Nervous Reactions: Victorian Recollections of Romanticism (review)
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Nervous Reactions: Victorian Recollections of Romanticism, edited by Joel Faflak and Julia M. Wright; pp. vii + 287. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004, $50.00.

"Romanticism," explains the narrator of Middlemarch (1871–72), "which has helped to fill some dull blanks with love and knowledge, had not yet [c.1830] penetrated the times with its leaven and entered into everybody's food; it was fermenting still as a distinguishable vigorous enthusiasm in certain long-haired German artists at Rome, and the youth of other nations who worked or idled near them were sometimes caught in the spreading movement" (172). The most Romantic figure in George Eliot's novel, the young Will Ladislaw, himself an artist and friend of a Nazarene-like German painter, exemplifies specific attitudes the Victorians had come to associate with Romanticism: a cosmopolitan disregard of provincial mores; a rejection of worldly, material interests; a profound enthusiasm for political reform; a commitment to self-culture; and, above all, an oversized capacity for sympathy and emotional reaction.

The ten essays in Nervous Reactions: Victorian Recollections of Romanticism, edited by Joel Faflak and Julia M. Wright, focus on the Victorians' ambivalent response to their own constructions of Romanticism and the Romantic subject. Unlike their counterparts on the Continent, English writers of the first half of the nineteenth century never referred to their own contemporary literature as "Romantic," and the Schlegels' famous Classical-Romantic distinction, although well-known in England particularly after the 1813 publication in English of Madame de Stael's De L'Allemagne, never inspired the fierce debates that it did in Germany, France, Italy, and Spain. By the time Eliot published Middlemarch, however, she could count on her readers having some familiarity with the term. Most of the essays in Nervous Reactions address work produced in the years between the Regency and the early 1870s, during which "Romanticism" emerged in England as a provocative literary concept. [End Page 551]

The editors propose that nervousness functions as a central trope in the Victorian negotiation of the Romantic subject, identified with excess and an overdeveloped nervous system. Taken together, the essays construct a continuum of nervous reactions to the threat of Romantic sensual anarchy. At one end, a sentimentalized, depoliticized Romanticism is made safe for appropriation; at the other, a dangerous, pathologized Romanticism requires resistance and rejection.

As with most collections, individual essays fit more or less loosely within the overarching editorial framework. Grace Kehler's essay on Eliot's verse drama Armgart (1871) argues that Eliot turns to the tradition of the Romantic closet drama as an especially appropriate form to interrogate the possibilities and limits of women's agency, in this case the complex dilemmas of the professional female musician. This is one of my favorite essays in the collection: I am fascinated by Kehler's analysis, as a crucial intertextual frame for Eliot's drama, of eighteenth-century discourse on opera regarding the historical substitution of the prima donna for the castrato. But there is nothing especially nervous in any of this, for there is nothing sentimental or idealizing in Eliot's use of Romantic precursors as a means of challenging the restraints of Victorian gender roles. The editors characterize Eliot's reaction as a "positive nervous response to Romantic precedent" (14), but I have to confess that the import of the oxymoron is lost on me and strikes me as a bit precious. On the other hand, D. M. R. Bentley's essay on Archibald Lampman and the Confederation group of Canadian poets, who flourished between 1880 and 1897, neatly illustrates the Victorian appropriation of Romantic precursors made safe and soothing. In this case, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley bequeath to their Canadian admirers a therapeutic program rooted in negative capability and a meditative encounter with nature, as well as an English poetic genealogy from which Canadian poets can assert continuity.

The Victorian reinvention of Romantic lives is one of the recurrent subjects in the collection. Faflak analyzes Thomas De Quincey's obsessive revising of his autobiography, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), which culminated in the 1856 edition of Confessions (although De Quincey continued to revise...


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