about Robinson, reimagining Robinson as a novelist ready to deploy a discourse of sincerity learned from Godwin’s texts and yet pursued with a sense of urgency particular to women’s experience (111). She reads Walsingham through its eponymous protagonist’s failed attempts to control discourse—his own and that around him—as he spies and is spied upon, tests contemporary pornographic discourses, and confronts several bouts of “queer panic” (114). The chapter is built around a pair of brilliant close readings involving minor characters—first, of a turnkey’s comic misstatements, in which “the potential for democratic discourse has warped into a culture of surveillance” (114), and then of a “double peep show,” during which we can glean Walsingham’s fear of masculine women as he eavesdrops through a door (120). Cross then discusses the novel’s mysterious cabinet, a symbol adapted from Godwin which “not only reveals the tenuousness of his authority and sense of self, but also the performative queerness at their center” (127). It is probably the best analysis of Walsingham published to date, and quite different in its emphases from previous studies. The Wollstonecraft chapter, also a standout, builds on these insights by considering how Robinson and other progressive women had to adapt in the wake of the backlash from Godwin’s Memoirs of Wollstonecraft once women writers began to face an “ideological onslaught” that made them aspire to mere survival rather than revolution or progressive reform (140). Then we are ready to learn how “Lyrical Tales was Robinson’s final effort to build her poetic reputation and authorize herself as a Romantic genius” in response to Wordsworth’s work in Lyrical Ballads (167).
The book’s last two chapters consider Robinson’s posthumous legacy and seem more traditional in an anxiety-of-influence sort of way. Cross first examines how Charlotte Dacre became “Robinson’s literary ressurectionist,” eager to turn Robinson, now deceased, into a metaphor for sensibility as she tangled with a history of her father’s own bitter writings about the so-called English Sappho (191, 194). Cross reads Dacre’s Hours of Solitude as if “To the Shade of Mary Robinson” were “the center of the volume, [. . .] a lens through which the other poems can be read,” (206) and in so doing shows how “Robinson needed to be revived in new forms” if Dacre were to develop her own forms of sensibility (206, 190). Finally, Cross turns to Robinson’s influence on Keats from a disability studies perspective, to show how “Keats inherited” Robinson’s knack for developing a poetic voice that “relentlessly inhabits her sick body” (221, 219). Tracking how “the public responses to their poetry [. . .] stressed the non-normative nature of their bodies,” Cross reads sickness and disability as figures for sensibility, and thus a code for gender disruption (222, 232). She shows how Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and “To Autumn” can be seen as “an implicit reworking of Robinson’s poems” and suggests how the two poets were “aligned” by their approach to the body, to illness, and to sensibility (235, 243). The Keats chapter seems destined to make its way into syllabuses, as Cross’s work gives us refreshing ways of reading these hypercanonical works. There isn’t a chapter on Robinson’s acting career, which would seem to lend itself to the kind of collaborative focus that interests Cross, nor on Robinson’s memoir, Perdita. Either of these might have made for an interesting opportunity for Cross to consider William Shakespeare as one of Robinson’s important literary forebears, along with Sappho. But a book can only be so long, and this one opens a new direction in the study of this important writer, precisely because it focuses on Robinson’s literary writings—both her more commercial work for newspapers and her radical interventions in the women’s rights debates—by de-emphasizing the public and performative aspects of Robinson’s thought that so captivated the scholars first re-assessing her oeuvre in the 1990s.
The book is particularly commendable for a number of reasons. First, Cross’s skills as an archival researcher allow her to situate Robinson within the contemporary literary marketplace and within her era’s commodity culture, which proves especially insightful for a popular writer such as Robinson. Second, when Cross allows herself to pursue close readings of Robinson’s texts, the results are frequently astonishing: we see this, for instance, with her take on Robinson’s and Coleridge’s different uses of “snowdrop” (28–9), as she traces the ambivalence hiding in Robinson’s praise of Smith’s “glowing mind” (63), in how she shows the poems in Lyrical Tales to form thematic clusters (184–85), and especially, as mentioned before, in the analysis of the turnkey’s parapraxes in Walsingham. Third, and probably most importantly, Cross is perfectly attuned to the ways that gender disparities and double standards shaped both Robinson’s writing and her predicament as a woman writer. Cross refers to this, at one point, as “double dispossession,” as follows: “While Romantic writers, male and female, shared this sense of authorial dispossession, for women writers the marketplace was especially hazardous and reputation even more fragile because sexually coded. They had also to negotiate fixed notions of femininity that were equally dispossessing” (169). Hence, in contradistinction to Wordsworth’s celebrations of outcasts and the marginalized in Lyrical Ballads, “the women of Robinson’s poems are continually made aware of how their words misrepresent them, redoubling back on them, even to the point of physical hurt” (186). In passages like these, I deeply admire Cross’s aptitude for finding commonalities between texts and then noting how the factor of gender—or, more specifically, a ferociously misogynistic literary culture—marked those commonalities as difference and so reshaped the discourse. Cross is also especially adept at framing and pursuing questions of motivation, such as: why did Wollstonecraft respond to Robinson so cruelly? Why did Robinson feel the need to respond to Lyrical Ballads when she was the more popular author? Or, why does the character Walsingham pretend not to know that Sidney Aubrey is a woman, even when narrating the events after the fact? These sorts of questions lead to fascinating analyses, attuned to the precarity of Robinson’s position, and that shift our perception of Robinson’s place within the writing community of the 1790s.
I recommend this book, then, very highly. Robinson has emerged, since the 1990s, as an indisputably major author within British Romanticism. Cross’s book joins a wave of outstanding recent work, both articles and books, on Robinson’s literary output. Among them, Cross’s book will be particularly valuable for its facility in reading across genres while remaining focused on literary form; for brining further critical attention to the Della Cruscan movement in particular and on newspaper poetry in general; for revitalizing the study of now-well-known texts like Walsingham and Sappho and Phaon, which might have seemed to have already had their critical day; for modeling a sophisticated way of reading gender in Romanticism as it relates to women’s writing; and for developing a kind of feminist scholarship that intersects with queer theory, disability studies, and cultural studies. Most importantly, the structure of this book and the interconnectedness of its arguments will encourage us to think more closely about the ways that authors form literary networks: this is a study of “a sociable Romanticism” as much as it is of Robinson (4).