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Susan J. Wolfson, Borderlines: The Shiftings of Gender in British Romanticism and Romantic Interactions: Social Being and the Turns of Literary Action

Friday, November 18, 2011 - 07:09
Susan J. Wolfson, Borderlines: The Shiftings of Gender in British Romanticism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006). 430 pp. (Hdbk., $ 97.95; Pbk., $ 29.95; ISBN-10: 0-8047-6105-1; ISBN-13: 978-0-8047-6105-5). Wolfson, Romantic Interactions: Social Being and the Turns of Literary Action (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010). 381 pp. (Hdbk., $ 70; Pbk., $ 29.95; ISBN-10: 0-8018-9474-3; ISBN-13: 978-0-8018-9474-9).

Reviewed by
Diego Saglia
University of Parma, Italy

Although published six years apart, these two volumes belong in the same multifaceted critical mosaic. Both studies address the distinctive concerns which have been central to Susan Wolfson’s critical practice since the 1980s—her preoccupation with gender, her focus on literary form, and her indefatigable search for an increasingly detailed, as well as historically attuned, approach to the stylistic materiality of literary works. As with her previous works, these books require us to read intensively into texts, and we cannot escape this demand as we gradually explore their largely shared literary terrain: Hemans and Byron, mostly, but also Wollstonecraft, the Wordsworths and Keats. Wollstonecraft, in particular, plays a major role in Wolfson’s presentation of her argument in the earlier Borderlines, and its discussion of the continuities and discontinuities within Romantic-period gender debates between the 1790s and the 1830s.

Both books perform a series of distinctive critical gestures to which the author has accustomed us over the years. They stand on solid, clearly laid out theoretical and methodological foundations, which Wolfson constantly tests, revises and updates. One of the mainstays in these volumes is, of course, the neo-formalist agenda that Wolfson has been promoting through such contributions as Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism (1997) and “Reading for Form” (MLQ, 2007). Both books present repeated instances of what may be defined as an invigorating form of wrestling with different intersecting textual layers. In addition, these books convey a general impatience with established, conventional “Eng Lit” stylistic registers and lexicon. This translates into a penchant for neologisms which never allows us to sit back into the lull of ready-made phrases. In fact, some of these neologisms may not be to everyone’s liking, but they undoubtedly contribute to Wolfson’s corrective critical approach.

These volumes also share common structural features. Borderlines is divided into an introductory chapter; a section on women (Felicia Hemans; the “Masculine Woman”; Maria Jane Jewsbury); one on men (Byron and Keats); and a final coda on sex in souls. Romantic Interactions presents an introductory chapter; a section on women and poetry (Wollstonecraft and Charlotte Smith); one on the “two Wordsworths,” that is, on William’s and Dorothy’s “interactions”; and a third on Byron and those interactions in which he took part directly (in his own life and works), and those through which he influenced the lives and works of other (especially female) authors.

Wolfson locates both volumes within the narrative of her own development and growth as a critic. And more explicitly so in the preface to Borderlines, where she places herself and her book within the critical trajectory that gradually led to the renovation of Romantic-period scholarship in the US and Britain from the early 1980s on. This volume, in particular, makes plain Wolfson’s intention to take stock of this itinerary and reflect on its origins, current status, and further evolutions. Taking up the cumbersome inheritance of Romantic-period gender criticism in order to set it on a new course, Borderlines paints a panorama of interrelations between “he-texts” and “she-texts”. It delineates a map of shifting gender categories in order to cast new light on their textual manifestations and cultural significance. Wolfson’s aim is to capture the formally specific coordinates of these categories—their being-in-the-text—that enable us to perceive their presence and agency in their times, yet also to verify their continuing activity in our own. In this respect, Wollstonecraft stands at the beginning of a tradition of debate that her works continued to enrich well after the waning of 1790s radicalism. And Wolfson’s reconstruction and discussion of later reprises of Wollstonecraft is undoubtedly one of the most striking and valuable offerings in this book. Readers will be particularly delighted to find a chapter on the brilliant and combative Maria Jane Jewsbury, one of the most fascinating of Wollstonecraft’s disciples, as well as one of the most unjustly sidelined writers and intellectuals in the later Romantic period.

