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The History of Missed OpportunitiesBritish Romanticism and the Emergence of the Everyday$

William H. Galperin

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9781503600195

Published to Stanford Scholarship Online: January 2018

DOI: 10.11126/stanford/9781503600195.001.0001

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(p.13) Introduction
The History of Missed Opportunities

William H. Galperin

Stanford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

The emergence of the everyday in the romantic period involved a mode of recovery that pitted an empirical history—where the past remains a guide to what is probable and likely to reoccur—and a history in which the prior is sufficiently singular that its reproducibility in any form apart from what “every day life” is undermined. This latter history is evident in Wordsworth’s demonstration of what subjective or “poetic” experience routinely forgets or misses. It is at work in Austen’s revisions that return her to a world appreciable solely in retrospect. In Byron it is allied with the “history” to which marriage and everyday domesticity are consigned before marriage, or by a nostalgia that, lacking mnemonic support, is radically anonymous and conceptual. From domestic fiction to the fragment poem, including Byron’s Don Juan, romantic-period literary production is marked by genres answerable to the everyday.

Keywords:   history, everyday, prosaic, probability, possibility, fragment, double take, Wordsworth, Austen, Byron

“The everyday is what we never see a first time, but only see again.”

Maurice Blanchot


Probability is central to the empirical project: the result both of an inductive method in which, as Hume noted, “what we have found to be most usual is always most probable” and of the growing stability of life in Britain and elsewhere, where predictions became increasingly measurable rather than mere guesswork.1 Still, when Annabella Milbanke (the future Lady Byron) signed off on this development in describing Pride and Prejudice as “the most probable fiction I have ever read,” her elaboration concerning Austen’s rejection of the “common” and sensationalistic “resources of novel writers” missed the larger point of her hyperbole, which draws a bright line between probability and something else that the novel registers.2 As early as the canonical first sentence of the novel,3 both the marital imperative and its correlative, the marriage plot, are not just stipulations that are by definition limited; they form a bounding line where the pivot on “must” (“must be in want of a wife”) marks a tension suddenly between the “usual” and its exasperating origins in female vulnerability and desire. Restricted to the probabilism that this “most probable novel” is already straining against, the imperative exacted through consensus (and vice versa) is “a truth” that needs buttressing, or “universal acknowledge[ment],” because it is no longer or shouldn’t be the whole story.

Lady Byron may not have gotten at all of this precisely, but many of her contemporaries took their lead from the sentence as I’ve described it in regarding the marital trajectory, and the parallel narrative of error and correction, as more of an accompaniment than a defining feature. To these readers, as I’ve shown previously, the abundance of detail here and elsewhere in Austen took precedence over the novels’ plots, prompting no less a reader than Maria Edgeworth to describe Emma as having “no story in it except that … smooth, thin water-gruel is according to Emma’s father’s opinion a very good thing & it is very difficult to make a cook understand what you mean by smooth thin water gruel.”4 A twentieth-century reader such as Roland Barthes finds a seamless and sinister continuity between a novel’s ideological work (read plot) and the “reality effect” of such circumstantial information.5 But when Austen’s novels initially appeared (p.14) their oft-noted verisimilitude was typically a synonym for something distracting and disarticulated rather than a naturalizing apparatus. One contemporary, Lady Vernon, tartly described Mansfield Park “as not much of a novel,” but “more the history of a family party in the country,”6 and another, Edgeworth’s friend Anne Romilly, made a nearly identical claim in noting how “real natural every day life” in that novel took precedence over its “story vein of principle.”7

These observations point to more than a blurring of diegesis and mimesis attributable to the novel’s—and realism’s—instability at the juncture when Austen was supposedly codifying the genre. They mark an abiding conflict between what Walter Scott termed the “narrative” of Austen’s novels and what he called their “prosing,” which, like Edgeworth, he listed “among the [author’s] faults.” In disrupting the progress of a heroine “turned wise by precept, example, and experience”8 the “prosaic” was not simply a problem because it was a detour and a different turn. It was a problem for Scott because there is a necessary relationship, as he elaborates, between Austen’s “narrative” and its ideological and pedagogical shape and the regress of probability, which counts similarly on “experience,” or on precepts based on precedent, in prosecuting its claims and conclusions.

