Abstract for Sibylline Leaves: Chaos and Compilation in the Romantic Period

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I was thrilled to find out that I’ll be presenting my paper ‘A literary inheritance: Romantic family histories and textual afterlives in the commonplace books of Ellen Warter’ at next year’s Sibylline Leaves: Chaos and Compilation in the Romantic Period conference. This exciting conference brings together a number of fascinating approaches to Romantic cultural and material practices, and focuses on ‘the composition, publication and reception of romantic poetry in relation to a diverse range of collections and composite texts: miscellanies, anthologies and beauties, multi-volume or serialised fiction, magazines and newspapers, annuals and albums, common-place books and notebooks, catalogues and guidebooks, encyclopaedias and dictionaries.’ My abstract for the conference is included below.

A literary inheritance: Romantic family histories and textual afterlives in the commonplace books of Ellen Warter, Freya Gowrley (University of Edinburgh)

This paper will focus on two commonplace books made c.1885 by Ellen Warter, the granddaughter of the Romantic poet Robert Southey, now held at the Centre for Research Collections at the University of Edinburgh. Though at first glance the volumes denote Warter’s participation in the rather usual Victorian practice of album production, sustained attention to the books and their compiled contents suggests their deeper significance for studies of nineteenth-century literary culture. More than the sum of their parts, Warter’s commonplace books are not only a collection of individual details and textual clippings, but also evoke the broader contexts of authorship, celebrity, and collaboration.

Warter’s commonplace books are quite unlike ‘conventional’ examples of the genre, which traditionally compile excerpted texts from a broad array of writers on a variety of topics. Instead, Warter devoted over 300 pages of her volumes to the lives and literature of the Brontë family, who were the objects of her sustained estimation, affection, and documentation. This specific emphasis upon the Brontës relates Warter’s albums to a specific type of album-making: namely, the production of volumes dedicated to literary celebrities, a practice enacted throughout the nineteenth century. Beyond this fascination with the Brontës however, the practice of commonplacing was firmly intertwined with Warter’s own family history. As the granddaughter of Robert Southey, she was part of a family whose own commonplacing and album-making spanned several generations. Warter’s grandfather, aunts, mother, and father all made, or contributed to the production of, composite volumes, a literary inheritance that places Warter’s own productions within a longer history and set of material practices. Crucially, such practices were also enacted within the broader Romantic circle, with Southey contributing to the volumes of his friends’ daughters, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Caroline Bowles, Charles Lamb, and Edward Quillinan reciprocally adding poems to the albums of Edith Southey, Warter’s mother. For Warter then, commonplacing was not only an educative practice, but an inherently social one, with her compilation of ‘Brontëana’ consistent with the collective practices of her own extended literary family.

Employing the framework of the object biography, the paper will consider Warter’s commonplace books in terms of literary assemblage, tracing the volumes’ constitutive elements as they passed from one literary form into the next. At the same time, the paper will demonstrate how the books were inherently biographical objects, redolent with potent familial association, both of Warter’s own family, and that of the Brontës. The paper will accordingly situate Warter’s commonplace books in relation to both contemporary examples of ‘Brontëana’ and the broader album production of the Southey family and social circle. In so doing, it will highlight the importance of composite works to collective Romantic literary production, as well as their enduring legacy in the late-nineteenth century, thereby troubling traditional divisions between the Romantic and Victorian literary traditions, and demonstrating the disruptive nature of periodization.

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