This is a rich and sophisticated treatment of an important segment of nineteenth-century English literature, and specifically of "the ways in which exile concentrates the aesthetics of two generations of 19th-century British writers who felt forced to leave England and chose to live in Italy" (vii). They include the Pisan circle around Byron and Shelley in the early 1820s, and--in the mid-19th century--the Brownings in particular, along with repeated appearances by Walter Savage Landor. These "formal and philosophical ramifications" (vii) of Italian travel and residence are pursued across seven chapters, after an introductory discussion of the history of English literary exile.
Chapter 1, "The bow shot of exile," defines the two groups as pioneers and Johnny-come-latelies on the Continent, and begins to sift some of the existential issues before transiting through "the image of the arrow" (34) in the poetry of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and through the figure of Philoctetes in Homer and in Romantic-era verse. Chapter 2, "Fare Thee Well!" examines "the Pisan circle's expulsion from, and rejection of, English domestic mores" (x) and the "taint of the libertine" (41) that accompanied that expulsion, and specifically considers Anna Jameson's Diary of an Ennuyée, the Pisan group at large, that complacent tourist Lady Blessington, and Walter Savage Landor. In Chaper 3, "Cain or Christ," Stabler highlights reactions to Catholicism from leading figures such as Byron and the Shelleys, but she also surveys Protestant attitudes from the eighteenth century to Charles Dickens. In Chapter 4, "Boccaccio's lore," she explains how "exiles tell stories about England out of Italy" (118) in order to develop "a more tolerant, cosmopolitan ethics and sexual politics in exile" (xi), and, naturally enough, she concentrates on Byron and the Pisan expatriates, whose sexual politics provoked public comment back home. Chapter 5, "Strange approximations," studies the expatriates' repeated mining of historical literature, using Plutarch as a test case--I think somewhat less successfully than Boccaccio is used earlier. Chapter 6, "Doubtful law," probes the legal entanglements of Byron and Shelley, and also looks at sundry literary works such as the Dedication to Don Juan, Landor's Imaginary Conversations, and Browning's The Ring and the Book as a variety of "courtroom drama" but also "a work of exile, pondering the relationship between poet and readers, and the process of poetic transmission" (217). Finally, Chapter 7, "The calentures of music," surveys music and sound in the exiles' experience, and completes the circle by laying out the literary links between the Browning group and the Pisan one.
These illuminating chapters surely enhance our understanding of literary exile in the nineteenth century, particularly by linking the Romantic group to the Victorian one and by teasing out what Stabler calls the "contrapuntal" experience of exile itself (24). But despite the many excellent passages and possibilities this book contains, I wonder if some readers will find it a somewhat frustrating experience overall. I will briefly express my misgivings before returning to what I appreciated.
In part I am troubled by the chapter titles cited above. As titles they are almost as riddling as some of Ruskin's, and a sur- or sub-title in each case might have helped to orient any reader who does not perfectly recall the helpful Preface. Take for instance the title of Chapter 1, "Fare thee well!" Though most (if not all) readers will recognize it as the title of the poem that Byron addressed to his wife upon leaving her--as well as England--in April of 1816, does this title helpfully preview what follows? The first of the sub-section titles within this chapter ("Exile and the domestic") plainly belongs under the main one, but its successors seem to wander away: "Letters, imaginary conversations, and things in exile" and then "All that remains of thee--Lucretia Borgia and the relics of exile." Though one of Lucretia's blonde hairs offers a "thread of connection" (75) to the main topic of the chapter, and though the chapter ends with a strong analysis of Robert Browning's "Christmas Eve," a single hair is not enough to guide us through 36 pages of commentary on Hester Lynch Piozzi, William Beckford, Charles Dickens, Dorothy Wordsworth, Anna Jameson, Percy Shelley, Byron, Mary Shelley, and the Brownings.
