- Romantic Identities: Varieties of Subjectivity 1774–1830
In this lucid, wide-ranging, thoughtful, and thought-provoking book, Andrea Henderson argues against identifying romanticism with depth models of subjectivity. With Wordsworth as her foil, she illustrates how many different conceptions of selfhood coexisted in the decades before and after 1800. The introduction briefly outlines the entire argument and should be read even by those planning to look at only one of the subsequent analyses. In the first chapter Henderson traces the depth model itself to obstetrics. According to earlier conceptions of fetal development, the person is “preformed” either in the egg or in the sperm and develops in accordance with patterns given to “it” from outside. But the late eighteenth century saw the rise of epigenetic theory, which attributes development to the independent impulses of the fetus. Some plates from William Hunter’s 1774 Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus vividly illustrate the increased recognition of the individuality of what was now called the unborn “child.” Birth, however, remains a mystery that was more fully reflected upon by female midwives and poets than by men. With Kristevan abjection as a conceptual frame and the sewing shut of the mother’s vagina at the end of Sade’s Philosophie dans le boudoir as the most extreme image of the conflict of interest between maternal possession and filial autonomy, Henderson lays out interesting complexities of romantic inwardness. “Hunter’s focus on fleshy nature and the epigenesist’s model of an internally motivated embryo served as diversionary tactics: birth was prevented from appearing to be a form of production controlled by women (the mother and her female assistants) because it was figured instead as the work of a mysterious nature and a willful fetus. But behind the diversion still loomed a system of economic relations that perpetually threatened to make a child merely a commodity in a world of commodities” (37).
Though rooted in an ideology of nature, the depth model was thus far from natural. The second chapter traces some of its tensions in the development of the gothic novel. In Hume, Adam Smith, Mackenzie, and Burke, identity is torn between family and social relations, heredity and individual action, or, in economic terms, between use value and exchange value. Gothic novels then reflect the fluctuations between intrinsic and relational identity. The gothic novel further takes on a theatrical cast, so that “you are what you do” tends toward “you are the show you put on.” There is no truth, only shadows and veils. Gothic novels dream of recovering the body but can’t legitimize what is not altogether either natural or social; consequently, corporeality turns unstable and is subject to violence.
The remaining three chapters continue the story past 1800. As Bichat’s theory of tissues (and French physiology in general) referred life to its corporal locations rather than to its symptomatic expressions, so Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon destroys family or race and institutes place and local environment as factors determining identity, subject to resistant self-affirmation. Percy Shelley’s Cenci counters Wordsworthian lyricism with self-dramatization leading to tragic exposure, while Mary Shelley’s Mathilda absorbs both poetry and drama into narrative, but only from a posthumous perspective. Finally, Scott’s Heart of Mid-Lothian begins with circulating identities, then transits the genres described earlier in this book in order to arrive at a colonial-patronage model of identity. As the epilogue then shows, even Wordsworth is not blind to alternatives, for The Borderers exposes the deceits that can pass for deep truth.
Romantic Identities is very much a thesis-driven book. Each chapter reviews several competing models of identity and demonstrates the establishment of one of them. Its strengths lie in the range of materials and in the refusal to oversimplify. Each scientific or philosophical discourse engages a distinctive model of identity; individual practitioners or thinkers adopt distinctive stances toward the issues; and literary works both reflect the debates and, in [End Page 365] some cases, productively reflect upon them. The book is a welcome picture...