Two modes of history, Scott correctly inferred, were in play. One uses the past—the empiricism of an aggregated past—as a template for human life and nature including women desperate to marry. Another is a history in which the prior is sufficiently singular and prosaic (see Edgeworth) that its reproducibility in any form apart from what Romilly called “every day life” is largely undermined. The world and milieu that Austen engaged, reengaged and made the defining feature of her practice as a writer during the nearly two decades in which her first published novels underwent continued revision, becoming in the process “realistic,”9 was far from static or immediately transhistorical. It was a particular world in the welter of time or what, in the advertisement to Northanger Abbey, she explicitly called “considerable changes.” We generally restrict the changes mentioned in the advertisement to the world of “books,” especially the gothic novel, which in the interval between composition and publication had ceased to be the vogue it was in the 1790s. But there were “considerable changes” in “manners” and “opinions” that Austen hints at as well—changes in the world of her world—that she was able to register and, in a style striking to her contemporaries, provisionally to reverse.

In this latter style—very different from the sublime detachment that D. A. Miller has recently termed “Austen Style”10—-details of a world seen as if for (p.15) the first time prove more significant than either routine sensationalism or the probabilism in which unmarried gentrywomen are forever in search of single rich men. That’s because the unprecedented representation of “every day life” that impressed Austen’s contemporaries (for better or for worse), and that Scott was only partly right in calling prosaic, would have been unnecessary were it not also a history where the real and the possible were linked, a “retrospect,” in the words of one character, “of what might have been.”11 The Literary Gazette was being nostalgic when in 1833 it singled out Austen’s “absolute historical pictures” of “country dances” and the “delights of tea-table” for special praise.12 But what it marked, however superficially, was the literary absolute (to expropriate a term) for which the “historical” was a placeholder. It marked a present, or “thickened present” (in Husserl’s notion),13 that was representable thanks to narratives that had become archives. In the archive of literary representation everything deducible from experience on Scott’s empirical model is secondary to what was sufficiently unappreciated—or bothersome when reading for “story”—to count as both an alternative world and a missed opportunity.

This opportunity, this possibility, symptomatically involves heroines who for a good portion of their narratives resist their disposability to the formal or disciplinary imperatives outlined in Pride and Prejudice’s inaugural sentence. Their resistance is symptomatic because the counterplot that abides in the rich and static present of the novels—especially Mansfield Park—hearkens back to a moment when prospects for women were less restricted than they were by the time of the novels’ publication and by the “considerable changes”—notably the entrenchment of domestic ideology and its doctrine of separate spheres—that had transpired since the mid-1790s. The historical status of an intransigent Elizabeth Bennet or an Emma Woodhouse or a Catherine Morland or even a Mary Crawford is more than a precondition for eventual compliance with the imperatives of plot or heteronormative desire. It is part of an abiding anteriority, whose afterlife or transposition to the present is additionally guaranteed by the temporal or linear progress in which something prior—a woman’s life and world before marriage—is persistent and strikingly different.

Limning a world, where “the quiet power of the possible” (as Martin Heidegger later phrased it)14 is tantalizingly close at hand, Austen’s retrospect looks in two directions: to a past whose (re)discovery propels the everyday—or what was the everyday—into an appreciable state, and to a present whose peculiar and prosaic eventfulness is an “under-recognized mode of historical manifestation” (p.16) and a transit back to the future.15 Like trauma, also an “experience … not fully assimilated as it occurs,”16 the history that impresses, yielding a stratum of life that the everyday might suffice to name or to describe, is analogous to the train wreck “from which a person walks away … only to suffer the symptoms of shock weeks later” (Caruth 1998, 6), but at a level that amalgamates concept and experience rather than being confounding. It bears affinities with trauma not as a wound whose registry is delayed, but as a “disquiet” (in Harry Harootunian’s term)17 in which past “arise[s] where immediate understanding” of the everyday “may not” (Caruth 1998, 11).


