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In this groundbreaking work of revisionary literary history, Marilyn Butler traces the imagining of alternative versions of the nation in eighteenth-century Britain, both in the works of a series of well-known poets (Akenside, Thomson, Gray, Collins, Chatterton, Macpherson, Blake) and in the differing accounts of the national culture offered by eighteenth-century antiquarians and literary historians. She charts the beginnings in eighteenth-century Britain of what is now called cultural history, exploring how and why it developed, and the issues at stake. Her interest is not simply in a succession of great writers, but in the politics of a wider culture, in which writers, scholars, publishers, editors, booksellers, readers all play their parts. For more than thirty years, Marilyn Butler was a towering presence in eighteenth-century and romantic studies, and this major work is published for the first time.
'Wuthering Heights stands alone as a monument of intensity owing nothing to tradition, nothing to the achievement of earlier writers. It was a thing apart, passionate, unforgettable, haunting in its grimness.' Thus the eleventh edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica, published in 1911. The sense that Emily Brontë's one surviving novel is quite unlike any other has been a persistent one. (She is the only writer in this volume with just one work of fiction to her name.) 'A kind of “sport”', F. R. Leavis famously called it. 'In an age in which the realist novel seems both to come out of and to return to the ordinary life external to it, Wuthering Heights on the contrary represents something separate in itself, with its own geography, biology, and virtually untranslatable mythology', writes Philip Davis, in his volume on the Victorians for the Oxford English Literary History (2002). Even those closest to Emily Brontë seem to have shared this sense. In her Preface to the second, posthumous edition of the novel, Charlotte Brontë set out to defend it to a reading public that she feared would find it a 'rude and strange production' by giving some account of the author's life and also of 'the locality where the scenes of the story are laid'. But in the end she offered less an explanation than a powerful contribution to the myth of Emily Brontë as an inscrutable genius whose extraordinary achievement was more baffling than intelligible. In the two final paragraphs of that Preface, reprinted in all subsequent editions, she developed an image that was to influence generations of readers, of Wuthering Heights as 'wrought . . . from no model', 'colossal, dark, and frowning, half statue, half rock' (370-1) - more like a natural object than accomplished work of art.
Work on British Romanticism is often characterised as much by its conscious difference from preceding positions as it is by its approach to or choice of material. As a result, writing neglected or marginalised in one account will be restored to prominence in another, as we reconstruct the past as a history of the present. This collection of essays takes as its starting point the wide-ranging work of Marilyn Butler on Romantic literature, and includes contributions by some of the most prominent scholars of Romanticism working today. The essays offer interesting perspectives on Maria Edgeworth, Coleridge, Austen, Scott and others, showing that the openness of modern critical perceptions matches and reflects the diversity of the literature and culture of the Romantic period itself.