Tag Archives: books

Paper Consciousness: Professor Deidre Lynch Performs a “Bookish Ontology” on the Nineteenth-Century Album

Recently the English department at UW-Madison hosted Professor Deidre Lynch of Harvard to present new work that appears to evolve from her last publication Loving Literature: A Cultural History (2015, Chicago UP). You should recognize the guest lecturer as one of the most influence contributors to 19th c. and Romantic studies. Earlier works remain frequently cited in contemporary scholarship, most notably her work on Austen and The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Cultural and the Business of Inner Meaning (1998). In consideration of blog readers interests in book history, archival methods, material culture, and all things 19th c. I’ve provide a brief summary of the talk title “Paper Slips: The Nineteenth-Century Album and Other Misadventures in Book-keeping” and offer comments on how the work Prof. Lynch presented could inspire scholarship to come, or at least re-think what we write in our diaries.

Continue reading Paper Consciousness: Professor Deidre Lynch Performs a “Bookish Ontology” on the Nineteenth-Century Album

“The world’s first instant mashed potato factory,” and other Romantic-era food innovations

As a lover of anecdotes in a field (English) that doesn’t always embrace them in its scholarship, I often come upon delightful details I want to share, but can’t—in my dissertation, at least. So, it makes me especially happy to have the opportunity to write for this blog, as I get the chance to relate all the fun facts I’ve been learning in my food studies-related reading. Today, I’m expanding from my previously England-centric scope to delve into E.C. Spary’s recent book Feeding France: New Sciences of Food, 1760–1815.51Nvpf-pocL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_ Continue reading “The world’s first instant mashed potato factory,” and other Romantic-era food innovations

Review: The Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant by Robert Doran

sublimeAny scholar in any discipline with even a passing familiarity with the Romantic era knows how central the idea of the sublime is to Romantic thought. But exactly what is the sublime? The sense of awe and terror that overwhelmed Percy Shelley’s mind and spirit upon first looking at Mont Blanc? Wordsworth’s epiphany of cosmic truth upon his return to Tintern Abbey? Any number of wondrous and terrible events that befell Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner on his adventures? Well, yes and no. For these are merely descriptions of sublime events, and do not in themselves provide any sort of qualitative definition. Before reading Robert Doran’s sweeping and erudite study, I’m not sure I could have answered this question. To be honest, I still don’t know if I can answer it satisfactorily, since by its nature the sublime has a way of both transcending and subverting things. But Robert Doran’s The Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant at least provides a rich and detailed map of the the subject, and even if the map isn’t exactly the territory it’s still invaluable to a scholar of Romantic ideology. Continue reading Review: The Theory of the Sublime from Longinus to Kant by Robert Doran

Juvenilia: The Syllabus!

I’ve been musing for a while about how much fun it would be to organize a class for undergraduates centered around the theme of creative writing by youthful authors.  Perhaps because of the Romantic association between individuality, genius, and youth (an idea that persists in present-day cultures of information technology), 18th- and 19th-century literature is wonderfully full of examples of juvenile authorship. In this post, I’ll just name a few examples of texts that might pair well together in a class on juvenilia in the 18th and 19th centuries, with special focus on the Romantic period. I’d welcome the  additional suggestions of readers! Continue reading Juvenilia: The Syllabus!

The Poet and the Vampyre: Caught in the “Byron Vortex”

Source: Amazon.com

I know the beginning of the semester (or really any time during the semester) is not the best time for a book recommendation. But, I think you’ll forgive me because this is a fun one and packed with your favorite “literary characters.” Andrew McConnell Stott’s The Poet and the Vampyre was released late in 2014 and is a biographical amble through the events great and small surrounding the fateful weekend in Diodati that produced the monsters we have come to love. Yet, it also self-consciously dances around that stormy night—one that we can all agree fascinates scholars but has been written about to (un)death—in favor of an in-depth look at the relationships amongst these young poets and poetesses that brought them together and split them apart, primarily focused on Byron’s influence (and curse) upon his young doctor, John Polidori. For years, I have been an apologist for Polidori and his novella, The Vampyre, both of which often get shoved to the side for being important but not necessary or enjoyable. Here is finally an attempt to bring Polidori to life, not just as the spiteful tag-along of more successful poets but as the sympathetic victim of other people’s celebrity. Continue reading The Poet and the Vampyre: Caught in the “Byron Vortex”

From Jane Austen to Quentin Tarantino: How Movies Can Help Us Teach Literature

You don’t want to watch a movie with me. No, really. I consider it a test of true friendship if someone can sit through two hours of me constantly pausing, rewinding and talking over the figures on screen. It’s a bad habit I cannot break. After helping teach a film and media class this semester however, I don’t think I should.

