Thursday, 24 November 2011

Reading Group Report: Romantic Correspondences

Romantic Correspondences: Myth-Making and Breaking in the Brontë letters to the Lake Poets

Led by Harriet Briggs and Beatrice Turner (Newcastle University)

Thursday, 17 November 2011, Northumbria University

Texts Discussed:

Letter from Charlotte Brontë to Robert Southey (1837)
Letter from Robert Southey to Charlotte Brontë (1837)
Letter from Branwell Brontë to William Wordsworth (1837)
Letter from Branwell Brontë to Hartley Coleridge (1840)
Letter from Charlotte Brontë to Hartley Coleridge (1840)
Poem by Hartley Coleridge, ‘He liv’d amidst th’ untrodden ways’ (1827) –a pastiche of Wordsworth’s ‘She dwelt amongst th’ untrodden ways’ (1798-9)

For the first time, the reading group was held at Northumbria University, and we were delighted to welcome members from various degree programmes. We began the session by examining what was meant by ‘Romantic correspondences’. This involved thinking about critical perceptions of a divide between the Eighteenth Century and Romanticism on the one hand, and Romanticism and the Victorian period on the other. By examining correspondence between figures from ‘different’ literary periods, we considered the complexity of these chronological divisions.

Discussion was opened with an introduction to each writer, with a view to thinking about literary inheritance. We considered how Hartley Coleridge is regarded as the quintessential ‘Romantic child’, brought up in the Lake Poets’s coterie at Keswick, and featuring in several of his father’s poems. However, Hartley struggled to live within this shadow of greatness. Whilst Hartley grew up during the Romantic period, Charlotte and Branwell Brontë were introduced to Romantic values retrospectively. We considered how Branwell sought to remake Romanticism in the 1840s, rather than embrace the Victorian innovations that characterised the novels of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. Although we were amused by Branwell’s self-projection as a Byronic hero in his letter to Wordsworth, we also thought about what this said about how Romanticism was construed in the Victoria era. Branwell’s tone is less egotistical in his letter to Hartley, and we wondered if he had learned anything from Wordsworth’s silence about how the Romantic legacy related to a different social context. This led to thoughts about how the period between the death of Byron in 1824 and the passing of the Reform Act in 1832 is often considered a literary ‘no man’s land’.

Secondly, we examined Southey’s letter to Charlotte, with its statement that literature is ‘not a career for a woman’. Nevertheless, we agreed that this is sympathetic to Charlotte’s aspirations, with Southey referring to personal experience on the difficulties of being a writer, and his memories of a radical youth. Southey was experienced in the role of a literary mentor, having dispensed similar advice to a young Shelley in 1811. This led to a discussion of how writers perceived themselves, given that terms like ‘Romantic’ and ‘the Lake Poets’, were coined retrospectively. Particularly interesting were parallels between Charlotte’s and Southey’s portrayal of ‘dosing’ unfortunate victims with Wordsworthian verse in the 1830s, and Byron’s complaint that Shelley had ‘dosed him with Wordsworth physic until sick’, when composing the Third Canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1816.

Finally, we thought about how these writers presented each other in poetry and prose. Hartley Coleridge’s pastiche of Wordsworth was revealing, especially in terms of highlighting the decline of the latter’s brilliance. We also considered Charlotte’s mischievous portrayal of Branwell’s poetic persona. This reflected her bitterness that it was acceptable for a man to write and not so for a woman. An interesting point was made about Charlotte’s identification with the eighteenth-century tradition, and her subversion of gender when comparing herself to Charles Grandison’s writing on ‘perfect manliness’. We concluded by thinking about what this correspondence said about patronage, celebrity and the act of sending and receiving letters. We considered it refreshing that young writers felt able to engage intellectually with their predecessors, and what this reveals about nineteenth-century literary culture. Overall, the session was very interesting, and drew attention to themes that linked our various research interests.

By Leanne Stokoe, Newcastle University.


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