The sibling in the self: kinship and subjectivity in British Romanticism
Vestri, Talia Michele
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This dissertation examines the role of sibling kinship in shaping the poetry, drama, and fiction of English Romanticism (1789-1832). While critics have long associated Romanticism with a myth of solitary authorship and an archetype of isolated genius, I demonstrate that Romantic authors imagined subjectivity in the plural, curating a vision of identity-formation that is collective, shared, multiple, and relational. Embodied in the portrayal of sibling relationships, this inter-subjective paradigm delivers new frameworks for understanding the Romantic self as situated within networks of others—networks of those who are not quite the same yet not quite different; those who are both familiar and yet unknown. My study is the first to present a sustained consideration of the way Romantic writers invoked literary siblinghood as a model for the collaborative and collective nature of selfhood, and I propose that this focus on lateral sibling kinship offers alternatives to the conventional reproductive lenses through which the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century family has been previously understood. Drawing from recent work in feminist and queer theory, psychology and psychoanalysis, and sociocultural histories of kinship, this dissertation contributes new readings of canonical texts by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Joanna Baillie, William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, and Mary Shelley. Chapter One considers two stage dramas by P. B. Shelley and Baillie as rewritings of Sophocles’s Antigone. In both plays, sisters use their fraternal-sororal relations to redefine familial systems of reproduction via horizontal means of transmission rather than through vertical lines of biological inheritance. In Chapter Two, I extend this discussion of sibling networks to Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, where, I suggest, we find trans-subjective inter-relations that define the poet’s vision well beyond autobiographical references to his sister Dorothy. Austen’s novels serve as the focus of Chapter Three, which argues that the self-contained “I” of the Bildungsroman genre, as Austen incorporates it, in fact depends upon intimate epistemological exchanges between sororal characters who undergo a mutually influential process of development. Chapter Four concludes with a discussion of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. I suggest that the author critiques her central male protagonist for his failures to recognize how the reciprocity of male-female sibling sympathies underlies homosocial bonds. Taken together, these readings advance a version of Romantic subjectivity based upon lateral integration rather than egotistical solipsism.