Austen’s writings seem tailor-made for a discussion of the everyday: both in their reluctant subscription to probability and in their striking embrace of the prosaic. But what they share with the writing of her more recognizably romantic contemporaries—specifically Wordsworth and Lord Byron—is a “retrospection” that transforms “what might have been” from an open possibility into one that counts on historical distance in becoming what Ernst Bloch terms “real possibility.”18 In Wordsworth’s “Intimations Ode” there is not only an idealized past whose disappearance is famously mitigated through the joint agency of memory and imagination; there is also a more immediate history running sideways where an alternative world peers through in contrast to the palliatives of either vision or what increasingly seems like special pleading. Readers will remember very clearly the probabilistic course of human existence that the “Ode” outlines in place of what elsewhere in Wordsworth is a more clearly defined developmental trajectory involving a paradise regained through the interaction of mind and nature. The “Ode” is more qualified. After four stanzas in which the barely remembered plenitude of childhood is juxtaposed to a present marked by disenchantment, the poem proceeds haphazardly to answer the question on which its inaugural stanzas and, not coincidentally, its initial phase of composition came to an abrupt halt: “Whither is fled the visionary gleam? / Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” (56–57).

It is tempting to view the two years that it took to fashion an answer to these questions—or the answer produced during that vexed interval—as homologous with Austen’s revisions of her first novels and with the renewed sense of the world onto which they opened. But there is a critical difference even as the questions gesture toward something similar in suggesting that the glory and (p.17) the dream are potentially close by (“Where is it now … ?”). The difference is that while Austen had an archive to revisit in her own cursive writing, the past in stanzas 1–4, what stands as history in the ode, is sharply dissociated not just from the present but from anything that might have been a present. If the two years it took to complete the ode involved some kind of retrospection, it was less “a retrospect of what might have been—but what never can be now” (to quote Austen’s statement in full), than a retrospect of what might have been because “[it] is now” with the benefit of hindsight.

But how exactly does one fashion such a history? The answer is very quickly or as rapidly as it takes for there to be an interval to create historical distance. The central example of this process devolves on the ordinary or “meanest flower” in the ode’s final lines, the one that famously gives “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears” (204–5). This is the same flower glimpsed early on: first, as a personification and, in that very instant, something less mystified:

  • —But there’s a Tree, of many one,
  • A single Field which I have looked upon,
  • Both of them speak of something that is gone:
  • The Pansy at my feet
  • Doth the same tale repeat:
  • Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
  • Where is it now, the glory and the dream?


Without belaboring the difference between a declarative statement of loss and a question that bears the promise, at least rhetorically, of some recovery in the present, it is clear that the pansy does not simply repeat the tale spoken by either the tree or the field. It alters that tale in quickly shifting from a debased or fallen present to something immediate, if indeterminate. Out of nowhere, or so it seems, the prosopopoeia is inverted in deference to the flower, whose pressure or thingness is reflected in an interrogative that turns on “it.” And it happens with a suddenness best encapsulated by a phrase from Austen’s Emma, and from the memorable character of Miss Bates, who in a rare moment of economy states flatly: “What is before me, I see.”19

This maneuver—where the immediate is prior and the prior immediate—is far from self-evident, especially when memory is also being enlarged as a form of vision. For the duration of the ode, then, as in so much of Austen, the history of missed opportunities remains a counterpart, and a mostly silent one, to a (p.18) probabilistic account involving an inevitable transit from the “simple creed / Of childhood” (139–40) to the “earthly freight” of “custom” or experience (129–30). In Austen this transit is from woman to “wife” and linked to truths that, by universal acknowledgment, are just as openly contestable. But in Wordsworth, or at least this Wordsworth, probability is a placeholder that, far from subscribing to an empirical worldview, is highly aestheticized and largely a performance. This is especially obvious at the poem’s close, when the speaker turns from the human condition he had been elaborating to talk about himself and the separate peace or compensation he has secured. Many readings follow the mythologizing here, attributing this compensation to a heroic, highly individualized, act of recovery through imagination and memory. But this turn, and the seemingly subjective valuation of nature it subtends, proves a turning from that stance as well.

Coleridge would later reflect on Wordsworth’s power of “giv[ing] the charm of novelty to things of every day … by awakening the mind’s attention from the lethargy of custom, and directing it to the loveliness and the wonders of the world before us; an inexhaustible treasure, but for which in consequence of the film of familiarity and selfish solicitude we have eyes, yet see not, ears that hear not, and hearts that neither feel nor understand.”20 While there is no disputing these observations, or their appositeness at the time, what Coleridge describes was frequently exposed to a second look, in which the charm of novelty disappeared and “things of every day,” or something like them, suddenly reemerged. In the “Ode,” the “one delight” that the speaker claims to have relinquished—“[t]o live beneath [the] habitual sway” of the “Fountains, Meadows, Hills, and Groves” (194, 190)—moves processually from an immersion that is prehistoric and idealized to opportunities in time that have been missed and are only suddenly realized: in the “Brooks,” in the “new-born Day,” in “Clouds that gather round the setting sun” (195–99), and, last and most important, in “the meanest flower that blows,” all of which are seen essentially for the first time.

