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Richard Cronin, Romantic Victorians: English Literature, 1824–1840

Saturday, December 20, 2003 - 04:11
Richard Cronin, Romantic Victorians: English Literature, 1824-1840. New York: Palgrave, 2002.  vii + 296pp.  $69.95 (Hdbk; ISBN: 0-333-96616-3).

Reviewed by
Cynthia Lawford
Independent Scholar

Though the subtitle of Richard Cronin's latest book is English Literature, 1824-1840, a skim of the table of contents should alert those who hope it will give them a strong sense of the distinctiveness of the period's literature. Of the eighteen names listed under eight chapter headings, Tennyson's name occurs four times, as his work is given detailed treatment in four chapters. Browning, Carlyle, and Mary Shelley each receive discussion in two different chapters, and a decent amount of space is accorded to Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Barrett Browning, and Macaulay. Add to that lot Caroline Lamb, whose Glenarvon (1816) alone wins her attention, and precious few names are left who have not long been considered as unmistakably Victorian or Romantic, indeed, precious few whose writings have not been considered essential to our understanding of what those two terms mean for English literary history. Those few are Benjamin Disraeli, Edward Bulwer Lytton, Letitia Landon, Felicia Hemans, George Darley, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, John Clare, and Catherine Gore. Among those, Disraeli alone is seen to deserve space in two chapters, as he wrote a novel using Byron and Shelley as characters.

Cronin is not intent on elucidating what is distinctive about the literature of the 1820s and 1830s. In the "Introduction" he shuns "any 'period-defining theory,'" while admitting that the "absence" of such a theory was "regretted by a sympathetic and intelligent reader of my manuscript" (4). After summing up the characteristics of the period in his "Conclusion," Cronin is willing to say that "all that I feel able to do by way of offering a 'period-defining theory' . . . is . . . not much. Does it amount to a theory at all? Not really . . . ." (259). He blames and credits the period itself: "It is, of course, its failure to achieve a single distinctive character, and its resistance to having one thrust upon it, that has left the literary period from 1824 to 1840 so vulnerable to the great imperial powers that adjoin it" (259-60). "One of the pleasures of writing this book" for Cronin "has been the opportunity my chosen period has given me of evading 'Romanticism' and 'Victorianism', the lumbering reifications that guard its borders" (4). Yet what the book essentially does is try to build a bridge between the two, setting out some of the steps English literature gradually took away from one and gave to the other. Hence, those reifications loom large in the title Romantic Victorians and in the chapter headings--e.g., "Memorializing Romanticism," "Civilizing Romanticism," "Domesticating Romanticism"--all of which show something being done to that one monolith, and in most cases that something being done sounds very, well, Victorian.

In the first half of the book, Cronin wants to show how the writers of this period were adapting the ideas of the best-known Romantic poets through "generic innovations," and in the second half, how they were adapting those ideas to accord with their different views about politics, landscape, religion, and sexual relations (142). He nods toward Virgil Nemoianu's The Taming of Romanticism: European Literature and the Age of Biedermeier (Harvard Univ. Press, 1984) and is "happy to agree" that much of what he finds in the literature of this period constitutes a kind of calming, disciplining, and making acceptable: "the taming of the isolated heretic into the dutiful member of the congregation; of the revolutionary into the citizen; of the guilty raptures of the Romantic brother and sister sexually consummating their love . . . into the wedded bliss of Victorian first cousins" (4). It is worth noting that his three examples here are taken from chapters 5, 7, and 8, which are not about popular writers of the 1820s and 1830s, but instead are devoted largely to Tennyson and the Brownings. These three chapters are excellent in their research and arguments, as Cronin is at his most learnedly sympathetic when dealing with a few works by canonical writers he thoroughly appreciates. He situates the works in their historical contexts with the precise care of one who wants us to sense all the tensions faced by the poets at the time of writing, and before that time as well. That is, we are led up to the works, through Tennyson's and the Brownings' biographical background, the views of their associates, and their changing feelings about their Romantic inheritance.

