Blank Faces and Fear of Ruin

  • Anya Taylor


Living with his wife and baby Hartley in the village of Nether Stowey, and traveling in and out of London, Coleridge continues to watch women of all classes and to describe their appearances to his friends. He pays attention to their dress, bodies, carriage, size, weight, even as he is learning to value their conversation. Faced with the dazzling surfaces of the Georgian and Regency female, his admiration often stopped short at the body. In convivial mode he laughed heartily at female shapes and peculiarities: heavy inking covers the name of someone whose wife is “a nasty hard-hearted, hatchet-fac’d, droop-nos’d, eye-sunken, rappee-complexioned [old Bitch]” (CL 2, 880). Fat women amused him: “A superfluity of Beef! … Vulgarity enshrin’d in blubber!”1 And breasts always caught his eye: “Blessed, blessed were the breasts!”2 During the 1797–1802 years he wrote for the Morning Post, and charmed actresses, writers, and hostesses whose low-cut dresses provided a fleshy vista for his moist and protruding eyes. Indeed, given the eye-catching décolletages at the Bath Fashion Museum, it is remarkable that Coleridge alone talks about breasts; we should instead wonder why the other male Romantics rarely mention them. In this cosmopolitan interlude he dined at Charlotte Smith’s house (CL 1, 571), and several times with Mr. and Mrs. Barbauld (CL 1, 577); he spent a night surrounded by the three Allen girls, innocently, he writes his wife (CL 2, 890), while arguing the case that no one can promise to love just one person for the rest of his life; any “warm & wide-hearted man” loves many people (CL 2, 887–888).


Young Woman Possessive Pronoun Rousing Anger Female Shape Half Sister 
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  1. 3.
    OM, S. T. Coleridge, Opus Maximum, ed. Thomas McFarland, with Nicholas Halmi (London and Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002), p. 126, where he claims that “we need not travel to the wastes of Africa for Fetich worshippers…. It is the dire epidemic of man in the social state to forget the substance in the appearance, the essence in the form.”Google Scholar
  2. 4.
    Mary Poovey, The Proper Lady and the Woman Writer (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1984), p. 12, writes that “throughout the course of the eighteenth century, husbands were becoming more expensive, or, to reverse the formula, women were becoming less valuable.”Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Ruth Yeazell, Fictions of Modesty (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991);Google Scholar
  4. Lisa Plummer Crafton, “‘Insipid Decency’: Modesty and Female Sexuality in Wollstonecraft,” European Romantic Review 11, 3 (Summer, 2000), 277–299;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Sonia Hofkosh, “Introduction: Invisible Girls,” Sexual Politics and the Romantic Author (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 5–6.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Yeats, “A Prayer for My Daughter” (June 1919) wishes that his baby girl not be granted “Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught” or to lose her own “natural kindness,” The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats (New York: Macmillan, 1956), p. 186. Coleridge, by contrast, wishes to protect this girl from predators.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Coleridge’s intermittent work on “Christabel” during this three-year period suggests a continuity of worry about the obliteration of the female person, perhaps with reference also to his mother’s banishment of his only sister, as I have suggested in “‘Christabel’ and the Phantom Soul,” in SEL: Studies in English Literature 42, 4 (Autumn, 2002), 707–730. In a letter to Thomas Poole Oct. 31, 1801 (CL 2, 772–773) he praises a “lewd Boy” for being willing to repair the damage by marrying “a wanton Girl”; “If he do not, the Girl is hunted by Infamy, & perhaps hunted by it into the Toils of Guilt & habitual Depravity.” “I take it for granted,” he adds, “that the Girl is with child.—”Google Scholar
  8. Marlon B. Ross emphasizes the force of “propriety” in The Contours of Masculine Desire: Romanticism and the Rise of Women’s Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989), p. 199.Google Scholar
  9. 8.
    Emmanuel Levinas, “On Max Picard,” Proper Names, trans. Michael B. Smith (London: The Athlone Press, 1996 [original 1976]), p. 95. Levinas continues, “The personality in the face is at once the most irreplaceable, the most unique, and that which constitutes intelligibility itself.”Google Scholar
  10. David P. Haney, “Aesthetics and Ethics in Gadamer, Levinas, and Romanticism: Problems of Phronesis and Techne,” PMLA 114, 1 (Jan. 1999), 41, applies the ethical demands of the human face in Emmanuel Levinas’s Totality to dialogues with other persons in both Wordsworth and Coleridge. The presence of a “‘face coming from beyond the world, but committing [the observer] to human fraternity,’ a face whose ‘destitution cries out for justice’” explains the passionate humanity of the blind beggar in Wordsworth’s Prelude, but it eludes analysis in Coleridge, where voice, I suspect, is the core of the person. Levinas’s faces pose a problem for feminists, for Levinas assumes that the female face is passive and gentle, so that he, too, is drawn up short by the female mask of modesty and propriety.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. 10.
    Mays and James Engell, ed., The Early Family Letters (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994) have slightly different dates for Ann Coleridge’s exile and death.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    R. W. Armour and R. F. Howes, eds., Coleridge the Talker: A Series of Contemporary Descriptions and Comments (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1940), p. 327.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Debbie Lee narrates this story of the imposter Hatfield in her “Forgeries,” pp. 521–537, in Nick Roe, ed., Romanticism: An Oxford Guide (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 533–536.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Rachel Simmons, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (Orlando and New York: Harcourt, 2002) began a furor on the web about teenage bullying by girls (check under “mean girls”). Simmons connects the obligation to be nice and silent with the relational aggression aimed at harming the inner selves of other girls. Gainsborough’s large painting is housed in The Frick Museum, New York.Google Scholar

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© Anya Taylor 2005

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  • Anya Taylor

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