In Borderlines Wolfson starts from an intriguing question that she formulates by way of Toril Moi and Julia Kristeva: “What if the notion of border is reconfigured from an outward limit of a concentric structure into a borderline, a differential across which both women and men face each other and continually negotiate, and across which occur more than a few strange shifts and transactions?” (xviii). The entire book reads like a series of interrelated attempts to provide answers to this question, which result in a series of tightly interwoven explorations of significant textual sites, some of them familiar, others less so. In this fashion, Wolfson takes us on a complex journey across the vagaries of Romantic investments in gender and their influence on twentieth-century debates through such ramifications as Virginia Woolf’s reworking of Coleridge’s notion of androgyny.

Among the perspectives she opens up is an examination of Hemans in which the poet emerges as busily employed in promoting “the woman’s case through her aesthetic and figurative textures” (65). Wolfson is one of the main critical sponsors of an analysis of Hemans that does not stop short at the thematic level, goes deeper into her stylistic operations, and revaluates her as a gifted creator of carefully crafted textual objects. Formal phenomena are precisely the sites that Wolfson investigates to recover the mutations of what she terms “Hemans’s inner ‘feminine calculus’”: “the more rebellious a woman, the more vivid the aesthetic fireworks, the more necessary her death” (67). By attending to Hemans’s repeated mise en scène of woman’s “glorious but impotent defiance” (67), she finds formal evidence for a dissident literary project which points to another Hemans, a much less feminine one than that depicted by Victorian commentators. This is why this chapter is required reading for all those who may still entertain dismissive and partial notions of the poet. Wolfson gives these skeptics no quarter by unrelentingly throwing light on the poet’s strategies for walking the tightrope of acceptability, such as her coded references to rebelliousness. What we get, eventually, is a much less elegiac, much less submissive kind of poetical output made up of “poem[s] at war with [themselves]” and texts thriving on a fascinating tug-of-war “between cultural logic and aesthetic energy” (75).

While this attention to Hemans is perhaps expected of Wolfson, the chapter on Jewsbury ventures into partly new territory that aptly complements her examination of Hemans. The two women were close friends and correspondents, and Jewsbury used Hemans as the model for the figure of Egeria in her “History of a Nonchalant” (1830), a crucial piece in her series of portraits of the characters of woman. A talented, unconventional figure, Jewsbury was the author of what are possibly the earliest female-authored critical remarks on Jane Austen. She also read and made sense of Wollstonecraft in the changed panorama of cultural and gender relations of the 1820s. Once again, Wolfson engages in an interpretative tour de force by reading “The History of an Enthusiast” as a mesh of female- and male-authored hypotexts. Here Jewsbury reprises Wollstonecraft, subjects conventional and masculine forms to several ironic sleights of hand, and produces a valuable testimony of intellectual and ideological self-awareness in female writings from the 1820s and 30s. And this self-awareness is both self-assured and embattled, as well as tragically doomed to defeat. In point of fact, Wolfson never loses sight of the poignant narrative of Jewsbury’s retreat from the intellectual and literary frontline into a marriage that brought her to India and an early death. And, as with Hemans, the critic finds fault with “Victorian corrections” (128) for the disappearance of such a valuable figure from our literary and cultural accounts.

Over the years Wolfson has produced a substantial body of memorable work on Byron—especially Sardanapalus, Don Juan, and the question of cross-dressing. Here, she concentrates on what she calls his life-long willingness to “risk some undecidable estimates” (139). This phrase echoes Hemans’s “feminine calculus” and is the starting point of an interpretive tour that takes us back to Ravenna and Byron’s days as a cicisbeo via the Venetian Carnival and the oft-quoted expression “the poetry of politics” that Wolfson submits to careful scrutiny in light of the fact that, at this time, it was becoming “an ironic embarrassment” for Byron (143). Moreover, she shows how Byron’s play with effeminacy presupposes rules that the critic painstakingly teases out of his contradictory textuality. These rules appear to be aptly ambivalent—this is Byron, after all—as well as held in check by his firm focus (in Sardanapalus, yet also, one suspects, in many other portions of his production) on the possibility of “a determined opting out of historical imperatives altogether” (144). Similarly, the issue of Byron’s “style of refusal” (146) ricochets around and permeates the chapter on gender and cross-dressing in Don Juan. Overall, this is a particularly rewarding section, and not just because of its tightly-knit structure and discursive-argumentative cohesion. The pleasure and critical gains it delivers also stem from the cogency of Wolfson’s micro-readings, her eye for detail, and her ability to home in on a word or an incident and unwrap its significance to reveal unsuspected implications and consequences.

