Miranda Burgess

Associate Professor

Research Classification

Arts, Literature and Subjectivity

Research Interests

British and Irish Romanticism
riparian and oceanic studies
poetics
history of media and mediation
history of feeling (affect, emotion, sensation)
history of literary form

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Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision (Jan 2008 - Mar 2019)
Romantic descent : poetry and the aesthetics of disappointment, 1790-1820 (2015)

Romantic Descent investigates disappointment as a minor, or non-cathartic, critical and aesthetic category in Romantic poetry and prose. Major aesthetic categories, long a focus of Romantic scholarship, have been understood to affirm individual self-cultivation and communal praxes of meaningful progress. However, recent work on affect has theorized alternative models for embodiment and relationality that have allowed new, radical and material, approaches to aesthetic phenomena. My dissertation critically intervenes in these developments by reconsidering Romanticism through its experimentation with disappointment as a negative aesthetic, and in so doing reveals a Romantic poetics of adjustment after the loss of an attachment to a self-affirming outcome or ideal future. Rather than start anew, such a poetics compels readers to persevere in encounters with difficulty, asking them to strive and struggle in ways both socially oriented and radically negative. Through close readings of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century philosophy, poetry, letters, and the occasional novel, this dissertation traces writers’ mobilizations and responses to aesthetic disappointment in myriad formal and conceptual ways: falling figures (allegory and metaphor); structural recursion (repetition and tautology); metrical irregularities (what Coleridge calls “downfalls”); and stilted or bathetic stylistic conventions. Such “descents” I situate in light of significant intellectual, social and political changes occurring in the period, including British and German responses to the revolutions in France and Haiti; changing cultures of reading; the tensions between philosophical skepticism and the Swabian educational system; and stylistic developments in Romantic theatre. As these contexts suggest, aesthetic activations of disappointment emerge on scales both national and coterie, and what is at stake in this dissertation are the diverse and unexplored affective relations captured but not quite contained by these writings. From Wordsworth’s sympathetic sinking alongside the suffering of slaves; to Coleridge’s projection of reading irregular meter as proprioceptive loss; Hölderlin’s calculated formal downturns; Keats’s affective reciprocity; and finally, Austen’s ironic censure of interrupted novel readers, this dissertation reveals how the critical and aesthetic category of disappointment responds to the dissonant sense between hope and fear, striving and failure, movement and suspension, that permeates Romantic literature.

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Romantic value and the literary marketplace : Wordsworth, Scott, Shelley and Landon in the Keepsake, 1829 (2011)

“Romantic Value and the Literary Marketplace: Wordsworth, Scott, Shelley and Landon in the Keepsake, 1829” is an investigation of mediations of value in the Romantic literary marketplace. I focus on the Keepsake (1828-1855), the most commercially successful and longest running of the nineteenth-century gift-books and annuals. I approach the annual as embodying the flux and intersection of traditional, commercial and aesthetic ideas of value at a time when, according to some, they were well on their way to being established as separate categories. I look in particular at the writings five now canonical Romantic era writers published in the Keepsake: William Wordsworth’s five poems; Walter Scott’s five prose pieces and one play; Mary Shelley’s fifteen short stories as well the original pieces that she contributed on behalf of Percy Shelley; and Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s twelve poems and two short stories. I look at why each writer was drawn, often several times and over many years to the Keepsake as a publication venue. My overall thesis is that these writers engaged with the Keepsake’s refinements of the annual form as an intervention into new forms of virtual sociability made available in the literary marketplace. The literal and virtual exchanges of emotion and sensation facilitated by the Keepsake allowed readers to vicariously experience a variety of values as they were embodied within the Keepsake’s stories, poems and art and by the form of the Keepsake itself. This experience provided the raw materials for writers’ reassessment of definitions and practices of value. I trace how these four writers used the Keepsake to mediate their experiments with aesthetics and commerce, reading and writing in the production of ideas of value that could be mobilized into the future. That the Keepsake offers multiple case studies of Romantic value as a dynamic idea in a state of flux opens interpretive possibilities for a rethinking of how value was understood and practiced in the era, including how ideas of value and forms of writing and print inflected one another.

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Master's Student Supervision (2010-2017)
Reading apocalypse : ruptured temporality and the colonial landscape in Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (2016)