Take the longest chapter of the book, chapter 5, a masterful explanation of how Tennyson and the Brownings came to see themselves as citizen-poets engaged in the political events of their day. Their belief that the business of politics mattered was fostered, Cronin reminds us, by the Test and Corporation Acts, Catholic Emancipation, and the Reform Bill, laws that helped to push these poets away from Byron's individualism and Shelley's revolutionary collectivism. Browning rejected the concept of simple political choices in his play Strafford, and his poems Paracelsus and Sordello show him wrestling to resolve the conflicts thrown up by his efforts to write poetry at once politically responsible and aesthetically advanced. Cronin attributes the "anxiety" inherent in Browning's approach to his lack of "social and cultural confidence," contrasting his situation in Camberwell with that of the more fortunate Tennyson at Cambridge (171). Tennyson experienced a short but powerful flirtation with revolutionary ideals in 1830 when the Cambridge Apostles became enamored with the idea of assisting the Spanish constitutionalists to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy. Encouraged by Cambridge graduates F. D. Maurice and John Sterling writing in the Athenaeum, the Apostles' idealism had sought to root itself in a "conflation" of Shelleyan liberalism and Wordsworthian humanity, resulting in such poems as Arthur Hallam's Timbuctoo (150). Maurice and Sterling were also behind the enterprise that sent Tennyson, Hallam, Richard Chenevix Trench, John Kemble, and Robert Boyd abroad to help the constitutionalists. That enterprise culminated in Boyd's 1831 execution by a firing squad and the Apostles' guilt-ridden reaction. Cronin studies Tennyson's "Oenone" in light of this alteration in the Apostles' opinions "from an enthusiastic but moderate liberalism towards a conservative distrust of any but the most gradual change" (154).

As Barrett Browning "more vigorously" appealed "to the reader's sense of civic responsibility" than any of the "major Victorian poets," chapter 5 closes with a fine study of the "process" of citizenship in Casa Guidi Windows (180, 183). The only problem is the poem's publication date, 1851, and the date of its subject matter, the 1848 Italian revolution against the Austrians. Cronin even points out that "the Great Exhibition . . . was taking place in Hyde Park as Barrett Browning wrote" and that she referred to it in the poem (192). He does not explain why he has chosen to spend ten pages on a poem that has little or nothing to do with the 1820s and 1830s, though he briefly links its ideas with those of De Staël's influential Corinne; ou, L'Italie (1800) and Mary Shelley's Valperga (1823). If Barrett Browning had not been discouraged by her father and male advisors, she would have written political poetry much earlier, we are led to suppose, at least by 1845.

In chapter 7, Keats's and Shelley's pantheism and the prayerful isolation of Wordsworth and Coleridge are rejected, as again by means of the work of Maurice and Sterling, as Cronin leads up to his reading of Tennyson's poetry. Cronin sees Supposed Confessions as a testimony to Tennyson's inability to escape from a self-conscious spiritual pride. Christmas-Eve gives witness to Browning's own success at having made such an escape as he learns that congregating with the faithful, however ignorant or smelly they may be, is as important as belief itself. Again, Cronin maps a trajectory to high Victorianism.  Christmas-Eve was not published until 1850, and its spiritual attitudes differ sharply from those of Pauline (1833).

For the most part, Cronin touches lightly on the Romantic ideas and reputations that provide the contrast for all the works he is interested in here. But chapters 1 and 8 are an exception. Chapter 1 takes up questions of how the lives of Byron and Shelley were remembered, or misremembered. Commenting on biographies by Hunt, Moore, Medwin, Blessington, Trelawney, and Hogg in particular--though Trelawney's and Hogg's were published in 1858--Cronin concludes that the biographers tended to feminize Byron and Shelley when they said the poets lived most fully and truthfully in their imaginations, in their poetry. Hence, the biographers claimed they had to speak for the poets, like husbands speaking for too unworldly wives. Cronin does not look at the reception of these works, namely, how the superior positions their authors took in relation to their subjects could harm their own reputations, as in the case of Hunt, or, as in the case of Blessington, jump-start their careers. In the novels Glenarvon, The Last Man, and Venetia, Shelley and Byron are taken out of their age and made highly political, only to have their political importance reduced by events and amours. Cronin states, "Venetia is, to use Nemoianu's term, a perfect example of the Biedermeier" as Romantic energy is "'captured and tamed'"; however, Cronin in effect deflates the importance of this assessment by adding that Disraeli's novel, "when it was published in 1837, did not make much of a stir" (43-44).

