Romantic Authorship

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The exhibits featured here have been chosen to compose an essay on the nature of Romantic authorship as it emerged across Europe from the late eighteenth century through to the mid nineteenth century.

Exhibits fall into two categories: those that illustrate ways in which writers within the period constructed their own sense of authorship and those that illustrate ways in which Romantic period authors were constructed by readers in their own time and after.

‘Petrarch’s inkstand’ may seem an unlikely starting-point for a conversation about the contours of Romantic authorship, but it was one of a number of inkstands antique and modern that compacted the lived experience of writing and notions of Romantic inspiration, heritage, ambition, and nation. The story of this Grand Tour souvenir exemplifies one way in which a contemporary Irish woman writer, Maria Edgeworth, might make herself legible in relation to longstanding European literary tradition, albeit in the private and sentimental mode of a gift between friends. The ‘Table of Inkwells’ was designed to make a much more public and explicitly national statement, bringing together inkwells belonging to four living French writers — Alphonse de Lamartine, George Sand, Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo – in a contemporary pantheon-cum-museum piece. The inkwell may be said to have been iconic of the life of the established Romantic writer; but more highflown metaphors were also available for the young and aspirational. The tiepin in the shape of a classical lyre gifted by Alexandr Pushkin to Adam Mickiewicz may have been a private transaction between the two young men, but also grandiosely marked a recognition that they aimed at and shared an emerging status as the national poets of Russia and Poland respectively.

Romantic authorship as consumed by the generality of readers has very often been related to specific places. The collection showcases three important instances of this. The first two were celebrated from very early on: Byron’s autograph at the Castle of Chillon on Lake Geneva, and Walter Scott’s chair at his home in Abbotsford on the Scottish Borders. The authenticity of the first is controversial, while that of the second is not in doubt, but both had the effect of associating these places with a particular authorial imagination for European readers. Tourists’ accounts of seeking out both autograph and chair share a sense of immediate encounter with the materialised fire of Romantic inspiration, in exile or at home.  The third instance, two manuscript pages from Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal held in Dove Cottage, may serve to spark reflection on the extent to which Romantic authorship is an ongoing ideological formation. These pages can nowadays seem to promise immediate access to the quotidian and local intimacy of the creative life. Their increasing celebrity exemplifies a continuing fascination with the localised, timebound, material and obscure traces of the creative process, a fascination traceable directly to the Romantics themselves.

Click on the caption to read more about the image. All exhibits are available in English translation as well as the original language.

For more on pantheonization, nation and the poet, and the intertwining of personal and public iconography within authorial personae, see

The Basilica of Santa Croce; Petofi’s Wallet; Shakespeare’s Chair.