While my near constant commentary might be distracting to say the least, it isn’t meaningless. I am often pointing out how camera angles, body language, costumes, set design, lighting all come together to hint at a future plot point or reveal some sort of narrative truth. I can often predict the ending to a movie, which never ceases to be a sort of useless party trick for my friends and family, but underneath that novelty however, lies real critical thinking. Continue reading From Jane Austen to Quentin Tarantino: How Movies Can Help Us Teach Literature

Jane Austen and Romantic Mortification

Perhaps surprisingly for its canonical status as a tale of romantic love, Pride and Prejudice (1813) is governed by many distinctly unromantic states of negative affect. Distress, embarrassment, depression, shame, and disbelief are all integral to Austen’s portrayals of character. But one emotional state stands out as being distinctively Austenian: mortification. Elizabeth Bennet is “most cruelly mortified” by her father; Kitty experiences “mortification” at the Forsters’ preferment of Lydia; Darcy feels “incredulity and mortification” at Elizabeth’s initial rejection, and later, “trouble and mortification” as he searches for the renegade Bennet sister in London; and even Miss Bingley “was very deeply mortified by Darcy’s marriage.” Most famously, at the scene of the Netherfield ball, Elizabeth’s “mortification” accrues with each outrageous Bennet performance, and she even enters into “dances of mortification” with Mr. Collins. The Austen reader might well ask, what is this state of mortification, and why is it such a key term for describing Austen’s characters?

As a synonym for silent humiliation, “mortification” has a particularly Romantic shade. The term had been used in Shakespeare’s plays, and by Swift in his “Drapier’s Letters,” but it appears considerably more frequently in the prose fiction of the early nineteenth century. Walter Scott’s Rob Roy (1817) features its narrator, Frank Obaldistone, claiming that he is “Not mortified, certainly not mortified”; Amelia Opie’s short story “Mrs Arlington: Or All is Not Gold that Glitters” (1818) describes one character as “humbled, offended, mortified, and self-condemned”; and other works by Maria Edgeworth, Charlotte Smith, and Clara Reeve all feature mortification as a key term for describing the emotional plights of society heroines.  But “mortification” seems to be an especially potent term for Austen. In Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published together in 1817, the term appears at least 8 times, and Austen typically modifies it to increase its severity: Catherine Morland experiences “deep mortification” and “severe mortification” at a ball with Henry Tilney, while Anne Elliot, shocked by Captain Wentworth’s sudden appearance, “fully submitted, in silent, deep mortification” to his comment that her person is altered beyond recognition. As with Elizabeth and Darcy, both Anne and Catherine must experience mortification, and especially public mortification, as a key stage in their trajectory to marital bliss.

Where did Romantic-era mortification come from? Austen’s repeated uses of the term are fascinating, since “mortification” occurs much more often in non-literary Romantic fields.  Rather, the term could refer to a religious practice of personal deprivation in the interest of spiritual self-improvement: as Ezekiel Hopkins wrote in 1807, “THE GREAT DUTY OF MORTIFICATION” required personal penance, since “without mortification, no [after]life is to be expected.” And, as A Daily Exercise and Devotions, for the Young Ladies and Gentlemen (1816) suggested, “The constant exercise of mortification is another fruit of penance” and the young lady or gentleman in question might “draw” “vast fruit” from the spiritual exercises of personal deprivation, or even the “voluntary toleration of bodily pain or discomfort” (as the OED would have it).

