[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. — Katherine Miller Weber]


Illuminated initial S usan Wolfson is not afraid to profess the study of literature. Her impressive body of work has reasserted the claims of close reading and formal literary values in the face (or the wake) of New Historical and other forms of social, materialist criticism which have tended to reduce poetic texts to the socio-political arguments that can be based on--or against--them. Yet she does this not in simple reaction to what has become a very prevailing trend in the field of Romantic criticism, but with a keen alertness to the moral issues raised in Romantic poetry, especially when they involve the status of women, and particularly women writers, then and now.

The present book takes a further step in this direction by investigating poetic language and feminist issues. Its procedure is highly intertextual, reading texts back and forth, for and against, each other. Launching her book off against the not-so-old shibboleths of Romantic art as single, solitary and subjective (and masculinist), she steers toward her "interactive" goal: literary forms of "social being." She distinguishes her "interactive" criticism from four other kinds of intertextual criticism: 1) the general or common sense of the term, "that would capture and consume the illusion of the author" ; 2) Helen Vendler's subtle stories of "lyric intimacy"; 3) those recent examples of critical study that emphasize professional and personal collective and/or collaborative literary action (such as Jeffrey Cox's recovery of a "Cockney School") ; and 4) the more professional publishing worlds illuminated in Jack Stillinger's "report on Romanticism, and much else, in Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary Genius [1991]" (1). While she allows all these paradigms to be "brilliant, proximate, and relevant," her own interest is in "cases of a writer coming to self-definition as 'author' in connection with other authors--whether on the bookshelf, or in the embodied company of someone else writing, or in relation to literary celebrity." Her instances, she says, are neither autonomously self-determined, nor authorless-ly intertextual, nor in a broad sense socially determined. Instead, they are "distinctive instances where a Romantic 'author' gets created, as a literary consciousness, in a web of reciprocally transforming and transformative creative subjects--in what I term interaction" (2). All of the Romantic authors she studies are women--Charlotte Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft and Dorothy Wordsworth, pre-eminently--with the partial exception of William Wordsworth, whose authorial coming-to-consciousness is shown to be significantly indebted to his sister's.

This study of "literary consciousness" makes for a linguistically very rich, dense critical prose, whose manner and conclusions Wolfson defends in terms of her own critical oeuvre: "proof emerges from the fine grain of reading, and reading against the grain--reflecting my conviction, from my first publications on, that irreducible events of language, as they are read and debated, written and revised, reviewed and received, constitute our most fundamental resource for describing Romantic culture" (9; my italics).

As an only partially reconstructed New Critical reader myself, yet one frequently identified with New Historical practices, I am sympathetic to these goals and methods. But I found Romantic Interactions challenging, as it intends to be. It exemplifies a species of "language criticism" (by analogy with "language poetry"), seeming to take the "linguistic turn" where language itself, rather than specific authors or texts, becomes the principal entity under examination. Yet it is not deconstructive criticism, where metaphors inevitably betray meaning. It seems instead "re-deconstructive," where all kinds of instances of language work to proliferate, deepen, and extend meaning, forcing us, precisely, to re-evaluate authors and texts.

In her acknowledgements, Wolfson praises the resources of the Princeton University library, adding that "though I retain my affection for, interest in, and scholarly reliance on the material book, my research has been greatly assisted by on-line access to page-image reproductions of many, many out of print and otherwise rare books," citing particularly ECCO (Eighteenth-Century Collections Online), Google Books and all its institutional partners, and the Romantic Circles website. These new resources are very important for a book like this one, since they enable the author to trace texts, allusions, quotations, variations, editions, lines, spelling and other textual features almost infinitely backwards and forwards in time. Indeed, more than the method, these resources might be said to provide something of the motive for such a finely-grained linguistic study. Wolfson frequently uses the metaphor of the web, appropriate both to her method and her re-conception of her field, as containing "vast and eventual harmonies of interaction" (2, paraphrasing Emerson), in which "authorial self-recognition takes shape as a reciprocal formation in a society of formations" (8).

