Computers & Texts No. 16/17
Table of Contents
Winter 1998

Romanticism: The CD-ROM

Kathryn Sutherland
St Anne's College

Platform: Windows
Requirements: Multimedia PC running Windows3.1/95+ with at least 8 MB RAM and CD-ROM.
Available from: Blackwell Publishers. Tel: 01865 791 100. Email: URL: ISBN: 0631 199446
Price: £395.00+VAT (single-user version); £1000.00 + VAT (network version)
Edited by: David S. Miall and Duncan Wu. (1997)

Opening screen of Romanticism

A readiness to enter into revisionary dialogue with its own theories and practices, it is regularly if somewhat smugly argued, is characteristic of Romantic studies as conducted by British and American literary critics at least over the last twenty years. We have, via new historicism, and cultural materialism, and the challenge of feminism, long since dislodged Romanticism from its imaginary isolation outside history and brought its closed canon of practitioners, the 'Big Six' male poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Byron, Keats, and Shelley), into compromised and fruitful collision with the marginalized voices of other writers of their age -- women writers, novelists, political writers, and dramatists. And since old Romanticism was itself the source of our general criteria for literary excellence, its capacity for critical reflection and renewal, as new Romanticism, has provided it with a seemingly compelling claim to anticipate other revisionist activities. In the May 1998 issue of the electronic journal Romanticism On the Net, for example, an issue dedicated to 'The Canon and the Web', several contributors offer the insight that Web technology mimics the associative and / or palimpsestic models that underlie Romantic theories of writing and of the mind. Not only, then, does Romanticism inaugurate the canon, it provides, for some at least, a persuasive theorization of the decentred, democratized, destablized realm of electronic communication that enthusiasts promise us will inevitably deconstruct canonicity.

There is a healthy supply of electronic resources dedicated to Romantic studies currently accessible via the Internet. Meta-indices of humanities sites, like Alan Liu's Voice of the Shuttle, give directions to remote textbases publishing electronic editions; to a detailed Romantic chronology or single author biographies; to course syllabuses and annotated bibliographies; to ListServs, News Groups, Conferences, etc. The quality of this information is highly variable, and the electronic texts not always reliable nor accompanied by details of their history and provenance; but, then, paper-copy resources can be open to the same charges. The difference is that it is far easier to go public on the Web without the intervention of many of the standardizing procedures associated with paper publication: the decentred, democratized, destabilized Web world has its downside as well as its up. It is also noticeable that while some electronic resources represent otherwise unavailable materials - selected works of Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Mary Robinson, and recently announced editions of Mary Tighe and William Hone, for example -- there is a strong commitment to complete projects involving canonical authors (Wordsworth, Blake, Shelley) and canonical forms (poetry, particularly lyric poetry). It is perhaps not surprising therefore that Mary Shelley's newly canonical Frankenstein, a tale of science versus society and itself a demonization of Romantic creativity, should provide a fitting interface between the technologies of old paper and new on-line Romanticism: Gothic e-sites abound.

Romanticism. The CD-ROM, edited by David S. Miall and Duncan Wu, also stands somewhere between the old and the new. This is an electronic book that wears its bookish credentials more openly than many since it began life as a Blackwell paper publication, Romanticism: An Anthology, edited by Wu (1994). Designed as a British intervention into the market of the course anthology, the kind of book much favoured on North American campuses and typified by the Norton Anthologies, Romanticism. An Anthology is a thousand-page- plus contextualization of substantial selections of the six major poets of the traditional canon within a motley assortment of writings by Romantic also-rans in various prose and poetry genres. Our 1990s pre-occupations with sexual politics, slave trade writings, and demotic voices are catered for, but in homoeopathic doses in comparison with the generous textual space allotted to Wordsworth, Coleridge, et al. There is something canonically reinforcing about such modest, annotative revision.

Previous paper assumptions are not unsettled, then, by the information that the Wu Anthology provides the 'core' or Texts section of the expanded CD Anthology, newly strengthened by more extracts from Wordsworth and Shelley, or by the further discovery that other texts are grouped, in descending order on the 'Writing' list on the Home Screen, under Gothic, Contexts, and Geography. In a sense, of course, such a value-laden classification of materials can be and is immediately undone by the rapid search and retrieval facilities afforded by hypertext links: I can browse my way through the alphabeticized Index to Documents and Graphics that brings together from the separate categories under 'Writing' all the files to do with any author; or I can dispense with authors altogether and work by geographical area. Since the retrieved screen-page is not one in a series of pages (as the pages of the printed book are) but the only page, I can thus work in contrived ignorance of those areas of the electronic anthology that in paper form would threaten to engulf or render trivial my own chosen topic of study. Except, of course, that what I can do by way of establishing the terms of, say, a female canon of poetry as opposed to conducting a comparative study of the male lyric voice will remain limited; and the scope for exploring a female tradition of prose fiction is virtually non-existent. The decision to convert into electronic form an editorial project only recently constructed in paper form and then to group around it various supplementary textual and graphic resources is not easily defended as a thoroughly planned resource - it is explicable neither as a paper nor an electronic conception, and there is a large component of happenstance in its make up. Nevertheless, translated into searchable electronic text, Wu's paper anthology becomes usefully interactive: references linking one author or text to another are now live and can be extended beyond the anthology to contextual sources which, because they can be stored and accessed as whole texts or substantial extracts, function as more than mere annotations. Thus, the headnote (Wu, Anthology, 17) keying Anna Laetitia Barbauld's poem 'Epistle to William Wilberforce' (from Poems [1792]) to its moment of composition can now take the reader directly to the relevant extracts from the speeches for and against abolition of the slave trade in the Parliamentary debate between Wilberforce and Tarleton, 18/19 April 1791. The reader can then use the green contents button in the top right-hand section of the page to move from the Parliamentary debate to discover other documents that may enrich the precise historical context of Barbauld's poem, like Thomas Clarkson, The Substance of the Evidence on the Slave-Trade (1789), or that extend the argument beyond it, like Captain J. G. Stedman, Narrative of a Five Years' Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam . . . (1796), with illustrations and maps from the original text, including four powerful engravings by William Blake. This can set the reader off in the direction of Blake's lyric 'The Little Black Boy' in Songs of Innocence (1789). Alternatively, there is the initially shorter route of a global search of all the text files (it is not generally possible to search the graphic files) using standard Boolean logic -- for example, 'slave trade' (41 hits). This is to turn the function of annotation within the conventional paper edition into something nearer to the intertextuality which is regularly invoked as a special condition of Romantic discourse.

