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SEL Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42.4 (2002) 837-884

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Recent Studies in the Nineteenth Century

Andrew Elfenbein

Inevitably, my fantasies about this reviewing process (serene quiet; leisurely contemplation; pithy condensations of evaluative wisdom) have come up against tougher realities (hectic schedules; huddled masses of books; sinking feelings of arbitrariness). I have become particularly aware of how meager a metavocabulary we have for describing the act of critical evaluation itself, on which we nevertheless depend as a discipline. "Objective," "subjective," "neutral," "engaged": these words are depressingly crude descriptors for the array of mental grooves, personal relationships, institutional determinants, and future dreams that coalesce to enable the uncomfortable act of judging the work of those one has never met. Given this lack, I prefer to let my critical biases remain implicit, although I will include some generalizations about what I read at the end of this essay.

SEL's word limit put tight constraints on my instinctive chattiness: there was no room for editions; journals; reprints of previously published books; books that were not primarily about nineteenth-century British literature, history, or culture; or books that were not likely to acquire a large audience. I found it especially hard to do justice to the problematic genre of the collection of essays. These tend to work best when they have an obvious focus, as in a single author or even single work. Those with broader scopes are so diverse that they rarely lend themselves to easy summary: apologies in advance to all those I will not be able to acknowledge. [End Page 837]

Romantic Literature:
General Studies

I use "romantic" cautiously in this subheading because so many recent critics have been eager to disown it. And yet, the actual work being done preserves a sense of the distinctiveness of the historical span from roughly the 1790s to the 1830s, even if "romantic" no longer seems an adequate adjective for it. While it would be easy to dismiss this distinctiveness as an epiphenomenon of institutionalized, disciplinary habits, it is hard to counter the pile-up of evidence that argues for the sheer onslaught of the new during these years, even if this onslaught no longer gels into a coherent romanticism.

In terms of bringing newness to the period, Philip Connell's Romanticism, Economics, and the Question of "Culture" is among the most distinguished contributions that I received. In recent years, the intellectual life of the 1790s has gripped scholars of the period. Yet it has often seemed that, after the turn of the century, Britain's intellectual life shriveled into stale repetitions of familiar positions. Connell's book thoroughly revises this picture. His overall case resembles Stefan Collini's arguments about the Victorian period: Raymond Williams's division of the century's thinkers into utilitarian liberals versus romantic anticapitalists caricatures the actual complexity and interrelations of their positions. Connell makes a similar case for the earlier part of the century by turning to the complex, ambiguous influence of Thomas Malthus. He has an extraordinary grasp of the rapidly shifting tides of public opinion that could make the 1798 Essay on Population a blessing for conservative readers and the 1805 edition a radical threat to national loyalty. He also finally gives Jeremy Bentham his due in his relation to the Leigh Hunt circle and Percy Shelley's thought. Most important, he foregrounds lesser-known but widely influential writers from the period such as Thomas Chalmers, who argued for the Christian virtues of free trade yet recognized the corrupting effects of urbanization, and Samuel Bailey, whose Essays on the Formation and Publication of Opinions believed in the "affective power of literature to create a truly communal sense of identity" (p. 111). Connell may slight material that supports the traditional view of romantic anticapitalism, and he disappointingly ignores most women writers. Nevertheless, by tracing an intellectual history that until now has been invisible, Connell makes one of the year's signal contributions to scholarship.

In Mothers of the Nation: Women's Political Writing in England, 1780-1830, Anne K. Mellor locates the newness...


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