by Alison Harvey
Tuesday night saw the launch of the Cardiff Romanticism and Eighteenth Century Seminar series, which kicked off in style with Fight Club: a no-holds-barred, trash-talking, dirty-fighting academic debate between six of English Literature’s finest. There was standing room only in Special Collections and Archives, with a superb turnout of over 60 undergraduates, postgraduates and staff. Each speaker had just 5 minutes to convince the audience that their chosen author was a true Romantic Genius.
Anthony Mandal initiated the proceedings with a series of increasingly impressive Powerpoint slides in defence of Jane Austen. While critical response to Austen was lukewarm during her lifetime and sales of her books relatively modest, her popularity grew throughout the 20th century and has endured into 21st-century media, ranging from literature, films, video games to even card games, transforming her into a global phenomenon.
Sophie Coulombeau countered with Frances ‘don’t call me Fanny’ Burney, who—despite burning all her works at a young age—was widely acclaimed during her lifetime. Frances, more often known by the diminutive ‘Fanny’, has since been unfairly neglected by the literary canon. Sophie reminded us that Burney could well be the toughest of the evening’s challengers, having undergone a mastectomy without anaesthetic, of which Burney later wrote an account.
Jane Moore entered the ring with a strong contender—the ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ Lord Byron, a pugilist who famously kept a bear in his rooms at Trinity College Cambridge, because dogs were forbidden. Byron had a way with insults—Jane quoted his slamming epitaph for Lord Castlereagh, British Foreign Secretary from 1812 to his death by suicide in 1822: ‘Posterity will ne’er survey / A nobler scene than this. / Here lie the bones of Castlereagh. / Stop traveller, and piss.’
Nicky Lloyd was up next, with a decidedly lo-tech defence of William Godwin: husband to Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley, and like Frances Burney, neglected by the modern canon. She urged us all to read Mandeville: A Tale of the Seventeenth Century in England, which she considers one of his best works, and argued that Godwin was the first writer of truly Romantic novels, not least of which was his most famous work, Things as They Are; or, the Adventures of Caleb Williams, in which the eponymous servant discovers his saintly master hides a criminal secret, and is then persecuted for his knowledge.
Jamie Castell went on to attempt to convince the audience that there was more to William Wordsworth than daffodils. His Wordsworth / Brad Pitt mash up was both persuasive and disturbing in equal measure… Refusing to leave his spirited defence of Wordsworth there, Jamie also made good use of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, an avant-garde sculpture from 1917 of a urinal that posed a challenge to viewers about their understanding of ‘art’. Wordsworth could similarly be seen as one of the first writers to give the poetic voice to the commonplace and everyday, thus urging readers to reconceive their own understanding of poetry.
Finally, Melanie Bigold pulled the rug out from under all contenders, roundly denouncing the entire concept of Romantic genius, and all without notes or a Powerpoint—the clear champion of the evening! Melanie’s compelling argument was that Romantic notions of ‘genius’ are specious ones, deriving as they do from 18th-century concepts of religious ‘enthusiasm’. The Romantics, Melanie argued, simply appropriated and secularised the numinous experience of the earlier period, and made it less compelling as a result. Melanie then went on to raise the issue of how arbitrary canonical ideas of genius are, given how much they rely on a vast network of material factors, such as publishers’ decisions, the size of print runs and copyright legislation.
The session concluded with a lively general discussion with the audience, who were very engaged and more than a match for the speakers in their enthusiasm and perceptiveness. We had some great questions from the floor regarding the concept of canonicity and the role of anonymity in the literary marketplace of the period. An impassioned plea was made by one of our Bath Spa friends, Stephen Gregg, on behalf another unsung hero of the 18th century: Daniel Defoe, whose massive and diverse body of work is overshadowed by a single novel: Robinson Crusoe (1712). The evening ended with a drinks reception, which further aided the conviviality of the evening’s proceedings.
We recommend the following for further reading:
- James Raven, ‘The anonymous novel in Britain and Ireland, 1750–1830’, in R. J. Griffin (ed.), The Faces of Anonymity: Anonymous and Pseudonymous Publication from the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Century (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), pp. 141–66.
- Catherine Gallagher, Nobody’s Story: The Vanishing Acts of Women Writers in the Marketplace, 1670–1920 (University of California Press, 1994).
- Peter Garside, et al., The English Novel, 1770–1829: A Bibliographical Survey of Prose Fiction Published in the British Isles, 2 vols (OUP, 2000).
- Tom Mole’s Byron’s Romantic Celebrity: Industrial Culture and the Hermeneutic of Intimacy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).
- Margaret Anne Doody, Frances Burney: The Life in the Works (Rutgers University Press, 1988).
- Jennie Batchelor’s Women’s Work: Labour, Gender and Authorship, 1750–1830 (MUP, 2010).
Please feel free to add any more suggestions for further reading in the comments!
Thank you to all who turned out on a cold February evening, and for making the inaugural CRECS event such a success. Check back here for details of future events—Tuesday nights will never be the same again!