THE SHELLEYS AND THE BROWNINGS: TEXTUAL RE-IMAGININGS AND THE QUESTION OF INFLUENCE by Rieko Suzuki, Reviewed by Jane Stabler
 


THE SHELLEYS AND THE BROWNINGS: TEXTUAL RE-IMAGININGS AND THE QUESTION OF INFLUENCE
By Rieko Suzuki
(Liverpool, 2022) xii + 204 pp.
Reviewed by Jane Stabler on 2022-09-12.

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In her coda to this book, Rieko Suzuki explains that while it began as a study of P.B. Shelley's art, philosophy, and politics, she was drawn to the writing of Mary Shelley and Robert Browning as "Shelley's best readers and admirers," who enabled "consideration of the full impact and ramifications of Shelley's influence" (181). In this new study of four writers who each influenced their respective spouses as well as of PBS's influence on Robert Browning, Suzuki tracks Browning's poetic development by staging a series of comparisons between his poetry and that of PBS. But she also argues that Browning owes a considerable debt to Mary Shelley.

Suzuki's findings confirm Harold Bloom's opinion that Browning's devotion to PBS was lifelong. Rather than "source-hunting," however, rather than "track[ing] down biographical references and inspirations in selected literary works," Suzuki highlights intertextual "effects" (2-3). Furthermore, she argues, because Browning immersed himself "in anything to do with Shelley, it is difficult to conceive that Mary Shelley ... could have eluded his attention" (12). On the contrary, she contends, he "may well have read and digested Frankenstein" and thus absorbed Mary Shelley's ambivalence towards Romantic myth (29).

Juxtaposing Browning's Paracelsus with a novel long recognized as anti-Romantic or anti-Promethean, Suzuki finds Frankenstein "an alternative source" (36) for the anti-Romantic strain that complicates the Romanticism in Browning's poetry. "I am suggesting," she writes, "not only that Browning had read Frankenstein but also that, if one reads Paracelsus in tandem with the earlier novel, their points of similarity are thrown into sharp relief" (38). Both feature an idealistic hero, a religious punishment of his blasphemous aspirations, ensuing disappointment and self-hatred, a critique of masculine Romantic egotism, and the idea (implicit in Frankenstein, but explicit in Paracelsus) that "without love knowledge has no meaning" (50). While admitting that Browning's treatment of these themes might owe something to other Romantic works, Suzuki nonetheless asserts that Browning's critique of Prometheanism is "uniquely derived from Mary Shelley's text" (50).

Though deeply indebted to both of the Shelleys, Browning is shown to have been critical as well as devotional toward them. On one hand, Suzuki observes, Browning's ongoing critique of Romantic egotism--exemplified by Sordello--reflects the republicanism of Mary Shelley's Valperga. On the other hand, Suzuki reminds us, Browning brusquely dismissed Mary Shelley's commentary on Italian art, and Browning's painter poems, she argues, deliberately refute her "slavish" (90) adherence to Christian aesthetics and conformity with "early Victorian tastes" (73). As for Browning's response to PBS, Suzuki takes The Ring and the Book as a "re-writing" (27) of The Cenci, and in Fifine at the Fair, she suggests, Browning resolves some of the issues that Shelley explores in The Triumph of Life but could not fully pursue because of his sudden death.

Having thus considered the influence of both Mary and PBS on Robert Browning, Suzuki examines the role of Elizabeth Barrett Browning in their intertextual relationships. Though Suzuki finds that PBS's poetry did not psychologically captivate EBB as much as it did Mary and Robert, Suzuki's final chapter discerns "some affinities" between EBB's early poems and those of PBS, "particularly in their conscious determination to participate in the same liberal tradition that Shelley evokes repeatedly in his poetry" (28),

Nevertheless, Suzuki tends to read the Brownings' response to both Shelleys as agonistic a la Harold Bloom. Though she admits that influence may operate without authorial "vested interest" (6) or "Oedipal contest" (15), she believes that the Brownings' poems are "deliberately written to utilise Shelleyan poetics" (7)--but also to contest the very poets the Brownings idolized and "worshipped," including Wordsworth as well as PBS (12-13, 162). In several ways the Brownings are said to have struggled with their precursors: Robert's "views on art prove that he was wrestling with different kinds of artistic tastes" (90); Robert "tried not only to emulate Shelley but also 'overcame' him by rewriting Shelley's drama" (92); "it is not Milton, but, rather, Shelley whose influence Elizabeth Barrett sought to keep at bay but could not" (133). In thus positing a "revisionary scheme" (93) that pits the younger pair against their elders, , Suzuki leaves little room for the free-floating, agentless intertextuality favored by Roland Barthes and Julia Kristeva; indeed, in largely stressing the earlier phases in Bloom's revisionary ratios, she finds the Brownings "re-imagining" the poetry of PBS and Mary "in their own works, so that they shed fresh light on the subject matter whilst still retaining traces of their influence" (28).

