What the Victorians Made of Romanticism: Material Artefacts, Cultural Practices, and Reception History (2017) by Tom Mole

Natalie Reeve

In 1846, Elizabeth Barrett wandered through Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, reading the memorials to writers of past ages. “We should not dare, nowadays,” she mused incredulously, “to put such words on a poet’s monument” (Stack 158). What her Victorian contemporaries would dare to put instead, and what the consequences of those choices might be, are some of the questions Tom Mole’s monograph seeks to answer. What the Victorians Made of Romanticism – considered by Mole as a “sequel” to his previous prizewinning work on Romantic celebrity culture – investigates the post-Romantic nineteenth century from an innovative new angle (11). Eschewing a purely literary approach, Mole examines Romanticism’s memorialisation and “renovation” in popular culture and material objects (3). Mole traces the conflicted opinions of the Romantics’ successors into the artifacts that were made from them, exploring changing ideas as they were expressed and understood through “illustrations, anthologies, statues, photographs, and postcards” (3).

Material culture, Mole suggests, allowed the Victorians not just to honour Romanticism but also to ensure its survival. Amidst fears that Romantic literature had become irrelevant, the Victorians preserved their predecessors by “naturaliz[ing] them” in a “new media ecology” (19). Mole’s book explores aspects of this media ecology and ways in which this naturalization was achieved. In Part II, we find “retrofitted illustrations” adorning Victorian editions of Romantic poetry, in which Romantic characters gain new relevance from contemporary dress (55). Part III unveils with rigorously researched glee how Victorian preachers converted the firebrands Byron and Shelley into fodder for their sermons (100). Memorials are the focus of Part IV – not just Poets’ Corner (though Mole wanders there too), but how all of Britain became a “pantheon”, with the Scott Memorial in Edinburgh and the statues of Byron in Cambridge and Hyde Park (145). Part V returns us to words, but as they appear – rewritten and rearranged – in anthologies.

Mole’s monograph situates itself as the next link in the chain it examines. Just as the Victorians “turn back to the literature of the past … to engage with pressing contemporary concerns”, so Mole repeats this process with his analyses of the past, thinking self-reflectively about his academic practice (3). In the digital age, he argues, “renovating” the past to ensure its survival is itself a pressing contemporary concern. His book practices what it preaches: paralleling his discussion of how the Victorians reconsidered Romanticism through modern technologies, Mole “renovates” his case studies with the innovations of digital humanities, sinewing his prose with graphs, tables, and quantitative data to trace the dissemination of poems in anthologies (196-203, 187).

Alongside this data, Mole’s close readings of words and objects are fiercely insightful. His conception of Victorian books as “optical toys”, in which the two pages of “illustrated frontmatter” become “implicated in the viewing of the other”, provokes intriguing questions about how these “illusions” commemorated the Romantic authors they depicted, struggling to simultaneously assert the authors’ proven worth and evoke the unproven beginnings of their genius (73). An absorbing examination of Browning’s “Memorabilia” in the introductory section fledges broader considerations of memory and “renovation” with meticulously plucked phrases (41-42).

Mole’s approach to “Memorabilia” accords with his book’s brilliantly grounded methodology. His ideas, even when informed by thinkers outside his period, are steeped in rigorous primary research. He tracks cultural shifts based on Victorian etymology (his unspooling of the implications in the development of the prefix “neo-” are particularly compelling), a practice which allows him both to theorise and remain aligned to the historical moment (41). Occasionally, his resources talk back to theory, as when he uses the Illustrated London News to establish that Victorian relations between word and image were not as inherently oppositional as James Heffernan’s ideas of ekphrasis suggest (54). The depth of Mole’s research is made especially evident in Part III, as he chases a scrap from Byron’s letters across interrelated but separate traditions of religious and literary reception (90-94). Delving into archives, Mole teases out the implications of Romantic quotations in Charles Spurgeon’s sermons by tracing each line to a book in Spurgeon’s preserved library (123).

For such an ambitious book, there are glaring omissions. Mole examines the “renovation” of five Romantic writers – but Felicia Hemans is the only woman, and analysis of Hemans is uncomfortably dominated by gendered considerations, whilst the male Romantics are rarely (if ever) discussed in relation to their gender (62-3). The missed opportunities can be glimpsed; when Hemans is briefly examined in a different context – Welsh nationalism – the discussion suddenly takes wing (65-6). Mole’s choice of writers creates generic unevenness: Walter Scott is another of the five, promisingly suggesting that Romantic novels might share the focus with poetry, but in practice, we only see the Victorians engaging with poetry and poets.

Mole’s affirmation of his work’s originality provokes jarring moments. His reiteration of how his book might seem “alien” and “eccentric” to “modern academic critics” becomes tiresome with repetition – at the end of Chapter 8, he makes the point twice in one paragraph (116). The most excitingly original parts are frequently the ones that come without such fanfare. Mole’s decision not to attack Victorian anthologies for their dismemberment of long poems, but to contextualise the process in a “Romantic line of thought about how a long poem should be constructed”, is far more surprisingly illuminating than the shock-fact of priests quoting Shelley (214-5).

Similarly, the book’s strict structure, whilst easy to follow, sometimes makes case studies seem reiterative, building to a whole by sheer mass rather than organic development. There is little consideration of how different types of “renovation” speak to each other; links between the parts are crammed into short bookend-paragraphs. With so many to fit in, some texts and objects suffer from a lack of breathing space. But when Mole relaxes the reins and lingers with his examples a little longer, the multi-faceted interest of his subject-matter and timely importance of his thesis shine through in earnest. Fascinating, erudite, and imaginative (when it permits itself to be), this monograph is a rich new reception history for an interdisciplinary age.

Works Cited

Stack, V. E., editor. The Love-Letters of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett. Heinemann,