Every book, I suppose, has the author’s surreptitious hopes as well as the clandestine meanings which are the preserve purely of readers. In Scott-land, I wanted – as well as all the stuff I’ve been blethering on about – to re-map the Romantic Period. Part of this post was spurred by receiving a copy of the York Notes Companion to Romantic Literature, which exemplifies the traditional, and, I think, restrictive version of the period’s historical production.
Romanticism, as it is widely taught, is the Big Six and the Fab Four: poetry is represented by Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron and Keats, and the novel by Jane Austen, with Anne Radcliffe, Maria Edgeworth and Mary Shelley as lesser luminaries. The poets are all vatic, inspired, concerned with the natural world and, in their early days, radical politics, emotionally sincere and effusive and usually remarkably lacking in humour. In this picture, Byron’s masterpieces are Childe Harold, Cain, Manfred and The Corsair, rather than Don Juan, The Vision of Judgement. The novel is perfected by Austen, with Radcliffe and Shelley tainted by the gothic and Edgeworth seen as a talented observer whose achievements paved the way for Gaskell. It’s – again, with the exceptions of Byron and Edgeworth – a very English movement. But Scott was the most famous author of the day, and in the fastness of Haworth Parsonage, the Brontes were reading the Edinburgh Review and Blackwood’s Magazine. In my picture of Romanticism, many of the most interesting and lively writers are those who have endured the calumny of posterity by daring to be unimpressed by the poets in particular. In place of these writers, I’d argue that Scott (and Hogg, and Galt) were surrounded by a witty, irreverent, radical group including the critics Jeffrey, Brougham, Lockhart, and John Wilson.
The two people who did most to perpetuate the idea of the Big Six and the Fab Four were Francis Palgrave, the editor of the Golden Treasury and F R Leavis, author of the Great Tradition. His initials, by the way, stand for Fucking Reactionary, I think. Palgrave’s massively influential anthology make lyricism equal to poetry: narrative poetry, satire, the poetry of argument and didacticism all went out the window. It was a weepy, etiolated, pious, silly book, and every image of the poet as a Fotherington-Thomas type skipping through the bluebells derives from this fey and folderol-y book. The arguments of F R Leavis can be summarised as “shit I like ain’t shit”. His morbid, po-faced and proscriptive ideal, of a novelist of Utmost Moral Seriousness, leads him to winnow literature down to Austen, Eliot, James, Conrad and the eugenicist defective D H Lawrence.
Going back into the period and seeing the wealth of experimental, scrappy, contentious, brave writing in this period makes Wordsworth maundering on about nests seem a poor reflection of what was being achieved. As John Wilson wrote in Blackwoods: “The London people, with their theatres, operas, Cocknies &c &c are wholly unintelligible out of their own small town. The truth must be told them – London is a very small and insignificant place. Our ambition is, that our wit shall be local all over the world”.