Fashioning Authorship in the Long Eighteenth Century brings together disparate reading practices influenced by art history, book history, literary theory, close reading and twentieth-century philosophy, to analyse three poet-celebrities ranging from the early eighteenth century to the late Romantic period: Alexander Pope, Mary Robinson and Lord Byron. Egan focuses on a key publication from each of these poetic careers: Pope’s 1717 Works; Robinson’s Poems of 1791, which transformed her from a ‘washed-up actress to one of the most successful and prolific authors of the 1790s’ (p. 123); and the fourth canto of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1818). The first section of the book is mostly theoretical. Early parts, such as Chapter 2 on ‘the theoretical analyses of eighteenth-century visual culture and self-representation’ and Chapter 3 on the ‘material practices and conditions from which such [poetic] editions arise’ (p. 61), sometimes feel unrooted and ponderous. Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean Luc Nancy are invoked, but their application to the argument beyond a vague one to do with the concept of the plural book is limited. When Egan eventually turns to analyse the collected poetic edition or single-author collection, he lists ‘fissures in the myth of the unitary book’ that offer clues as to the ‘contingent and collaborative nature of early eighteenth-century book manufacture’ (p. 65). These include a blind imprint of type from one page to another and the bleeding of ink from one page from its facing page. Such ‘preliminary elements’ are discussed with recourse to Gerard Genette’s well-rehearsed paratext as a ‘threshold’ (p. 68), an allusion that invites architectural metaphors about books as buildings before the conclusion that ‘bleeding ink, mispaginations, and blind imprints…would have suggested to the eighteenth-century reader that the single-author collected works is very much a plural entity, its plurality founded on complex manufacturing processes, and on communication and collaboration among human agents with potentially divergent needs and interests’ (p. 69). The difficulties and pleasures of this book reside in the leaps it makes between such macro and micro readings. A discussion on the use of blank space in eighteenth-century books as derived from French and Dutch printing extrapolates, thus: ‘One compelling narrative to be read in the letterforms and zones of typographical isolation that populate French-influenced books designed by London booksellers in the early eighteenth century, I suggest, is the story of the punctual self that emerges from such blank spaces, a cultural residue or mark of self-origination’ (p. 100). Such an abstraction is then grounded ‘in the particulars of a concrete object’ with reference to one page from the quarto edition of Pope’s 1717 Works (p. 78, signature X) to test whether ‘the sensory fullness’ of such a page can represent ‘a new construction of subjectivity’. A curling brace used on this page to link together a triplet rhyme is subject to all sorts of speculation about the overlapping of the visual and the literary, but even the author himself admits that the symbol’s appearance is also ‘ostensibly unremarkable’ (p. 102). Yet there is a nice discussion in this section concerning contemporary notions of poetic decorum, particularly debates surrounding the use of triplet verse, which is precise and convincing. Such focus on one particular visual element (the brace) points to the book’s lack of comprehensiveness, and one wonders about the significance of perhaps more noticeable features, such as printers’ ornaments (listed in the index but not subject to in-depth discussion). Janine Barchas’s important book, Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel (2003), is not listed in the Bibliography, despite its relevance to arguments about the visual elements of eighteenth-century books and their relation to what Egan terms ‘performative self-assertion’ (p. 106). The book’s strongest chapter is on Mary Robinson, as it most describes and captures the fundamental dichotomy of the fashionable poet-celebrity, who is both dependent on dubious public fascination with authorial autobiography (always the most salacious bits) and wary of such uncontrollable readings. Robinson’s penchant for masquerade and performance is read alongside typographical innovation in her printed Poems by her bookseller John Bell, whose ‘ideological leanings and design principles’ (p. 133), and his marketing of Robinson as both woman of fashion and of genius, converge with Robinson’s own sense of self-display. The discussion of her book as an expensive luxury object and a vehicle of revolutionary politics is fascinating (though the interpretation of the double-ruled lines of other editions as embracing ‘a Cartesian rectilinearity’ (p. 143) felt excessive). Byron is the odd one out in this selection to the extent that until late in his career he mainly eschewed the use of images of himself as frontispieces to his works, which itself suggests much about his conflicted sense of self-representation. Egan’s inclusion of Byron is, as he admits, ‘inevitable’ (p. 168). Nevertheless, his intervention into debates about Byron’s relationship with celebrity by recent critics such as Tom Mole and Ghislaine McDayter adds to our understanding of Byron’s sense of poetic fame and its manifestation in the varied formats of the material printed products of his literary output, most noticeably the ‘pre-industrial book’ (p. 191). Egan’s contention is that unlike Pope and Robinson, ‘Byron’s detachment and absence from his readers […] characterize[s] the mode of authorial self-representation that is evident in his books’ (p. 181). Yet Egan’s ending to his book, where he recognizes the paradox of Byron’s lack of visual self-representation in his earlier publications alongside their flagrant public performance, is oddly rushed. The book’s argument requires some final bringing together of its threads and a greater sense of conclusion. The criteria of selection of Pope Robinson, and Byron raise questions about the stylish biases to which Egan’s own book is subject. There are obvious omissions in such a highly selective thesis that are understandable up to a point. Part of Egan’s argument is based on links between fashionable genius and moral disorder; yet there is no inclusion of Adam Smith’s important argument on this very subject in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). Perhaps, more importantly, there is no mention of Samuel Johnson, who in various places reflects upon the idea of the fashionable author-genius (as well as its inverse, the failed man of letters), and was regarded by his contemporaries as the ultimate (resolutely unfashionable perhaps) literary celebrity. It is a pity to overlook such an obvious cultural commentator and a link between the era of Pope and that of Robinson and Byron. Again, the discussion of Mary Robinson might have benefitted from comparison with a collection like Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets (1784), in which the author fashions herself as a poetic genius in a very different tenor to that of Robinson and reflects upon notions of poetic inheritance, originality, and both introspective and public readings of poem and poet. Fashion is, as Egan perceptively comments, about ‘the sensual, the conditional and the particular’. This is an intriguing book that makes many convincing points about negotiating the divergent pulls of writing serious poetry and playing the fame game. But it is limited in its wider sense of authors’ and their works’ place within a specific milieu and oeuvre. Fashion is by definition presentist; the challenge of writing about it is to capture those first intentions in a way that is both textually located and imaginatively responsive. © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 6, 2018
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