Forget what you think you know about The Romantics. In this course taught by award-winning biographer Frances Wilson, we’ll meet stalkers, firebrands, melancholics, and opium addicts.
In the How To Academy’s earlier introductory course on English Romanticism, Frances Wilson introduced the major Romantic poets and their cohorts. It is the minor characters, however, who add colour to a story, and the cast list of this second course includes fraudsters, stalkers, suicides, murder aficionados, WhigMPs, feminist firebrands and opium addicts. The focus of these six lectures will be satire and the city rather than nature and the self; we will look at medieval poets who never existed, the gothic novel and its parodies, the first feminist polemic, the birth of the misery memoir, and the blood bath that was journalism in the great age of rough-house.
3pm – 5pm Friday 13th October
Session 1: Thomas Chatterton and Forgery
I thought of Chatterton, the marvellous Boy,
The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride –
We will begin with seventeen year-old Thomas Chatterton in his Holborn garret, swallowing a fatal dose of arsenic. His body, and the torn-up fragments of one of his masterful literary forgeries, would be found by his landlady on 25 August 1770 but his name, at this point, meant nothing to the public. A discerning few, however, had heard of Thomas Rowley, the medieval monk whose poetry Chatterton claimed to have discovered in the muniments room of a church in Bristol, but which he in fact penned himself in an antique Olde English he made up as he went along. Who was this teenage fraudster, what led him to take his own life, and why was he so revered by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and Thomas De Quincey?
Session 2: Horace Walpole and the Gothic Novel
… and then the figure, turning slowly round, discovered to Frederic the fleshless jaws and empty sockets of a skeleton, wrapt in a hermit’s cowl. “Angels of peace protect me!” cried Frederic, recoiling. “Deserve their protection!” said the spectre.―
Horace Walpole, The Castle of Otranto
Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), pertaining to be a translation of a medieval manuscript written by a certain Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto, is the first, and the finest, English Gothic novel. The plot, in which a bridegroom is crushed to death beneath a giant supernatural helmet, inspired a host of tales of terror including Frankenstein and Jane Austen’s satirical Northanger Abbey. Today, The Castle of Otranto is more likely to make us laugh than scream but why did it have such a chilling impact on our ancestors, and how has Walpole, the MP for the rotten borough of Callington, Cornwall, influenced our own nightmares?
Session 3: Mary Wollstonecraft and the Birth of Feminism
“My little Girl begins to suck so MANFULLY that her father reckons saucily on her writing the second part of the Rights of Woman”
– Mary Wollstonecraft writing to a friend.
Mary Wollstonecraft was the mother of Mary Shelley, and the great great grandmother of feminism. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) Wollstonecraft argued that women, being rational beings and not necessarily “blown about by every momentary gust of feeling”, should receive a rational education. In her own life, however, she was intensely emotional: Wollstonecraft twice attempted suicide when she was rejected by her American lover, Gilbert Imlay, on the second occasion weighing her pockets down with stones and throwing herself into the Thames. She suggested to another lover, the artist Henry Fuseli, that they live in a threesome with his wife. She found happiness with the philosopher William Godwin, before dying after giving birth to the daughter who lived in her shadow. What inspired this extraordinary woman, and what legacy has she left behind?
Session 4 : Charles Lamb and Matricide
‘I date from the day of horrors’ – Charles Lamb to S T Coleridge
On 22 September 1796, Charles Lamb, a school friend of Coleridge, came home to find his sister Mary, who suffered from mental illness, stabbing their mother to death with a kitchen knife. Had he not wrested the knife from her, she would have killed their father and aunt as well. Mary lived for the next fifty years under Charles’s care, writing and hosting a literary salon; their classic children’s book Tales from Shakespeare, has never been out of print. Describing their relationship as a ‘double-singleness’, Charles Lamb had a second double life, writing whimsical essays under the nom de plume of ‘Elias’. Who were these strange melancholics, and how did the family tragedy shape their work?
Session 5: William Hazlitt and Self-Hate
We hate old friends: we hate old books: we hate old opinions; and at last we come to hate ourselves –
William Hazlitt, ‘On the Pleasure of Hating ‘(1826)
Essayist, philosopher, and painter, William Hazlitt, who coined the term ‘The Spirit of the Age,’ was an acolyte of the Wordsworth circle and a friend of Charles and Mary Lamb. Aged 44, with his marriage in tatters, he became obsessed with Sarah Walker, the teenage daughter of his landlady. Liber Amoris, one of the most self-hating books in the language, is Hazlitt’s account of his unrequited love. But what kind of book is it? A novel? A memoir? Is any of it even true?
Session 6: Thomas De Quincey and Murder
Thomas De Quincey was Wordsworth’s earliest fan. He was also his stalker. Having become obsessed with the poet after reading Lyrical Ballads, De Quincey took over the tenancy of Wordsworth’s former home, Dove Cottage, which he then turned into an opium den. In Confessions of an English Opium Eater, De Quincey invented the genre of the misery memoir, but this last lecture in the series will focus on De Quincey’s own mock lecture, ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’. Who did De Quincey want to kill, and why are we all De Quinceyian now?
Chatterton, Peter Ackroyd
The Castle of Otantro, Horace Walpole
Nightmare Abbey, Thomas Peacock
Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey
Vindication: A Life of Mary Wollstonecraft, Lyndell Gordon
Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey, Frances Wilson
Liber Amoris; Or, The New Pygmalion, William Hazlitt
Essays of Elia, Charles Lamb