REVOLUTIONARY IMAGININGS IN THE 1790S: CHARLOTTE SMITH, MARY ROBINSON, ELIZABETH INCHBALD by Amy Garnai, Reviewed by Colin Carman
 

REVOLUTIONARY IMAGININGS IN THE 1790S: CHARLOTTE SMITH, MARY ROBINSON, ELIZABETH INCHBALD
By Amy Garnai
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) viii + 242 pp.
Reviewed by Colin Carman on 2011-06-27.

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Romantic-era women have long received less than their due. Only recently have a select number of English female writers publishing during the revolutionary age been recognized as important influences over the more canonical male writers of the period. Some thirty five years before Keats and Shelley transformed the songbird into a Romantic icon, for example, Charlotte Smith wrote of a "poor melancholy bird" in her sonnet "To a Nightingale" of 1784 (Elegiac Sonnets III.1) while the doomed and "shipwreck'd mariner" of Mary Robinson's "The Haunted Beach" (Lyrical Tales [1800] 1. 46) has been long overshadowed by the voyager of Coleridge's mighty Rime. Though critical considerations of the Romantic period typically focus on the same "Big Six" male poets, it has been estimated that more than ninety women wrote for the English stage between 1789 and 1823. Fortuntately, Amy Garnai gives us a new understanding of the historical as well as literary context in which just some of these writers responded to the tumultuous political climate of the 1790s in England.

Smith, Robinson, and Inchbald are grouped together here for two reasons. First of all, besides the fact that all three wrote prolifically and politically during the Age of Revolution, this Romantic trio exemplified for many of their conservative contemporaries all English female writers of the age, as in Thomas J. Mathias's complaint, from his polemical The Pursuits of Literature (1794), that though "ingenious ladies," Smith, Robinson, and Inchbald corrupt their readers by "whining and or frisking in novels, till our girls' heads turn wild with impossible adventures" and with even wilder with notions of democracy and revolution (5). Second, all three belonged to William Godwin's Jacobin circle, that countercultural coterie known for what Garnai terms "radical sociability" (9) and vividly evoked in Pamela Clemit's new edition of Godwin's letters. (Between 1796 and 1800, for example, Charlotte Smith and Godwin met at least fifty-eight times.) Moreover, the three authors discussed here complicate the view that support for the French Revolution among middle-class intellectuals in England had begun to wane by 1792. Instead, as Garnai contends, their pro-Revolutionary commitments became more nuanced and coded than commonly thought. Far from shying away from contemporary matters, Smith, Robinson and Inchbald espoused revolutionary values even though their agendas were both real and imagined.

Each author is evaluated in a compact pair of chapters treating texts arranged chronologically. Garnai begins with Charlotte Smith (1749-1806), whose 1792 novel Desmond defends the ideals of the Revolution. That the novel's eponymous hero comments upon two treatises that defined and differentiated the English reaction to the Revolution -- Burke's Reflections and Paine's The Rights of Man -- is proof of Smith's participation in the Revolutionary Controversy in Britain. Yet the Revolution didn't necessarily include women, nor open up new possibilities for female agency, and Smith's well-known biographical troubles -- married at fifteen, she bore a dozen children (three of whom died young) and wrote to support herself after the dissolute Benjamin Smith was imprisoned for debt in 1783 -- certainly informed her sensitivity toward women's roles within an increasingly democratic society. And what a difference a year can make, Garnai contends: by 1793, when her eight-hundred-line poem The Emigrants was published, the September massacres and the execution of Louis XVI had tempered Smith's radical enthusiasm. In this poem, Smith levels the differences between English and French, Protestant and Catholic, while maintaining her support for the original (but lost) agenda of Revolutionary France.

The Banished Man of 1794, written at the apex of the Terror and the persecution -- on English soil -- of radicals Tooke, Thelwall and Hardy, is usually read as Smith's retraction of revolutionary values. But taking this work as a careful modification of her earlier ideologies, Garnai contends that what it banishes is the jingoism inherent in nationalistic identity. In representing exile and universalism, Garnai argues, Smith sets aside the container of geopolitical nationhood, espousing instead a more cosmopolitan, transnational vision. For Garnai, Smith's best-known work -- the blank-verse poem Beachy Head (1807) -- bears out this claim by celebrating "common English-French origins and in doing so works against the prejudicial divisions which had reached a peak during the Napoleonic wars" (179). This usefully reinterprets a poem that on the surface strikes a nationalistic note of English exceptionalism, as in "From the continent/Eternally divided this green isle./Imperial lord of the high southern coast!" (l.9-11). But according to Garnai, Smith's "celebration of cosmopolitanism, transatlantic possibility and citizenship of the world in general" is not at all incompatible with the ideals of the progressively literary and political circles of London to which Smith contributed (44). While conceding that Smith's novel The Young Philosopher (1798) idealizes America as a utopian alternative to England, Garnai finds her indictment of English society no less noteworthy.