The gyrations leading to the everyday’s emergence as something missed, recovered, and writable are reparative in fostering a sense of enchantment, or hope, that is neither intentional nor teleological so much as a prevailing afterwardsness. Here the possibilities of the world and the world of possibility are time-bound in two different, if interrelated, ways: in the “event” to which the world is tantamount by this development and in the peculiar plenitude to which this event—a history dissociated from memory—gives access. Although necessary to the emergence of things in ways that are surprising and seemingly unprecedented, (p.19) the historical distance from which the “meanest flower” peers forth, and from which the vibrancy of domestic life becomes visible on reflection, is necessarily collapsible and the guarantor of “real possibility.”


Byron is important here as well, thanks to a history that is speculative in advance of becoming fact and to the specific event that comes in either case to count as a missed opportunity. The event, suitably, is marriage, beginning with the “Eastern Tales,” written during Byron’s courtship of Milbanke, where marriage is consistently figured as what might have been, and culminating in Don Juan, which turns out to be both about marriage and a work whose shapeless intimacy amounts to a marriage between the poem’s speaker and an interlocutor whom, only partly as a critical thought experiment, I’m calling Lady Byron. Byron’s preoccupation with marriage is linked most immediately to the separation scandal and to the separation from England that the break with Lady Byron precipitated. Of interest to me, however, is the way marriage was connected before and after to a mode of relation, habitual and ongoing, where separation was also temporal and historical. We can thank Stanley Cavell for this general insight regarding what Eric Walker has more recently described as a “furtive, contingent model” of marriage that should be “called remarriage” or “remarriage … day after day.”21 But, regardless, the linkage of the everyday and (re)marriage, particularly as they may be dissociated from probability, domestic ideology, and the marriage plot in all senses, joins with other aspects of the everyday in romantic-period discourse in the way a retrospective procedure opens onto something past and passing that Byron, in a slight modification, eventually called the “feeling of a Former world and Future.” This feeling or “sensation,” which is also the essence of “Poetry,” describes what Byron insistently calls “Hope” in this same journal entry (January 28, 1821). And not just any hope but one that, as he works through it, is located less in “memory,” where it is forever “baffled,” than in something “retrospective but also prospective” (in Svetlana Boym’s phrase), which the “Present”—both obscure and self-evident—might very well describe.22

If it seems too much to claim that Byron could will himself to marry in the first place only by valuing his future union from the other side, when what Heidegger calls the “not yet” was already what might have been, it is the case that marriage routinely gains prestige as a missed opportunity and as an alternative to Byronic business as usual. The sense of a marriage missed is especially striking (p.20) in the Eastern Tales, beginning with The Giaour, where a triangulated story of sex and violence ends with a surprising paean to monogamy, both as a counter to a “life of sensation” and a counterfactual history. It continues in The Corsair and Lara, where marriage is consigned variously to a former world whose defining counterpart is not just the future but a present that found additional form in the exchange that was the Byrons’ courtship and subsequently in Don Juan, which revolves around a speaker and, by extension, an interlocutor rather than the story of its eponymous character.

Along with the repetition of days it comes to mime as an endless conversation, Don Juan is additionally representative in the way a missed opportunity (the Byron marriage) is recognized and honored by the poem’s form. I have already noted a similar development in the way Austen’s detailism amounts to a history that is properly the prose of history versus a more conventional history in narrative form.23 The ever-unfolding disposition of Don Juan does something cognate in aspiring to historical status or eventfulness rather than in giving shape and meaning to what is either prior or invented. Like the history to which revision provides access in Austen, the history which substitutes for memory, Don Juan is also a retrospect of the possible: a history that takes the form, not of retrospection so much, with its implicit claim to loss or even comprehension, but of what might have been. Byron’s poem registers the gain, the “willingness for the everyday,” that marriage produces in practice, and in this case poetic practice, and “in the repetition of days” (Cavell 1988, 178) to which Don Juan, like the endlessly digressive world of Emma’s Miss Bates, palpably conforms.

