- The Female Romantics: Nineteenth-century Women Novelists and Byronism by Caroline Franklin
The most recent of Routledge’s series Studies in Romanticism is Caroline Franklin’s 2013 The Female Romantics: Nineteenth-century Women Novelists and Byronism. Franklin’s study focuses on the works of female travel writers like Madame de Stäel and Lady Morgan; contemporary female novelists like Mary Shelley, Lady Caroline Lamb, George Sand, and Jane Austen; and, from the generation of female writers that followed the poet’s life, Anne and Charlotte Brontë and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Franklin establishes what many scholars have long believed, that women’s fiction of the early and mid-nineteenth century responded to Byron and his poetry in varying ways, depending on if the woman writer was engaging with the poet as a model for religious, political, national, or sexual freedom. The work is organized chronologically by author and sub-genre, focusing in turn on travel writing, the gothic, oriental tales, love stories, bildungsroman, spiritual pilgrimage, and political crusade. In terms of her methodology, Franklin is predominately a New Historicist / Cultural Materialist, weaving together large-scale cultural studies and history with literary criticism, a common but useful and almost necessary choice when addressing Byron and Byronism as cultural touchstones, which undoubtedly they were. Few authors, male or female, poet or novelist, could boast the world-wide influence Byron wielded at the beginning of the 1800s, whether one considers him the playboy, rock star poet of the 1810s or the George Washington of Greece he became by the 1820s.
Moving through Franklin’s work, the opening chapter, “Aristocratic Romanticism: Women Travellers, Byron, and the Gendering of Italy,” brings things Byronic into dialogue with four female Romantic writers: Madame de Stäel, Mary Wollstonecraft, Lady Morgan, and Anna Jameson. Franklin argues that these women writers, the two earliest ones precursors to Byron with influence on him, challenged the notion of the Romantic genius, usually gendered male, and later dramatized by the poet’s living example.
Chapter two, “‘Thunder Without Rain’: Mary Shelley, Byronic Prometheanism, and Romantic Idealism,” traces not only the influence of Byron, but Shelley’s conception of the Byronic hero as embodied by the real-life example of Napoleon, who also impacted the poet. While most studies would confine themselves to Frankenstein, Franklin also includes discussions on two other novels, Mathilda and The Last Man. The chapter demonstrates M. Shelley’s conflicted and thus necessarily complex responses to Byron, the Byronic, and Bonapartism—not mutually exclusive concepts, but all profoundly influential cultural forces.
Chapter three brings together two different female writers, the famous French lover of Chopin, George Sand, and Byron’s own notorious one-time paramour, Lady Caroline Lamb. Franklin sees them responding to Byron’s Oriental Tale The Corsair in their own fictions, L’Uscoque and Ada Reis respectively. While one might wish Franklin had discussed Glenarvon in more detail considering that Byron appears as Lord Glenarvon and the novel includes a fictionalized account of Lamb’s affair with him, Ada Reis is less written about and responds to The Corsair more directly. Thus Franklin’s choice is understandable, even appreciated. Franklin’s discussion of Sand’s satiric rewrite of Byron’s tale, published after the poet’s death, is informative, interesting, and useful.
“‘The Interest Is Very Strong, Especially for Mr Darcy’: Jane Austen, Byron, and Romantic Love” delivers a long-awaited chapter. Though it seems almost impossible, there are no book-length studies focused exclusively on Byron’s influence on Jane Austen and vice versa. Although no reader could miss Mr. Darcy as a version of the Byronic hero, Franklin adds the consideration that Byron’s Don Juan was “inspired by [End Page 714] the social comedy of Austen’s novels” (5). This is somewhat of a hard sell to readers who instinctively feel the difference between Austen’s sophisticated wit and Byron’s significantly more bawdy humor so spectacularly on display in his mock epic.
The following chapter contains a discussion on Anne Brontë’s second novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which, as...