If only Cronin had devoted the whole of his attention to the literary works that were making a stir in the 1820s and 1830s London newspapers and magazines, he would have been far more reluctant to agree that, for the most part, during those sixteen years the rebellious spirit of Romanticism was being tamed or, as Herbert Tucker has said of the 1820s, quietly domesticated. 1 Chapter 8, "Domesticating Romanticism," addresses "the most dangerous of Romantic legacies," sexual freedom, but it addresses it only "in its most dangerous form," the incest espoused by Byron and Shelley (237). Cronin recounts the quaint anecdote of how Tennyson's fellow Apostle, Henry Alford, presented his wife and cousin a copy of The Revolt of Islam in 1835 as a wedding gift, in the pious hope "that somehow, as she [read], his wife [would] transform Shelley's subversive visionary epic into a paean to quiet, domestic joy" (247). Cronin delves a little into Shelley's philosophy of love and language, finding incest central to Shelley's notion of the "origin" and "goal" of his creativity (242). A reworking of the incest theme, Tennyson's A Lover's Tale presents a male poet who is shown to be unfit for the object of his passion, his female cousin. For Cronin, the poem illustrates well how Victorian poets acted out Romantic doctrines only to discover their limitations, and he mentions as a corollary the actions of Tennyson and the Apostles in the Spanish enterprise.

One example at the end of chapter 8 reveals the trouble with Cronin's limited focus in parts on how a few major, but not popular, writers treated a particular strand of Romantic thought. To support the idea that Tennyson's reworking of the incest theme points to a wider trend, Cronin names a few other works including Landon's popular Improvisatrice, in which Lorenzo declares that his passion for the performing songstress far outweighs his feelings for one whom he loves as a sister. Landon is then made to come across as another writer dampening down Romantic passion in favor of "married love" (249). Cronin seems unaware of the fact that Landon wrote dozens of works approving the strength of illicit sexual passions, that she preferred to malign marriage than otherwise, and that she had three illegitimate children by the Literary Gazette editor who published many of her improper poems. Indeed, much of the literature produced after Don Juan did anything but dry up or discipline itself to observe solely chaste affections; for example, witness Bulwer's Godolphin, Julia Pardoe's Traits and Traditions of Portugal, Allan Cunningham's Songs of Scotland, to name but a few.

Two chapters concentrate mostly on works by a few of the period's popular writers. Set in racy London, Don Juan's last cantos establish the tone for chapter 4, as Cronin maintains that the silver-fork novelists took their lead from Byron. He is right to relate their novels to the newspapers and their "Fashionable Intelligence" columns. Like the novels, the papers embraced people fashionable for a day as well as "commodities [that have] so quickly become obsolete" (119). Such novels were also not written to last, Cronin deduces with reason but probably not with complete accuracy. Certainly, the public interest sparked by Bulwer's Pelham and Disraeli's Vivian Grey promoted their authors onto a public stage on which they remained for decades. Both novels mock their authors' own puppydom as well as the ennui-making-yet-fascinating fashionable world. As Cronin says, the puppydom and the mockery were alike provoking to "unsympathetic readers" (124), though from what I know of the hostility to Bulwer, his unsympathetic readers were largely confined to a few periodical writers of a different political stripe who could not have won entry to many of the London circles open to him and Disraeli. Cronin is simply wrong when he states that Bulwer and Disraeli "could no longer dream of prowling, like Byron, the drawing rooms of London as a literary lion." Bulwer especially was regarded as a great "lion" in the 1820s and 1830s, but both men were considered literary celebrities worthy of being invited regularly to entertain and impress high society, terrific catches for any rising hostess. Cronin's assertion that, compared to Byron's day, the writer's status was much diminished "in the fashionable world that they both [Bulwer and Disraeli] aspired to enter" (256) is contradicted by a host of reports in newspapers, letters, memoirs, and biographies describing how many popular writers were courted by their betters in unprecedented ways during this very period.

