Falk, M. (2018). Frankenstein’s Siblings: Self-Deformation in Romantic Literature.
According to a widely-accepted interpretation, Romantic literature is characterised by a particular conception of the self. For the Romantics, the self was deep and developmental. We are not born with a stable sense of identity, but have to discover or create one through a course of reflective experience. To explore this form of selfhood, the Romantics developed new forms of literature. They wrote lyrical poems and plays depicting the formation of consciousness in nature, "Bildungsromane" depicting the formation of people in society, and autobiographies depicting the formation of the author in the world. The self-formation interpretation of Romanticism remains influential today, even though decades of historicist scholarship have uncovered numerous unfamiliar texts, and new aspects of familiar texts that the concept of self-formation cannot explain.
The biggest, yet frequently disregarded problem with the self-formation interpretation is that so many Romantic texts seem to be about exactly the opposite. The most famous example is "Frankenstein" (1818). Victor and his creature, far from forming coherent senses of identity, are deformed by their experience. In this thesis, I consider a range of other deformed selves in British Romanticism, from the sad protagonist of Amelia Opie's "Adeline Mowbray" (1805) to the speaker of John Clare's sonnets and the heroes of Joanna Baillie's tragedies. I describe the different kinds of self-deformation these authors portray, and show how they shaped their texts in order to portray it. While other scholars-most recently Alan Richardson, Andrea Henderson, Jacques Khalip and Michael Gamer-have considered neglected varieties of selfhood in Romantic literature, this is the first study which systematically considers the relationship between deformed selfhood and the different forms of Romantic writing. I am thus able to provide wider and more powerful descriptions of the major Romantic genres.
The self-formation interpretation has affected how scholars define and evaluate every genre of Romantic literature. In each chapter, I tackle a different one, showing how our received understanding of the genre is challenged by texts of self-deformation. Chapter 1 lays the philosophical groundwork. In it, I show how eighteenth-century ideas about self-deformation survived into Romantic-era thought. In Chapter 2, on fiction, I compare Amelia Opie's "Adeline Mowbray" to Maria Edgeworth's "Vivian" (1812). In these tragic anti-Bildungsromane, the very possibility of self-formation is questioned, as the protagonists are ensnared in social conventions. In Chapter 3, on poetry, I analyse the sonnets of Charlotte Smith and John Clare, which resist the synthesis of mind and nature usually held to be typical of Romantic lyric. In Chapter 4, on life-writing, I focus on Moore's "Letters and Journals of Lord Byron, With Notices of his Life" (1830-31), whose baggy form mirrors its subject's "multiform" personality, and embodies its author's sceptical, Humean philosophy of self. In Chapter 5, on drama, I compare the gothic tragedies of Joanna Baillie and Charles Harpur, which reveal the frightening and metaphysical aspects of Romantic self-deformation.
As I argue throughout this thesis, it is no coincidence that readers have often found these texts ugly and banished them from the canon. They challenge our received notions of genre, and so can appear deformed, when in fact their apparent deformities are sound aesthetic strategies for portraying self-deformation. To show how well-formed they are for this purpose, I employ a range of digital techniques, such as text analysis, sentiment analysis and character networks. Not only can these techniques uncover hidden aspects of a text's structure, but they also allow precise, large-scale comparisons of many texts, allowing me to demonstrate for the first time that these apparently marginal books about misfits and failures are actually central to Romantic debates about aesthetics and selfhood.
The Romantic self, I argue, is mysterious and complex, and its deep and developmental aspects are often in conflict. The self can be deformed by deep inner forces, as in Opie, Smith and Baillie, and grow into a monstrous, malformed self. Or it can be deformed by excessive openness to external influence, as in Edgeworth, Clare and Harpur, and crumble into a formless self. Moore's multiform Byron is malformed and formless all at once, and indeed the two paradigms of self-deformation mix in complex ways in all these texts. These are Frankenstein's siblings, the agonised villains, quivering victims and self-annihilating mystics who stalked the darker byways of the Romantic mind, shedding new light on the challenges of self-identity, and its burden.