All too often, the subsequent chapters likewise leave us searching for the trail connecting their specified topics, as if we are being left behind by our tour guide. Chapter 4 works well because it consistently features Boccaccio, and will I think prove definitive for the impact of Boccaccio on the English writers discussed here. Yet Plutarch drifts in and out of Chapter 5, which has the most riddling title of them all. "Strange approximations," we are told (seven pages in), is an expression used by the Reverend Francis Wrangham in his revision of the Langhornes' edition of Plutarch's Lives. In applying this phrase to Plutarch's parallel narratives, Stabler infers, Wrangham meant to indicate "how history could abbreviate temporal and cultural distance." But does this concept truly inform the pages that follow, which take us through The Prelude, Keats, Sterne, Frankenstein, "Julian and Maddalo," The Deformed Transformed, The Cenci, The Two Foscari, and the Tudor Star Chamber? Here it seemed that distances were not so much abbreviated as extended.
These objections spring from my conviction that every literary-critical discussion must display at one level or another the continuity of a narrative. No matter how complicated the topics discussed, we depend on the writer to guide us through them, and the more complicated they are, the more guidance we need. In taking a thematic rather than a biographical approach to the exiles (though I very much appreciated a brief but shrewd account of Shelley's personal experience around pages 178-181), Stabler makes a perfectly understandable choice. But when this means that troops of players must be repeatedly hustled across the stage, the author needs to connect them to each other and to her leading topics as explicitly as possible. Ideas need to get crystallized; otherwise, the reader is being asked to retain and comprehend too much, especially in the longer chapters. (Things get easier in the last fifty pages, certainly.) I wanted to know, for example, the rationale behind the sequence of the chapters, whose order is simply said to resemble "the traditional shape of an Italian meal" (x) from antipasto to pudding.
Furthermore, the eschewal of the biographical accompanies an overwhelming stress on the purely textual, or rather on the inter-textual. In other words, rather than stressing the relation of literature to people (writers and readers, generally speaking), or to circumambient ideas, Stabler highlights the relation of literature to itself, which I for one find less interesting. Is it enough to peruse "Layerings of literature" (226), and to be asked to accept "the common intuition that what we read, especially what we re-read, is woven with our other memories and becomes part of our identity" (227)? Though the "allusive hinterland" (230) that Stabler explores has (of course) many cunning passages, could we not be reminded, however briefly, of what these writers actually did in Italy? Of what Byron (for example) actually, discursively, and consciously said about his Italian experience--in "Beppo" and in numerous places elsewhere? Byron and Shelley hardly had the same experience of exile. Writing to Mary Shelley from Ravenna in August of 1821, Percy declared, "People who lead the lives which we led are like a family of Wahabee Arabs, pitching their tent in the midst of London" (qtd. 179). By contrast with that experience (which Shelley surely exaggerates), consider Byron's letter to John Murray of 21 February 1820, where the poet reports that he has been living "in the heart" of Italian families.
The inter-textual focus of this book might have been complemented not only with biographical data like these, but also with more references to political, psychological, and philosophical studies of exile. Stabler occasionally cites Edward Said's Reflections on Exile as well as--in her Introduction--the work of Martha Nussbaum, Charles Taylor, and Terry Eagleton. But more extra-literary irrigation might have helped bring her critical discussions to a head as the book conducted its investigations.
In spite of its overemphasis on textuality, the book is a marvel of erudition, and at least twice its impressive scholarship makes the light of human experience shine through, dissolving the barrier between the textual and the biographical. Though I had barely heard before of Anna Jameson (1794-1860), she emerges from these pages as the fascinating author of a fascinating book--Diary of an Ennuyée (1826). Likewise refreshing are the many passages on and by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She is superbly brought out by Stabler's sympathetic treatment, built on a strict egalitarianism that never allows the male poets to dominate the discussion. This egalitarian approach provides a new perspective on the human experience of the exiles studied here. For me, that is the best thing about this book. Though its focus is almost exclusively textual, it offers glimpses of the exiles' lives as well as their artistry-- and of their lives as a form of artistry.
Richard Lansdown, Associate Professor of English at James Cook University, Australia, is the author of The Cambridge Introduction to Byron.