- The Domestication of Genius: Biography and the Romantic Poet
In 1977 Roland Barthes famously proclaimed "the death of the author" in an essay bearing that title. Julian North's new book suggests that, Barthes and his post-structuralist company notwithstanding, interest in authors and their lives continues largely unabated. Jane Austen is not the only Romantic-era writer whose life has become the subject of films; the Shelley circle, and more recently John Keats, have been brought to the wide screen. Popular literature has even endowed some of these writers with new fictional lives, as Stephanie Barron has done in her series of Jane Austen mysteries. Once authors became celebrities in their own times (Byron, Scott, Hemans, and Landon, for instance), their lives held ever greater interest for a public as eager to "consume" the writers themselves as their published works. Indeed, one of North's many interesting observations is that while by the end of the Romantic era, in the 1830s, publishers had grown ever more loath to publish new volumes of poetry, they were feeding growing numbers of biographies into the market. Readers were increasingly curious about the lives of the poets, which they often found more accessible-and consequently more engaging-than those poets' verse. North examines the biographical afterlives of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Hemans, and Landon, tracing the dynamics of this trend in cultural curiosity.
During the Romantic era, what we now think of as "moral" considerations were being contested by artists and their publics alike in some distinctly [End Page 377] "modern" ways. Byron's famously scandalous conduct made it ever harder to separate the poet from his creations, whether characters like the Giaour or Childe Harold. Of course, Byron's original intention to call him not Harold but Burun speaks volumes about Byron's own gleeful complicity in this blurring of the proscenium arch. But there was also Letitia Elizabeth Landon, whose eye-catching initials, "L. E. L.," kept so many young men (especially) guessing about both her identity and her appearance before she was publicly identified. In other words, the cult of celebrity to which the period's appetite for biography contributed so dramatically was in many respects a cultural phenomenon by means of which people-"the public"-sought to possess the poets not just as writers, but more importantly, as people. Indeed, people like themselves.
And there lies Julian North's central thesis. Romantic-era biographies reflect an inherently democratizing effect that lessens the gulf separating the poet as celebrity and the reader as ordinary citizen. Today's culture exhibits a comparable phenomenon, especially when it comes to the foibles and the "downfalls" of celebrities ranging from sports and rock stars to politicians. When such celebrities "stumble" and expose their unexpectedly human frailties and moral or ethical shortcomings, the satisfaction that so many feel stems at least partly from people's delight in recognizing that the stars are in fact very much "like" any one of us. That recognition lowers the celebrity's status at the same time it raises our own; this leveling is inherent in the sort of Romantic-era democratizing about which North writes.
But there is much more. As North demonstrates, some familiar canonical poets-Wordsworth and Coleridge, for example-were decidedly chary about having their own "lives" revealed, and they were quick to condemn biographers of themselves and of others for showing them, warts and all. This engagingly humanizing effect of the biographer's art, however, North argues, has clear connections to the emerging bourgeois consciousness of Regency and early Victorian culture. This consciousness required among its luminaries a clearer and more discriminating "moral compass" than it found in many of the public celebrities from the years before George III's death in 1820. It was no accident, for example, that the Prince Regent and his circle were repugnant to so many who much preferred the domestic paradigm provided by the Regent's daughter, Princess Charlotte Augusta, and her charismatic husband, Prince Leopold. They offered an attractive domestic...