Unlike Phyllis Rose in Writing of Women (also reviewed in this issue), Nina Auerbach offers no apology for her "collection of previously published essays." Such an apology would not have been inappropriate. Romantic Imprisonment provides a brief history of Auerbach's development as a literary critic, revealing in the process a movement from tentative feminist insights to assertive feminist jargon. This movement is emphasized by Auerbach's decision "to leave the earlier essays [End Page 358] unedited, hoping that errors, diffidences, and ditherings will emerge as signs of the times."
Because these essays are admittedly "psychic translations of the cultural life [Auerbach] felt [she] was living during their composition," they may have more to tell us about their author, and her Emersonian sense of self, than about their ostensible subjects. The essays on Jane Austen ("Jane Austen and Romantic Imprisonment," "Jane Austen's Dangerous Charm: Feeling as One Ought about Fanny Price," and "O Brave New World: Evolution and Revolution in Persuasion") and George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss ("Demonism and Maggie Tulliver") seem especially elastic. Thesis consistently takes precedent over text. In order to align Austen more firmly with her romantic contemporaries and with current notions of a female Gothic, for example, Auerbach asserts that the "sense" in Sense and Sensibility is "less a medium of enlightenment than an organ of Romantic terror and confinement." Her reading of Fanny Price in Mansfield Park is more satisfactory if no less contrived. Auerbach notes "the compelling blighting power of Fanny's spectatorship at Sotherton" and argues that Fanny's "starved incapacity to eat familial food is suggestive of that winsome predator the vampire."
Auerbach's effort to identify The Mill on the Floss with "the novel of sensation and, more particularly, the Gothic romance" is even more winsome than her readings of Austen. Rather too much significance is attached to "the shadows moving through [Eliot's] mind" when she wrote "The Lifted Veil" and The Mill on the Floss, and rather too little to the differences between Eliot's mind and her material. The short story is indeed a neatly crafted Gothic fantasy. The Gothic "intonations" Auerbach discovers in the novel resonate less loudly than she would have us believe. The Mill on the Floss is centrally an inversion of the domestic novel of manners. As such it bears interesting, if somewhat attenuated, affinities to Gothic romance, affinities well worth exploring within the terms of a female Gothic that might itself be understood as a perversion of the domestic ideal.
The combination of immoderate assertion and undeveloped insight that characterizes the essays on Austen and Eliot is typical of Romantic Imprisonment as a whole. The last two essays in the collection, "Secret Performances: George Eliot and the Art of Acting" and "Ellen Terry's Victorian Marriage," are previously unpublished and represent Auerbach's attempt to "transcend the limitations of literary criticism." Her attempt seems less than successful, but the goal itself is problematic. Writing of acting, on stage and off, Auerbach is herself giving a performance on the "academic stage." If Eliot and Terry created themselves in the "roles [they were] given" and in so doing "personifie[d] romantic imprisonment," Auerbach is doing the same. And if the literary critic fails to acknowledge explicitly that she is acting, she does not fail to claim a star's power to lead "enthralled audiences to the verge of discontent with common experience."
Sex, Politics, and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Novel is even more pretentious than Romantic Imprisonment and distinctly less enthralling. The essays, like those by Auerbach, often read like modern fiction or modern theory even though their subjects are nineteenth-century novels. In spite of its formidable title, Elaine Showalter...