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JONAS COPE “A Series ofSmall Inconstancies”: Letitia Landon and the Sewn-Together Subject Constancy is made up of a series of small inconstancies, which never come to any thing; and the heart takes credit for its loyalty, because in the long-run it ends where it began.1 T he preceding epigraph appears in letitia Elizabeth landon’s first “Silver Fork” novel, Romance and Reality (1831). At first the passage seems to refer primarily to romantic relationships (one “heart takes credit for its loyalty” to another heart), and to suggest that no lover is ever quite faithful to his/her partner in a strict and absolute sense. But Landon is a writer who tends to blast all essential categories out of existence. Her liter­ ary corpus suggests that not just constancy in love, but constancy itself is theoretically impossible. To be “constant” to anything—a lover, a moral or intellectual ideal, a sense of self—is simply to be abortively inconstant to it. And this is especially the case with traditional, high romantic notions of subjectivity. For Landon, the self is little more than a sewn-together con­ struct (fondly imagined as an organism) whose stitched fissures are conve­ niently and perennially ignored. In this sense Landon is the voice of her literary epoch. Consider the fol­ lowing description of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) and its famous monster: Frankenstein . . . questions the very idea ofnature. ... In the sense that [the creature’s] existence subtends our personhood, he figures forth an essentialist view of nature. But insofar as this nature is abject and its 1. Letitia Landon, Romance and Reality, ed. F. J. Sypher (Delmar: Scholars’ Facsimiles and Reprints, 1998), vol. 3:111. SiR, 52 (Fall 2013) 363 364 JONAS COPE stitches are showing, this “essence” includes arbitrariness and supple­ mental'!ty. . . . He is a horrific abject that speaks beautiful Enlighten­ ment prose.2 Not only Shelley’s novel but much of late-romantic British literature runs the risk of being overshadowed by critical emphasis on its derivative char­ acter. As Timothy Morton points out concerning the creature itself, any work in which “the stitches are showing” seems to lose its claim on au­ thentic, essential being. Yet, at the same time, it provokes meditation on the arbitrary and fluid nature of identity. Critics have long emphasized the “stitched together” aspect of late romanticism at the expense of its dy­ namic, experimental pluralities. The stories they tell about late romantic lit­ erature (especially poetry) tend to rationalize the neglect to which the pe­ riod has been subject, rather than enable its recovery. Lionel Stevenson refers to the “third decade ofthe nineteenth century” as an “amazing hiatus in English poetry,” a time when romanticism proper becomes “vulgar­ ized.” Virgil Nenroianu observes that “the 1820s and 1830s seem an embar­ rassment to the historian of English literature.” The writers of that period (Nemoianu studies Byron, Keats, De Quincey, Peacock, and Scott) tend to produce a “lower romanticism” reliant “on other sources and on rewrit­ ing.” Herbert Tucker sees the poetry of the 1820s as domesticated, full of “home and its attendant tropes,” as an art once exotic but now primarily an affair ofthe “hearthside or the parlor table.” For Daniel Riess the texts pro­ duced in these decades tend to resemble commodities, written “amid the ever-increasing commodification of literature and the visual arts.”3 Vulgar­ ized, diluted, domesticated, commodified—the literature of the period hardly stands a chance. Scholars should not be so quick to characterize British literature in the 1820s and 1830s as the intellectually aimless stuffofa second-hand romanti­ cism. Many works written in these decades are powerful critiques of ro­ manticism. What unites them is a shared interest in renegotiating the high romantic model of subjectivity as a coherent, organic, and transhistorical reality—a model that several authors of this period neither quite discard, nor accept as inherited. When we attend to this collective critique, a new and exciting constellation of attempts to remodel the romantic subject emerges. Some recent critical accounts illuminate this new field ofpossibil2 . Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Cam­ bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), 194. 3. Stevenson, “Miss Landon, ‘The Milk...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 363-387
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-19
Open Access
No
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