Wolfson's critical manner is demanding. In her first chapter, which traces the "politics of allusion" in Charlotte Smith's The Emigrants (1793), she shows how Smith challenges masculine poetic authority even while also challenging (masculine) political authority in the 1790s "revolution" debates--from the vulnerable position (then) of a woman commenting on "male" affairs. Smith alludes to many male authors, but these allusions are not signs of her own authorial dependency; rather, as Smith uses them, she "vexes her textual field to effects more disruptive and confrontational: a sustained interaction with tradition and history that issues a politics of literary form" (17). Wolfson examines many inter-layered, or inter-acting, allusions, going back through Thomson to Pope and thence to Shakespeare, Milton, and Homer. Citing what Smith was reading at one moment or writing to Joel Barlow at another, Wolfson also deftly weaves in what the reviewers said about the poem and how they differed on questions of politics and female authorship; she also explains how Smith's efforts differed from those of Hannah More and Fanny Burney in the same cause (i.e., relief for French clergy fleeing the revolution). In addition, Wolfson explicates Smith's internal footnotes with in-textual commentaries and footnoted/endnoted explanations of her own. It gets a bit dizzying at times.

In re-reading the portions of The Emigrants that Wolfson quotes, I do find it more impressive than I had heretofore (though I always thought it quite good), but not perhaps for the reasons she adduces. We are shown so much going on in the intertexts and paratexts of the poem that we (or I) tend to lose sight of the poem itself--even though Wolfson is less concerned with "the poem itself" as a critical construct than with the poem as a field of literary interactions. In one five-page account of these allusive interactions, Wolfson shows how Smith adapts Milton's famous simile, "As one who long in populous City pent" (P.L. 9.445), from one illustrating Satan's sense of natural refreshment at seeing Eve (compared with "the hot Hell" behind and within him), to more socio-political aims: "As one, who long / Has dwelt amid the artificial scenes / Of populous city ...forgets all taste / For Nature's genuine beauty." Such a one has so " long ...liv'd where Despotism hides / His features harsh, beneath the diadem / Of worldly grandeur," that even slavery seems "slavery no more." As Wolfson says, "Smith's intensifying rant is a massive political recasting of Milton's grand epic simile for Satan's self-torture" (40). Later on, Wolfson observes, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Keats would summon up the same simile in its simplest sense; contrasting urban miseries to their rural vacations, they would make it "a hallmark of (male) Romantic alienation, rehabilitating its bearer, Satan, from moral villain to modern psychological hero" (39)--an evidently limper use than Smith makes of it. And not only that, Smith's re-modeled simile "sharply" differs from earlier eighteenth-century adaptations by Edward Young and William Cowper, who use it in religious or psychological arguments, respectively. "Steeped in Milton and Cowper, Smith casts the protagonists in her version of the simile (a layered interaction) as only degenerate, with no claim to heroic narrative, no claim to pathos" (42)--that is, the pampered nobility lurking numerously among the emigrant French clergy. Thus Smith is shown to be more liberal politically and more independent poetically than several male poets who allude to Milton. By means of the many turns Wolfson charts in this one extended textual interaction, Smith asserts and confirms her authorial independence in the midst of social being--that is, the rapidly shifting English reactions to the French revolution at the time of the poem's conception and publication, 1792-93. Wolfson's readers are left to decide the extent to which a politically turned use of Milton's epithet is more "independent" than religious, psychological, or naturalistic uses of it.

Chapter Two, "Mary Wollstonecraft Re:Reading the Poets," is a tour de force of Wolfson's linguistic criticism and to my mind the best one in the book, for it enables Wolfson to look through Wollstonecraft's eyes at the texts she read. Analyzing Milton's Eve in the Vindication, Wolfson writes, "Wollstonecraft invents what we now call feminist criticism: a resistant reading of argument and its ideological grain; sharp attention to language and its cultural information; and a reflection on herself as both victim and theorist of male prejudice" (69). Wolfson probes not only Wollstonecraft's well-known works but also her early, preparatory ones, such as Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) and her anthology, The Female Reader (1789). In the latter, Wolfson suggests, Wollstonecraft anticipates her criticisms of Milton's Eve in the Vindication, presenting her selections with a sort of deadpan proleptic irony, "without a critical blink, in a centaine dose with a nonce title, 'Conversation Between Adam and Eve on Going to Rest'" (70). That is, a "dose" of a hundred lines of Milton in which we, if not perhaps the female reader of 1789, might sense the coming critical revolution. In a sense, Wolfson sees more than Wollstonecraft sees, or at least more than she shows, for with the linguistic resources at her disposal, Wolfson can furnish all of a sentence from which Wollstonecraft quotes only a phrase, can more fully contextualize a few lines of poetry she alludes to, and can accurately recover some words that Wollstonecraft slightly mis-remembers, even correcting her punctuation and capitalizations and her (or her printer's?) page placements. And since each text can be taken to imply all of every other text it refers to, the "turns of literary action" can become very sharp indeed, not to say dangerously slippery. Wolfson is thus enabled to know what "stay[s] in Wollstonecraft's head," because she has all the texts readily available. Given those texts and the undeniable evidence that Wollstonecraft read them, it is difficult to disagree with the points Wolfson makes. For me at least, the form or manner of assent is more of an atmosphere or general hum of nodding agreement than a firm recognition of a concrete point crisply established. Yet Wolfson's thesis is never in doubt: that Wollstonecraft's "adroit textual tactics" with Milton (90), a kind of literary jiu-jitsu, enable her both to criticize his caricature of woman and simultaneously to defend her own claims to author-ity.

