- Literature and Authenticity, 1780–1900: Essays in Honour of Vincent Newey
This collection of essays brings together the work of a number of esteemed literary scholars of Long Nineteenth-Century literature. Whereas other essay collections frequently suffer from a lack of a robust unifying theme this is clearly not in evidence here. Primarily this is because the theme is such a strong and absorbing one, though this is not to detract from the excellent editorial decisions which are discussed in further depth below.
The question of ‘authenticity’ in writing and literature is and has been a key concern of both writers and critics throughout history. There is, however, as is the focus of this collection, something particularly unique about questions of authenticity in Romantic and Victorian literature. The search for authenticity, for instance, seems a central concern of a number of writers, whether it is in pursuit of a ‘real’ linguistic register – as in Wordsworth’s use of a ‘language really used by men’ – or an attempt to invoke historical veracity through para-textual truth-claims as in the footnotes of Byron. Most significantly, a number of the essays in the collection – Nick Roe’s on Keats, Keith Hanley’s on Ruskin and elements of Michael Davies’s on Cowper for instance – concern themselves with questions of biography, autobiography and self-representation. These terms have a resonance that is most particularly felt in the Long Nineteenth Century, especially when we consider that the term ‘autobiography’ finds its first use in the modern sense of the term in a Quarterly Review article in 1809, penned by none other than Robert Southey.
The collection opens with a thought-provoking introductory essay positing authenticity as a creative problem. An inevitable question is raised as to how anything truly ‘authentic’ can appear in a creative work; if authenticity is something an author has to construct or ‘create’, then how can it be more than just a façade of seeming authenticity? As teachers of literature this question arises often, even if it is not always apparent that the question is being asked. One student in a seminar on Coleridge’s ‘This Lime Tree Bower My Prison’, for instance, remarked that the poem appeared ‘spontaneous’ as if it had indeed been entirely written in the effusive moment and in the very lime tree bower of the poem’s title. Yet the existence of several versions of the poem indicates that this perceived spontaneity is something that Coleridge has revised and worked at. The poem is therefore, in fact, not spontaneous at all; it merely offers us seeming spontaneity. Is this ‘spontaneity’, therefore, somehow ‘inauthentic’? Or, on the other hand, are we asking the wrong question and should we instead consider the authenticity or earnestness of the reader’s emotional or critical response to the text?
It is this consideration of such complex – albeit fascinating – issues that underpins the entire collection. Following the introduction, the essays are arranged broadly chronologically by author, beginning with Cowper and ending with Conrad. The essays each focus on a particular named author, or authors, with Abdur Raheem Kidwai’s illuminating essay on ‘authentic’ images of the East in the writing of British Romantic women writers the only exception. Indeed, one of the great strengths of this collection is in its delicate balance of considering different critical styles and approaches while simultaneously managing to consider writers across the span of the period.
One gets the sense that no particular critical approach is favoured over any other and yet this is not to the detriment of the coherence of the collection as a whole. Indeed, whereas Michael O’Neill’s essay on Wordsworth’s influence on Shelley, for instance, takes an aesthetic or formalistic [End Page 195] approach, Keith Hanley’s approach in his essay on Ruskin appears to engage strongly with current theories of space and place as well as elements of psychoanalytic criticism. Despite these differences, both essays work very strongly within the collection...