Report on ‘Valentines CRECS: How romantic were the Romantics?’, 8 Feb 2016

In the week of Valentine’s Day, the CRECS audience assembled to hear husband-and-wife team Professor John Strachan (Romantic scholar and Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at Bath Spa University) and Dr Jane Moore (Reader in Romanticism at Cardiff University) address some burning questions about romance in the Romantic era. What can literary men and women of the period teach us about courtship, marriage, sex and love?  Can they tell us how to be a good husband or a good wife?  Or offer examples of how not to be? And what of same-sex partnerships?  Jane represented the views of women writers of the period, including Jane Austen, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Letitia Elizabeth Landon; while John sifted the love lives of Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and John Keats.

Jane kicked off by explaining how Romantic dating was governed by not only rules, but by rules about rules. G.M.S. Chivers’ Modern Dancing Master (1822) was just one of a huge variety of popular ‘conduct books’ that governed the etiquette of the ballroom and drawing room, making flirtation a fraught enterprise. The selection of a husband was freighted with pressure, and ‘dating’ as we know it was difficult under such conditions. The path from acquaintance to marriage was a path riddled with misinterpretations and misunderstandings. The novels of Jane Austen (who had her own romantic tribulations with the incomparably named suitor Harris Bigg-Wither) are intensely engaged with these rules, often providing examples of the danger of falling for the wrong man in the fates of characters like Lydia Bennett. And the poet Letitia Elizabeth Landon (who published as L.E.L) summed up the precariousness of social interaction for a woman of her time: ‘Society is like a large piece of frozen water; and skating well is the great art of social life.’

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However, Jane was careful to highlight that the rules weren’t always followed: famous examples of deviance include the teenage Mary Godwin taking the married poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to a graveyard at night, where allegedly they consummated their passion on her mother (Mary Wollstonecraft)’s grave. She was, in this respect, a bit of a chip off the old block: Wollstonecraft herself, before settling down with Mary’s father William Godwin, had suffered from tempestuous affairs of the heart with the painter Henry Fuseli and the commercial adventurer Gilbert Imlay, bearing the latter a child out of wedlock. Wollstonecract’s cynicism about romance infuses her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: ‘In the choice of a husband, [women] should not be led astray by the qualities of a lover—for a lover the husband … cannot long remain.’ Jane finished up by contending that due to the gendered nature of courtship etiquette, female Romantic writers present a more sceptical picture of Romantic love than their male counterparts. And with that, she handed the floor to her colleague and husband John Strachan, who aimed to give the male Romantics’ perspective.

John began by querying the distinction between Romantics and romantics: the two words share an etymological root, but how many other correspondences can we detect? Like Jane, he highlighted that fraternising between sexes ‘ran on different wheels’ during Romantic period due to courtship etiquette. He then provided a series of case studies to show that, as Jane suspected, the male Romantics were at least able to take a far more active role in initiating romantic or sexual relationships than their female counterparts. Lord Byron (‘Europe’s ultimate Adonis’, according to Edna O’Brien) boasted of his female conquests, bragging to one friend, ‘What I get by my brains, I spend on my bollocks.’ But John suggested that this braggadocio about heterosexual sex  might in fact have acted as a smokescreen for other activities he could not discuss so freely, namely his homosexual relationships.

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge was far less avowedly promiscuous than Byron, but his marriage (to Sara Fricker) was perhaps at times no less unhappy due to mismatched temperaments (this particular attendee recalled with some amusement the preface to ‘This Lime-Tree Bower, My Prison’, in which Coleridge admits the source of his injury—‘dear  Sara accidentally emptied a skillet of boiling milk on my foot’). William Wordsworth, on the other hand, enjoyed an apparently happy marriage to Mary Hutchinson (whether his devoted sister Dorothy was as overjoyed about it is another question entirely). And John Keats emerges as a rival to Wordsworth in terms of romantic eligibility, with his letters to Fanny Brawne showing sensitivity and affection (unfortunately he died before they could be married).

The two talks provided a lighthearted and thought-provoking overview of two of the leading characteristics of Romantic romance; first, awareness of the importance of obeying ‘the rules’ – and second, a propensity to break them. The talks were followed by a lively discussion and convivial drinks reception.

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