From a technical point of view, this is a clearly designed package, constructed within HyperWriter! from Ntergaid. Texts are presented within a standard user interface and buttons on screen orient the reader and provide links. Buttons at the foot of the screen are for navigating up and down a document, returning to the primary contents page for that document (Texts, Gothic, Contexts, Geography), and for exiting the program. Within a document other links, to text, map, graphics, or local annotations are provided and at the upper right is a more refined 'contents' link, taking the reader to the relevant place in a specialist table of contents. A top row of buttons provide general functions such as bookmarks and search facilities. A useful feature for teachers is the possibility of creating 'tours' through pre-selected texts and graphics which the student will then follow: three examples suggest how to do this by assembling materials around the topics of'Imagination', 'Slavery' and 'Chamonix', popular Romantic holiday destination. The quality of the graphics (there are over 1,200 images) is high as is the presentation of the texts within a rich yet simple and uncluttered supporting environment.

Harder to defend, except within a teaching package with known limitations and agreed provisional terms of reference, are the diverse assumptions by which the contents are assembled. In dominant position is the Wu Anthology. Under Gothic the reader is given access not to a further resource of primary texts but to contemporary reviews of some of the most popular Gothic novels and in some cases to Miall's own plot summaries and, in a further refinement, in some special cases to more supporting documentation -- for example, an author's 'timeline' and legal information for Godwin's Caleb Williams, maps of Edinburgh for James Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and of Bath to suggest Austen' s Northanger Abbey. When it comes to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, all the stops are pulled out and we are offered an iconic map to help locate the novel's supporting framework. Even more explicitly than in the Texts section, the reader is made aware of a predetermined evaluation of these novels but is given no rationale to account for editorial preference and no primary textual data to help validate or question that choice. Of course, it is easy enough to surmise that Miall is subscribing to generally accepted critical opinion in giving front ranking to Godwin, Radcliffe, Shelley, etc, and in relegating Dacre, Smith, Reeve, and Fenwick. But this is the revisionist world of hypertext and new Romanticism in which canons are to be questioned and not imposed. Without examples of primary texts from a particular genre (novels are too long even for CD publication?) the impression is strengthened that the new publishing medium is still serving old formal distinctions. And since certain of the functions we already take for granted in electronic editions, like global searches, will be used to refashion canonical agendas across generic boundaries, the absence of whole areas of literary expression is more than ever a subject for concern.

Screenshot from Romanticism CD-ROM

The Contexts menu within Romanticism: The CD-ROM

For this reason, amongst others, the Contexts section of the package is welcome. Classified under various headings, it provides substantial extracts mainly from discursive prose works: under 'Historical Documents', useful selections from Helen Maria Williams's Letters from France (1790-6) and from the 1794 Treason Trials; a reasonable range of conduct books (by Chapone, Gregory, Macaulay Graham, More, and Wollstonecraft) under 'Education'; weaker and more restricted representation under 'Social History' (which is defined exclusively by texts on penal reform and vegetarianism!) and 'Gender'; but wider selections under 'Theory: Literary and Aesthetics','The Arts','Science', and 'Medicine'. Inevitably, there is an air of randomness and provisionality. One might question in what sense these texts function as 'contexts' any more than any other texts in a hypertextual anthology, or why Geography and travel writings constitute a separate division -- except, of course, that in a powerful sense other aspects of the package imaginatively over-ride its conventionalities of organization.

This is not the case in those areas where a narrow canonical prejudice has determined editorial decisions of substance, as in the Wu Anthology. Elsewhere, there is an inescapable impression that immediate availability and nothing more dictates what is included. Why, for example, does the reader find through the biographical index that only Letitia Landon and Sarah Siddons, among the female entries, are provided with a portrait, when there are two portraits for Godwin and two for Wordsworth? But, then, Byron has a 'timeline' and a portrait and Blake has neither, while Keats has a 'timeline' and a 'chronology', and Mary Shelley a 'timeline'. Such haphazard execution betrays the origins of Romanticism: The CDin a set of computerized personal lecture aids. If we accept its provisional status as endemic to and in some senses an attractive aspect of its medium, then, as a teaching resource and a resource for encouraging independent study at secondary school and undergraduate levels, Romanticism: The CD has many useful features; but at its current extremely high price, the prospective purchaser has a right to expect much more. One partial solution to the limitations of the electronic book of the future is to access its contents as a set of local files under Netscape (still packaged on CD). This will allow integration of remote and constantly updated resources with the designed hypertext; but that still leaves the issue of justifiable pricing.

[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]

Computers & Texts 16/17 (1998). Not to be republished in any form without the author's permission.

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