A great deal has been written about the fragment’s remarkable prevalence during this moment of literary production and what I am flagging may simply be an epiphenomenon. Still, to the degree that Don Juan is a relational do-over, whose ending, properly enough, is a parting until death, it bears connection to other contemporary fragments by both Coleridge and Shelley and, just as crucially, to the related tendency in Keats’s Odes to foreground a present that typically goes undocumented. The dynamic is a little different in these instances. However, each reflects the “unrounded immanence,” as Ernst Bloch describes it, that makes its “presence felt” when the “all too stilled work of art” is “broken” so as to “never clos[e]” (Bloch 1985, 219). Rather than tracking the particular historiography by which the everyday comes to view, these poems suggest an anteriority internal to form in which the text, quoting Bloch again, becomes a “hollow space of a factual, highly factual kind” (ibid.). Like still-life painting on (p.21) Norman Bryson’s formulation (“looking at the overlooked”), these vessels of fact, these forms of historical content, engage an everyday that is both a “residual deposit” (in Henri Lefebvre’s phrase) and one that, by performance, is “immanent,” ongoing, and where the “closedness of … content,” much less of “form” (Bloch 1985, 219), is essentially inconceivable.24

Without discounting the circumstances by which romantic fragments were produced or alleged to have happened, whether in a surprise visit by someone from Porlock or in the actual death of the author, the fragments of the period resemble Keats’s Odes in recurring to the overlooked—both as a condition of becoming fragments and as a goad to fragmentation regardless of cause. Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” and Christabel and Shelley’s The Triumph of Life do not on the face of it seem especially motivated by the indissolubility of form and content that makes the fragment the form par excellence for representing the everyday. Yet each opens onto a site of the ordinary that marks a departure from poetic business as usual. The sublime of “Kubla Khan” quickly dissipates in a daydream and the Manichean allegory of Christabel trails off into a scene of present-day domesticity. Even The Triumph of Life, whose fragmentary status was, like Don Juan’s, sealed by the death of the author, finds its gravity (for want of a better term) in a “life”-style of self-perpetuating terza rima and enjambment that does not support the poem’s infernal vision so much as vitiate it.

Then there are the Odes. Adhering to the fragment’s formal logic in their representations of everyday phenomenology or musing, these real-time lyrics preserve something unremarkable, even banal, that closure simply breaks with. This is especially true of “To Autumn,” which closes on a lights-out moment that does not resolve matters but stops them arbitrarily, registering a willingness for the everyday, a sense of life interrupted, where a moment written out of history is written into history in honor of what is otherwise lost to time.


The subtitle of my study—British Romanticism and the Emergence of the Everyday—could easily be reversed, since this book tracks a development that came to light during the romantic moment as a missed opportunity and an opportunity, accordingly, for historical accounting, where what “happened,” to borrow from Walter Benjamin, was “lost” but with the potential now of being recovered.25 Anticipating the formulations of Heidegger and Lefebvre, for whom the everyday, as I discuss in chapter 1, is environmental, broadly integrative and, along with (p.22) much recent thinking about the everyday, object- rather than subject-oriented, what was “missed” in the period—thanks partly to the romantic ideology itself—proved to be an order of experience that, with no tautology in mind, was finally “missable” and a “retrospect” of something possible and ongoing.26 The everyday world that history came to focalize, and the conceptual void it exposed in so doing, remained a recovery on several levels: it involved not only “what might have been” but a “sense” as well “of something ever more about to be” (Wordsworth). It registered the “shock of recognition” that took place when, as Raymond Williams outlines, “an area of experience” that “lies beyond” was finally “articulat[ed],” or historicized in this instance, and a sense of potentiality, or hope, where something past but presumably present was grasped in advance of being understood and categorized.27

As a largely literary or aesthetic phenomenon, this emergence would appear to comport with a philosophic dimension to romantic discourse, explored under rubrics such as the “literary absolute” or “metaromanticism,” in that the everyday is later mobilized in dismantling a phenomenology that had reached a high-water mark in romantic aesthetic practice.28 But as a retrospective procedure, art’s convergence with the critical is forestalled in the romantic moment by thinking that is inconclusive and beclouded, frankly, by what has been recovered. The retrospects I follow tell us something about the period, then, that neither the standard account, where romanticism names an interval of succession and opposition, nor the more reflexive or historicist accounts fully grasp. Subtractable into a series of presents—or “sideways” as Boym calls them (2001, 13)—the anteriority that doubles for the everyday at the time of its emergence is “historic” in the spirit of Benjamin’s “now-time” and its disavowal of progress. It is historic in making the “past” a site of “hope” and, more important, in the way the conditions for possibility are historically repeatable.29