The two chapters on Keats almost inevitably resonate with more intensely elegiac tones. Wolfson starts by reading the cultural transformations undergone by the figure of the “man of feeling.” She then goes on to investigate Keats’s fear of “smokeability”, his alternating allegiance to and refusal of romance, his desire for male clubbability, and his investment in negative capability as a gendered antidote to smokeability. She follows the multiple paths of his pen, which she describes as “pointed for vocational manhood” yet also “drawn to the pleasures of female styles and forms of leisure” (219). These forays into Keats’s persona and writings yield a melancholy picture overcast by the poet’s distinctive concern with “Indolence” in both its positive and negative acceptations. It also bears the stamp of his concurrent need to court fame and measure up to contemporary male literary circles. Then, when the book turns from Keats and gender acts to the gendering of Keats and his imagination in the later nineteenth century, the melancholy picture becomes an intricate agon made up of appropriations, rewritings and adaptations of the poet and his image. Taking up this material with distinctive gusto, Wolfson illuminates the ways in which the knot of effeminacy, indolence, sensuality and romance affected Keats’s reception in Victorian times. She looks at how he fared with male and female writers and critics, as gender invariably played a crucial role in shaping his afterlife. In this respect, Wolfson offers a wonderfully rich and suggestive analysis of the numerous nineteenth-century depictions of Keats’s face. Carved on his repeatedly, indeed obsessively, reproduced likeness, the mixed coordinates of a masculine-feminine Keats continued to exercise Victorians artists, critics and readers, confirming and testing their notions of gendered identities until the end of the century and beyond.

The last chapter in Borderlines, “Sex in Souls?”, centers on the ways in which the Romantics wrote about the soul and the idea that “a poetics of soul ... is also a poetics of gendered agons” (300). Once again, Wolfson sets up a spirited and determined examination of such significant formal features as syntactical structures, sound chains, and metrical layouts. Her aim, here, is to tease out how texts contribute formally to the emergence and circulation of one of the main concerns for Romantic-era authors; a concern, we should perhaps add, that does not often feature in current scholarship, given a generalized tendency to underplay the impact of religious faith. The chapter also necessarily concentrates on texts where the dialogue between male and female (or masculine and feminine) interlocutors is precisely that: an exchange and a conversation. Although, on many occasions, it may be marred by what Wolfson terms “alter-egoism” (296), this dialogue constitutes a lively encounter and a constant comparison of different positions, one that bears testimony to the uninterrupted and endlessly productive crossing of gender borderlines that characterizes the Romantic-period literary field.

Such dialogues and exchanges form the backbone and substance of Romantic Interactions, a book in which Wolfson significantly reorients her critical focus. In fact, this book might trick us into thinking that she wants to take us where we have already been several times before. Once again, however, she surprises us by avoiding a whole range of rather predictable approaches. Wolfson focuses neither on intertextuality nor on the lyric’s investment in dialogue with real/imagined or visible/invisible interlocutors. She is also uninterested in poetical schools or collaborative groups and circles. Instead, her aim is to debunk the myth of Romantic isolationism and creation in solitude. To this end, she sets her sights on how authors identify themselves as such (how they “author” themselves) by way of exchanges and connections with other authors, whether on the bookshelf or in propria persona.

This is what “interaction” means in a book where Wolfson deals once more in major figures and crucial turning points. On the one hand, her arguments and discussions reflect certain recurrent preoccupations in the field of Romantic-period studies and her own critical practice. On the other, however, she treats us to a generous helping of unexpected insights and readings. The case of the Wordsworths is, in this sense, exemplary. Wolfson explores it in all its complex and unpleasant nuances. Thus, she duly charts William Wordsworth’s process of writing the female and feminine out of his verse. Yet, when it comes to addressing Dorothy’s figure and function, she zooms in on the vexed question of the “alter ego” which, in her perspective, also functions as an other “to the point of inaccessibility” and “vexed by gender difference” (152). Accordingly, “interaction” mutates into a scene of resistance, in which the “we converted to me” is a transition fraught with tension and divisiveness (171). Wolfson conjures up and investigates the ambivalence of the “alter ego” by constantly going back to a textual field made of revisions, cross-fertilizations, and clashes.

The chapter on Smith and that on Wollstonecraft and poetry display an interesting series of balancing acts. In the former, Wolfson reads Smith’s The Emigrants as a textual operation dealing with revolutionary and counter-revolutionary issues. Bent on a revision of the epic, the poem questions sympathy and dares express a hope for peace by resorting to (and reconfiguring) men’s poetical voices. In the case of Wollstonecraft, Wolfson instead transports us into the arena of poetical criticism, indeed one of the foundational moments of the contemporary feminist critical tradition: “On the text of Milton’s Eve, Wollstonecraft invents what we now call feminist literary criticism” (69). In this chapter Wolfson reevaluates the role and position of poetry within Wollstonecraft’s cultural-political project. At the same time, she reconstructs the author’s delineation of a canon of verse through a process of selection that hinges crucially on The Female Reader (1789)—a process that Wolfson denominates “Wollstonecrafting poetry” (80).