In the more straightforward Chapter Three, "The Poets' Wollstonecraft," Wolfson considers how Wollstonecraft was treated by a dozen Romantic-era writers ranging from Barbauld to Hazlitt. Wolfson handily disposes of her chief detractors, Richard Polwhele and T.J. Mathias. But she also discovers some good defenders in John Henry Colls's A Poetical Epistle addressed to Miss Wollstonecraft (1795) and William Roscoe's unfortunately little-known satiric ballad, The Life, Death and Wonderful Atchievements of Edmund Burke (1791). Yet even Wollstonecraft's best defenders, we know, were nervous about the besmirching effect of her reputation, so badly set forth by Godwin in his Memoirs. Wolfson usefully reminds us of just how long the anti-Wollstonecraft line of rhetoric and argument survived and thrived, right into the 1970s and the first wave of the "women's liberation" movement. Women writing on the liberal (let alone radical) side of the question in the 1790s were vilified far worse than men, thanks to the ready reservoirs of misogyny which were already being topped up in response to much milder proponents of equal--or at least better--treatment for women.

Chapter Four is about Wordsworth and "the Pregnant Words of Men's Passions." Since "strong passion" might confuse readers' sense of "proper sexual identity" (114), Wordsworth and Coleridge insisted on the manliness of their poetry so as to ward off possible criticisms for its effeminacy from Francis Jeffrey and others. Nowadays feminist critics (Wolfson instances Anne Mellor and Marlon Ross) see Wordsworth as aggressively masculine, but as a result we may tend to overlook and undervalue the number of female characters in his poetry, as well as forget what his contemporaries thought of it (116). In place of this aggressively masculine Wordsworth, Wolfson defines the Wordsworthian "Poet" as one not afraid of passion, though guarding and distinguishing his passions from effeminate sentimentality.

But, against all this protection, Wolfson writes, "across the poetic structuring of Lyrical Ballads (text) issue affinities of impregnated passion that press against any sure artifice of gender difference" (122). Wolfson uses lots of embedded verbs and verbal forms like this: affinities "issue" across structures to press against unstable implied critical arguments. (In vulgar language, as Fielding might say, the sentence could be recast as, "some of the poems in Lyrical Ballads make it hard to say that Wordsworth consistently follows the apparent masculinist program or bias of his 1800 Preface").

As a case in point, Wolfson chooses "Strange fits of passion." Here, she says, "Wordsworth lets us see that language as much as anything generates this cry" [of the speaker]: the Latin linking of Lucy to light underwrites the sudden drop into a fate feared of her" (122). As this highly subtle reading goes on, I wonder who is accomplishing this. Wordsworth? Or the English language? Wordsworth "lets us see"...that it's not just him, but language working through him? And is it the Latin root of "Lucy" that, "as much as anything," precipitates the moon's dropping into the lover's fears? Maybe so, but I would have thought more was at stake here. I feel sure "Lucy" would have too.