In regarding this development as a question of period, I am making a claim that is straightforward to the point of seeming naïve (especially as a defining feature of romanticism in Britain) and sufficiently distended or oblique to have no immediate bearing on the period and on the ways we construe it, save that it is of the literature and the moment. Even as we can map the everyday onto familiar cartographies and taxonomies, beginning with empirical thought and its investment in the probable from which the everyday—as a precedented and also possible world—is a departure, its emergence, beyond the still-critical matter of its contemporaneity, is random and surprisingly freestanding. None of (p.23) the contexts we typically apply to British romanticism—from the philosophic one where phenomena do an end-run around things in themselves (and around the skepticism posed by noumena)30 to the various historicisms that have transformed romanticism into what looks more and more like a burnt-over interval—is especially useful. Nor is the institution of “British romanticism” as a division of academic or critical knowledge. From its early function as a counter to hermetic formalism, to its more recent incorporation into the long centuries it straddles, “romanticism”—the study of romanticism—has been increasingly impatient with the aspects of period-based writing that I’m following, which are not only better appreciated up-close and with a much tighter focus, but reminders as well—and here it gets tricky—of something specific to the period that its specificity by other lights has elided. Lodged in a seemingly contingent relationship of means and ends, or between certain retrospective procedures and their potential yield and bearing, the everyday’s emergence underscores romantic literature’s altogether unique role as both text and context, where the world onto which this writing opens is so veiled, so barely understood, that it is enough just to mark it.

A brief look at the OED indicates that the everyday (as opposed to the “ordinary” which was primarily a class designation) developed into a necessary descriptor sometime in the mid-eighteenth century, eventually achieving a conceptual apotheosis in the notion of “everydayness” in the 1840s. But what this means too is that the particulars of this development toward conceptualization, especially in the new century, require a special kind of attention. As a category in process, the everyday registers a series of distinctions that are easy to overlook but are crucial nonetheless. In Wordsworth, as I demonstrate in chapter 2, the everyday’s emergence is enmeshed in practices of recollection that are seemingly instantaneous and distinct from both Wordsworthian memory in the usual sense and, just as important, the immersive immediacy of his sister Dorothy’s journal, where the everyday (as Heidegger might put it) is everywhere and nowhere. In the writings by Austen explored in chapter 3, including her daily writing to her sibling, the everyday’s proximity to probability, and to the routine and stability on which the probable depends, is interrupted by a distinctly possible world that is the hallmark of Austen’s plotless and detail-laden style and sufficiently lost to time to be recoverable as a prelude to becoming present. In Byron, the subject of the final chapters, the anteriority to which the everyday—or, in Byron’s case, everyday domesticity —is consigned before and after marriage makes loss the (p.24) condition of what is suddenly possible save for the brief interval when, as something fully present, marriage “day after day” was just as suddenly unthinkable. Regardless of how it performs, then, as a pathway to discovery, “history” focalizes something missed that writing is then pressed to (re)encounter: whether as an “archive” including the one we know as Don Juan or, as I discuss in chapter 5, by process of interruption, in which the fragment—that quintessential romantic genre—forms a “constellation” (in Benjamin’s famous description) “wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now” as a condition of becoming representable.31

No study with the words “romanticism” and “history” in its title can proceed without some mention of romantic literature’s “aware[ness]” of “its place in and as history” or, as James Chandler further frames the issue, with its “historical specificity understood as the product of political activity and with that activity of specifying as it takes place in literary representation itself.”32 Chandler has a very specific year and place in mind—“England in 1819”—and a quite specific politics and political climate through which these turns, leading to a distinctly “romantic historicism,” are routed. Yet his general claim for literature “as history” in the “period we call Romanticism” (Chandler 1998, 5)—a two-pronged procedure encompassing the “place” of time in a historical field that is anything but empty or homogeneous, and the way that place is demarcated in literary representation—is especially relevant. Ranging in a direction that is conceptual rather than “case”-specific, the everyday’s emergence is a “political activity” as well, if only in rejecting the conservatism in which everything is subsumed by precedent. But the more important point about this historicism, or historicity really, is that the reheated chronology to which literature bears witness as a history of missed opportunities—where Keats’s Odes remain archives in real time, where Don Juan is history in the making—is a very specific conjunction where the past, in no longer dictating what is to occur, takes its lead paradoxically from a present that is suddenly fathomable thanks to its status “in and as history.”