Mary Robinson, too, represents the revolutionary project in terms that strikingly combine the public and the personal. A constant object of public scrutiny, this actress and novelist (also mistress of the Prince of Wales) published under numerous authorial personae and identified consistently with marginalized figures. Justifying the Revolution in her early poem Ainsi Va Le Monde (1790) by excoriating the Bastille, not to mention the secret wife of Louis XIV, as symbols of royal hypocrisy, she stridently concludes with an invocation to freedom ("TRIUMPHANT MAN BE FREE!") (77). Fascinatingly braiding the life of Robinson with her writings, Garnai notes that Marie Antoinette was eager to meet the author during her visit to France in 1781 and also that a decade later, Robinson had come to identify with the sexualized humiliation of the fallen queen. According to Garnai, however, we should not construe Robinson's horror at the queen's guillotining as a total reversal of her earlier values, but rather as a way of moderately distancing herself from the Revolution's violent excesses and in ways that clearly antedate those of Coleridge's "France: an Ode" and Books X-XII of Wordsworth's The Prelude (1850).

At heart, however, she remained revolutionary. Once the French queen had faded from popular consciousness, Robinson's radicalism reawakened: in Walsingham (1797), she uses the Revolution to contrast (and critique) English conservatism at a time when liberalism had become suspect, even treasonous. In the sonnet sequence Sappho and Phaon (1796), however, her appropriation of Sappho may be more subversive than Garnai is willing to allow. In contending that Robinson's Sappho is "motivated exclusively by the energy and passions of heterosexual love" (100), Garnai overlooks the fact that Sappho's words are considered the mother tongue of lesbian desire. Taking Sappho as exclusively heterosexual is a bit like taking Socrates as exclusively straight. Surely the cultural resonance of Robinson's Sappho can't be strictly Platonic; if indeed this Romantic writer sanitized Sappho, a modern scholar should say so. Likewise less than fully convincing is Garnai's reading of Inchbald's suppressed play The Massacre (1792). Though Garnai asserts--with the help of Daniel O'Quinn--that "male homosocial transactions" (174) in this play cannot be a site of potential liberation, she makes the point only in passing and then abandons it as if unsure of it. So, too, is the reader.

She is anything but unsure, however, about the radicalism of Elizabeth Inchbald (1753-1821), whose works were attacked for this quality by both the Anti-Jacobin Review and The True Briton. But Inchbald still had to play by the rules of British law. Since no one could legally stage any representation of the French Revolution or any explicit criticism of the British government, Inchbald (also an actress and author of more than twenty plays) replaces historical specificities with abstract analogies for democratic freedom and tyranny. She also does her part for feminist reform. Though she snubbed Mary Wollstonecraft at Drury Lane theatre in 1797, effectively ending her friendship with Godwin, her quarrel with Wollestonecraft was apparently more personal than political.

Garnai ends by discussing Inchbald's two most popular plays, Every One Has His Fault (1793) and Wives as They Were and Maids as They Are (1797). In an age when theatrical radicalism was strictly suppressed by John Larpent, the Chief Examiner of Plays (1778-1824), Garnai skillfully shows how the playwright managed to stage her progressive political critique of repressive marriage and patriarchy. At the conclusion of the later play, Garnai contends, the espousal of traditional values is meant to be ironic: in light of its comic mode, Inchbald rejects the very ideas of wifely submission and daughterly duty ostensibly upheld by her text. But no such irony veils the radicalism of Inchbald's The Massacre (composed in 1792 but kept from the public eye until 1833), which concludes with mob violence and a dead female body on stage. The play remains Inchbald's only tragic drama, never acted because of its overt allusions to the French Terror.

With a masterful command of these three writers, Garnai marshals an even wider spectrum of sources to illuminate Romanticism's under-analyzed female writers and their political commitments. Lilla Maria Crisafulli and Keir Elam, editors of a very recent collection entitled Women's Romantic Theatre and Drama: History, Agency, and Performativity (England: Ashgate, 2010), aptly note that the popularity of "women's drama took its effective curtain call in the 1820s, and virtually disappeared from the scene for over a century" (7). Given that long oblivion, scholars of Romantic female drama can only hope that Garnai pursues the radical imaginings of additional playwrights composing at the dawn of the nineteenth century in England just before the lights went out on their work.

Colin Carman, PhD teaches British Literature at Colorado Mountain College, Breckenridge. His essays and reviews have appeared in The Brokeback Book, The Journal of the History of Sexuality, GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, and The Gay and Lesbian Review. His current book project is entitled Shelley's Closet: Sexuality, History, Romanticism.


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