Romanticism: A Period or a Sensibility?

As I finish my dissertation, I’ve been forced to think more about the way that I categorize the novels upon which I work. They are the radical novels of the 1790s to me–I haven’t been particularly anxious to group them in terms of a larger period or movement. However, I’ve been told twice recently that the novels I’m working on are (no ifs, ands, or buts, it seems) Romantic novels simply because they fall within a certain time frame that I am told is now widely considered the “Romantic period.”

I haven’t done tons of reading on Romanticism yet–a bit here and there, but no real depth–but this strikes me as strange on the one hand and really unhelpful on the other. I’ve always understood Romanticism as a set of characteristics of literary works. My primary objection to calling “my” novels Romantic novels is that it classifies them with novels that are so different that it makes the label practically worthless. What does grouping Mary Hays’ Memoirs of Emma Courtney and Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley together under the rubric of “the Romantic novel” tell you about what a Romantic novel is? What does it tell you about either of the novels? What does Romantic mean in this sense?

Obviously we do this kind of broad grouping all the time–what does it mean to call novels such as Samuel Richardson’s Pamela and Matthew Lewis’ The Monk eighteenth-century novels?–but such grouping under the term “Romantic” seems to me different. Does anyone else have thoughts about the “periodization” of Romanticism? Is this so widely accepted now that no one thinks twice about it?

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