More intriguing, though, was Romantic mortification’s medical sense, as the word for the necrosis of bodily tissue — that is, as gangrene. The vast majority of references to mortification during the early nineteenth century appeared indeed in this pathological sense. “Mortification” is a central heading in John Hunter’s seminal work on battlefield surgery, A Treatise on the Blood, Inflammation, and Gunshot Wounds (1794), and the term appears with great regularity in medical textbooks in the early 1800s. One particularly clear definition appears in Sir Robert Carswell’s Pathological Anatomy: Illustrations of the Elementary Forms of Disease (1838):

The term mortification is generally employed in this country to express the state which has been induced in a part of the body by the complete and permanent extinction of its vital properties. On the Continent, however, the term gangrene is employed to signify the same state, whilst in England it is more commonly used to denote the incipient stage of mortification … The extinction of the powers of life, the complete cessation of the circulation, and an entire want of sensibility, characterize the second or last stage of mortification, which is called sphacelus

But what could the horrifying condition of gangrenous mortification have to do with Mr Darcy’s embarrassment? One place to look for an answer is in the medical notes of John Keats, literature’s best representative of Romantic medicine. In his Anatomical and Physiological Note Book (published 1934), Keats discusses the connections between aneurism and mortification, and — in a cautionary tale for graduate students — mentions how “Those who have been addicted to Study from Keeping up a continued determination of Blood to the Brain have often the Vessels of that part ossified,” making the scholarly brain “subject to mortification” even among “the Young.” As Keats noted elsewhere, mortification could also take place among those who “lead a life of Intemperance.” Thus, since one of the main ambitions of Pride and Prejudice is to temper the unrestrained outbursts of the romantic leads, it makes a strange sort of sense that their intemperance of character — their respective pride and prejudice — leads to mortifying social punishment.

Although he does not use the term “mortification” in his poetry (to my knowledge!), Keats, who himself experienced “occasional ridicule, & some mortification” as a result of his “Pride and conceit […] amongst mere Medical students” (in the words of his friend Henry Stephens), is perhaps the touchstone for Romantic embarrassment. As Christopher Ricks’s 1974 book, Keats and Embarrassment, discusses, “a particular strength of Keats is the implication that the youthful, the luxuriant, the immature, can be, not just excusable errors, but vantagepoints” (12). Austen, too, uses moments of mortification to give insight and perspective, and the embarrassment her characters feel is not the result of “excusable error,” but of betrayal by their biology (their desires, or, more often, their desires thwarted by their foolish relatives). Thus, it seems no coincidence that Mary Ann O’Farrell’s discussion of “Austen’s Blush” (1994), another important work on Romantic embarrassment, touches on the biological underpinnings of socially coded desire. The blush, which Austen associates explicitly with mortification (Catherine, for instance, displays a “blush of mortification”), is for O’Farrell a marker of the body’s involuntary expression beyond the socially regulated codes of signals: “Austen necessarily invokes that about the body which is most inimical to manners, what makes manners most vulnerable to disruption” (127).  Thus, in my view, the affect of shameful mortification in Austen’s novels arises from the tension between the socially appropriate suppression of desire (analogous with religious mortification), and desire’s rebellious expression in the outer tissue of the organism (similar to medical mortification).

Austen’s union of the two external mortifications in producing her characters’ affect of humiliation established a convention that extended later into the century, and an interesting point of comparison is Anne Brontë’s novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), which uses mortification as a key plot-point. Helen Huntingdon mortifies her would-be suitor, Mr Hargrave: “I cut short his appeal, and repulsed him so determinately […] that he withdrew, astonished, mortified, and discomforted, and, a few days later, I heard he had departed for London.” Helen’s power to mortify figuratively seems also to result (indirectly) in the death of her abusive husband, Arthur Huntingdon, whose alcoholism has led to actual mortification. In his last days, Arthur experiences “freedom from pain” and “deadness to all sensation where the suffering was most acute”; Helen writes, “My worst fears are realized — mortification has commenced.” In contrast to the extremely painful affect of mortification experienced by Austen’s characters, Arthur Huntingdon’s mortification passes from the first stage, gangrene, into the painless, fatal stage of sphacelus. His death releases Helen from her personal mortification at his hands, and leaves her free to marry Gilbert Markham. As in Austen’s novels, mortification is a developmental stage through which characters must pass to reach their marital goals; but unlike Austen’s mortification, Brontë literalizes the experience into its medical form, offering a much grislier model of character shaping.

