The study of a writer’s reception was once thought of as ‘the critical heritage’, to borrow the title of a very useful series of books from some years ago. Reception was straightforward: open a book and ye shall receive. Tom Mole’s new study examines the Romantics’ presence in the Victorian era, not as a chain of influential words but as a web of material objects: ‘books of quotations, photographs, anthologies, statues, and postcards’ (p. 25). He argues that the ‘Victorian media ecology’ interpreted the Romantics in unexplored ways and enticed Victorian readers not to forget the works of their grandfathers. To accomplish his aim, Mole makes good use of a number of present concepts—‘appropriation’, ‘generation gap’, ‘retrofit’, and even ‘the dark web of reception’ (pp. 2–4). The proposition that underpins the study is that the Victorian age ‘was arguably the first in which most people expected their lives to be shaped by forces and circumstances that had been unknown a generation or two before. As a result, Victorians felt alienated from even the immediate past’ (p. 13). Thus, something had to be ‘made’ of the Romantics for the Romantics to live. Mole’s clear prose and great learning in the byways of Victorian books, things, and places make What the Victorians Made of Romanticism an important contribution to the debates over reception, contextual historicist readings, and presentism. Mole examines four parts of the media ecology (illustrations, sermons, statues, and anthologies) and looks chiefly at five Romantics (Byron, Hemans, Scott, Shelley, and Wordsworth). Methodological approaches vary from a thick description of a limited number of objects and cases to the compilation of data from a large corpus of Victorian anthologies. The chapters on illustrations astutely examine choices made in republication to retrofit the unillustrated Romantic originals. One case study, for instance, examines how, despite Wordsworth’s own opposition to illustrated books, the new medium of photography was married to Wordsworth’s poems in Thomas Ogle’s Our English Lakes, Mountains and Waterfalls, as Seen by William Wordsworth (1864, 1866). Mole spots ‘touristic’ figures in 1860 s dress in the foreground of the photograph of Brougham Castle and analyzes the effect of their inclusion in Wordsworth’s ‘repackaging’ (p. 61). He also studies carefully the nuances of the various frontispieces and portraits in editions of Hemans and Byron, noting choices of both images and typography. For most scholars of nineteenth-century literature, sermons are terra incognita, and the ‘operating protocols’ of what Mole defines as a ‘religious reception tradition’ (p. 89) are inexplicable. While the story of Percy Shelley’s Victorian reception has been studied, Mole’s chapter on ‘Converting Shelley’ introduces us to the way four religious lecturers/preachers (Clara Balfour, George Gilfillan, Richard Armstrong, and Stopford Brooke) managed with surprising ease to ‘rehabilitate Shelley as a poet that Christians could not only tolerate […] but actively endorse and value’ (p. 109). The other case study has to do with the great Victorian preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon, whose extensive library remains mostly intact, and the use he makes of Byron. While Spurgeon owned the collected works, Mole demonstrates how ‘Byron’s writing was mediated to Spurgeon in contingent and thoroughly overdetermined ways’ and ‘shards’ (p. 127) of the poetry become decontextualized, sometimes misattributed, and unstable. Mole’s study of Spurgeon is a model of effective analysis of the shattering and reconstituting of text in another era, as well as for new purposes. The Victorian monument to Sir Walter Scott in Edinburgh, completed in 1846, still dominates its section of Prince’s Street. For international tourists passing by, it is probably their first introduction to the writer. In Part IV, ‘Statues’, Mole offers a fascinating and thoroughly researched contribution to our understanding of the Victorian cityscape. After tracing attempts going back to the eighteenth century to establish an authoritative ‘Pantheon’ for the British nation, Mole theorizes that the Scott monument and other Edinburgh statues and edifices constitute a ‘distributed’ pantheon, echoed by a cohort in London’s Hyde Park corner anchored by Belt’s statue of Byron, that aided the reinvention of the British nation in the era of Reform. Statues (and mantelpiece figurines) silently gave witness, he argues, to a consensus that was easier to maintain without the problem of selecting words that might be controversial. In this part of the media ecology, objects are antitextual ‘nodes in a pantheonic network that recalibrated the nation’s imaginative geography’. Crucially, Mole shows how Byron and Scott as figures rather than text are replicated ‘in photographs, postcards, and engravings as well as in Parian, spelter, pottery, and silverware’ (p. 180). The final section takes up the more traditional filters for textual transmission, the Victorian anthologies, and their ‘conflicted relationship to other reception traditions’ (p. 189). Mole identifies 210 ‘anthologies’ of various kinds, and analyses in depth how they present versions of Byron, Hemans, and Shelley. He finds that Byron, for instance, becomes a lyric poet in the anthologies, Shelley an apolitical one, and Hemans the author of short pieces for recitation. For each author, long poems are cut up, spliced, and the source of the excerpts sometimes occluded. The Waterloo stanzas from Childe Harold IV become in effect a new poem, as do the opening lines of Hemans’ The Forest Sanctuary. Mole offers two possible ways of thinking about the anthologies. The first, taken instinctively by scholars of Romanticism, is to see their mangling as a travesty, a murder by dissection that gives the Victorians a ‘more earnest and less ironic’ Romantic canon (p. 223). But citing Barthes’ S/Z, Mole also offers a more ‘optimistic’ view: the anthologies present a ‘shattered’ text that makes a new, active reading curated by the anthologist possible. And even as the anthologies ‘made Romantic poems conform to Victorian Media of cultural transmission’ (p. 224), they were unable in the end to control the dissident or threatening elements. Shelley’s ‘old, mad, blind, despised, and dying King’ (‘England in 1819’) would not remain buried. Browning, boy worshipper of the sun-treader Shelley, published in 1855 a lyric in which an encounter with a man who ‘saw Shelley plain’ startles the speaker, an event he relates analogically to crossing a ‘moor’ and finding ‘A moulted feather, an eagle-feather’. The last line, however, is ‘Well, I forget the rest’ (‘Memorabilia’ see pp. 41–42). The Romantic feathers—that is, the many things Mole brings to our attention—staved off oblivion by sampling, silencing, retrofitting, and encouraging Victorians to forget the rest. In a brief coda, ‘Ozymandias at the Olympics; or, She Walks in Brixton’, Mole takes up our present moment, in which quotations from Shelley and Byron were used in the closing ceremonies of the London Olympics, and the stencil/graffiti artist Arofish’s sampling of Byron’s ‘She walks in beauty like the night’ appears in wall pieces around the world. Rejecting ‘bricking up our texts in the contexts of the past’ by trying to read like the Romantics’ first readers, he proposes tracing the ‘unfinished history of exploitation, remediation and curation’ to ‘suggest how the web of reception is still being woven in the present moment of media change’ (p. 231). © The Author(s) 2018. Published by Oxford University Press 2018; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/open_access/funder_policies/chorus/standard_publication_model)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Nov 1, 2018
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