STM: Let’s begin by contextualising your book – where in the universe of literary texts on English Romantic Literature does it fall; what gap does it intend to fill?
NS: English Romantic Literature really lives on in the anthology. Many of us who have met a Romantic poet (Wordsworth, Byron or Keats) outside the English classroom will have done so in the pages of a poetry collection. Perhaps the most well-known example is the Palgrave Golden Treasury. For students and teachers of literature, leading publishers like Norton, Routledge and Cambridge continue to curate editions of literary material produced in various periods in British history.
Leading critical companions to British Literature are unaffordable for students and teachers in India. Even when you get your hands on them, these resources assume a high level of native familiarity with English writing and culture. I wanted to bridge the gap between resources like these and the students I met regularly in my classroom.
My book belongs to a category of writing that serves as a ‘critical companion’ to studying a key period but with some divergences in overall aims, vision and composition.
Leading critical companions to British Literature are unaffordable for students and teachers in India. Access to these (like Cambridge Companions or even the Norton Anthologies) for most people is only possible via institutional purchases. Even when you get your hands on them, these resources are specialised and assume a high level of native familiarity with English writing and culture. I wanted to bridge the gap between resources like these and students I met regularly in my classroom, who like me, needed significant cultural translation to understand British literature.
Lastly, setting undergraduate English Literature syllabi in the country today is a complex exercise where writing across regions, identities, genres and themes compete for space to eventually meet learners who are poorly prepared at the school level in the English language and may not have had a serious introduction to the scholarly study of a literary work. My book, therefore, also seeks to teach the basics of contextual reading and interpretation such that it can be taken to any terrain of writing of interest to the reader.
STM: Who are your primary readers? You teach English Romantics to BA English students at the University. Tell us about the course you teach and how this book is material for it.
NS: This book is primarily for the college lecturer or student preparing to teach or enter a course on English Romantic Literature. The series too is targeted at this kind of readership in India and the tone, style and pricing reflect this.
I felt the absence of this kind of resource when I started my first teaching job. The university where I worked had a richly endowed library but my difficulty at the time was far more basic — my introduction to any period of English Literature had happened briefly and over a single course during my master’s. There, I was expected to do work that required expertise — create syllabi, teach content and guide student assignments in any period of British history. Even as a wealth of material was available to me, several tasks that accrue to a new teaching recruit competed for time.
Inevitably, those first few years of teaching meant hurried and feverish preparation with any new content I discovered and the constant struggle to impart the capacity for self-learning to my students. I knew I wanted to inspire students’ curiosity for carrying out explorations of their own in any period and to teach the methods to do so rather than leave them only with the information/ideas that had moved me while preparing a lesson. To do all of this while teaching a course on a major period of English Literature is next to impossible.
The English Romantics have long been anthologised to showcase their homogeneity (an interest in nature, writing characterised by solitary figures, mastery over the poetic form) and this has led to certain exclusions as well. We rarely study female authors, writers from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds or even anonymous writing emerging at this time.
This book hopes to be a one-stop resource for any teacher wishing to try out a different format for approaching this terrain. First, the book showcases extensive commentary on individual texts and authors. These individual instances are not often the routine example — my book expands the category of ‘literature/writing’ to include pamphlets, political prints, introductions and prefaces to major works and periodical reviews.
Second, the book really takes on heterogeneity as an equally likely outcome when inspecting a period closely. The English Romantics have long been anthologised to showcase their homogeneity (an interest in nature, writing characterised by solitary figures, and mastery over the poetic form) and this has led to certain exclusions as well.
We rarely study female authors, writers from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds or even anonymous writing emerging at that time. When one embraces heterogeneity in cultures of reading and writing and our interpretation of literary value in any age, a different framework for understanding ‘context’ emerges.
For the course on the English Romantics that I teach at the University, I had to really challenge myself to persuade students about the value of committing time to such extensive historical study in a literature course. Our BA English syllabus markedly differs from other contexts and aims to instil capacities important for literature students (a grounding in the language, interpretative skills, and writing) rather than give students the widest and most comprehensive exposure to writing from Britain.