But even marriage could not keep the advances of mortification entirely at bay. Elizabeth’s vigilance in “shield[ing]” Darcy from her humiliating relatives culminates in her permitting him to speak only to “those of her family with whom he might converse without mortification.” Et in Austen ego — even at the satisfying end of an Austen novel, then, is the encroachment of gangrenous necrosis.


Rethinking Romantic Media: Print Alternatives

While my research has thus far focused on Romantic print media, my recent foray into the world of media archeology has led me to search for alternative media that print obscures. In Gramaphone, Film, Typewriter, Friedrich Kittler confronts “the historian’s writing monopoly” (6) by arguing that print cannot adequately take into account oral and visual culture. Writing merely stores the “facts of its authorization” (7), while “whatever else was going on dropped through the filter of letters and ideograms” (6). Kittler points to photography and film as storage media that put an end to the monopoly of print by recording the images and noise that print filters out. And yet, for scholars like ourselves interested in the period that preceded these inventions, how do we uncover the alternative media that print obscures? In order to answer this question, I turn to two examples of performance-based media that much recent work has attempted to reconstruct: lecture and drama.

Reconstructing the Romantic lecture

On February 28, 2014, the University of Colorado at Boulder hosted “Orating Romanticism,” a series of speakers that included Dr. Sarah Zimmerman of Fordham University, Dr. Sean Franzel of the University of Missouri, and CU Boulder’s own Kurtis Hessel. While each speaker focused on a particular lecturer or series of lectures, all spoke about the challenges they face when attempting to reconstruct a medium that is inherently performative and ephemeral. Dr. Zimmerman explained that Romantic lectures were critical oral arguments shaped by participating auditors as much as speakers themselves. For example, when giving a series of lectures on Shakespeare’s characters at the Royal Institution, Coleridge frequently deviated from his notes and occasionally strayed so far from the advertised topic that auditors complained in their reviews. Other lecturers changed their topics according to the audience’s immediate responses, collapsing the time between composition and reception that characterizes print. Working with such a medium proves challenging, explained Zimmerman, because the lecture’s “authoritative text,” if such a thing exists, “lies at the midpoint that marks the exchange between performer and audience.” As an inherently performative media dependent on time, place, and audience, the Romantic lecture cannot be adequately expressed in print.

Surrey Institution, London, 1810. Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin. (Wikipedia)
Surrey Institution, London, 1810. Thomas Rowlandson and Augustus Charles Pugin. (Wikipedia)

Facing this challenge in his work on Coleridge’s, Hazlitt’s, and Humphry Davy’s respective lectures, Kurtis Hessel explained that in order to reconstruct these events we’re forced to cobble together “texts” from various sources, including the speaker’s notes, advertisements, reviews, and writings of those who attended. And yet, cautioned Hessel, these sources are often unreliable indicators of what actually took place. Just because a lecture was advertised, for example, does not mean it was actually held. If ticket sales failed to reach certain quotas, the event was canceled. In addition, while some lecturers like Hazlitt published write-ups of their lectures following the event, the printed version does not necessarily provide an accurate account of the lecture itself. Although it’s tempting to treat lectures in the same way we treat texts, Hessel struggles against this inclination in his work. Rather than relying on an available text, he explained, we’re forced to construct one. While print continues to dominate our understanding of Romantic-era oral media, we should seek out as many diverse sources as possible in order to reconstruct these moments. The lecture itself exists somewhere in between.

Reconstructing drama and pantomime

Drama is a similarly performative medium that presents methodological challenges when reconstructing it in print. With the exception of closet dramas and other plays that were not intended for the stage, the majority of popular stage productions were written with performance in mind. Although we have scripts, stage directions, and other textual remnants of these works, it’s difficult to imagine what occurred at individual performances. In Coleridge’s highly successful drama Remorse (1813), for example, we know that audiences were enthralled by a spectacular incantation scene in which an altar goes up in flames to reveal a painting of the protagonist’s assassination. Yet no surviving versions of the text give any indication of how this effect was achieved. Instead, our best guess comes from a write-up in The Examiner that describes “the altar flaming in the distance, the solemn invocation, the pealing music of the mystic song,” that together produced “a combination so awful, as nearly to over-power reality, and make one half believe the enchantment which delighted our senses.” Though lacking in specifics, this description depicts the scene better than the play’s stage directions, which simply read “The incense on the altar takes fire suddenly, and an illuminated picture of Alvar’s assassination is discovered.” In cases where stage spectacle played an important role in a production, paratextual materials are often better approximations of performance than the text itself.