Chapter Five, "William's Sister," is a two-part meditation on Dorothy's various roles in the inspiration and creation of her brother's poetry. First, against recent arguments that Wordsworth's masculine "egotistical sublime" radically subordinates Dorothy, Wolfson contends that this is not simply the case (as distinct from "simply not"). Instead, she shows that we can find in William Wordsworth's poetry plenty of "wild flashes" from Dorothy's presence and imagination, if we follow the many textual trails that bear her prints. Wolfson tracks Dorothy mainly through a many-layered reading of "Nutting." Besides noting changes in its vocabulary over its several lifetime editions, she closely reads the draft manuscripts from the Cornell Wordsworth, its allusions to Shakespeare, Ariosto, Spenser and Milton, and its recycling through a secondary text like the Rev. Joseph Hines's Selections from the Poems of William Wordsworth, chiefly for the Use of Schools and Young Persons (1836), in itself and as reviewed by Mary Jane Jewsbury. The main sticking point in the long-running critical argument about the role or presence of Dorothy in the poem is the apparently condescending moralizing coda addressed to the "gentle Maiden" who suddenly appears on the scene at the end. In Wolfson's revisionary reading, following the poem's "turns of literary action" in or upon these inter-texts, Dorothy appears here not as Nature's "calming" agent, the role she is usually thought to play in Wordsworth's creative mythology, but rather as "a fiction of difference written over a knowledge of common passions" (163).

Having secured this revisionary defense of Dorothy's presence in Wordsworth's poetry, Wolfson goes on the offensive, actively arguing that Dorothy's creative gifts stand apart from their very often unacknowledged appropriation by her brother. Writing of the potential that DeQuincey saw in her writing, Wolfson contends that "no small part of this potential was Dorothy's evident genius, for writing against, and in alternatives to, the forms and forces of her brother's imagination" (178). The primary proof-texts here are Dorothy's journals, especially the well-known passages which supply much of the imagery and emotion of poems like "I wandered lonely" and "A Night-Piece." But Wolfson also makes maximum use of the possible grammatical ambiguities throughout the journal: "After Tea I wrote the first part of Peter Bell--William better"; "I wrote the 2nd Prologue to Peter Bell ...After dinner I wrote the 1st Prologue"; I wrote the Pedlar and finished it," and so on, through many such instances. "To me" (concludes Wolfson) "these are creditable records of conversation and collaboration across a difficult period of writing, refitting 'disaster' [of The Pedlar] (Grasmere Journal 73), and anguished, then productive rewriting. The poetic work is intensely interactive ...The journal is not just a record; it is also a medium of interaction" (166-67). I take her point, and acknowledge that it would be hard to establish it in any other way.

Chapter Six, "Dorothy's Conversation with William," continues this argument, again in two stages. The first asserts (though that is a stronger verb than Wolfson's procedure usually admits) that William's "purchase" on "masculine tradition" is not as firm as it is often reputed to be, especially by feminist critics arguing for his discouraging influence on Dorothy's writing. And the second, corollary to this, is that Dorothy did not feel it this way, but rather wrote in ways "that are neither abjectly nor oppostionally 'feminine,' but diversely--and interactively--Wordsworthian" (185).

Generally speaking, one can see and say that Dorothy's imagination moves in more communal, nurturing ways, as contrasted to her brother's more alienating and solitary directions, including his often-under-remarked self-doubting challenges to himself. But rather than speaking "generally," Wolfson lets her thesis emerge from the suggestive accumulation of variations she can trace between Dorothy and William's echoing allusions-with-difference to and from each other's texts, such as his "Home at Grasmere" and her "Floating Island at Hawkshead."

The chapter concludes with a finely detailed reading of Dorothy's Narrative concerning George and Sarah Green (1808), about the poor Lakeland (Easedale) couple who fell to their deaths when returning home over the fells from a visit to Langdale. Again Wolfson stresses the communality of Dorothy's language, including her use of the plural "we" instead of an authorial "I" when speaking for the committee of village ladies who undertook, very successfully, to provide for the Green's six orphaned children. But at the same time Wolfson reads Dorothy's narrative across its own grain. In Sarah Green's dependent situation (the Greens were about to be forced to sell their land anyway), Wolfson suggests, or in her daughter Jane's now-actual dependency, Dorothy might have seen fore-shadowings of her own dependent fate among her brothers. The relatively happy outcome of the accident for the Green children (they got better educations than they might otherwise have had) does not obscure hints that "the Greens' fall could have been hers" (203). She might have fallen literally, since she was once lost in the mist at nearly the same place where they fell. But also, and more interestingly, she might have fallen figuratively. By implicitly comparing herself to Margaret in "The Ruined Cottage," Wolfson suggests, Dorothy prompts us to remember what critics from DeQuincey onwards have said about the poem: that Wordsworth's Wanderer could have done more to help Margaret himself.

