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17 Mapping Political History Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Nineteenth-Century Historiography Simon Av ery • Elizabeth Barrett Browning criticism has often been a fraught and highly complex site of struggle. Lauded and condemned in her own day for her individual,challenging,and often anti-establishment works,Barrett Browning was reconstructed in the modernist period as the frail heroine of The Barretts of Wimpole Street to the extent that she came to occupy, as Virginia Woolf famously wrote, the “servants’ quarters” of the mansion of Literature (Woolf 134). Lost from the literary canon throughout much of the twentieth century whilst simultaneously mythologized in a whole range of literary,dramatic,and media forms, she has subsequently become one of the heroines of feminist criticism over the last twenty years and has been slowly recovered and re-read through various theoretical frameworks as one of the great voices of nineteenth-century poetry. “How shall we reconstruct thee? Let me count the ways.” EBB would probably not have been surprised by the ways in which history has reshaped both herself and her work for various ideological ends. For throughout her life, she was acutely aware of the power of history—of the ways in which the past impacts upon the present, how contemporary events parallel past events, and how the past is manipulated as a political tool. Indeed, the formidable program of self education that she constructed for herself—a program that allowed her mind, as she noted in her 1831–32 diary, to“roll itself out, as the chart of a . . . voyager” (Diary 93)—had as one of its foundations the works of many historical writers from the classical period to the midnineteenth century, including Sallust, Herodotus, Machiavelli, Edward Gibbon, Charles Rollin,William Godwin,William Mitford,Thomas Paine, Edward Burke, George Miller, Mme de Staël,William Leake, Colonel Stanhope, Frederick North Douglas, John Bigland, and Edward Bulwer Lytton. Certainly, history fascinated EBB and remained a lifelong interest which she would interrogate continually in her own poetry and prose. In this essay, then, I explore how EBB engages with history in her work and in particular how she engages with various nineteenth-century models of history and contemporary thinking on historiography and historical metanarratives . By considering a range of her works, I suggest that her understanding of history and historiography was not fixed but shifted throughout her career victorian review • Volume 33 Number 1 18 as she sought to employ the past for different ideological and political ends. Moreover, I suggest that she became more cautious and wary about the power of history as a political tool as time went on. Indeed, this is particularly true of her post-1844 writings when her initial optimism about the idea of progress became much more tempered and qualified. For EBB, history would always be a complex and multi-faceted discipline. EBB began her career as “Poet laureat [sic] of Hope End,” as her father named her,1 at a time when ideas about the nature, role, and function of history were rapidly changing. Enlightenment writers such as Voltaire, Giambattista Vito, Immanuel Kant, and David Hume had sought to employ the objective and impartial methods of the recent revolutions in science—and particularly the natural sciences—in order to analyze human society and historical development.Yet, as Arthur Marwick notes, the concept of history became far more complex and unstable following the great revolutionary upheavals of the end of the eighteenth century, when it became “no longer possible to believe in the unchanging character of human behaviour, or in the immutable nature of social institutions” (29). Certainly the French Revolution brought a new emphasis on nationalism and secularism to historical writings, as evidenced , for example, in the anthropological, linguistic, and cultural history work of Johann Gottfried von Herder. Moreover, as the impact of the Industrial Revolution began to be felt, the relations between past and present started to be reconstructed and reinterpreted in diverse and intricate ways. Indeed, as Jacob Talmon notes, the early 1800s witnessed an unprecedented “flowering of the historical discipline” (101) in response to the often traumatizing sociopolitical events of the period. In recent years, New Historicism has reminded us that history is never...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1923-3280
Print ISSN
0848-1512
Pages
pp. 17-33
Launched on MUSE
2015-10-07
Open Access
No
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