These materials become even more important in the reconstruction of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century pantomime, a form characterized by on-stage action rather than dialogue. When trying to reconstruct the text of Harlequin and Humpo (1812) for The Broadview Anthology of Romantic Drama, Jeffrey Cox and Michael Gamer used manuscripts with short descriptions of scenes alongside audience programs and other detailed information, but it’s impossible to arrive at an “ideal text” when a performance has no words. In places where the manuscript had little detail, they looked for descriptions in newspaper reviews. One review reveals that an Indian boy performed impressive contortions and acrobatics for a good portion of Scene V, a sequence that isn’t mentioned in the manuscript and seems have been a last minute addition to the show. It’s the piecing together of these sources that gives us the closest possible approximation of the work.

Joseph Grimaldi as "Clown," an archetypal pantomime character. c.1810. Wikipedia.

Joseph Grimaldi as “Clown,” an archetypal character in pantomime, c. 1810. (Wikipedia)

Destabilizing print

Despite my desire to uncover alternatives to print media, to deconstruct Kittler’s “writing monopoly,” it’s obvious that print is all that remains of Romantic performance culture. And yet, in our efforts to cobble together “texts” of these lectures and plays, it becomes harder to uphold traditional notions of textual stability. Especially in instances where there are multiple versions with significant differences, books are characterized by variation, difference, and inconsistency rather than grand solidity and authority. While publishers tend to smooth over these ruptures in “definitive editions” of canonical texts, reconstructions of forms like lecture and drama refuse to lull the reader into a fall sense of continuity. The search for Romantic print alternatives, though perhaps futile, may lead us to a more nuanced understanding of the different forces at play within printed texts.


Towards a Tangible Romanticism; or, One Student’s Search for the “Real”

I have a confession to make: I’m not getting a Ph.D. in English because I’m interested in literature. An avid reader since childhood, books were something I enjoyed, but not necessarily found interesting enough to study. Sure, Pride and Prejudice was a great read, but I’d never thought it more than that. My early thinking went like this: “Fiction is entertaining, but it’s not real. What’s the value in studying something that isn’t real? If it isn’t real, what’s there to study?” This line of thought must abhor many of you, but I confess that I struggled (and still struggle) to convince myself that studying literature was a worthwhile, productive endeavor. It didn’t help that I went to a college where most students viewed education as a means to a well-paying job—a degree worthwhile for the job at Goldman it could score you. I was certainly influenced by this environment, and haven’t entirely discarded its thinking. I was, for better or worse, interested in the real, the tangible.

My quest to study something “real” (quite literally) led me to declare a major in Archeology, a field where I got to touch things and feel their realness. Literature was about ideas, archeology was about objects. A poem didn’t have the same tangible meaning for me that, say, a clay pot did. The pot was created for a purpose: to hold liquid, cook food, decorate a home. I liked that I could touch the artifacts I studied; they had real meanings behind them, not the “imaginary” meanings that people superimposed over novels and poems. You could find an object’s meaning within its material form—it had been shaped a certain way for a reason.

Yet a few months later, I found myself missing literature. I started to crave the “humanness” of books from which artifacts, although made by humans, felt detached. I started taking more English classes, mainly for fun, when an idea struck me: what if books could be read, not as abstractions upon which readers inserted meaning, but as objects? This watershed moment transformed the way I thought about literature, and led me to switch my major. I stumbled across a new kind of reading that I want to call an “archeological hermeneutics.”

