Scholarly Fantasy and Material Reality in Mary Robinson’s Sappho and Phaon

  • Terence Allan Hoagwood
  • Kathryn Ledbetter


The feminist and anti-amatory sonnet sequence, Sappho and Phaon (1796 and 1813), offers an example of ways in which a book reveals important meanings when studied as a physical object. Literary definitions of the “text” or the “work” have not traditionally treated the book-as-object as essentially meaningful: in traditional accounts, the “text” is an arrangement of words that can appear in any physical presentation, and the “work” is an abstract mental entity in the mind of the author. Influential post-structuralist usages are equally abstract: Roland Barthes writes that “the Text is a methodological field”;1 Fredric Jameson writes of “textual structure” that “must be reconstituted, a deep-textual machinery whose characterization ranges from systems of tropes … to the narrative apparatus.”2 The physical book that is present is almost always understood as a vehicle for the conveyance of a text, a sign of a mental intention, imaginary object, or field of reproducible signifiers with which customers may play, if they like it, and buy.


French Revolution Woman Writer Physical Book Military Career Radical Feminism 
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  1. 1.
    Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text,” in Image-Music-Text, ed. and tr. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 157.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Fredric Jameson, “The Ideology of the Text,” in The Ideologies of Theory: Essays 1971–1986. Volume I: Situations of Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 19.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    An outstanding and authoritative expression of the traditional view is G. Thomas Tanselle, A Rationale of Textual Criticism (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989).Google Scholar
  4. The most eloquent and influential challenge to the traditional view is McGann, A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983), against which Tanselle’s book reaffirms traditional values.Google Scholar
  5. Recent editions for scholarly use which honor the physical character of books that actually exist include the Scholars’ Facsimiles series [hundreds of books, including Mary Robinson’s Sappho and Phaon, intro. Rebecca Jackson and Terence Hoagwood (Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles, 1994) and The Keepsake (1829), intro. Terence Hoagwood and Kathryn Ledbetter (Delmar, NY: Scholars’ Facsimiles, 1999)],Google Scholar
  6. Jonathan Wordsworth’s series, Revolution and Romanticism 1789–1836 [dozens of books, including Mary Robinson’s Lyrical Tales, intro. Jonathan Wordsworth (Oxford: Woodstock Books, 1989)], and the Cornell Wordsworth volumes, under the general editorship of Stephen Maxfield Parrish,Google Scholar
  7. including The Thirteen-Book Prelude, ed. Mark L. Reed (Cornell University Press, 1991), and—despite the total transposition of medium—electronic facsimiles including the Rossetti Archive, ed. Jerome McGann <>, the scholarly website Romantic Circles (e.g., Mary Darby Robinson, A Letter to the Women of England, on the Injustice of Mental Subordination, ed. Adriana Craciun and others <>) and The Lyrical Ballads Bicentenary Project, ed. Ronald Tetreault <>.Google Scholar
  8. 4.
    Outstanding examples of literary criticism that is informed by cognizance and analysis of such meanings include Jerome J. McGann, The Textual Condition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991),Google Scholar
  9. and Literature in the Marketplace, ed. John O. Jordan and Robert L. Patten (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995). A collection of essays devoted to the interpretative significance of material media is Materialism and Textuality, ed. Terence Allan Hoagwood, published as an issue of Studies in the Literary Imagination 30, no. 1 (Spring 1997).Google Scholar
  10. Often, excellent work on the physical media of literary texts is informative but not self-consciously devoted to critical and interpretative argument: for obvious reasons the works of William Morris have attracted much productive scholarly attention to their media [e.g., William S. Peterson, The Kelmscott Press: A History of William Morris’s Typographical Adventure (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991)],Google Scholar
  11. and likewise studies of William Blake’s illuminated works [e.g., Joseph Viscomi, Blake and the Idea of the Book (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993)].Google Scholar
  12. 5.
    For an outstanding and permanently important example of scholarly work that is explicitly devoted to the principles to which I refer, including the notion of a “work” as existing in an author’s mind, see Opus Maximum, volume 15 in The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. Thomas McFarland with the assistance of Nicholas Halmi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  13. 6.
    The word “legitimate” refers conventionally to the Petrarchan form, and it is also important in terms of the polemical context of writings by women: Charlotte Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets of 1784 were widely received as if they had no other meaning or importance than private excess of feeling—i.e., sentimentality and weakness, which are treated in terms of femininity in the language of every published review. At the same time, Smith’s sonnets were disparaged as not “legitimate”—i.e., not composed in the Petrarchan form. In her preface to Sappho and Phaon, Robinson cites Smith as an exemplary writer of sonnets, and, with that praise of Smith in the preface, the claim represented by the word “legitimate” on Robinson’s title-page puts her sonnets in contentious dialogue. Robinson makes a claim for the legitimacy of her work in the critical context in which Smith’s sonnets were disparaged. On the contemporary reception of Smith’s sonnets, see Florence Hilbish, Charlotte Smith: Poet and, Novelist (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1941),Google Scholar
  14. and Loraine Fletcher, Charlotte Smith: A Critical Biography (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  15. 7.
    Pascoe, introduction to Mary Robinson: Selected Poems (Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview, 2000); Robinson, Memoirs of the Late Mrs. Robinson, Written by Herself, 4 vols. (1801; rpt. London: Hunt and Clarke, 1826), 32; Shteir, “Mary Robinson,” in A Dictionary of British and American Women Writers 1660–1800, ed. Janet Todd (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1987).Google Scholar
  16. 10.
    On Bell, see Stanley Morison, John Bell, 1745–1831: Bookseller, Printer, Publisher, Typefounder, Journalist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1930); Charles H. Timperley, A Dictionary of Printers and Printing, with the Progress of Literature, Ancient and Modern (London, 1839); Timperley, Encyclopedia of Literary and Typographical Anecdote (London, 1842);Google Scholar
  17. and Frank Arthur Mumby, Publishing and Bookselling: A History from the Earliest Times to the Present Day, 3rd ed. (London: Jonathan Cape, 1954), 193.Google Scholar
  18. 17.
    On the social and political significance of Bage’s novels, see Mary Wollstonecraft’s review of Man as He Is in the Analytical Review 24 (October 1796): 398–99; and Gary Kelly, The English Jacobin Novel 1780–1805 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976).Google Scholar
  19. 18.
    On Johnson, see Gerald P. Tyson, Joseph Johnson: A Liberal Publisher (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1979).Google Scholar
  20. 19.
    Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), ed. Carol H. Poston (New York: Norton, 1975), 22.Google Scholar
  21. 20.
    Peterson, “Becoming an Author: Mary Robinson’s Memoirs,” in Revisioning Romanticism: British Women Writers, 1776–1837, ed. Carol Shiner Wilson and Joel Haefner (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994), 40, 43. Curiously, the mail-ordered copy of this book that I am using arrived with some of its pages printed upside-down, and is thus a palpable reminder that books are still manufactured things.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    McGann, The Poetics of Sensibility (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 111–12.Google Scholar

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© Terence Allan Hoagwood and Kathryn Ledbetter 2005

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  • Terence Allan Hoagwood
  • Kathryn Ledbetter

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