Biography 26.4 (2003) 737-740
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"Romantic biography lives." So begins this timely and provocative collection of essays, and indeed, a preliminary check of my library catalogue reveals the epidemic to be more rampant than I had even suspected. In the last five years alone, no fewer than forty biographies of major romantic-period literary figures have hit the press. We've had Andrew Motion's Keats, Miranda Seymour's Shelley, Claire Harman's Burney, Diane Jacobs's Wollstonecraft, and G. E. Bentley's Blake, not to mention Kenneth Johnston's sexed-up Wordsworth, Benita Eisler's bad-boy Byron, and seemingly everybody's dear Jane. Romantic biography lives, all right. Or rather—with Mary Shelley—it's alive.
This mass-consumable form of literary scholarship has its costs, though, and the essays in Romantic Biography commendably draw this fact to our attention. Twenty years have passed since Jerome McGann, as the editors repeatedly stress, urged scholars to write historically and self-consciously situated criticism, and thus avoid the trap of allowing the romantics to shape their own reception. This book self-consciously heeds that injunction, using history as a lens through which to re-read biography as a preeminent site for reifying romantic norms. Romantic life writing, Arthur Bradley and Alan Rawes argue in their introduction, "remains historically, philosophically and ideologically indebted to the period it tries to recover" (xii). But unlike academic criticism, biography reproduces these views for a mass audience, straddling the boundary between the Ivory Tower and Borders. That's what makes literary biography, like the "literary film," so titillating for academics, and yet so intellectually dangerous.
Romantic Biography pays much-needed attention to this phenomenon. Its eclectic essays discuss the use of biography to read romantic poetry (by Michael O'Neill), the figuring of Keatsian biography as a discourse of the body (by Jennifer Wallace), and the impact of deconstruction on biographies of Shelley and Byron (by Arthur Bradley). The editors score a coup in enlisting three recent, major biographers: Jonathan Bate (biographer of John Clare), Mark Storey (of Robert Southey), and Kenneth Johnston (of William [End Page 737] Wordsworth). Their essays appear consecutively early in the collection, and crystallize its central issues. Bate, for instance, argues that "the intimate but sometimes deceptive relationship between the 'I' of the poems and the life itself" is a central biographical preoccupation (19): "The biographer needs to recognize that the relationship between the life and the work is real but complex" (25). Storey, discussing Southey's poignant poem "His Books" ("My days among the Dead are past"), notes the "strange contradictions" it presents to the biographer:
In flitting amongst the ghosts of his library [Southey] ceases to exist except, possibly, as a future memory. To be alive, paradoxically, is to be with the dead. . . . [I]t is the dead who have and who give sanction, and it is only when we have achieved a niche in posterity that we have proved ourselves. As living beings, more often than not, we are nothing. (45)
And Johnston, reflecting on the lessons of The Hidden Wordsworth, tells us that he "had underestimated how much readers had invested in protecting" his subject, "even if this investment meant only not wanting to disturb their familiar image of an all-too-familiar poet" (52). Between them, Bate, Storey, and Johnston are Romantic Biography's high-point: their appealing prose and thoughtful considerations are not only a gleaming advertisement for their own books, but welcome reassurance that Romantic biography lives, and that it is often in quite good hands.
But not always—and that is where the volume as a whole intervenes. The editors' objective "is to both de-Romanticize and re-Romanticize Romantic life-writing" (xiv). They gloss that latter goal as "a re-situating of biography in relation to the full diversity and plurality of the Romantic period" (xiii). A worthy goal, indeed. But the attempt to squeeze a counterintuitive meaning out of "re-Romanticize" is telling. What...