Sartor Resartus's reaction to the dandies is also covered in chapter 4. Cronin points out that Carlyle saw the extreme division between rich and poor as having helped to produce the silver-fork novels. This extreme division gave the novel its "potential to produce its own antithesis" in the historical novels of highwaymen and murderers that came into vogue in the 1830s, such as Ainsworth's Rookwood and Jack Sheppard (130). In his comments on the characterization and style of Mary Shelley's Lodore, Cronin emphasizes her indebtedness to Bulwer. He uses the word "styptic" to define the silver-fork style in which sentences that tended "both towards the antithetical and the oxymoronic" were placed immediately after sentimental ones to expose their sham; however, in some passages of Lodore, the cynicism of the styptic "co-exists with the sentimental, it does not expose it as a sham" (136-37). Such a combination well fits a novel about unhappy marriage as opposed to one about courtship, the subject of most novels of the period, including Plumer Ward's Tremaine and Gore's Women as They Are, briefly noticed in chapter 4. In this respect Mary Shelley's work marks for Cronin an advance over Bulwer's and, it seems, all other silver-fork novelists. Cronin opines that the fashionable novel "is the genre that best defines the period"; how much he will let himself admire "fashionable novels of the 1830s . . . no longer much read" is called into question by his lackluster recommendation: "yet they have at least a historical importance" (142). Cronin cannot have much admiration for a genre that he thinks of as being "invented and developed not by a writer but by a publisher, Henry Colburn, who, as it were, merely sub-contracted the task of supplying the words for the novels to his authors" (256). That silver-fork novels were written fairly quickly and were meant to sell right away does not detract from the fact that many were composed with seriousness and attention to detail. Some authors no doubt merely supplied Colburn with words, but I think a number of them viewed their novels as creative works of art, signs of the times that could perhaps one day serve as historical records of those times. Likewise, a number of reviewers took care to distinguish the frothy Colburn novel from the more substantial ones out of the same publishing house. The better written novels usually sold better, so their authors were paid more for the next novel. Colburn himself could not afford to ignore the art of these novels, as opposed to their manufacture.

In chapter 3, Cronin seeks to uncomplicate Felicia Hemans by turning her back into the poetess her first readers revered, one who would never have sought to undercut the domestic and heroic values they saw her as upholding. That Hemans's poetic voice is almost always calm and cool, no matter what horrors her poem might be describing, is "her most powerful achievement" (78). In her work, femininity is best defined and appreciated when serving masculine ideals which the woman, in turn, must be the one to express. Cronin makes the interesting, though not corroborated, point that Hemans and Landon actually caused Scott's masculine poetry to seem old-fashioned by appropriating and feminizing his poetic style. But he seems less than enchanted with Hemans's popular narrative poetry, preferring to discuss at length just The Siege of Valencia, which he finds "uncharacteristic" of her work in general (74). He gives the game away at the book's end, when all he can say about "the feminizing of poetry that I explore in Chapter 3" is that it "is susceptible of a more cynical explanation. The feminine voice came to dominate poetry at precisely the period in which it became scarcely possible for poets to earn a living from the practice of their profession . . ." (256). So much for Hemans's "achievement," and Landon's for that matter. Cronin states strangely that "since there were only two niches available [for women poets], the choice one [Hemans] made in large part determined the choice of the other [Landon]" (82). The statement reveals that he has yet to appreciate how wonderfully varied was the women's poetry of these two decades and how competitive was its market. If there was room only for a matronly, reserved Hemans and an appealingly lonely L. E. L., how can Cronin explain the success of Caroline Norton, Caroline Bowles, Mary Howitt, Maria Jane Jewsbury, Emma Roberts, and Mary Anne Browne? What about the novelists like Anna Maria Hall and the Countess of Blessington who wrote poetry in annuals that sold as well or better than those featuring Landon and Hemans?

As I suspect he would not do of any of the major Romantic and Victorian poets, Cronin states with complete certainty what is "Landon's finest poem" (84): "A History of the Lyre." Yet it is clear that he has not read the vast majority of L. E. L.'s poetry. He refers to nothing she wrote in the entire decade of the 1830s nor to any of the hundreds of poems she published in periodicals and gift books in the 1820s. Consequently, he makes many generalizations which, though sometimes astute with reference to the five volumes of poetry for which she is best known, do not hold true for a large body of her work and, hence, oversimplify Landon as a writer. To say that Landon represented life as "only constituted by poetry and love" (88); that the improvising Corinne-like figure "underlies all her poems"; or that "all of Landon's poetry returns obsessively to a tightly bunched arrangement of a small group of motifs, all of them already deployed in . . . The Improvisatrice" is unfair and unnecessary in light of the fact that Cronin has consulted McGann and Riess's 1997 Broadview selected edition of Landon's works (91; emphases mine). Yet Cronin could not be more right in his assessment of how important the feelings of Landon's readers were to Landon: "Tears, for Landon, dissolve the distinction between poet and character," the "weeping woman" figuring "the appeal that the poems themselves make to their reader, who is himself the chivalrous man who, by reading Landon's poems, rescues her from her desolate loneliness" (85-86). Likewise, he diagnoses shrewdly the "anxious tenderness" (92) that her improvizational style fostered in sympathetic readers, most of whom were women.