My course is still the most Britain-centred in our curriculum, such that in their other courses, students would meet a few British authors but grouped by theme with writers from other regions or even in translation, such that a hierarchy is not imposed by the syllabus itself.
Our BA English syllabus differs markedly from other contexts and aims to instil capacities important for literature students (a grounding in the language, interpretative skills, writing) rather than give students the widest and most comprehensive exposure to writing from Britain.
It is therefore very commonplace to hear students complain at the start of my course about the relevance of a ‘dead white man’ to their learning or even ask why we should continue to celebrate examples of writing in a language/culture so removed from our everyday lives. These are very valid criticisms of deeply entrenched value judgements that are a feature of English education in India and were an important impetus for me to think about how I could ensure value in teaching a course on the English Romantics here and now.
My course groups writing from the period into the themes of ‘Authorship’, ‘Revolutions and Rights’ and ‘Nature’, thereby retaining a balance between what is traditionally studied as features of English Romantic writing and newer perspectives on this fascinating age.
My students usually leave the course with a sense of surprise and rediscovery — common misconceptions about the time (that the Romantics were escapists and had no interest in the material problems of their time, for example) are overturned and some ways of studying contexts are learned (what sources are used in analysing social influences on a writer’s ideas, for instance).
Any student or teacher looking for this kind of engagement in addition to getting an advanced introduction to the period will find a lot of value in the book. A general reader who has some familiarity with the existing corpus of texts can hope to make some discoveries.
My students usually leave the course with a sense of surprise and rediscovery— common misconceptions about the time are overturned and some ways of studying contexts are learned.
STM: What is the enduring relevance of Romantic Literature and how has it continued to impact contemporary literature, if it has?
NS: The most recognisable relevance of Romantic literature in the present is its close engagement with nature — understood both as a natural environment and as knowledge of human nature. English Romantic writers strove to create an enduring record of local landscapes, customs and people whose existence was under threat with the rapid industrialisation of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Even as encounters with industrialisation as in the British instance are not commensurate with experiences globally and especially in India, all of us have witnessed rapid transformations in and a near-total disappearance of natural environments in cities and peri-urban areas.
Plenty of English Romantic writing seeks to explore the short and long-term impact of major transformations to ways of life, political beliefs, national goals and aims. The late 18th and early 19th centuries in Britain also saw the emergence of writing that celebrated the individual extensively.
While it is commonplace now to find a work that dwells on the emergence of a person’s identity (how someone overcame a life challenge or the path to how someone achieved greatness), the Romantic period offers an interesting historical antecedent to this genre of writing about oneself.
If one were to take a long-durée historical approach, a category that encompasses and subsumes that of ‘English Romanticism’ is ‘the Modern’. The 18th century is often included, in a broader sense, as signalling the start of a modern mode of thinking and being that is quite different from the ages that came before. If we were to engage with this broader category, we would see a prospective emergence of certain ideas that continue to hold powerful influence today.
The first of these is the figure of the author itself. The Romantic period in England was perhaps the first time that there was such a public, legal, and intellectual obsession with the individualised persona of the author.
Prior to this, at least half of the total works published were anonymous and public engagements with someone like an author-figure (debates over the quality of their work, an interest in their personal life, an image of them accompanying their work or their ideas about the writing process) would never have been a part of the book production process. I go into the reasons for this in my book and to me, this is one of the most fascinating points of comparison with our time.
STM: The series is ‘written by scholar-teachers who have taught and researched literature for several years…’ It is unique in the sense that it juxtaposes the period’s literature with its social, cultural and political context. In fact, the timeline at the end is such a cool way of presenting this ‘at a glance’. How was it working with so much and diverse material?
NS: I am happy that you noticed the timeline! I think we need creative ways of exposing readers to historical study such that they can visualise the simultaneity of events in a period. For me, it was especially interesting to see the many possible traces one could see in a well-known work from a historical period — like, say, the novel, Frankenstein—and this was easier to represent via the timeline.
