How did the buying and collecting of books figure in the lives and works of the Romantics, those supposed apostles of spiritualized poetic genius? Why was book collecting controversial during the Romantic period, and what role has book collecting played in the history of homophobia? The Queer Bookishness of Romanticism: Ornamental Community addresses these and more questions about the suppressed bookish dimension of Romanticism, as well as Romanticism’s historical forebears and Victorian inheritors. The analysis ranges widely, addressing the bookish proclivities of the "romantic friends" the Ladies of Llangollen, the camp works about book collecting produced by a subculture calling themselves “ornamental gentlemen,” narratives of prototypically punk collecting and flâneuring by the essayist and collector Charles Lamb, and rare-book forgeries by Thomas J. Wise and Harry Forman, queer bibliographer-scholars responsible for canonizing some of the Romantic poets during the Victorian period. In the process, this book uncovers surprising connections between conceptions of literature and sexuality; literary materiality and queerness; and forgery, sexuality, and authorship.
Michael Robinson is lecturer in the writing and rhetoric department at the University of Rhode Island.
List of Figures
Introduction: Romantic Bookishness
Chapter 1: Collecting the Ladies of Llangollen
Chapter 2: Thomas F. Dibdin’s Club for Ornamental Gentlemen
Chapter 3: Antiquarian Coolness: The Punk Antiquarianism of Charles Lamb
Chapter 4: A Curious Pair of Bookmen
In some of his most transcendental lines, Wordsworth attempts (as he writes in "Tintern Abbey") to “see into the life of things” at the very moment he leaves the “corporeal frame” behind. But what happens when things in the corporeal world take on a life of their own? In this captivating study, Robinson explores the “queer bookishness” and dissident embrace of objects and ornamentation that were paradoxically integral to the formation of a canonical, ethereal Romanticism. Looking beyond the cult of the author, Robinson explores what Thomas Dibdin called—in Bibliomania (1811)—“the grand æra of Bibliomania,” a moment in which collectors, antiquarians, book lovers, and even forgers found in the absorbing materiality of texts both an impetus for community and a channel for dissident self-expression. Alert to the multifarious desires inherent in the stylized consumption of books, Robinson offers new readings of the ornamental community surrounding the Ladies of Llangollen, the punk antiquarianism of Charles Lamb, and even the way forgery itself performs “a queer history of the author-function.” Compelling, readable, and theoretically suggestive, The Queer Bookishness of Romanticism captures the color and suggestive complexity of a bookish underside of Romanticism still coming into view. Highly recommended. Lower-division undergraduates through faculty; general readers.
In this carefully researched, stylish study, Michael Robinson traces the controversies that the cult of the rare book occasioned in nineteenth-century literary culture. The nineteenth century’s canonical notions of author and public were challenged when the ornamental gentlemen of the era – collectors, dandies, flâneurs – performed in their campy way their attachment to books and to the material stuff of books especially. Romanticists, scholars of collecting and consumerism, and historians of gender and sexuality will all learn a lot from Robinson’s recovery of the understudied connections between bibliophilia and dissident eroticism.
A fresh and provocative rereading of Romanticism’s literary culture, Robinson’s book offers a set of fascinating forays into a “bookish underside” constituted by affective attachments to the material book object. Demonstrating how such attachments both dislodged idealizing categories within the literary sphere and underwrote the formation of dissident communities within the culture of literacy, Robinson opens up a new dimension of anxieties over books, reading and authorship in the period.
Michael Robinson’s The Queer Bookishness of Romanticism is a welcome exploration of the homoerotic overlay of the culture of book collecting that expanded dramatically during the Romantic period. As Robinson shows, the pleasures of bookishness were often marked as queer even when they were not explicitly gay. His chapters on the Ladies of Llangollen, Thomas Dibdin, Charles Lamb, and the forgers Wise and Buxton Forman provide a vivid counter to the heterosexism at the center of so much Romantic scholarship.
Ornamental Community is a brilliant and wide-ranging study of the relationship of English romanticism to what could be called “bookish consumerism” or the “dissident culture of bookishness” of the 19th c., centering on what appears to be the perhaps inadvertent democratization of such consumerism through Thomas Frognall Dibdin, if not the most “curious” thinker of this period, surely its queerest stylistician.