Introducing contingency and that which did not happen as necessary and revealing conditions both of Romanticism itself and of our critical relationship with it, Counterfactual Romanticism explores the affordances of counterfactualism as a heuristic and as an imaginative tool. Innovatively extending counterfactual thought experiments from history and the social sciences to literary historiography and literary criticism and theory, the volume reveals the ways in which the shapes of Romanticism are conditioned by that which did not come to pass. Exploring – and creatively performing – various modalities of counterfactual speculation and inquiry across a range of Romantic-period authors, genres and concerns, and identifying the Romantic credentials of counterfactual thought, the introduction and eleven chapters in this collection offer a radical new purchase on literary history, on the relationship between history and fiction, on our historicist methods to date – and thus on the Romanticisms we (think we) have inherited. Counterfactual Romanticism provides a ground-breaking method of re-reading literary pasts and our own reading presents; in the process, literary production, texts and reading practices are unfossilised and defamiliarised. To emancipate the counterfactual imagination and embrace the counterfactual turn and its provocations is to reveal the literary multiverse and quantum field within which our far-from-inevitable literary inheritance is located.

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Counterfactual Romanticism
Damian Walford Davies
in Counterfactual Romanticism
Counterfactual Romanticism and the aesthetics of contingency
Damian Walford Davies

Revealing the Romantic credentials of the counterfactual sensibility, this chapter calls on us to embrace an ‘aesthetics of contingency’ through which we may recognise the conditioning counterfactuality of our lived lives. Extending the insights of William Galperin’s work on Jane Austen and Andrew Miller’s on the ‘optative mode’, the chapter powerfully recommends an ethically recalibrated view of objects, literary texts and periods – one that is alive to the multiple possibilities and counterfictions that condition our identities and which shadow our relation to a negotiable (literary) past.

in Counterfactual Romanticism
History as fashion, furniture, fraud, forgery, folklore and fiction in the Romantic onset of modernity
Damian Walford Davies

This chapter offers a detailed portrait of the commercial, political and cultural contexts in which bewilderingly plural assemblages of ‘national historical fact’ circulated from the mid-eighteenth century onwards in the form of various ‘national’ histories. Countering and contradicting, in the very process of incorporating and supplementing, one another, these endlessly adaptable histories set out to curate conceptions of modernity that were defined against the very ‘history’ they were constructing. Further, the chapter shows how a recyclable ‘body of national historical factuals’ conditioned the emergence of the ‘historified fiction’ of the novel in the period.

in Counterfactual Romanticism
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Romantic-era literary forgery and British alternative pasts
Damian Walford Davies

Theorising the relation between forgery and Romantic counterfactualism, this chapter analyses the credit afforded to forged pasts and texts during the Romantic period. The chapter argues that in the hands of James Macpherson, Thomas Chatterton and Edward Williams (‘Iolo Morganwg’), forgery’s ‘counterfactual world’ becomes a modality of Romantic counterfactualism’s investment in ‘possibilism’. Forgery in the service of national and local identity and of national literary history is insightfully located in spaces of loss – material, cultural, political – and in the context of recuperative ‘possibilities’.

in Counterfactual Romanticism
Damian Walford Davies

Focusing on Sophie Lee’s novel The Recess (1783–85), this chapter discusses the uncanny ‘folds’ of the actual and the virtual in Lee’s early alternate history novel of sixteenth-century Scotland and England. Attending to the novel’s bewildering doublings and twinnings, its interplay of historical and fictional personages, the chapter develops a theory of counterfactualism that is focused on form and narrative. The strategies of Lee’s novel render history’s ‘facts’ and personae exchangeable and ‘depthless’, resulting not in a ‘genealogy’ but rather a discursive ‘narratology’ in which entities (and thus ‘history’) are defined only by relational difference.

in Counterfactual Romanticism
Damian Walford Davies

Daring to imagine Wordsworth’s Prelude published ‘not long after he first finished it’ in May 1805 – rather than posthumously in 1850 – this chapter speculates on the effects on younger writers of the poem’s radical ‘self-creation mode’. The chapter explores what Wordsworth’s contemporaries were denied by the poet’s decision not to publish his autobiographical epic at the point of first completion. Counterfactually exploring the impactfulness of The Prelude’s models on Byron – and emphasising how challenging and unsympathetic certain aspects of the poem might at first have been for him – the chapter brings into play an uncannily ‘Romantic’ (rather than Victorian) Prelude and a defamiliarised Byron, with each becoming the other’s uncanny avatar.

in Counterfactual Romanticism
Mary Wollstonecraft’s Frankenstein
Damian Walford Davies

In creative-critical mode, this chapter develops a theory of critical obstetrics, exploring a series of counterfactual scenarios beginning with Mary Wollstonecraft’s recovery from puerperal fever in September 1797 and resulting in the ‘miracle counterfactual’ of (a version of) Mary’s Shelley’s Frankenstein being written by Wollstonecraft at the close of the 1790s. Analysing the nature of the counterfactual prompts that suggest such a scenario, the chapter uncannily appropriates Frankenstein as the mother’s text in order to explore not only what a necessarily ‘zombie’ Wollstonecraft might have gone on to create, but also the nature of our own critical and affective relation with her death. Seeking to challenge pious memorialisations of Wollstonecraft and the tyrannous stratifications of literary historiography, the chapter – in uncanny speculative mode – profiles the novel of the Irish Rebellion that Wollstonecraft went on to publish in 1799, delivering the reader into a refreshingly troubled relation both to Wollstonecraft and to her daughter’s novel.

in Counterfactual Romanticism
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A counterfactual ghost story
Damian Walford Davies

Deploying a creative-critical mode, this chapter prompts a debate as to the quantum and nature of the imaginative investment informing all critical engagements with the literary past. The chapter’s larger context is the biography of John Thelwall that the author is preparing; offering an inhabitation of the counterfactual in which the spectral figures prominently, the chapter details the archival lacunae and absences that prompt the counterfactual imagination. The critic-biographer embraces counterfactual speculation as a tool through which to (re)construct a literary-political life and to understand Thelwall’s own self-conscious acts of indirection and ventriloquism in a body of transgressive poetry related to a taboo-haunted family drama of 1816.

in Counterfactual Romanticism
Scott, Banim, Galt and Mitford
Damian Walford Davies

This chapter identifies 1824 as a ‘crux in the history of factual and counterfactual writing’ – a moment when Walter Scott, John Banim, John Galt and Mary Russell Mitford choose a counterfactual turn at a time of ‘rampant speculation’ in the wider economic sphere. Revealing the varieties of ‘soft’ counterfactual speculation deployed by these authors – ranging from the uncanny interactions of history and fiction and Romantic-period time-travel ‘speculative fantasy’ to the ironic counterfactual effects of a literary miscellany and the interplay of documentary and idealising modes of writing place – the chapter shows how its chosen texts yield teasing metaperspectives on contemporary literary production, reading practices, the literary market and literary history.

in Counterfactual Romanticism