How this works: I read a book as a material object, not only significant because it’s the product of a distinct cultural moment, but because it has a relationship to all other objects of the same type. In archeology, we think about a decorated Tlingit mask as it exists alongside hundreds of undecorated masks. The mask is both an independent object with a unique history, and a type working within a tradition of objects. Likewise, books are interesting, as opposed to entertaining, when I can read even the smallest moment in a text as related to the book’s position in its unique cultural moment, and as a product within a history of moments. So, when Keats writes Hyperion in unrhymed heroic verse, it’s significant on a local level—revising the verse form after the critical failure of Endymion—but also engages within a tradition of verse that hearkens to Chaucer, Spenser, Milton, Pope, and others. Books are both local and transhistorical artifacts.

In archeology, material constraints dictate what kind of objects people create. The indigenous peoples of the Great Basin make baskets out of yucca, a material which obviously constrains their shapes and colors. Applying this to my studies in Romanticism, the material conditions of a book’s creation, publication, and dissemination are important to my understanding of its content. As I’ve learned in my current course on Romantic Drama with Jeffrey Cox, the material conditions of Regency theatre culture—there were only 2 theatres in London allowed to perform spoken drama—led to the development of musical forms like melodrama, pantomime, and other forms of Jane Moody’s “illegitimate theatre.” And then there are the constraints of publication: Why does Equiano choose to publish by subscription, and why does he include a list of subscribers on the first page of his Narrative? Does it affect our reading of the narrative that follows? These are the questions, inspired by Romanticism’s material conditions, that I find worth discussing. To me, they are real, almost tangible.

Yes, there are benefits to reading books as closed systems. It’s useful to understand how a text functions within itself, how it teaches the reader to read. But often with this approach, the meaning I find within texts is one I’ve placed there myself. Nietzsche (and Paul Youngquist, from whom I first heard it paraphrased) explained it thus: “If someone hides something behind a bush, looks for it in the same place and then finds it there, his seeking and finding is nothing much to boast about.” In my burgeoning career as a Romantic scholar, I want to discover truths that emanate from texts without having to place them there myself.

Perhaps I ought to rephrase my opening statement: I’m not getting a Ph.D. in English because I’m interested in literature; I’m getting a Ph.D. in English because I’m interested in literature’s interaction with the material world and the truth that emerges from it.




Never Have I Ever Read

Photo courtesy of: http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/millais/drawings/50b.jpg
The Eve of St. Agnes Millais (1863) http://www.victorianweb.org/painting/millais/drawings/50b.jpg

At the beginning of summer, my husband, our two basset hounds, the cat and I moved into a little white rental house with a backyard. And once we had unpacked all our books, installed a makeshift closet in the back room (in the whole house, we have one tiny little 2×3 feet closet in the bedroom), and felt sufficiently settled to have company, we threw a housewarming party.

Naturally, ninety-percent of our guests were English grad students, and, as we were sitting around the fire-pit in our new backyard, someone suggested we play a literary version of the party classic “Never Have I Ever.” In the original game, the players take turns admitting to something they have never done (never have I ever been skiing–a sad truth!), and each person who has done the event loses a point until only one person is left with points, or something of the sort. In our version, we shamefully admitted works we had never read, and the other players were to put down a finger of the full ten with which they started. Of course, we awarded a slight handicap of negative five points to the only three non-bookish types (my husband the mathematician, a former history major, and a physicist) to make the game somewhat fair.

We were never quite clear on the goal of the game, since in our circle there seemed more pride in “losing” the game than surviving to the end with fingers still raised. In fact, one of our friends “lost” twice by the time we called the game. And we were all envious. But we went round and round, enjoying ourselves immensely.

“Never have I ever read Moby Dick.”
“Never have I ever read Huck Finn.”
“Never have I ever read Beloved.”

I have been studying for comprehensive exams for the past five months, and while I have read a significant number of the works on my lists in past graduate seminars, I feel like the whole process is a long game of “Never have I ever read…”

At the University of Kansas, where I am in my third year of doctoral studies, you compose three lists with your committee–two of which are time period lists (your area and an adjacent time period) and the third is a list of your own choosing (often an author, literary theory, a genre, etc). As a Romanticist with a fairly extensive background in Victorianism, I have chosen my period lists to form the full nineteenth century in British literature, and my final list is geared toward the Leigh Hunt Circle as I prepare for a dissertation focusing on Keats, the Cockney School, and how this context shaped his conception of “work.”