"Contempt" for the literary market and its feminine tastes is shared by several of the male writers Cronin covers. George Darley's poem Sylvia, or, The May Queen. A Lyrical Drama (1825) "failed, one suspects, because for all its talent it exposed Darley's contempt for his own poem" and for its female audience (100). Before his suicide in 1848, the uncompromising Thomas Lovell Beddoes spent five years writing and nineteen revising Death's Jest Book, "in its entirety a calculated and bitter affront to the fashion for sentimental verse" (102). The whole of chapter 6 is devoted to John Clare, who "often expressed his contempt for the notion that the value of poetry might be determined by market forces" (206). The "peasant poet" Clare was stuck in an isolated position, far removed from the London literary world yet not really part of the non-literate village community of Helpston. Cronin insists that Clare's in-between status greatly benefited his poetry, helping him to see with clarity the natural objects around him as "at once familiar and strange" (205). Though Clare spent much of his adult life in insane asylums, Cronin does not want us to regard his case as "too individual," but he rather stresses that Clare's inability to earn a living with his poetry resulted from the late 1820s downfall of the market for poetry volumes (212). The less-educated Clare is then compared with Tennyson, Browning, John Hamilton Reynolds, Beddoes, and Darley, all of whom were able to find other means of supporting themselves, some continuing to write poems, others not. These men are those to whom, Cronin more than suggests, the market never gave a fair chance to compete with Hemans and L. E. L.

For Thomas Carlyle, whose French Revolution is chapter 2's concern,"the mere thought that any such marketplace existed provoked in him 'a feeling mild and charitable as that of a starved hyena'" (66). His historical novel managed to bring him fame but not much money. Chapter 2 reads as an excellent introduction to the French Revolution, whereas Macaulay's "insular" History of England is set up merely to be knocked down pre-emptively by Carlyle's insistence on the immediacy of that event over the Channel which Macaulay prefers to ignore (46). The French Revolution's infamous Terror is discounted by Carlyle, who will only make "confessedly provisional, even erratic" judgments of a revolution that has removed the old standards of morality (49). Just as he satirizes the politicians who tried to control events, so Carlyle refuses to wield authority himself and submit the forces of the French Revolution to one lucid interpretation. Rather, he takes first one side then the other, his language all the while throwing up new words and mixing up class categories with what Mill saw as a disdain of conventions akin to that which epitomized Lyrical Ballads. Thus, Cronin links the revolution in style and content that was this historical novel with "High Romanticism" (65).

Unfortunately, Cronin does not pause to reflect what effect 1820s and 1830s periodicals and their warfare might have had on Carlyle's novel. Their often wild energy, humorous and biting satire, capacity to take fierce sides in politics, and unpredictable capacity to favor someone of opposite political views seem to me more directly responsible for the French Revolution than anything Wordsworth or Coleridge penned. As Cronin admits, the lack of attention to periodicals is his book's "single biggest omission" (257). An immersion in them would, I believe, have made it impossible for Cronin to call the period of 1824 to 1840 "a shadowy stretch of time sandwiched between two far more colourful periods" (1). For never did London newspapers and magazines battle one another quite as they did in the 1820s and 1830s, and their ongoing warfare deeply influenced all the period's popular writers, most of whom wrote for one or more. If respectable Victorians reacted against anything, it was the politically-motivated reviews plus the frivolity, ribaldry, innuendo, puffery, and occasional nastiness that characterized John Bull, Fraser's, the Age, the Satirist, Blackwood's, the Sunday Times, and a host of other periodicals from the delightfully undisciplined 1820s and 1830s. But when Cronin looks at the London literary world, he sees an unfair market that did much to keep talent at bay, with the very best poets having to wait until the period was over to have their big successes. How they diverged from the path tread by a few dead poets in the meantime of this "modest little period" is a question well answered in Romantic Victorians (260), but it is, after all, a question very different from that of assessing the uniqueness of the period's literature. The immodesty of 1820s and 1830s writers is easily observed, just not in those moments when one would least expect it, when they were reflecting on the work of those who had claimed so much for themselves and were gone.


1. Herbert F. Tucker, "House Arrest: The Domestication of English Poetry in the 1820s," New Literary History 25(1995): 521-48.(Back)