The Domestication of Genius: Biography and the Romantic Poet

The obsession with the private lives of the famous is not a new phenomenon, writes Sharon Ruston

February 25, 2010

In this era of celebrity obsession, it is intriguing to read about when it all began. In this book, Julian North traces the emergence of a new kind of literary biography. When Samuel Johnson chose to include the "domestick privacies" and "minute details" of authors' private lives in his writings, it marked a controversial shift in what was considered appropriate. For instance, he recorded Alexander Pope's need to wear three pairs of stockings to hide his too-slender legs.

From that point on, readers felt that they needed to know about the domestic lives of poets in order to better understand their work. There followed a proliferation of private lives made public. This period saw a number of biographical revelations, from William Godwin's naively candid memoirs of Mary Wollstonecraft's life and sexual experiences in 1798, to the 1814 publication of Horatio Nelson's letters to Emma Hamilton and the sensation caused by Lord Byron's separation from his wife in 1816.

This is a book that should interest those who enjoy reading literary biographies: it asks us to examine what we want to know of writers' private lives; whether this is a legitimate activity; and, when we do find out the intricacies of their daily lives, how this changes our feelings about their work.

North examines the Romantic poets' new interest in subjectivity as a response to the biographers' efforts to make others' private lives their own. William Wordsworth and Samuel Coleridge reacted to the new biography with a moral superiority that clearly evinces a deep anxiety: Coleridge railed against the introduction of "the spirit of vulgar scandal, and personal inquietude into the Closet and the Library". North persuasively detects in these "progressively alarmist" responses the "nationalist rhetoric and iconography of the 1790s". According to Coleridge, readers in their demand for such biographies were possessed by "mania" and "disease". Wordsworth regularly voiced disapproval of biographies such as James Curries' Life of Robert Burns (1800), which did not shy away from revealing Burns' alcoholism.

In their attacks on biographers, North acutely perceives the poets' defensiveness. Wordsworth's Poems, in Two Volumes (1807) had been criticised specifically for its neglect of the reader, and he clearly resented the demand that he cater for such vulgar interests. With this in mind, it is fascinating to learn that Wordsworth had allowed a biographer, Barron Field, to stay in his home at Rydal Mount and submit a manuscript account of his life, which he then rejected. The importance of this study is demonstrated when North points out that by 1830 publishers were no longer issuing new volumes of poetry, while biographies flourished.

Ensuing chapters on Byron, Mary Shelley, Thomas de Quincey, Felicia Hemans and Letitia Landon consider the role that literary biography played in constructing "the Romantic poet", using the central metaphor of the "domestication of genius". North looks again at those biographies that have been disregarded as attempts, by means of censorship, editing and more underhand tactics, to sanitise and make respectable their subjects. In spite of this, she makes it clear that "to domesticate was to democratise", and biographies of this nature "insist upon the connection between the public/historical and the private/domestic worlds". In such works, genius no longer is elite and unattainable, but instead is "brought home to the reader". North is alive to the gendered associations of such domestication.

The transformations affected by biography in this period are considerable and far-reaching. Adding to the work of those who have in recent years nuanced and changed our perceptions of the two spheres, private and public, North argues that literary biography must be recognised as "a significant contribution to the developing middle-class, ideological investment in domestic life, as a feminised but permeable space". As she so succinctly puts it: "In the domestication discourse of biography, the transcendent subject became embodied, the self-sufficient subject socialised, the masculine subject feminised".

The Domestication of Genius: Biography and the Romantic Poet

By Julian North

Oxford University Press, 2pp, £55.00

ISBN 9780199571987

Published 19 November 2009

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