In which my obsession with Romantic novel continues

I’ve just finished reading an essay by Robert Miles, published in Novel: A Forum on Fiction 34.2 (Spring 2001), titled “What is a Romantic Novel?” It’s an interesting essay; Miles investigates the “embarassment” with which he says the Romantic novel has always been viewed as a result of the institutionalization of Romanticism. He identifies what he terms the “hermeneutic paradigm” as part of this institutionalization and describes this paradigm as one focused primarily on the transcendental aspect of Romanticism–and thus on Romantic poetry. Miles writes, “The hermeneutic paradigm the Kantian narrative was designed to protect can best be put in terms of transcendentalism. To the Romantic poet, as Romantic hero, there falls the task of peering into the life of things in order to spy out the noumenal presence that ultimately binds together subject and object, words and things, the material world and its underlying meaning, a transcendental glimpse capable of rebuilding the ruins of history” (184).

Thus Miles says the problem in defining the Romantic novel is actually a problem of defining Romanticism itself: “‘What is a Romantic novel?’ is a version of another, equally problematic question: what is Romanticism?” (184). Transcendentalism as a defining characteristic of Romanticism will of course lead to definitions of Romanticism that privilege poetry: “The centrality of the hermeneutic paradigm in the construction of Romanticism adversely affected the reception of the Romantic novel, as even the subjectively driven Romantic novel…with its residual attachments to narrative, community, and realism, is at a disadvantage in comparison with poetry when it comes to giving literary form to the drama of fleeting transcendental insights” (185). Miles goes on to suggest that Romantic poetry and the Romantic novel actually have more in common than has been hitherto suggested. He argues that the basis for the Romantic novel is its “historic mission of articulating ideology, as ideology. Of course, all works are ideological, as everything else is too. My proposition, rather, is that a significant difference of a subset of Romantic-era novels is their striving toward not ideological representation, but representations of ideology as ‘ideology.’ I am not saying that the Romantic novel does this, and the Romantic poem does not. On the contrary, I am arguing that this is an important affinity between the two” (186).

Using this idea as the basis for his definition, Miles goes on to identify several characteristics of the Romantic novel: it is, he writes, preoccupied with questions about family origin, a feature that he finds to be drawn from Shakespeare’s romances; it makes extensive use of theatricality as characters whose family origin is unknown struggle with questions about their identities and thus take on a variety of “roles,” usually linked to a particular nationality; and it employs a self-conscious rejection of the novel in favor of the romance, which, Miles suggests, allows writers to explore positions outside history and probability. It is in these novels, according to Miles, that we can first see an awareness of ideology as ideology in the modern sense.

Here’s my standard disclaimer: by no means am I doing justice to Miles’ argument, which is quite “involved,” as he himself admits. However, I am troubled by two aspects of his essay, and the first is that it seems to focus selectively on national tales, novels that deal primarily with questions of national and/or family origin as their primary plot. For instance, he talks a great deal about Sir Walter Scott’s novels, particularly Ivanhoe. He traces the type of novel he’s describing (which, by the way, he calls “philosophical romances” rather than “Romantic novels,” though he uses both terms) up through the novels of Hawthorne and Melville: “If the philosophical romance is antagonistic toward the renewed legitimacies of nationalism, it remains the case that both it and nationalism arise out of the same cultural moment of questioned origins. Hence the unsurprising recrudescence of the philosophical romance in Ireland, Scotland, and mid-nineteenth century America, as these were similarly rich periods in which the spirit of critique conflicted directly with nationalist myth-making” (198). By the end of the essay, the focus of Miles’ observations about the Romantic novel are all pointed toward this sort of nationalism or rejection of nationalism, which is interesting to me in the extreme but seems to exclude a large number of novels that other scholars have termed Romantic novels–primarily (of course, for me) the Jacobin novels of the 1790s. This leads to my second reservation about Miles’ essay: though he writes that “No theory of the Romantic novel that did not account for Caleb Williams or Frankenstein would be worth much,” he really only devotes a paragraph or two to Godwin at all, and the bulk of this discussion does not concern Caleb Williams but rather Godwin’s unfinished essay “Of History and Romance” (197). The other Jacobin novelists are not mentioned at all: the exception is Mary Hays, who is mentioned in passing by name only in a list of writers. This seems to me (as it of course would) a striking omission in an essay arguing that the Romantic novel is “the class of prose fictions that has the historic mission of articulating ideology, as ideology” (186). However, by the end of the essay, it seems that Miles’ argument is focused on a specific type of ideology–nationalism–and the ways in which the Romantic novel was deployed against this ideology. At this point, the Jacobin novels of the 1790s no longer seem to fit with his definition. I don’t find, for instance, massive concern with questions of origin in the Jacobin novels, especially national origin, nor do I find theatricality a prominent feature in the novels I have studied.

And so while I am intrigued by his ideas about form–he writes at length about the special form of romance employed by these novels and its connection to epic–at last I remain frustrated by the problems that seem to me inherent in the use of the term “Romantic novel.” As always when I read these essays, I am left thinking of many, many examples of works that are omitted or excluded through the attempt to pin down what precisely determines which novels are “Romantic.” My suspicion is that the definitions of “the Romantic novel” depend in large measure (as is perhaps obvious) upon the particular works being used as examples. Thus, if you use Sir Walter Scott, Maria Edgeworth, Charles Maturin, and Clara Reeve as your core group of Romantic novelists, you get a very different idea of what the Romantic novel is than if you use Jane Austen and Frances Burney, or Mary Shelley, William Godwin, Matthew Lewis, and Ann Radcliffe, or indeed Mary Hays, Eliza Fenwick, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Charlotte Smith. My other suspicion is that this problem is precisely why so many Romantic scholars now define Romanticism by period rather than by characteristics: the most obvious similiarity of these works is their historical situation.


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