Susan J. Wolfson’s Romantic Interactions makes a strong case for feminist literary criticism as applied to the Romantic era poets and writers. Wolfson acknowledges the efforts of great literary critics such as Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, and Harold Bloom, but indicates that their “male-invested paradigms, however instructive, are restricted by their own assumptions about what kinds of relations mattered” (5). She indicates her own position as follows:
Since one conduit of my argument flows from women as political
and cultural interpreters (Smith and Wollstonecraft), thence to a
woman interpreted by and then interpreting the century’s most
honored Romantic poet (Wordsworth and Wordsworth), and
finally to how several women poets interpret the other most
celebrated poet of the Romantic era (Byron), it will help, too,
to review some key perspectives in gender criticism… (5)
These gender-infused interactions between the major and minor poets of the era serve as the basic building blocks of the book and, conversely, one vein of her central argument.
Romantic Interactions also poses an interesting idea of reciprocal reliance of poetic (and authorial) interaction among that same group. Writers to not write in a vacuum and most, who answer honestly, will admit that their writing is and has been influenced by the writing of others. This seems to be such a simple idea, yet it is one that is often overlooked when exploring canonical greats in English and American Literature. Wolfson describes the second vein of her central argument (i.e., reciprocal reliance) as follows:
My argument in Romantic Interactions, then, is that authorial self-
recognition takes shape as a reciprocal formation in a society of formations,
that it is continuously challenged by this field, and that it is best revealed
not in categorical rhetorics, but in specific sites and textual reflections of
complex interaction. Correspondingly, 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 these
are read and debated, written and revised, reviewed and received,
constitute our most fundamental resource for describing Romantic culture” (9).
She indicates in her opening paragraph that the Romantics “all speak at times as if in alienated solitude, socially and existentially” (1). They did, however, have frequent points of convergence and created some of the best known writing circles in literary history. Wolfson indicated that these writers were “aware of bringing into being an audience, one often made up of other authorial voices – whether being allied or oppositional” (1). Thus, Wolfson does not intend to weave a web of connections, but rather to unveil the interrelated, reciprocal interactions that were there all along.
Wolfson uses a careful, close, and often manipulative, against-the-grain reading of Romantic poetry and prose to advance her dual arguments of feminist criticism and reciprocal reliance. I say that Wolfson manipulates her against-the-grain reading of the Romantics because I feel as if she reaches a bit too far with some of her analysis, often trying to make a square peg fit into a round hole. She reads Charlotte Smith’s The Emigrants through the lens of feminist literary criticism to the extent of indicating that Smith’s work is “a drama of gender criticism, set within literary tradition and history, that is inseparable from political reflection” (59). She also argues that Smith’s work “managed at least one ‘supervention of novelty’ that did not occur to” the wit of literary giant, T. S. Eliot, in his critical work, Tradition and the Individual Talent (59). I do not argue that Smith’s work cannot or should not be read in a feminist light, but rather argue that it can be equally read through the lens of Marxist criticism or even psychoanalytic criticism for that matter. To make the charge that a work is only “a drama of gender criticism” is a far reach and to claim Eliot’s wit as inferior approaches literary blasphemy.
Another example of Wolfson’s overreaching with her feminist literary criticism is her declaration that Mary Wollstonecraft invented feminist literary criticism. Wolfson makes her declaration with:
On the text of Milton’s Eve, Wollstonecraft invents what we now call
feminist literary 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).
Is it possible to unintentionally invent a literary school of thought? Wollstonecraft did approach literature, poetry, and issues uniquely female through the lens of a female sentiment. However, does that qualify her to be the inventor of feminist literary criticism? Why not Charlotte Smith or any one of the Blue Stockings? I do not doubt the prejudice that all of the women in the Romantic era endured at the hands of men, nor do I doubt the fact that countless female poetic voices may forever remain silent due to cultural obstacles, but I do doubt the finality with which Wolfson approaches feminist literary criticism.
The second vein of Wolfson’s argument (i.e., reciprocal reliance), however, is a strong one and well supported, even in the haze of her feminist literary criticism. She discusses, at length, the interactions between William and Dorothy Wordsworth. She indicates that Dorothy is, more or less, William’s “alter ego” (152). This indication is rightly made as her fingerprints can be found on many of William’s works both as subject matter and in authorial function as well. Wolfson writes about William and Dorothy’s interactions along this line:
The poetry that William Wordsworth wrote in her company, sometimes
about her company, amasses an archive that exposes, at nearly every turn,
interactions that vex his sense of poetic priority and thus his poetic
authority. If this dynamic does not add up to a revolution in male manners,
its turns and counterturns are acutely attentive to what Dorothy was doing
and writing, often at William’s side, in pregnant alternatives to his
While I hardly think that William’s interaction with Dorothy is a “revolution in male manners,” I do believe that their interaction cannot be artistically separated without the degeneration of both parties. Their work is so intertwined that if one were to erase her influence and authorship in William’s life and work that many of the subtle nuances that are recognized as essentially Wordsworthian would disappear completely. Unfortunately, this co-dependent relationship destroyed Dorothy’s chance at individuality, being eclipsed by the male Wordsworth. Wolfson describes this phenomenon:
Dorothy’s interactions with William’s imagination lead her to quarrel with
herself after all. A Narrative – the closest she ever came to setting herself
up as “Author” – opens into a logic of narrative, of what story to tell, of
what story narrative authority can, or can’t help, bring forward. The
abjection that Dorothy Wordsworth felt from identity as Author or Poet
is due in part to the proximity of William and in part to cultural obstacles.
But it also arises from her own vivid imagination, which, like his, is prone
to ponder the fragility of its deepest devotions and the vulnerability of its
most cherished ideals (207).
However, I argue that Dorothy may be among the luckiest of the female Romantics. She is forever remembered as William’s right hand and his poetry carries her DNA and fingerprints. In true Romantic fashion, she is destined to never be forgotten, but never remembered for her own work.
Reciprocal reliance takes a dark turn in Romantic Interactions at the end with an exploration of Lord Byron and his harem of a fan club. Byron is examined through the eyes of those who adored him from afar, loved him in his bed, and hated him for all of it. According to Wolfson, his largess touched the likes of the following notable women:
First and foremost was Anne Isabella Milbanke (by late 1815, Lady Byron).
In the whirl was her cousin (Byron’s former handful of a lover) Caro Lamb;
her friend (and erstwhile Byronist) Joanna Baillie; and in years to come,
Felicia Hemans, Elizabeth Barrett, M. J. Jewsbury, L.E.L., then Lady
Blessington, Caroline Norton, Emily Bronte, and with high transatlantic
Controversy, Harriet Beecher Stowe (213).
Wolfson indicates further that “Byron gave ears to rapture, spawned antitypes and parodies, and wound up, paradoxically, writing the book on author as neither sole proprietor nor absolute monarch of what happens under his name” (213).
In conclusion, Wolfson makes a great argument for reciprocal reliance among writers, especially among the Romantics, but, in my humble opinion, overreaches in her argument for feminist literary criticism during the same time period. It is difficult, if not altogether unfair, to apply the morals of the 21st century onto the delicate complexities of the 18th century. Wolfson rightly divines the purpose and my conclusion with the following: “Romantic Interactions at once acknowledges the power of this myth in the prestige of ‘Romanticism’ and refracts it through a countervailing dynamics of interaction” (1). She proves that we are all influenced by what we read and with whom we make contact: be it for good, bad, or ugly.
Wolfson, Susan J. Romantic Interactions. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.