You are here

Abstracts: Volume 88, Number 3 (2009)

Special Issue: Unexpected Encounters: Rewriting Women in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
Edited by Teresa Mangum, Laura Capp, and Anna Stenson

George Eliot's Romola: A Historical Novel "Rather Different in Character" by Kelly E. Battles

George Eliot's Romola (1862-63) appears precisely at the time that history is, according to standard narratives, becoming more defined and contained within the boundaries of the university and in the hands of professional historians. Despite this trend of standardization, the novel expresses a pervasive ambivalence about the purpose of history and the appropriate stance that should be taken by the writer relative to the past. The novel never settles on one perspective on the past, showing that a single, fixed, and sanctioned notion of history has not emerged. Romola asks not only how the individual subject should position himself or herself in relation to the past, but also addresses the self-reflexive question within the historical novel of how historical knowledge should properly be pursued and rendered into narrative. The character Romola's process of trying on and discarding successive epistemological stances represented by the various male authority figures in her life is a process that is also mirrored in the narration of the novel itself. The novel's shifting narrative lenses then become a model for an amalgamation of different historical subject positions that opens the way for a sympathetic and productive relationship to the past.

The Bonnet's Brim: The Politics of Vision in Frances Trollope's Domestic Manners of the Americans by Sara R. Danger

Frances Trollope's bestselling travel narrative, Domestic Manners of the Americans, and its original illustrations place readers at an unusual vantage point. Whereas early-Victorian conduct literature imagined how women's regulation of manners inside the home could influence national identity, the visual/verbal rhetoric of Domestic Manners presents the codes of domestic supervision as a means of domestic and sociopolitical analysis. The reliance of Trollope's text on visual and textual caricature, and, more uniquely, on images of early-Victorian women's headwear, encourages readers to adopt the perspective that conduct literature typically assigned to women. That is, readers are positioned to scrutinize the material and political conditions informing (and deforming) the domestic manners of Americans, and by extension, to recognize the inherent instability of the representational boundaries of home and nation. By aligning readers with this shrewdly supervisory gaze, Trollope and her illustrator illuminate their political argument: the American subordination of women and people of color threatens the civility and humanity of an entire nation.

Discoursing of Xantippe: Amy Levy, Classical Scholarship, and Print Culture by Linda K. Hughes

In selecting a figure from classical history for "Xantippe," Amy Levy inserted her best-known poem into a complex discursive network of British and German classical scholarship, higher criticism, and popular print culture. Doing so enabled Levy to write simultaneously as an authorized participant in classical studies, a Jew, and a woman writer. Levy represents both Xantippe and Socrates, a premier figure to Victorians given his relevance to studies of democracy and sacrificial death in the name of a higher truth (which suggested parallels to Christ). German classical scholar Eduard Zeller, moreover, defended Xantippe in an 1850 essay. By engaging such scholarly cruxes and publishing in University Magazine, Levy performs the role of learned woman that Xantippe longed for and was tragically denied. Levy's skeptical treatment of Socrates, his purported parallels to Christ, and the strong links between classical scholarship and higher criticism also distanced "Xantippe" from dominant Christian poetics and opened a space in which Levy could write as a Jew. Additionally, her poem intersects with longstanding popular depictions of Xantippe, a practice common to women writers who mediated classicism through popular culture.

Hester Thrale Piozzi's Foul Copy of Literary History by Celia Barnes Rasmussen

Hester Thrale Piozzi's unusual diary-commonplace book, the Thraliana (1776-1809), revels in improvisation, fragmentation, and what she terms life "revisal." In it Piozzi brings a literary self into being by collecting anecdotes, texts, and stories, and then re-reading and reflecting on this miscellany. The diary offers a model for thinking about literary history, and, perhaps more important, a way for Piozzi to talk back to literary history. In the pages of the Thraliana, Piozzi's friendship with Samuel Johnson makes this larger conversation possible. By rendering him a "foul copy," a defaced manuscript that is woefully and hopelessly lacking, she exposes the processes of revision, excision, commentary, and self-critique that lie beneath the surface of all textual production and that published texts seek to hide from view.

"Original Letters of the Celebrated Mrs. Mary Robinson" by Sharon Setzer

In 1822 the Lady's Magazine published fifteen "Original Letters of the Celebrated Mrs. Mary Robinson, Written during the Last Few Months of Her Life." Although she had enjoyed considerable celebrity as an actress at Drury Lane, as a mistress of the Prince of Wales, and as a fashionable woman of letters, Robinson, in her last months, was an impoverished invalid living in obscurity at her daughter's cottage near Windsor Castle. Presented in their entirety here, the "Original Letters" are a rich, untapped source of information about Robinson and her milieu in 1800. Internal and external evidence indicates that the addressee of "Original Letters" was William Godwin's close friend James Marshal, an indexer, proofreader, and translator, who apparently offered Robinson sympathy and literary companionship as well as financial assistance. While the letters shed new light on Robinson's fascinating triangulated relationship with Marshal and Godwin, they also give detailed and often poignant accounts of Robinson's exhaustion and anguish as she tried to fend off menacing creditors and struggled to earn a living by her pen.