There are events of various kinds in the timeline (births and deaths and authors, global events linked to Britain as a colonial power, climate events that affected everyone and important publications) and not all of them have been expanded upon in the chapters. However, having gone through the chapters on Science or Empire, the reader will be familiar with the methods of contextual study and can explore events that interest them from the timeline in a similar manner. Each element in the timeline is valuable as a potential entry point for further exploration of the period.
One of the biggest challenges posed by diverse material is that they show up the usual categories of literary analysis as lacking. For example, what one looks for as a worthwhile category of analysis in poetry, fiction or drama may not be useful when looking closely at a pamphlet, political cartoon, or letters.
However, this is more a result of being habituated to meeting only some kinds of writing in the literature classroom and forgetting that in any age, we are surrounded by a wide variety of material we find meaningful. Once I started to think about texts in this way, I was no longer intimidated by the feeling of unfamiliarity with a certain author or work.
It was still very challenging to ensure that the reader experiences a feeling of coherence (in my framework of analysis for instance) while encountering such a diversity of material.
STM: Which was the most rewarding and which the most frustrating/challenging part of the process of publishing this work — start to finish?
NS: I think the most rewarding part of the process has been the close engagement with several people. My series editor, the anonymous reviewers and my editors at OBS read the work closely and offered their comments and encouragement. Questions posed to me by colleagues and audiences at recent book events have also been a very special experience. I think the writing process, along with its many challenges and struggles are experienced in such isolation that I had not anticipated how the publishing and post-publication period would result in rewarding engagements with others invested in the project.
Frustrations and challenges for me had to do with how long the project took from start to finish. I think this has a lot to do with being a first-time author and learning to navigate the various processes that book publishing entails. I felt inexplicably stuck until the book came out, finding myself unable to commit to the next project. These challenges during various phases of this project were necessary though — book publishing can otherwise be very mystifying and intimidating and I think I am better prepared now for such endeavours in the future.
STM: What is your opinion of the current, so-called language ‘purgation’ of the classics? Are we being over-sensitive or is it a move in the right direction?
NS: I really see your question as being about context: cultural sensitivity to themes, language, an author’s gender or persona, and anxieties about how readers can be influenced are features not only of the present moment but have a long history. During the Romantic period in Britain, for instance, the question of who was reading a text was as important as asking why the response to it was alarmist. Newer kinds of readers were joining the ranks of the ‘public’ in 18th century Britain — women, members of the working classes, and children are some examples of these.
These readers were enabled through specific social institutions and technologies emerging at this time like increased literacy, a huge demand and supply of print materials and the opening of circulating libraries. Against the backdrop of the revolution in France and with competition created by a print market of highly diversified interests, the British government and several elite authors would come to regard this situation as worrisome and in need of corrective action.
One of the most widely selling works of the time, Hannah More’s Cheap Repository Tracts, was a conservative response to burgeoning radical pamphleteering and preached faith in one’s monarch and government over rioting and taking up arms. More would advise (her largely working-class readers) against reading radical writers, like Thomas Paine, if one wanted to model themselves as a good, British citizen.
This example is meant to illustrate two important things: that objections to reading a particular writer, the language they use or the world-view they represent, emerge in a certain context and second, the value attached to works such that they are designated ‘classic’ or ‘popular’ are hotly negotiated in every age and are never eternal.
What I hope to teach in my literature courses and via this book as well, is the kind of analytical exercise necessary to answer questions about how texts, authors and readers negotiate meaning and value in a particular historical moment. While I have used English Romantic literature as a case in point, the analytical lenses in the book offer a way to find answers to the kind of question you have posed about how we look at certain kinds of writing in the present.
About the Book
- Price: INR 625
- ISBN: 9789354424007
- Language: English
- Pages: 272
- Year of Publishing: 2023
- Publisher: Orient BlackSwan
About the Author
Neeraja Sundaram is a faculty member at Azim Premji University
About the Interviewer
Shefali Tripathi Mehta is a part of the Communications team associated with University Operations at Azim Premji University.
Know more about the BA in English programme at Azim Premji University