- A History of Romantic Literature by Frederick Burwick
Wiley-Blackwell, 2019. Pp 544. $130.
A History of Romantic Literature is a prodigious work of scholarship and synthesis. It is different from previous histories, such as Warren Breckman's recent compact textbook European Romanticism: A Brief History with Documents (2015) or Robin Jarvis's The Romantic Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature 1789-1830 (2004), which is organized around topics like "Travel," "Education and the Family," "Religion and Science," and supplemented by brief biographies of individual authors and a chronology. Burwick's contribution is more capacious and richer than these and previous works, and it contrasts also with historian Tim Blanning's The Romantic Revolution: A History (2011), which centers on philosophy and aesthetics, presenting Romanticism in art, music, and literature as a revolt against Enlightenment rationalism. Burwick's work is also very different from Jerome Christensen's Romanticism at the End of History (2004), which defends Romanticism as a social and ethical movement and suggests how it is relevant in the twenty-first century. Burwick's contribution is both different from and complementary to all this work, including numerous collections of independently written essays and many short histories and reference works.1
Burwick's register is wide and deep, and his writing non-disputatious. Rather than asking how Romantic-era writers could be deployed in today's culture wars, Burwick endeavors (in his own words) to describe Romantic writers' "interactions with their communities and with one another, as well as their response to major events of the day" and to reflect on their "notions of history and historiography" (1-2). Appreciation is found everywhere in the History, but not proselytization, apologia, or rejection of a particular view of Romanticism—except reductionism, which this work resists in form and substance. Burwick's focus is on networks ("assemblages," he calls them, adapting a term from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari) of poets, philosophers, novelists, activists, actors, and politicians that formed and reformed, influencing each other and the course of history. Describing interactions among so many groups and individuals across so many years, literary genres, and national boundaries—while also taking into account their own belief systems—is a huge undertaking. Burwick has accomplished the task with great distinction.
Burwick has written extensively on German-language philosophers and writers, continental and London theatre, mimetic theory, stage illusion, madness, Shakespeare, and the publishing industry in Romantic-era culture. [End Page 235] His History is enriched by numerous references to this base of knowledge, and to the careers of clerics, playwrights, actors, publishers, painters, engravers, and lesser known writers, like the dissenter William Frend, who was part of Coleridge's circle along with George Dyer. A large smorgasbord of topics is covered. For example, Burwick deals with the popularity of improvisation, the influence of periodicals in Romantic-era life, educational reform in men's and women's writing, interpretive nuances introduced by dramatic and operatic adaptations of novels, children's literature, and salon culture. The History also covers female authors to an extent generally exceeded only in works like Anne K. Mellor's Mothers of the Nation (2002) and Romanticism and Gender (1992), or Angela Keane's Women Writers and the English Nation in the 1790s (2000). Austen, Edgeworth, Barbauld, Smith, and Wollstonecraft are repeatedly discussed, sometimes with telling allusion to their male contemporaries: "In December 1792, about the time that William Wordsworth was returning from his year in France and leaving behind Annette Villon pregnant with his daughter Caroline, Wollstonecraft arrived in Paris determined to observe at first hand the progress of the Revolution" (27). Burwick's strong interest in the stage and visual arts is exhibited in many interesting tidbits of information, and these often connect to female figures of the era. For example, he notes that Blake illustrated the second edition of Wollstonecraft's Original Stories from Real Life in 1791, and that in 1792, as Blake was engraving his illuminated works, religious visionary Joanna Southcott "assumed the role of the 'woman clothed with the sun' beneath 'the great red dragon' (Revelation 12)," which led Blake...