I frequently wait to introduce biographical detail about Robinson herself until students have finished the novel and we have discussed it in relationship to the above contexts and to the period reviews. Introducing biographical material into the literature classroom is always a loaded gesture; in Robinson's case it is particularly fraught with difficulties but also particularly important.
As the recent spate of biographies shows, prurient interest in Robinson's life sometimes overshadows interest in her art, and students occasionally come to class with a vague notion of Robinson as a "classy tart. We discuss the development of the literary-critical concept of the biographical fallacy, and read period texts that address the question of biographical readings of literary texts. For example, Godwin's essay "Of History and Romance" argues that "any man's character," whether he is a figure from history or fiction, has depths that may not be completely plumbed.
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Mangin argues that novel readers enjoy forgetting "the fact of [the novel's] being a fiction" and are "interested in perusing, if detailed, even the story of the writer; or in conjecturing it, where the information is not given" 36, Significantly, Mangin argues that biographical information about the novel writer is key to novel-reading pleasure; however, he argues that the reader's interest is elicited first by the novel itself, rather than by the "story of the writer. I use Mangin's model to complicate the standard take on the biographical fallacy; it is more often true that readers initially know little about an author and make assumptions about the author's real-life character based on his fictions.
As an early Romantic-period celebrity, actress, and courtesan before she became a writer, Robinson provides a unique case study in the development of this style of literary interpretation and an example of its effects on the career of a woman writer. In both literature courses in which I teach the novel, students will have first discussed the implications of biographical readings for the career of Mary Wollstonecraft.
For a survey course, anthologists like Wolfson and Manning reprint selections from the Vindications and Maria, which can be read alongside excerpts from Godwin's Memoirs of Wollstonecraft and from conservative reactions like Polwhele's Unsex'd Females; in a course focused on the women writers of the s, we read these texts in their entirety along with Wollstonecraft's earlier novel Mary.
In order to interrogate legitimacy of period critics' claims that The Natural Daughter is a roman-a-clef, it is important for students to read the novel first, to establish a baseline understanding of the text's satirical aims, as I have discussed above. We then read Robinson's political writing, like the Letter, which leads to re-reading the novel paying increased attention to its themes about women's professional and reproductive work and to the overt and covert political views expressed in it; we conclude by reading period reviews of the novel alongside excerpts from Robinson's own autobiography, which leads to discussions about the reasons Robinson's critics might have for insisting that her fiction was thinly-disguised autobiography—and the reasons that their own notions of Robinson's so-called real life might be based as much on her fictions as on biographical fact.
Robinson's views on authorship, on writing as a career for women, show up usefully through this series of re-readings. Students can analyze the ways Robinson's views in her Letter to the Women of England serve as a counterpoint to her depictions of Martha's literary career in The Natural Daughter. The Letter, which concludes with a "List of British Female Literary Characters Living in the Eighteenth Century" which includes Robinson herself, speaks directly to the issues of women's literary professionalization and inserts itself into Romantic-period debates about gender and literary canons.
Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context and Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels
Robinson writes, critiquing the marketplace conditions that make it impossible for her to earn a living from her talents:. Presenting studies with selections from the numerous portraits, caricatures, scurrilous pamphlets and newspaper accounts of Robinson's career is a useful method of illustrating the remarkable level of media coverage she received, and also showing the ways in which The Natural Daughter responds to and parodies those stereotyped representations of her image. For example, one period reviewer argues that Robinsons inserts "memoirs of herself, in some trying situations" into the novel European Magazine, rpt.
This passage from The Natural Daughter describes Martha's first appearance on stage as a provincial actress in terms that parody those of the newspaper puffs, gossip columns, and theater reviews in which Robinson herself featured:. Most of the press coverage of Robinson's early career as an actress and courtesan was not as flattering as this review, however. This negative press, too, can be usefully read against Robinson's portrayals of Martha's virtue and her sister Julia's vices in the novel.
Robinson herself was frequently accused of just the kind of fashionable vices for which she satirizes her fictional characters in The Natural Daughter. Comparing the satirical media coverage of Robinson helps students to understand the context for Robinson's novel as well as to read sources that might have influenced her satirical practice.
For example, the passage in which Robinson satirizes the Leadenheads' conspicuous consumption can be paired with newspaper paragraphs on "Perdita's" latest coach and livery or fashionable opera gown. They can also be contextualized with images like the engraving of Robinson and her reputed lover Charles James Fox, "Perdito and Perdita—or—the Man and Woman of the People.
This image reveals how Mary's fashionable attire and equipage became the focus for newspaper critiques that connected her politics to her role as a leading Whig courtesan.
Series: Novels for Students
This series of contextualized re-readings of the novel helps students understand the ways that the same text may be read in multiple ways and the ways that non-fiction genres like autobiography, critical review essays, and political cartoons might influence definitions of the Romantic-period novel and its relative value in the cultural hierarchy. It also encourages them to think critically and historically about the role that celebrity and biographical criticism played in the careers of novelists of the Romantic period.
From this perspective, Robinson's career as a fiction writer provides an unparalleled opportunity to work through these concepts in depth, using The Natural Daughter as a case study for the development of the Romantic-period reader and writer. Andrew, Donna. New York Public Library. New York. Breen, Jennifer, ed. Women Romantic Poets, An Anthology. London: Everyman, Women Romantics Writing in Prose. Broadview Press. Byrne, Paula. New York: Random House, Close, Anne. Davenport, Hester. Phoenix Mill: Sutton P, Fergus, Jan, and Janice Farrar Thaddeus.
George, Mary Dorothy, ed. London: British Museum, Gillray, James. Picture Number James Gillray. James Gillray: The Art of Caricature. Tate Gallery, London. Miriam and Ira D.
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The Satirical Etchings of James Gillray. Draper Hill. New York: Dover, Godwin, William. Caleb Williams. Maurice Hindle. London: Penguin, Pamela Clemit and Gina Luria Walker.
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Peterborough, ON: Broadview P, Gregory, John. Lisa Vargo and Allison Muri. University of Maryland. Gristwood, Sarah. Perdita: Royal Mistress, Writer, Romantic. London: Bantam, Hawley, Judith. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, Ingamells, John. Robinson and Her Portraits.
Wallace Collection Monograph I. London: Trustees of the Wallace Collection, Jump, Harriet Devine, ed. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, Jones, Vivien, ed. Women in the Eighteenth Century: Constructions of Femininity. London: Routledge, Kelly, Gary. English Fiction of the Romantic Period, Longman Literature in English Series. London: Longman, Labbe, Jacqueline.
Lonsdale, Roger, ed. Eighteenth-century Women Poets.
Oxford: Oxford UP, Mangin, Edward. McCreery, Cindy. Hannah Barker and Elaine Chalus. McGann, Jerome J. Mellor, Anne K. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, British Literature, Boston: Heinle, National Portrait Gallery. National Portrait Gallery, London. Pascoe, Judith.
A refereed scholarly Website devoted to the study of Romantic-period literature and culture
Paula Feldman and Theresa Kelly. Hanover: UP of New England, Mary Robinson: Selected Poems. Peterborough, ON. Pearson, Jacqueline. Penguin Group USA. Radcliffe, Ann. A Sicilian Romance. Alison Milbank. Robertson, Fiona, ed. Women's Writing An Anthology. Robinson, Mary. The False Friend.
A Domestic Story. Longman and Rees, Mary Mark Ockerbloom.