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Rethinking reception in Victorian literary culture

Dante Beyond Influence provides the first systematic inquiry into the formation of the British critical and scholarly discourse on Dante in the late nineteenth century (1865–1921). Overcoming the primacy of literary influence and intertextuality, it instead historicises and conceptualises the hermeneutic turn in British reception history as the product of major transformations in Victorian intellectual, social and publishing history.

The volume unpacks the phenomenology of Victorian dantismo through the analysis of five case studies and the material examination of a newly discovered body of manuscript and print sources. Extending over a sixty-year long period, the book retraces the sophistication of the Victorian modes of readerly and writerly engagement with Dantean textuality. It charts its outward expression as a public criticism circulating in prominent nineteenth-century periodicals and elucidates its wider popularisation (and commodification) through Victorian mass-publishing. It ultimately brings forth the mechanism that led to the specialisation of the scholarly discourse and the academisation of Dante studies in traditional and extramural universities. Drawing on the new disciplines of book history and history of reading, the author provides unprecedented insight into the private intellectual life and public work of Christina Rossetti, Matthew Arnold, William E. Gladstone, and introduces a significant cohort of Dante critics, scholars and learned societies hitherto passed unnoticed.

As it recaptures a long-neglected moment in Dante’s reception history, this path-breaking book illuminates the wider socio-cultural and economic impact that the Victorian hermeneutic turn had in advancing women’s access to literary and scholarly professions, educational reform and discipline formation.

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Matthew Arnold’s criticism in Victorian periodicals
Federica Coluzzi

The second chapter focuses on Matthew Arnold, arguing that his long-neglected relation with Dantean textuality is most representative of the initial phase of the Victorian hermeneutic turn, with the emergence of a coherent and conspicuous critical discourse in lectures, essays and reviews between 1853 and 1888. The chapter carries out the first systematic inquiry into the formation and development of Arnold’s Dantean criticism by reunifying the large, but fragmented corpus of general references and quoted passages from the Commedia found in his private notebooks and published prose-works. So far disregarded as unresponsive and unproductive, the chapter reinterprets these sententiae as meaningful hermeneutic signs revealing the inner mechanisms of Arnold’s critical assimilation and manipulation of Dantean knowledge within broader interventions in literary and cultural criticism.  Such macroscopic investigation, however, is complemented and enhanced with a close-reading analysis of a uniquum in Arnold’s prose-works: a ‘Dante and Beatrice’, an article printed in the pages of the Fraser’s in May 1863, and representing the only existing/surviving piece of unitary and extensive piece of criticism entirely devoted to Dante. The chapter first retraces the composition and publishing history of Arnold’s review of Theodore Martin’s translation of the Vita Nuova (1862), and then discuss how the piece not only redefined the forms and intents of the Dante-debate in British periodicals and newspapers, but actively contributed to create the ideological conditions for the rise of Dante studies in late 1870s. 

in Dante beyond influence
Philip H. Wicksteed and Victorian mass readerships
Federica Coluzzi

Chapter four explores Philip H. Wicksteed’s manifold, and yet largely unrecognised, contribution to the popularisation of Dantean knowledge in Britain achieved through an unconventional (and historically unprecedented) selection of topics, literary genres, target audience and institutions. Through a comprehensive biographical reconstruction, it retraces the evolution of Wicksteed’s scholarly persona: from Unitarian preacher interested in the spiritual and uplifting use of Dante’s theological message in his Six Sermons to Dante lecturer working for the University Extension Movement; from the translator and editor of the Dent’s Temple Classics to internationally recognised scholar with a large body of academic publications. In so doing, the chapter demonstrate that Wicksteed achieved authorship status and critical authority as a pioneering practitioner of what I term commercial dantismo: a materially affordable and academically accessible form of scholarship purposefully designed for the growing middle- and lower-class public, which fostered an unprecedented growth of the opportunities for dissemination and (creative and critical) appropriation of Dantean knowledge in British literary culture.

in Dante beyond influence
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What do we talk about when we talk about Dante’s reception?
Federica Coluzzi