Yet even while reading the relation between the Shelleys and the Brownings as agonistic, Suzuki often observes the kinship in form and genre between their respective poems. Besides quoting passages that let us hear Browning's voice speaking "in tandem" with that of PBS (38, 114), Suzuki highlights their common use of such things as dream vision and divided feelings--conflict between love of a wife and of another woman. Both PBS and Robert Browning, furthermore, are shown to represent humanity en masse in pageant and carnival, and just as "Mask after mask fell from the countenance" in Shelley's Triumph of Life (line 536), the people of Browning's Fifine at the Fair are said to be "likewise marked by the passion that they wear on their faces" (120-21). More generally, Suzuki argues, both of these poems deal with the conflict of passions, both seek to separate falsehood from truth, and both are "public manifestations of history" (130), Yet while Suzuki thus accentuates points of correspondence, she strenuously avoids oversimplifying them, carefully noting, for instance, how Browning converts "the writer-reader relationship from the Romantic model to a more democratic one that depends on co-operation with the reader (as in the dramatic monologue)." (132)

Students looking for clear distinctions between Romantic and Victorian will be reassured by this book, which accepts time-honored boundaries between the two and expresses an unassailable faith in the logic of poetic genealogy, as in "Mary Shelley's high Romanticism gives way to Browning's early Victorianism" (51). Likewise, she anticipates the reader's surprise at finding "Browning revisiting Romanticism in his later years, when his Victorian sensibility had been firmly consolidated" (113). She also finds un-Victorian EBB's description of Shelley as one who "froze in cold glory" and whose poetry "glitters & is cold." "These images," she writes,

are not common Victorian modes of expression. The image of 'a nightingale, who sits in darkness and sings to cheer its own solitude with sweet sounds' is a familiar enough trope in the Victorian period, but these are not." (150-51)

For Suzuki, images of cold glory and glitter evoke the "cold glare" in Shelley's The Triumph of Life (line 77). But even if they do, such images are surely not uncommon in Victorian discourse. One might also question some of Suzuki's other assertions, such as that Frankenstein is "certainly not a radical text in terms of the politics that it endorses" (31); that "Browning refused to be a solipsistic poet in the Shelleyan sense and committed himself to communicating with men on the same footing" (69); or that

Browning had failed in his political radicalism, falling short of Shelley's attempts ... Browning could not live up to Shelley's presence ... Rescuing the poetess becomes Browning's way of revolutionising the world. (110)

Finally, readers of the new biography of Julia Wedgwood by Sue Brown might raise their eyebrows at the assertion that EBB's death left Robert permanently pained by any stirrings of desire--incapable of being pleasureably "attracted to other women" (130). These dogmatic statements jar with Suzuki's more nuanced intertextual readings, which are sensitively alert to a range of possibilities.

One of the most revealing features of Suzuki's work is the way she uses moralistic nineteenth-century readings of Browning's work as a template for his reading of Shelley. In the chapter on The Cenci and The Ring and the Book, Suzuki presents Pompilia as a Shelleyan "pure woman," for whom the prototype was Beatrice Cenci: "While I do not wish to simply rehearse the Victorian understanding of Pompilia, from which we have moved on [...] I emphasise the earlier approach for understanding Browning's strategic use of Shelley's characterisation in The Cenci"(95-96). Though Suzuki's footnotes cite more recent readings of Browning's poem, her way of linking it to The Cenci turns the earlier poem into "a gentle reminder of the danger and futility of vengeance in the face of adversity and oppression" (107). To construe The Cenci as "a gentle reminder," of course, we must remember that in his Preface to the play, Shelley described Beatrice as "one of those rare persons in whom energy and gentleness dwell together without destroying one another" (qtd. 97). Rieko Suzuki's stimulating sequence of paired readings allow us to reconsider all four writers from perspectives both old and new.

Jane Stabler is Professor of Romanticism at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

Rieko Suzuki responds to Jane Stabler:

As an author, I cannot help but to appreciate the attentive reading which Jane Stabler has exercised in reviewing my book. While there are no glaring misunderstandings, I would like to add a few words regarding my statements.

Firstly, what I had hoped to elucidate in EBB's use of the words ''cold glare" to express Shelley and his poetry is that she associates Shelley with French materialism/Enlightenment, which is different from the lofty Romantic genius so widely embraced by the Victorians. Secondly, what I meant by Frankenstein not being a radical text is that I wanted to caution readers not to take the novel's radicalism too much at face value; of course, it is radical in many sense of the word, which I do not doubt, but I believe that there is more to the novel than what one is led to believe. Thirdly, I did not mean to say that Shelley was entirely understood as a solipsistic poet, but that Browning's dramatization of Sordello in Sordello as one such poet compels us to identify a certain aspect of Shelley in Sordello which Browning felt uncomfortable with and wished to move away from himself. Of course, I did not mean to say that Browning felt a permanent anguish or guilt over his interest in other women, but there was such aspect too as he daramatizes in Fifine. I suppose what all this amounts to is not one of disagreement with Stabler's claims, but that the tone or the emphasis of the text may have been slightly misleading. 


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