Both chapters, as well as the middle section on the Wordsworths, address the practices of manipulation and revision of other authors through which writers identify their spaces of authorial intervention. “Authorial self-recognition”, Wolfson notes, takes place within webs of “reciprocal formation in a society of formations, that is continuously challenged by this field” (8). In a way, we are at a safe distance from Bloom’s “agonic” arena. And yet we may also get the impression that it would be comparatively easy to fall into it again. Wolfson, however, takes heed never to stray too far into psychological approaches. Although she pays all due attention to biographical imperatives, her notion of the authorial function is first and foremost that of an aspect of textuality, stylistics, and institutions. Her interpretative angle privileges self-constructions that result in public authorial personae that cannot evade the pressure of the “public’s authority over (its writing about) the socially legible self” (11). And this is precisely why the final chapters on Byron provide such an apposite culmination to the book.

The first chapter in this section is an in-depth study of the action of “gazing on ‘Byron’”. It considers contemporary reactions to the portraits, later dicta such as S.T. Coleridge’s or Mario Praz’s rhapsodic prosopographies of the poet, and Byronism and its status as a “dynamic of reading” promoted by Byron himself (215). His separation from his wife and the attendant paper war give Wolfson an opportunity to test the poet’s own theatrics, his ability to generate desire to gaze on him, and his (not always successful) control over that game. She investigates the act of “viewing Byron” as a challenge and a necessity for a long list of contemporary colleagues, friends, and commentators—from Joanna Baillie to Annabella Milbanke, from Thomas Moore to John Wilson and Francis Jeffrey. All of them took up the challenge as Byron had set it up, and to some extent their reactions testify to the dangers posed by the “public’s authority” over a self that offers itself as publicly legible.

In the last chapter, “Byron and the Muse of Female Poetry”, Wolfson continues her exploration of this material and produces what seems destined to become an inescapable point of reference for future work on Byron and women poets. This chapter starts from his lordship’s ability to take hold of the inmost recesses of his (male and female) readers’ spirits, thus inspiring them with the awareness of possessing an “inner Byron”. It is in this light that Wolfson reads female poets’ reactions and responses to his myth and poetry from the 1820s and 30s. Suggestively defining Byron as a “dreamboat [that] ripples across gender codes” (259), she carefully turns to trace the textual/formal manifestations of these ripples in L.E.L.’s poetry and, to a lesser extent, Hemans, Lady Caroline Lamb, and Caroline Norton. Hemans represents an illuminating case study of the female Byronist’s dilemmas, as she did not give up her Byronic style even after shifting her allegiance to the Wordsworthian mode. Yet Wolfson reconstructs an even more varied picture by charting the myriad ways in which L.E.L. channeled Byron through her verse and self-projections. This protracted investment constitutes the ultimate instance of a process of authorial self-construction based on an interaction with an author on the bookshelf and yet endowed with a powerfully present, embodied persona. As Wolfson says, “For posthumous readers, Byron was as undead as dead” (280). Contrary to appearances (once again, in this case, cursory interpretations are much to blame), Landon does not “sign on” to Byron, but rather becomes highly skilled in “reading the system” (266) and using it to her own advantage. And she did so throughout her career—from her first major Byronic foray The Improvisatrice (1824) to her overflowing output for the Annuals. The image of an ultra-feminine Landon dissolves as Wolfson focuses on the complex gender faultlines attached to “Byron”, and her own diversified response to his myth and verse. By exploring the game of mirrors between Landon as a female Byron and also as a feminized Byron, Wolfson closes her volume with neatly laid out, resonant conclusions in which Romantic-period phenomena continue to re-echo into the Victorian period and beyond.

Borderlines is a sustained interpretation of the “ethical and potentially political relevance of dislocation” (126). It is a book that warrants reading and re-reading, as its intuitions and reformulations gradually come into view and start to play off one another. It is also a crucial introduction to Romantic Interactions and its explorations of the formal and ideological mechanisms regulating authorial self-definition. Dislocation and interaction are the keywords to these fundamental contributions to current Romantic-period studies, both of which look set to go on “rippling” across the discipline for years to come.