William H. Galperin

 

On his book The History of Missed Opportunities: British Romanticism and the Emergence of the Everyday

Cover Interview of June 27, 2017

A close-up

In the “Prelude” I draw an analogy between what literature discovers in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries and what other (then) versions of art turned up. In the large circular 1791 panorama of London (an aquatint of which survives) viewers were exposed to a present that was overwhelming at first sight but sufficiently recurrent that what was missed or overlooked––a world too much with them––was eventually encountered.

In a long, theoretical chapter on the everyday, history and possibility, I explore the theoretical payoff of the Romantics’ grapplings with the everyday. It is no accident that the most forceful (re)formulations of everydayness in modern times––from Heideggerean being, to Lefebvre’s embrace of nonalienation on an agrarian model, to the ecstatic immersion in the environment or surround embraced by both Bennett and Cavell––all take aim at an order of subjectivity that came to fruition in the Romantic period but that, with characteristic reflexivity (as I’ve shown previously in The Return of the Visible in British Romanticism) the Romantics were also the first to modify.

Another feature of the book, distributed throughout and of a piece with its focus, is the treatment of daily writing, both journals and correspondence. Of special interest––certainly to readers familiar with them––will be the treatment of Austen’s letters. Shallow and gossipy by comparison to her narrative style (and a disappointment to many of Austen’s fans), the letters shed new light on the fictions’ unprecedented representation of “real natural every day life” (as one contemporary reader described it) in substituting the past––an erstwhile present––for a future that, by comparison to, say, that of the novelist’s brothers, was literally impossible.

I also devote considerable attention to Byron’s epistolary courtship of his future wife, Annabella Milbanke, where marriage was experienced avant la lettre (in letters) as the opposite of the regressive activity (and pattern) that Byron disparagingly called “love.” Almost always understood in hindsight––from the vantage of its astonishingly rapid dissolution––the Byron marriage remained and remains a missed opportunity on multiple levels. It was a missed opportunity beforehand, to which Byron was referred by a courtship that modeled domesticity even as what it modeled was already an object of lament and retrospection. And it is literally a history of missed opportunities afterwards that the poet fashions (or refashions) in his ever-unfolding magnum opus, Don Juan, whose interlocutor, I argue, is none other than the poet’s estranged wife. Last but hardly least, the Byron marriage proves a challenge to posterity, which typically imagines the poet as the heterodox alternative to normativity, forgetting or ignoring that heterosexual monogamy––before and after––was arguably the queerest, most (im)possible, place that Byron ever found himself.