Something similar obtains for Mary Favret, whose conception of wartime (an explicitly romantic-period development in her view) also involves a thickened present—a “barely registered substance of our everyday”—suspended across geographies in this case rather than over time.33 Time is far from incidental here. A zone or continuum inflected by messages from afar, by something missing that, like the missed opportunities, is uncannily there, “wartime” couldn’t be more important. At the same time, what Favret ends up calling the everyday in (p.25) this context—and in one special instance “everyday war”—remains an interval marked from without (a “sense of war”) rather than by a sense of its own monadic plenitude: a zone colored and sufficiently “affected” to stand in relief but not the stand-alone entity, the emergent category, that history—and a very specific history again—brings to view.

It has long been a commonplace that the history of missed opportunities to which writing of the romantic period refers is the “Age of Revolution” and the renovated world that seemed imminent at one point. This study is concerned with another kind of history and another kind of possibility, where “what might have been” turns out to be less a matter of conjecture or fantasy than of historical distance that is collapsible and a resource accordingly for what Byron provocatively called “Hope.” (p.26)


(1.) David Hume, “Of Miracles,” in An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1955), 124. See also Lorraine Daston, Classical Probability in the Enlightenment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988). A version of this Introduction originally appeared in Constellations of a Contemporary Romanticism, ed. Jacques Khalip and Forrest Pyle (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 17–36.

(2.) Malcolm Elwin, Lord Byron’s Wife (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1962), 159. For a full discussion of the early response to Austen, see my essay “Austen’s Earliest Readers and the Rise of the Janeites,” in Janeites: Austen’s Disciples and Devotees, ed. Deidre Lynch (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 87–114.

(3.) “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice, ed. Claudia L. Johnson and Susan J. Wolfson (New York: Longman, 2003), 5.

(4.) Marilyn Butler, Maria Edgeworth: A Literary Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), 46.

(5.) Roland Barthes, “L’Effet de réel,” Communications 11, no. 1 (1968): 84–89.

(6.) The Journal of Mary Frampton, from the Year 1779, until the Year 1846, ed. Harriot Mundy (London, 1885), 226.

(7.) Romilly–Edgeworth Letters, 1813–1818, ed. Samuel Henry Romilly (London: John Murray, 1936), 92.

(8.) Jane Austen: The Critical Heritage, ed. B. C. Southam, 2 vols. (London: Routledge, 1968), 1: 65–68.

(9.) For a fuller discussion of the implications of Austen’s revisions, particularly in the movement from epistolarity to free indirect discourse, see my The Historical Austen (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 109–37. See also B. C. Southam, “Lady Susan and the Lost Originals, 1795–1800,” in Jane Austen’s Literary Manuscripts: A Study of the Novelist’s Development through the Surviving Papers (London: Oxford University Press, 1964), 45–62.

(10.) D. A. Miller, Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 2

(11.) Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, ed. R. W. Chapman, rev. Mary Lascelles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1965–66), 455.

(12.) Literary Gazette, March 30, 1833, 199.

(13.) Edmund Husserl, On the Phenomenology of the Consciousness of Internal Time, trans. John Barnett Bough, ed. Rudolf Bernet (Dordrecht: Kluwer, 1991), 37.

(14.) Martin Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism,” in Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1977), 196.

(15.) I have used Kevis Goodman’s phrase from Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 65. Goodman is interested in the role of Georgic in mostly preromantic texts as a mode of accounting and recovery particular to poetry in an age of new media. However our interests broadly intersect in the “history” simultaneously manifest as a result.

(16.) Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 5.

(17.) Harry Harootunian, History’s Disquiet: Modernity, Cultural Practice, and the (p.157) Question of Everyday Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000). Focusing primarily on Japan, Harootunian is concerned (like Heidegger) with the residual disposition of everyday practice in a culture seemingly in the throes of modernization.

(18.) Ernst Bloch, The Principle of Hope, trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight, vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 194–222.

(19.) Jane Austen, Emma, ed. James Kinsley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 138.

