- Byronic Heroes in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing and Screen Adaptation by Sarah Wootton
Lord Byron's challenges to normative gender roles have for decades drawn the attention of preeminent scholars, although much pre-1990s scholarship depicted Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, and George Eliot as essentially anti-Byronic. Sarah Wootton's impeccably researched study corrects this response to Byronism by showing how these major figures drew upon Bryon and his works to explore and often contest prevailing theories of masculinity. "This approach does not seek to collapse creative distance or expunge difference," Wootton notes. "On the contrary, this revisioned Romanticism encompasses the conflict between writers such as Austen and Byron, acknowledging that indebtedness and even admiration often involves dissension as well as harmony" (p. 32). The introductory chapter includes a thorough overview of Byron and "the Byronic," summarized as "both manly and effete, a superhuman overreacher and a coxcomb" who "simultaneously epitomized diverging strands of masculinity in the nineteenth century, drawing attention to and challenging 'normative' gender roles" (p. 18). The extensive Notes and comprehensive Bibliography provide an impressive range of scholarship on all principals, on their Romantic and Victorian influences, as well as on screen and film reviews and film criticism.
Austen, Gaskell, and Eliot, along with such prominent spokesmen as Matthew Arnold, Thomas Carlyle, Friedrich Engels, John Stuart Mill, and John Ruskin, "recognized the revolutionary power of Byron's poetry, a lyric mode of dissent that spoke to a prevailing mood of disenchantment" (p. 22). Wootton distinguishes between the outspoken criticism of "Byronism" as representative of "the poet as a misanthropic poseur" and these writers' capacities to praise "an authentically heroic voice that sympathised with the subjugated and satirised social hypocrisy" (p. 22). Wootton astutely distinguishes between male writers (singling out [End Page 178] Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Benjamin Disraeli) who "sought in Byron a model of gender self-fashioning to secure literary success and enhance a political profile," and, by contrast, those women writers who "found a model of masculinity to refashion or reform" (p. 19). In the filmic remakings, however, "Byron functions as shorthand for sexual intrigue in screenplays that are anxious to 'enhance' the appeal of nineteenth-century heroes for a modern audience" (p. 23).
Chapters 1 and 2 focus on Byronic heroes in Austen's Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, Persuasion, and Pride and Prejudice. In "rehabilitating the Romantic hero," Austen proves to be a "critically astute reader of both Byron's poetry and the Byronic persona," willing to differentiate between Byronism "as a cultural trend associated with extravagant posturing and exhibitionism" and her own "meaningful understanding" that Byron's poetry "sheds light on the subtler emotional shadows cast by her central characters" (pp. 91–92). Gaskell's response to Byron has received less critical attention, but Wootton demonstrates that in Wives and Daughters and North and South, Gaskell "does not shy away from the disruptive potential of Byronic rebellion," and that her fiction features influences of Wordsworth and Byron that together reveal "a passionate and political individualism" (p. 102). Two final chapters address the Byronic figure in Eliot's early works and poetry, and in Daniel Deronda and Middlemarch. Wootton convinces that Eliot's interest in the Byronic hero and Byronism "grew rather than contracted" over her career (p. 170), by revealing Eliot's views of Byron alongside those of other Romantic poets to whom she was drawn. Specifically serving to "situate Eliot's literary relationship with Byron in a broader context of Romantic legacies" (p. 134), this critical approach extends the appeal and overall significance of this study to those interested in other poets, writers, and aspects of Romantic influences and legacies.
Foremost, the Byronic hero's "embodiment of paradoxical personae—including, among others, the rake, the dandy, the devoted and diabolic lover," provided an incomparable opportunity for women writers to "engage with and contest contemporary gender ideologies" (p. 21). This intrigue and critique extend to interpretations for the screen, wherein, among many examples, Richard...