After reading criticism and biographies for the last two months as I try to whittle away at the dissertation list, I have switched to fiction for a much needed breather. I find it heartening to zip through a couple of novels in a week, when I have been slogging through nonfiction for what seems like a lifetime (and I will say I have read several “lifetimes” in that list, and highest praise must go to Nicholas Roe’s 2012 Keats biography. I have added it to the ever-growing list of books I wish I had written). In anticipation of the Halloween season, I scheduled myself several gothic novels in a row. And last week, I read Wuthering Heights for the first time.

Perhaps I just permanently altered your opinion of my clout as a nineteenth-century scholar. Well, so be it. I certainly admit the sad fact with a touch of shame. But now I have checked it off my list of never-have-I-ever-reads, and I have moved on to the next novel that somehow fell through the gaps in my long tenure as a literature student.

I feel this game “Never Have I Ever Read” haunts literature scholars. It certainly helps us flesh out syllabi–how else will we force ourselves to finally pick up Dombey and Son if we do not assign our students (and ourselves!) to read it?–and the game even fuels our research, it seems.

Three weeks ago, I had the pleasure of traveling to Portland and presenting on a Romanticism panel at the Rocky Mountain MLA. This conference has become a tradition for a couple colleagues and me, who would likely never travel and present together otherwise since our areas are so diverse. I presented on the connection between architectural structures and female bodies in Keats’s romances. I looked at the way in which the lived experience of female bodies, specifically in rape narratives, becomes abstracted into a symbol (the first step of which is the equation of the female body to the house or palace that protects her–i.e. Madeline is endangered because her house is penetrated in “The Eve of St. Agnes”). This cultural phenomenon is allegorical in so far as the female body comes to represent social bodies (structures) in various forms through literature and even political propaganda. The specific and material become crystallized into a generic trope that can be circulated, translated, and exchanged, depending upon the terms of its use, its ability to anger, inspire, manipulate.

In the Q&A portion of the panel, another presenter asked if I had read Cymbeline. I shook my head and shyly admitted I had not. Despite taking two courses in Shakespeare and Renaissance drama, never had I ever read, seen, or even heard a plot summary of the play. Nor is the classic John Middleton Murry volume Keats and Shakespeare listed among my secondary texts for comprehensive exams.

Nevertheless, I did my research that evening in my hotel room, and discovered much speculation on the play’s influence in Keats’s portrayal of Madeline’s boudoir. Indeed, Charles Cowden Clarke wrote, “I saw [Keats’s] eyes fill with tears, and his voice faltered,” as the poet read aloud from the play in summer 1816 (qtd. on page 56 of Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Keats). In addition to speculation on the scenery, importantly, Imogen has been reading the story of Tereus and Philomela before falling asleep. According to Greek mythology, Tereus rapes Philomela and cuts out her tongue so that she cannot report the assault. Jove later transforms Philomela into a nightingale, and her song becomes an echo of sexual violence throughout literature, including T.S. Eliot’s “The Fire Sermon” in The Wasteland (a piece I have read many times since first crossing it off my never-have-I-ever list in high school).

Scholars speculate on what the literary greats have read (or not read) as an everyday practice. My fellow-scholar who asked if I had read Cymbeline was presenting truly stellar archival research that sought to uncover whether Keats had read various seventeenth-century ballads on nightingales. She lamented that we do not know to what volumes he had access while staying with Benjamin Bailey at Oxford in the summer of 1817. And as she had not yet read Roe’s recent Keats biography, she did not know the conflict between Bailey and Keats’s London friends, and why Charles Brown and other early biographers would not have contacted him to inquire about Keats’s reading that summer. Even in their lifetimes, Keats and Leigh Hunt gained the label “Cockney” as a class slur partially due to the fact that they never had ever read mythology in the original Greek, and instead got their knowledge of the classics through translations.

Next up on my reading schedule is Northanger Abbey, and I will be reading it for the first time. This will be my last novel for a while, and, as I want to preserve my reputation with you at least beyond my first blog post, I will not admit the Romantic poetry I will be reading next week–for the first time.