The introduction lays out the aims and scope of the book and outlines its methodology. It begins by questioning the current models of representation of the reception phenomenon, exploring the effects of the systematic prioritisation of the analysis of the ‘aesthetically productive’ encounters with Dantean textuality in past and present scholarship. It introduces a new model of representation for the phenomenon, recovering the supple notion of “literature” set forth by Paget Toynbee’s Dante in English Literature (1909) in order to reaffirm the historical value and cultural significance of interpretive responses found in criticism and scholarship produced between 1865 and 1921. It illustrates how a material and book-historical approach can provide a detailed reconstruction of the contextual conditions that fostered the hermeneutic turn in Victorian dantismo.

in Dante beyond influence
Marginal annotation as private commentary
Federica Coluzzi

The first chapter focuses on William E. Gladstone, four-time British Prime Minister and a central figure in the political and cultural history of Victorian Britain. Gladstone chronicled his lifelong private study of Dante in the daily entries of his diaries, pursuing it through reading, annotating and book-collecting as well as literary tourism and encounters with Italian and European scholars in the field. Using the large corpus of marginalia and reading lists found in his personal diaries, papers, and books, the chapter historicizes Gladstone’s reading practices, and illustrates how his personal path frequently corresponded with the one traced by the major trends of nineteenth-century scholarly practices and provide a concrete representation of the hermeneutic process through which Gladstone turned Dante’s Commedia into an object of serious, self-disciplined study. The diaries map the development of Gladstone’s reading habits and the simultaneous construction of Dantean knowledge from a chronological perspective, thus charting the growth of his interest from the primary text to secondary critical sources over a sixty-year period. The chapter illuminates the progressive refinement of Gladstone’s scholarly approach through the comparative close textual and material study of the marginalia recorded in three distinct copies of the Commedia: two nineteenth-century editions, and Cary’s English translation, bringing forth the creative and critical dialogue Gladstone had established with Dante throughout his life.

in Dante beyond influence
Exemplarity and Margery Kempe’s encounters of the heart
Laura Varnam

Building on recent work in the history of emotions, this chapter argues that Margery Kempe’s interaction with her fellow believers, within the Book itself and in relation to her readers (both medieval and modern) is predicated on an emotional exchange and encounter that takes place in the heart. This imitative encounter is facilitated by an embedded and repeated lyric couplet in the Book that draws on well-established devotions to the Sacred Heart in Middle English lyrics and in the work of Mechthild of Hackeborn, depicting the heart as a locus for emotional reciprocity and connection with Christ. Reassessing Kempe’s interactions with her female communities in particular, I argue that the Book ‘stirs up’ and enacts a compassionate empathy that is fundamentally sustained by supportive female networks and that offers an empowering model for the twenty-first-century academy. We learn from Margery Kempe’s book of ‘felyngys’ by putting her exemplary and heart-felt devotion into practice. But Kempe’s exemplarity is always in process, always negotiated and critiqued in each moment of its unruly performance. I argue, therefore, that The Book of Margery Kempe produces a new kind of lay exemplarity that is emotionally capacious, socially dynamic, and invitingly adaptable, and which encourages us to think more flexibly about how we frame and understand interactions between medieval exemplary texts and their readers.

in Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe
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The Book of Margery Kempe and its antecedents
Diane Watt

The Book of Margery Kempe is often one of the earliest works by a women encountered by English literature students. As a consequence, it is sometimes read as a text without a pre-text. Yet although considerable evidence survives of English women’s engagement in a vibrant literary culture in Latin and subsequently French from the early Middle Ages onwards, the relationships between The Book of Margery Kempe and her literary antecedents are still relatively unknown or unexplored. This chapter asks what happens if we encounter The Book not at the start of a tradition or canon of women’s writing, but in the middle of one. It does not make claims for direct influences between Margery Kempe and her Book’s literary antecedents. Rather it unravels intriguing parallels with texts associated with some of the earliest women writers in the English tradition, including the eighth-century letters of Boniface’s early medieval women correspondents, Hugeburc of Heidenheim’s Hodoeporicon [or voyage narrative] of St Willibald (written c. 778–80), and Rudolf of Fulda’s Life of Leoba (written c. 836). Particular attention is paid to the treatment of travel and pilgrimage in these earlier texts that anticipate Kempe’s own accounts of her journeys around England and Europe and to the Holy Land; to the representations of the subjects’ encounters with other people, countries and cultures; and to the gendered construction of authority within the texts, and the tensions that often emerge between subject and scribe.

in Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe
Autobiography in the third person
Ruth Evans

The Book of Margery Kempe’s third-person narration has received very little sustained analysis from a narratological perspective. Although the Book is not an autobiography in the modern sense, this chapter draws on Philippe Lejeune’s notion of ‘the autobiographical pact’ and his analysis of third-person narration in modern autobiographies to argue that Kempe’s use of the third person is a mode of figuration that both inscribes her divided identity and precludes the reader’s encounter with a knowable life. Autobiography holds out the promise of that encounter but ultimately thwarts it. After briefly contextualising Kempe’s practice in relation to late medieval devotional writing, the chapter uses the narratological distinction between the utterance [énoncé] and the enunciation [énonciation] to analyse the multiple effects of Kempe’s insistent reference to herself in the third person, either as ‘sche’ or ‘this creatur’. A further aspect of that third-person narration is Kempe’s distinctive, but understudied, use of the deictic ‘this’ in the phrase ‘this creatur’. The chapter argues that this usage contributes to Kempe’s radical understanding of her subjectivity in the Book as a process of self-begetting. Third-person narration allows Kempe to articulate her selfhood as a tension between identity and difference, unity and division, and also brings out what is implicit in all autobiographical texts, namely, their status as both writing – a written text – and as the documentary recording of a life.

in Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe
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Shadow resurrections and artistic transformations
Naomi Booth

This chapter proposes a series of connections between ways of imagining the task of writing and ways of imagining the swoon, whereby the swoon is offered as a model of artistic transformation. The swoon in the work of the writers considered here is a shadow of dominant narratives of resurrection and rebirth: it is used to describe dark and ‘death-born’ processes of revivification, and we find it frequently in the work of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers who seek to channel feminine morbidity in order to challenge masculinist discourses of health and power. If the swoon had become tarnished by associations with feminine incapacity by the end of the eighteenth century, the writers discussed here play on that association in order to devise new forms of writing and of politics. Recent work in disability studies, particularly from scholars formulating ‘disability aesthetics’, has demonstrated how the formal dimensions of artistic work are shaped in relation to ideas and lived experiences of the body: disability aesthetics rejects notions of the ‘healthy body’ as the crucible for the production of art. I (re)present the work of John Keats, Edgar Allan Poe and James Joyce to show that they revere a morbid process of swooning as the initiator of art, and in so doing they reject received narratives of health, virility and vitality. James Joyce’s descriptions of souls swooning is given special consideration here as part of his complex reconfiguration of the mind and the body in relation to the aesthetic.

in Swoon
Editors: Laura Kalas and Laura Varnam

Encountering The Book of Margery Kempe illuminates the capaciousness of Margery Kempe studies in the twenty-first century. Through multiple, probing ‘encounters’, this innovative collection of essays generates and inspires interdisciplinary, overlapping, supportive, disruptive, and exploratory theoretical and creative approaches to the Book, and is a valuable new critical companion.

Structured around four categories of encounter – textual, internal, external, and performative – the volume suggests particular thematic threads yet reveals the way in which The Book of Margery Kempe resists strict categorisation. The fundamental unruliness of the Book is a touchstone for the analyses in the volume’s chapters, which define and destabilise concepts such ‘autobiography’ or ‘feeling’, and communities of texts and people, both medieval and modern. The chapters, written by leading scholars in Margery Kempe studies, cover a broad range of approaches: theories of psychoanalysis, emotion, ecocriticism, autobiography, post-structuralism, and performance; and methodologies including the medical humanities, history of science, history of medieval women’s literary culture, digital humanities, literary criticism, oral history, the Global Middle Ages, archival discovery, and creative reimagining. Deliberately diverse, these encounters with the Book capture the necessary expanse that it demands. Topics include the intertextuality of the Book, particularly in Europe; Kempe’s position within a global context, both urban and rural; the historicity of her life and kin; the Book’s contested form as a ‘life’ textualised and memorialised; and its performative, collaborative mode.

Encounters are dynamic, but they always require negotiation and reciprocity. This volume examines how encountering Kempe and her Book is a multi-way process, and paves the way for future critical work.