An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

August 28, 2018

Garner: Romantic Women Writers and the Arthurian Legend

Katie Garner, Romantic Women Writers and Arthurian Legend: The Quest for Knowledge. London: Palgrave, 2017. 
Reviewed by Lisa Plummer Crafton (
An unusual inscription appears in a surviving copy of Stansby’s 1634 edition of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, marking the book as property of “Elizabeth Purcell of Kirton in the year 1699 afor she was Married” (19).  The inscription is a rare record of ownership by a woman, one that marks a material connection with Arthuriana that would become even rarer throughout the eighteenth century and simultaneously invokes the issue of the repackaging of Arthurian material for the “fair sex,” especially as Purcell emphasizes she owned it “afor” her marriage.  Garner’s extensively researched and engagingly written book explores how British women writers between 1770-1850 accessed, read, reimagined, and manipulated Arthurian legend.  Based on the fact that the period in question saw both an antiquarian revival of British medieval romances and an unprecedented number of women writers in print, Garner aims to study how women writers’ responses to Arthurian legend are shaped by what she terms “gendered patterns of access” (2).  While her focus is Romantic women writers’ appropriation of Arthurian source materials, Garner, more broadly, reconstructs a history of reading and a study of the traces of the search for knowledge as seen in the patterns of those female-authored texts.
Broadly chronological, the book’s six chapters trace the development of women’s Arthurian writing with special attention to different genres as well as different publishing media. After an introductory first chapter that succinctly contextualizes the argument, chapter two sets up the context of Arthuriana in terms of gender politics and reception of romance.  As an actual reader of Malory’s text, Elizabeth Purcell inscribes a physical copy; ironically, many female “readers” of medieval romance were not real at all, but imagined readers, the kind Chaucer invokes in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale when he suggests that Lancelot is a book “That women holde in ful greet reverence.”  Garner credits and builds upon Lori Newcomb’s argument that these fictionalized female readers should be approached as ideological “scenes of consumption” (20). Consumption, in fact, serves as a focal point for this chapter as Garner surveys how Arthurian texts that women had access to were both bowdlerized and reframed to underscore their moral instruction.  Radagunda Roberts’ “The Female History,” published anonymously in 1775 in The Lady’s Magazine; or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex, attempted to offer a virtuous Guinevere in keeping with the magazine’s purpose, but in so doing the queen becomes, in Garner’s words, “no more than an object passed between two men” (29). Garner also surveys the early scholarly projects of Susannah Dobson and Clara Reeve and the anonymous Ancient Ballads (written by “a Lady”), especially how those ballads distanced female readers/writers even more from actual Arthurian source texts. “Replacing” Percy’s Reliques with these substantially more muddled versions of Arthurian scenarios meant that female writers like Louise Stuart Costello ended up offering somewhat “compromised” versions of Arthurian legends, versions that dramatize “the female reader’s compromised proximity to medieval texts” (53).
Having established this narrative of gendered patterns of access and surveyed how female writers manipulated the resources they had, Garner then moves to consideration of genre, the subject of the next two chapters on Gothic and on travel narratives. The third chapter on Gothic works particularly well to illuminate how the interest in literary fragments of Britain’s medieval past intersected with the vogue for Gothic writing.  Beginning with a brief review of how Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho makes an important, though very limited, use of Arthurian references (the servant Ludovico’s reading of chivalric romances allows Radcliffe to argue for the power of the genre), Garner turns to women’s verse experiments in the Gothic mode, evoking Robert Miles’ and Michael Gamer’s expansive definitions of Gothic as “a discursive site crossing the genres” (74). While all five of the female poets surveyed exemplify increasingly bold developments of Arthurian material, Anne Bannerman and Anna Jane Vardill are particularly interesting. Scottish poet Anne Bannerman’s 1802 Tales of Superstition and Chivalry makes pervasive use of the female Gothic in creating an “original and proto-feminist version of Arthur’s death” (81).  Garner focuses on Bannerman’s final ballad “The Prophecy of Merlin,” reading Arthur as more of a heroine than a warrior/king, an interpretation that allows her to take issue with a standard reading of the Queen of Beauty (who greets Arthur on the Yellow Isle after his fatal wound by Modred). The Queen has been read as vampiric, but in casting Arthur in the role of gothic heroine, Garner interprets her as a lost, absent mother and suggests that a subversive Bannerman emphasizes “a new, benign, maternal figure connected to [Arthur’s] eventual rebirth” (85).  Vardill’s version of Coleridge’s Christabel, on the other hand, sanitizes the fragmented, ambiguous and subversive Coleridgean text by importing Merlin as a character who will exorcise Geraldine from the domestic order.
Another significant thread of the book’s argument concerns the role of Arthurian texts in nationalistic discourse, and, in the fourth chapter, Garner points out that the most sustained engagement with the Arthurian legend was, not surprisingly, in travel narratives set in Wales. Travel writers’ pursuit of Arthurian materials was a corollary of the many quests to “prove” the facts of an historical Arthur. As a genre, travel writing was flexible enough to allow for imaginative explorations of Arthuriana; just as the travel writers were geographically crossing borders, the genre allowed easy movement from physical description to imaginative inquiries about Welsh history. Women writers’ manipulation of Merlin is particularly interesting. Garner contrasts the Merlin invoked by Louisa Stuart Costello’s guidebook The Falls, Lakes, and Mountains of North Wales (a rebellious “Briton opposed to the Saxons” and potential voice for the working class) to Felicia Hemans’ celebration of Merlin (her “Merddin”) as a prophetic, bardic poet.
The final two chapters move from female-authored imaginative texts to the possibilities of and limitations to the role of female Arthurian scholar. Garner, in chapter five, credits the work of little-known writers like Costello in paving the way for Lady Charlotte Guest, whose pioneering translations of the romances in The Mabinogion signaled the arrival of female Arthurian scholarship. The continuing unease, however, about the role of women writers (imaginative and scholarly) led also to a more popular strain of Arthuriana suitable for decorative annuals and gift books, and as the subject of the final chapter, provides an apt culmination of the book’s larger consideration of gendered practices of reading. Often mocked as lightweight—Wordsworth called them “greedy receptacles of trash” (221)—these decorative books frequently bore titles that, as Garner says, “suggested that the past could be preserved through objects” (217), and, as such, are worthy of serious study. Poetic versions of the Astolat story (also known as Scalot or, via Tennyson, the Lady of Shalott) which appeared in the Forget Me Not annual provide fascinating perspectives on both women’s writing and reading. Garner argues that Costello’s “The Funeral Boat” is a “proto-feminist version” of the tale even though the dead woman is “painted” into the landscape at the end (223) and that Landon’s version is “appropriately sentimental” (231), but both had significant influence on Tennyson’s poem: “In a very straightforward sense, the origins of ‘The Lady of Shalott’ can be found in the pages of the annuals, and the original 1832 version of [his] poem might easily have been taken for an annual production” (247).
Engagingly written and painstakingly researched, this book provides an insightful and multi-faceted view of Romantic women writers’ relationship with Arthurian legend. Garner’s explorations of female-authored versions of Coleridge’s Christabel and Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott are, in fact, of stand-alone value regardless of the reader’s knowledge of Arthuriana. Demonstrably proving how Romantic women writers’ encounters with Arthurian source texts occurred in distinctly different contexts than those of the literary men associated with what Garner labels the “hypermasculine” medieval romance revival headed by Scott and others, the book deftly manages to be of interest to both serious Arthurian scholars, scholars of Romantic women writers, and theorists of reading practices and publication histories.
Lisa Plummer Crafton
University of West Georgia