My summaries of these arguments are inadequate to Wolfson's method, which is anything but summary. Instead, she prefers to advance by suggestive indirection, almost always by adding now one, now another, of textual variations from both William's and Dorothy's poetry (and prose), from manuscripts, different editions, direct or indirect quotations from and allusions to other writers (Goldsmith via Radcliffe, for example), letters, journals and so on, bringing in other authors (DeQuincey, Lamb) as needed. Still, the conclusions, when they finally arrive, are firmly on-thesis: "[Dorothy] will set herself up as author in a language of community, and in a community of language." (199)

At times, this method requires (at least for this reader) a long suspension of assent while the trains of suggestive association are being laid down. It is almost never a line of authorial intention, but rather almost always one of linguistic implication, and questions of chronology are not admitted (for example: 'when did this imply that, and how does the implication change when another text or variation is cited later on?') A (force)-field of language is being mined, with relatively less attention to the path we follow or create in doing so.

A particularly intense example of this procedure is Wolfson's reading of the phrase, "the numbers came," from Dorothy's "Irregular Verses," which were sent in response to a request for some of Dorothy's poetry made in 1829 by the daughter of Jane Pollard Marshall, who had been one of Dorothy's childhood friends. The "numbers" phrase echoes "poetic numbers came" from the 1805 manuscript of The Prelude (I.160), "which in turn echoes the poet of Paradise Lost" ("Harmonious numbers," 3.38). But "Dorothy's phrase inhabits inhibition ...attracting an even nearer, no less self-defeating allusion" to Pope's Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot: "I lisp'd in Numbers, for the Numbers came." But Pope was encouraged by his father, whereas Dorothy feared "even the mild maternal smile," which "to own the truth, / Was dreaded by a fond self-love" (Wolfson, 184). I wondered what biographical facts, if any, such language might point to, but Wolfson doesn't speculate about it. Instead, she cites a "routine" footnote in Pope's Works by William Warburton ("that Dorothy would have known"), which reports Pope's father's words as, "These are good lines." Thus, the linguistic synapses fire across each other to reinforce the inference that Dorothy's numbers came, if at all (she said) "by chance," and that her uncertainty and diffidence about authorship were worlds away from her brother's "mounting Will"--a pun that Wolfson points toward both Dorothy's "underscored desire" to be a poet and her "unrealized volition" to achieve it.

But Wolfson argues for diversity in the two Wordsworths' interaction, against a critical tradition that "at least up to the 1970s" devalued Dorothy's poetry as " 'beguiling' but not 'interesting.'" The critics she cites as taking this line, Douglas Fadem, Elizabeth Hardwick, Rachel Brownstein, and "early [Pamela] Woof," are all said to follow the terms "set" by DeSelincourt in his 1933 biography of Dorothy. But even as she challenges these earlier critics, revising the valuations of William and Dorothy made by her precursors in feminist criticism, she is circumspect and generous in stating her differences: "As my conversations indicate, [Margaret] Homans's and [Susan] Levin's work on Dorothy Wordsworth has been foundational to my own" (324).

The book's final two chapters are "Gazing on 'Byron': Separation and Fascination" (Chapter 7) and "Byron and the Muse of Female Poetry" (Chapter 8). As Wolfson indicates, they are less about Byron than about "Byron," the cultural image, and a wide range of female readers/writers who responded to, revised, and re-created it, from Anne Milbanke, Caroline Lamb and Joanna Baillie to Felicia Hemans, Elizabeth Barrett, M.J. Jewsbury, Laetitia Landon, Caroline Norton, Emily Bronte, culminating in, "with high transatlantic controversy," Harriet Beecher Stowe.

By moving beyond a simple binary of male domination versus female subordination/subjugation, Wolfson carefully differentiates her work from that done by some of her colleagues and predecessors in Romantic feminist criticism. In this respect Romantic Interactions recalls her earlier work in defending formal literary values from historical reductionism (Formal Charges: The Shaping of Poetry in British Romanticism). Her finely grained linguistic and textual method is well suited to this aim, and also to her concerns for the "social being" of "the turns of literary action" in criticism as well as poetry, since it enables her to suggest differences without seeming to enforce them. Wolfson moves very cautiously over very detailed textual ground, registering small, incremental variations in texts that have perhaps been read with too much head-on polemical vigor, or not enough (inter)textual knowledge. But to the extent one appreciates its method, the larger claims of the book are persuasive.

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Susan J. Wolfson Romantic Interactions: Social Being and the Turns of Literary Action. Johns Hopkins, 2010. xv + 381 pp.

Last modified 21 December 2023