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  • Nervous Reactions: Victorian Recollections of Romanticism
  • Brian Goldberg (bio)
Joel Faflak and Julia M. Wright, editors. Nervous Reactions: Victorian Recollections of Romanticism State University of New York Press. vii, 288. US $50.00

Victorian responses to Romantic writing could be complicated by the disparity between what Romanticism was and what 'proper' Victorian culture wanted from it. In addition to adopting their predecessors' ideas and practices, therefore, Victorian authors sometimes suppressed Romantic transgressiveness, and they sometimes emphasized Romantic self-indulgence in order to foreground their own conservative wisdom. Often, they did these things simultaneously, and in the process, as the editors of Nervous Reactions argue, they defined 'Romanticism' in ways that remain powerful. This collection of essays is organized around one significant aspect of the exchange. As the introduction contends, a medically derived language of 'nerves' was used by Victorians to criticize Romantic excess and to improve on Romanticism's nervous solipsism by 'cur[ing] or excis[ing]' it.

The first section of the book, 'Nervous Containments: Recollection and Influence,' opens with Joel Faflak's discussion of Thomas De Quincey. As [End Page 289] Faflak argues, De Quincey's lifelong project of editing his own work undoes the distinction between 'Romantic' and 'Victorian' - De Quincey ' s body of work is 'Romantically' amorphous while demanding for itself the 'Victorian' therapy of discipline and organization. Next, Lisa Vargo discusses Florence Marshall's late-Victorian biography of Mary Shelley. Marshall produces an incomplete portrait of Shelley as 'domestic, passive, and modest,' Vargo shows, but Marshall also manages to indicate the cultural constraints which her subject and she each had to negotiate. Investigating a different genre, Grace Kehler examines the construction of gender in George Eliot's Armgart and its Romantic intertexts. Unlike opera, the verse-drama's multiplicity of voices allows Eliot to explore a range of perspectives on the 'open-ende[d] definition of significant life and meaningful love.' Finally, D.M.R. Bentley argues that, in the context of a 'therapeutic culture,' the iterations of Keatsian language by the Canadian poet Archibald Lampman mark a robust and self-aware 'celebrat[ion]' of Britishness in North America.

The second section, 'A Matter of Balance: Byronic Illness and Victorian Cure,' presents a more consistently agonistic version of the Romantic/ Victorian encounter. In Timothy J. Wandling's essay on Byron and John Stuart Mill, Byron's 'transgressive eloquence' is opposed to Mill's elitist, nominally Wordsworthian quietism. However, Kristen Guest's examination of Byron and Thomas Carlyle shows how difficult it could be to execute this kind of rejection. While Carlyle opposes himself to Byronic self-indulgence, his own physical ailments and his hatred of a functioning consumer society lead him back to the paradoxical idea of the 'Byronic sufferer as social prophet.' Julia M. Wright's treatment of Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters is also concerned with disease. As Wright argues, Romantic characters in Gaskell's novel are identified with weakness, while characters who resist or go beyond the diseased values of Romantic texts stand for 'a new national vigor.'

The third section, 'Hesitation and Inheritance: The Case of Sara Coleridge,' offers three perspectives on Samuel Taylor Coleridge ' s daughter. As Joanne Wilkes explains, Coleridge is among the first Victorian critics of Keats to accept Keats's work as mature and 'fully fledged, ' although this view is suppressed at first by her editor at the Quarterly Review. Coleridge's editorial work on her father's behalf takes up the remainder of the section. According to Alan Vardy, her edition of her father's political writings follows the elder Coleridge's lead, subsuming the radical 'feelings' of his early career into the Tory 'consistency' that defined his later reputation. Finally, on Donelle Ruwe's account, Sara Coleridge develops a 'bodily' view of the imagination that opposes S.T.C.'s disembodied one. This is a critical innovation, and Sara Coleridge thus establishes a Victorian authorial identity that refers to yet distinguishes her from her Romantic father. [End Page 290]

In the study of Romantic/Victorian relations, recent books about canonical figures (Elfenbein on Byron, Gill on Wordsworth, Najarian on Keats) and groups (Cronin on 'Romantic Victorians') have produced new conceptions of influence...


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pp. 289-291
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