- Tracing Women’s Romanticism: Gender, History, and Transcendence
If the only effect of Kari E. Lokke’s Tracing Women’s Romanticism: Gender, History, and Transcendence is to send its readers back to the novels of Germaine de Staël, Mary Shelley, Bettine von Arnim, and George Sand that are its central subject, then this carefully reasoned and amply documented study will have performed an invaluable service. The novels Lokke has chosen to examine—Corinne, Valperga, Die Günderode, and Consuelo—offer exhilarating portraits of intellectually, aesthetically, and spiritually developed female characters who challenge received notions of both Romanticism and feminism. To spend a little time (or, given each of the novels’ length, quite a long time) with Corinne, Euthanasia and Beatrice, Bettine and Karoline, and Consuelo is to enter a realm of grand passion and finely articulated thought and to explore a world in which gifted women speak and act in ways that have the potential to transform their historical moments. The novels are projections of their authors’ ambitions and desires, yet they still have the capacity to speak directly to our own.
Lokke’s study, of course, intends—and achieves—more than simply a redirection of our attention to these inspiring (and inspired) books. Like the novelists about whom she writes, Lokke seeks to transform the contemporary discourse of gender, genre, history, and transcendence. With admirable élan, she identifies an international, “cosmopolitan tradition of Romantic women novelists” whose work amplifies and critiques that of their male contemporaries (p. 13). She resists the view of contemporary feminist critics of Romanticism that women, because of their association with “nature, immanence, and the body,” were excluded from the “discourse of transcendence” at the heart of Romantic ideology (p. 2). She also challenges the commonplace assumption that poetry is the “quintessential Romantic genre,” as she definitively places the historical novels and Künstlerromane she analyzes within the mainstream of Romantic aesthetics and historiography (p. 3).
Lokke announces her central thesis in her detailed introduction, “Romantic Abandon.” In the novels she explores, she asserts:
[D]isappointment with Romantic passionate love becomes a catalyst for the cultivation of heightened political, spiritual, and historical awareness. This disappointment becomes as well a synecdoche for disillusionment with (masculinist) Romanticism itself and its obsessions with melancholy, Byronic, Promethean will, and masculinist conceptions of culture and Bildung. For these women writers of Romanticism, Romantic transcendence means not self-aggrandizement . . . but rather an abandonment or dissolution of the [End Page 176] individual self through historical, political, and spiritual efforts that culminate in a revelation of the divinity of collective selfhood.(p. 7)
Transcendence with a difference, then, is the focus of Lokke’s study, as she explores how her “women writers of Romanticism” sought ways to incorporate female sensibility into political, aesthetic, and spiritual agency.
In her second chapter, on Corinne, Lokke recuperates Germaine de Staël’s novel of transcendent female genius from the disappointment expressed by generations of feminist critics and novelists who have been dismayed by the brilliant heroine’s self-abandonment. Corinne’s death, after her betrayal by the melancholic Oswald, does not so much signify a defeat of feminist ideals as her author’s “honesty and courage” in facing “the realities of the social position of the early nineteenth-century woman artist” (p. 53). Lokke insists that the novel has “radical import” in its demonstration of the “ineluctable ties between Romantic melancholy and a patriarchal moral and social order” (pp. 52–53); she uses it to elucidate de Staël’s mature vision of women as “quintessential figures of self-doubling or transcendence” (p. 25).
An ideal of female self-possession or transcendence also animates Mary Shelley’s Valperga: or, The Life and Adventures of Castruccio, Prince of Lucca, an extraordinary historical novel with two extraordinary female characters: Euthanasia, the noble Countess of Valperga, and Beatrice, the inspired daughter of Wilhelmina of Bohemia, a woman who believes herself to be a feminist Holy Ghost incarnate on earth. Castruccio is the Byronic hero whose quest is doomed by his “masculinist visions of power...