- The Artistry of Exile: Romantic and Victorian Writers in Italy by Jane Stabler
Jane Stabler's book is a new journey in a familiar area: the Italian experience of the Romantic and Victorian authors who were exiles rather than mere tourists in the peninsula. Today, in a time of mass migration, "exile" is a word brimming with pathos. In the introduction, Stabler discusses the problematic definition of the term, pointing out how hard it is to establish a clear distinction between exile, refugee, emigrant, expatriate, and tourist. It is certainly impossible in the case of the two groups of writers analyzed in the book, the Byron-Shelley circle and the Brownings, who played each of those roles at various times. Stabler acknowledges that they were privileged exiles, despite the challenges involved in living abroad.
The focus of the book is, in fact, not life but art: that is, how exile shaped these authors' poetics and writings. Nineteenth-century critics argued that the style of these writers changed for the worse as a result of their long residence in Italy. As the argument went, the influence of Italy accounted for the un-English character of Don Juan or The Ring and the Book, be it the cynical wit of the former or the arcane subject and intricate style of the latter. Challenging this idea, Stabler documents the notion that exiled writers often develop a poetics of hybridity, both in style and subject matter. In particular, the foreign linguistic context modifies their sense of their mother tongue—a fact that she partly illustrates in Chapter 7, focusing on the music and sounds of Italy. It is one of the most interesting parts of the book, and more examples from the poems would have made it even more intriguing.
The other chapters focus on some significant aspects of the various experiences of exile, beginning with how the younger Romantics and the Brownings organized, in practical and literary terms, the early phases of their lives on the continent. The comparison with two scandalous exiles and outcasts, Caroline of Brunswick and Lucrezia Borgia, puts the experience of these writers in an interesting [End Page 159] historical perspective, of which they were fully aware (Chapters 1 and 2). Life in Italy was not always what the English imagined. Classical ruins, fine weather, and low prices were indeed available as promised, but on the other side of the coin there was political repression, social inertia, and poverty. Roman Catholicism was perhaps the prickliest issue. It is significant that several British exiles were drawn to it aesthetically while they deplored it ideologically, an attitude that characterized their response to other aspects of Italy, too (Chapter 3).
With the exception of Byron, the other exiles left England with the intention of establishing isolated utopian communities, and had no real interest in integrating into a backward and, to them, awkward society. On the contrary, these utopians found in the merry company of Boccaccio's Decameron an inspiring model for a freer society, which was an aestheticized, elitist version of what was left of revolutionary ideals after the Congress of Vienna (Chapter 4). Dead things are easier to deal with, if only because they cannot answer directly.
History, in the individual-centered form of Plutarch's Lives, was their next concern. Chapters 5 and 6 discuss the intricate ways in which Byron, Landor, and Browning used history to criticize contemporary politics and society. Their undertaking was complicated by the conflicted relation they established with their public, which they sought to both attack and allure at the same time. One might argue that they were the first to discover how the modern bourgeois reader is attracted by writers who attack him or her. The nature, methods, and aims of these assaults should perhaps be investigated anew once we have recognized the complicity between the two supposedly hostile parties.
"Exile" is a word that endows a writer with a halo of moral superiority. In such cases the liberal consciousness automatically assumes that there...