- Romantic Women Writers and Arthurian Legend: The Quest for Knowledge by Katie Garner
Katie Garner’s Romantic Women Writers and Arthurian Legend is a meticulous study of the subject between 1770 and 1850 in Britain. It builds soundly on findings by previous bibliographers, and it incorporates a great range of research from the last thirty years [End Page 93] covering the Arthurian Revival, antiquarianism, the Gothic Revival, romanticism, readership, travel writing, Welsh studies, gender studies and women’s writing.
The introductory chapter outlines the background. As this period witnessed ‘an unprecedented number’ (pp. 1–2) of women entering print, and as many of them wrote about Arthurian subjects, Garner focuses on the ways in which women accessed the Arthurian legend. The Arthurian Revival in the late eighteenth century had required a wider and more coherent knowledge of the Arthurian story than was current. As manuscripts of medieval literature were virtually unknown, and as Malory had been out of print since 1634, the Revival depended on research by modern antiquarians. These were men, who moved in male cultural circles, and their findings were often published by antiquarian book clubs which denied membership to women. Even though the British Library was open to women, few made use of it, presumably because of social constraints. Moreover, Arthurian material was widely considered ‘immoral’ and unsuitable for female readers. Despite, or because of, these obstacles, women found other ways of becoming familiar with the Arthurian story and created a ‘distinct form’ (p. 10) of female Arthuriana. Garner’s five chapters make an intricate analysis and balanced appraisal of these issues.
Her second chapter (‘Arthuriana for the “Fair Sex”’) highlights the bowdlerization of reading matter for women, and their wish not to appear overly emotional, hence their shift to ‘history’ rather than ‘romance.’ Male scholarly domination was partially offset by three female historians. Radagunda Roberts, for example, contributed a series of articles about Queen Consorts in the The Lady’s Magazine (1775) and included Guinevere among their number. Although Roberts’ source was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (a key text at this time), she re-assesses Guinevere’s role in a far better light. Susannah Dobson’s Memoirs of Ancient Chivalry (1784) drew on untapped medieval French sources, especially the Vulgate. And Clara Reeve’s The Progress of Romance (1785) influenced surveys by Walter Scott, John Moore, and Anna Barbauld. Undoubtedly many women were heavily indebted to Bishop Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which included six Arthurian poems and an essay on metrical romances, but his three-volume edition was expensive. An anonymous lady’s solution was Ancient Ballads (1807), which was cheaper but simpler (by omitting Percy’s footnotes) and also more ‘moral’—it was meant for ‘young ladies’ (p. 50)—by censoring ‘The Legend of King Arthur’ and omitting ‘The Boy and the Mantle.’ However, this edition was read profitably by Louisa Stuart Costello, prompting her poem ‘A Dream,’ a visionary glimpse of King Arthur, and thereby ‘highly symbolic of women’s compromised proximity to medieval texts’ (p. 53). But a key text, Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, would become cheaply available in two editions in 1816 (with a dearer one in 1817), and a close knowledge of Malory was revealed by Costello, Caroline Norton, and Charlotte M. Yonge. Yet Malory remained unread by most women, perhaps because it was considered ‘a re-assertion of masculinity’ (p. 56). Their Arthurian focus would lie instead in Gothic verse, travel narratives, and literary annuals.
Chapter Three (‘Women’s Gothic Verse and King Arthur’) points to the connection between medieval and modern romance, citing Sarah Scudgell Wilkinson’s ‘Gothic [End Page 94] trash’ (p. 73) chapbook tale, Sorcerer’s Palace, whose hero, Sir Lybius, is a reworking of the medieval Libeaus Desconnus, which Wilkinson had taken from Percy’s ‘Essay on Metrical Romance.’ A male antiquarian inspiration for women’s verse was Thomas Warton’s...