(20.) Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, ed. James Engell and W. Jackson Bate, vol. 2 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 7.

(21.) Eric C. Walker, Marriage, Writing and Romanticism: Wordsworth and Austen after War (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), 10, 69. Stanley Cavell, In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Skepticism and Romanticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 153–78.

(22.) Byron’s Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie Marchand, vol. 8 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1978), 37. “It is useless to say where the Present is, for most of us know.” Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (New York: Basic Books, 2001), xvi.

(23.) For the relationship between historiographic practice and narrative practice, particularly along a realistic axis, see Hayden White, The Content of Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), and Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, trans. Kathleen McLaughlin and David Pellauer, 2 vols. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984–85). See also Everett Zimmerman, The Boundaries of Fiction: History and the Eighteenth-Century British Novel (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1981).

(24.) Norman Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (London: Reaktion Books, 1990); Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, trans. John Moore, vol. 2 (London: Verso, 2008), 64. In alluding to the form of historical content I’m purposely inverting the title of Hayden White’s investigation of historical practice (cited in the preceding note) in which the possibilities for historical recovery remain linked to form, notably narrative form, as “the mode of discourse in which a successful understanding of matters historical is represented” (60).

(25.) Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” in Selected Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, vol. 4 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 390. My interest bears obvious affinities with Anne-Lise François’s exploration of the “literature of uncounted experience” in her Open Secrets: The Literature of Uncounted Experience (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008), which treats romantic-period texts, including those by Austen and Wordsworth. Apart from the transhistorical sweep of François’s interests, which takes her beyond and before romanticism, what differentiates our positions on the way literature accounts for what is typically missed boils down to a distinction between what François calls “recessive experience”—a finely grained reckoning, onto which a passive or meditative disposition effectively and mimetically opens—and what for my part is an experience or event that, thrown suddenly into historical relief, focalizes a possible world that, far from recessive, is forever close at hand and hiding in plain sight.

(26.) For Stanley Cavell the “ordinary” is always “missable,” but as a prelude to the particular “existence” of which it is on recovery an “ecstatic attestation.” Cavell, Philosophy the Day after Tomorrow (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), 26.

(p.158) (27.) Raymond Williams, Politics and Letters (London: New Left Books, 1979), 164–65. Lefebvre, for example, speaks of how the “true critique of everyday life” by which the modern everyday gives way to an antecedent or agrarian paradigm “will have as its primary objective the separation between the human (real and possible) and bourgeois decadence, and will imply a rehabilitation of everyday life(Critique of Everyday Life, trans. John Moore, vol. 1 [London: Verso, 1991], 127). And Heidegger, in discussing “everyday modes of being,” speaks of the “possibility of distraction” and the “possibilities of abandoning [one]self to the world” (Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson [New York: Harper & Row, 1962], 216–17).

(28.) The preeminent figures here are Heidegger (Being and Time) and Lefebvre who variously mobilize the everyday or what Heidegger calls the world against an alienated or consolidated subjectivity. For the self-critical aspects of romantic writing more generally, see Phillipe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy, The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism, trans. Philip Barnard and Cheryl Lester (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), and Paul Hamilton, Metaromanticism: Aesthetics, Literature, Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003). See also Simon Jarvis, Wordsworth’s Philosophic Song (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007). Jarvis invokes what he calls “poetical thinking,” both to reexamine the “truth” onto which Wordsworth’s poems open in surprising and fundamental ways and, like Hamilton, to give the poet a hand in understanding and in superseding the materialisms by which he is often either explained or found wanting. In “metaromantic” fashion, Wordsworth’s writing “provides resources for truer apprehensions of some of the problems” that historicist critique has routinely turned up, which, far from period-specific or a question of context, are matters (“need, desire and pleasure”) that “extend back through centuries … rather than decades” (5–6). For Heidegger’s conception of everydayness, see chiefly Being and Time.

(29.) Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” 397, 391. For a more recent treatment of this messianism under the general rubric of “nostalgia,” where the past, and specifically the history of modernity, harbors “unrealized possibilities” in which the “retrospective” is “also prospective,” see Boym, The Future of Nostalgia, xvi.

(30.) See especially M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), which follows on Coleridge’s effort in the Biographia both within and as establishing its own critical/theoretical tradition.

(31.) Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 462–63.

(32.) James Chandler, England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), 5–6.

(33.) Mary Favret, War at A Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 9.