This thesis examines the process of reading in Mary Shelley’s novel The Last Man(1826). The novel illustrates a limiting conception of reading, as characters become bound to the futures that they consume via literature. However, there is a breach between the type of reading represented in the novel, and the model of reading that Shelley demands of her audience. By analysing the text’s competing aesthetics of ruin and artifice, I argue that Shelley advocates for a system of reading that recognizes the audience’s potential for agency and intervention. Just as Reinhart Kosseleck theorized that the post-French Revolution world marked a new sense of time, Neuzeit, which corresponded with the burgeoning era of modernity, Shelley advocates for auniquely modern system of reading.By reading The Last Man in this way, the novel’s critique of imperialism expansion istransformed from a prophetic vision of the future into a practically actionable critique. There exists much scholarship concerning the novel’s criticism of England’s early-nineteenth century project of colonial expansion. Notably, critics like Paul Cantor, Alan Bewell and Siobhan Carroll have conceptualized the plague as a cosmopolitan imperial force, spreading disease just as late-Romantic explorers, politicians, and merchants spread ideas, bodies, plants, and consumer goods. Yet, Shelley’s critique of global interconnectivity extends beyond the plague to the world it leaves behind. Ecologically abundant and primed for human occupation, the post-apocalyptic world is deeply reminiscent of the early-nineteenth century ideal of colonial space. However,while late-Romantic imperialists conceived of these spaces as edenically new, Shelley writes a traumatic history explaining their emptiness. This narrative leaves readers as witnesses to humanity’s apocalyptic end. Only through a new system of critical readership can the audience distance itself from this annihilating future view to envision alternate futures for England.

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Jane Austen's free indirect style : a linguistic ethnography (2012)

This study assesses the relationship between the diffusion of free indirect discourse and the decline of the British epistolary novel in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Studying the works of a single stylist, Jane Austen, and her engagement with the mobility of the letter genre at the turn of the century, it synthesizes literary-historical, linguistic, and narratological perspectives on discourse representation in order to evaluate claims that Austen was the “pioneer” of this free indirect style, and to comment on how her simultaneous shift in genre from the first-person epistolary mode to third-person classical realism informs that style’s development.

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Scale, ecological attention, and the it-narrative (2012)

My thesis proposes a reconsideration of the ways in which we deploy formal analysis to analyze canonically minor texts and genres. In doing so, it reacts to and departs from a Jamesonian vein of material-historical formalism that treats minor texts as the mere evolutionary dead-end, or the ossified remnants of what was once “authentic artistic expression.” Unlike canonical texts, which have both the potential to be historicized and the ability to make claims to deep philosophical insight and formal innovativeness, minor texts tend to signify in more circumscribed ways. My thesis asks: how can we shift the terms upon which we evaluate minor genres without completely flattening out distinctions between texts or rendering aesthetic judgment void or purely subjective? Following in the footsteps of diverse theorists such as Franco Moretti, Anne-Lise François, Eve Sedgwick, and Sianne Ngai, and inspired by the inventive ways in which they broach the analysis of minor texts, my project seeks to generate formal-theoretical frameworks to apply to the analysis of the it-narrative, frameworks that would be able to sustain the considerable pressures of originality and significant signification associated with formal analysis. Rather than approaching minor genres and major works as separate but equally valued objects of study, my study brackets questions of value in favour of (1) scale: questions of relative size which, while still dependent on notions of form, depend less on a critic’s sense of aesthetic discrimination and (2) ecological attention: issues of critical disposition, and how a critic’s relation to the forms that he or she interacts with manifests itself in practice.

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“Her sensibility was potent enough!” : theatricality, moral philosophy, and the feminine ideal in Sense and Sensibility (2011)

Much work has been done recently on the way late eighteenth and early nineteenth century British women novelists portray female experience. A considerable portion of this work on Jane Austen emphasizes a link between contemporary books on feminine conduct and the novel’s portrayal of its heroine’s subjectivity as well as the impact of the theatre and ideas about the theatre on her novels’ representations of feminine propriety. Nancy Armstrong argues that conduct literature for women in the eighteenth century became “such a common phenomenon that many different kinds of writers felt compelled to add their wrinkles to the female character” (65). Austen’s conception of the female ideal draws on conduct literature but she combines theatrical elements in her portrayals to introduce elements of social change. Recent studies have demonstrated Austen’s deep and abiding interest in theatrical representation and theatrical sociability. Critics, such as Joseph Litvak, argue that Austen’s novels share certain representational strategies with the theatre and “their very implication in a widespread social network of vigilance and visibility – of looking and of being looked at – renders them inherently, if covertly, theatrical” (x). This essay builds on this research; however, it focuses on another less discussed influence upon Austen’s novels. Specifically, it considers the influence of the moral philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers, particularly the writings of David Hume and Adam Smith, on the novel’s use of theatricality to represent the feminine ideal. Focusing on Sense and Sensibility, my argument is that Austen eschews Humean sympathy and uncontrollable passion in favour of Smith’s impartial spectator. Austen’s novel suggests a conservative model of proper feminine conduct that is characterized by perspicuity and a morality defined by Christian principles. Her emphasis on Christian principles, particularly conformity and self-denial stems, I argue, from her Tory Anglican beliefs and conscientious efforts to underscore the importance for females to adhere to tradition and regulate their desires. Supporting a Johnsonian perspective about human nature that private interests and desires must be curtailed, Austen stresses moral behaviour to support the Burkean model of preserving tradition and maintaining the existing hierarchical model of social structure.

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