Review from TMR by Marya Demoor of Ghent University
This is one of the best, most informative, most lucidly written histories of English literature which I have ever read. It is a fascinating read for both the general public with an interest in British culture and the more specialised readership of literary scholars and historians.
Michael Alexander is no novice in the trade of literary history writing since he authored the well-known A History of English Literature, published by Palgrave in 2000. Add to that the fact that he is a first-class medieval scholar and one has to come to the conclusion that no one was possibly better placed than he to analyse the phenomenon of medievalism, in all its manifestations, from its emergence in the late eighteenth century until well into the twentieth. Alexander claims he takes the story of medievalism up to the present day but the focus of the book is firmly on the use and influence of medieval material in the long nineteenth century as the pictures on the dust jacket, with Walter Scott's impressive entrance hall on the front of the dust jacket and Tennyson's "Mariana" as painted by Millais on the back, indicate.
Alexander starts his story by inquiring into the early definitions of and associations with medievalism; he explains the origins and emergence of the term itself since apparently it had to replace the term Gothic which had acquired some negative connotations. He then explores the growing taste for the medieval in the eighteenth century. First he posits the centrality of Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) at a time when the thirst for all things medieval could hardly be quenched and readers willingly suspended disbelief when they were presented with the work of a fourth-century poet called Ossian. Percy "improved" the selected texts for his Reliques to such an extent that they became readable again and successfully overcame the prejudices his contemporaries harboured against what they called "gothic." Percy's deliberate rejection of the Neo-classical attitude towards the original text again allowed for the appreciation of authors whose work did not live up to neo-classical standards: "the outbreak of medievalism in the 1760s was in part simply the result of the melting away of the prestige attached by neo-classical literary theory to notions of correctitude. The collapse of standards allowed readers encountering newly discovered writing from earlier English literary history to follow their native instincts." Thus it was, for instance, that Shakespeare's "discordant mixture of comedy and tragedy" was successfully re-introduced.
The popularity of Percy's Reliques combined with a curiosity about chivalry prepared the ground for the man whose work is key to this study: Sir Walter Scott. Alexander convincingly argues that Scott's reputation at the beginning of the nineteenth century was so extraordinary that his memory was honoured by the highest monument an author was ever given. Scott, Alexander tells us, told stories in verse and in prose. It was his Lay of the Last Minstrel, Ivanhoe and "their progeny" (111) that subsequently led to the medieval revival in the Victorian age ranging from neo-Gothic buildings to paintings, furniture and stained-glass windows. In the world of books, after Scott's death, it is the young Alfred Tennyson who takes up the medieval torch from there.
Alexander now moves onto fairly predictable ground with Tennyson's influence on the Pre-Raphaelite painters and poets and art critics such as John Ruskin. But he surprises again when turning for instance to the work of Gerald Manley Hopkins and inevitably he adds his own interesting and unusual insights. "Those who turned from aestheticism to decadence" he avers on p. 209, "often turned also from medievalism to Catholicism."
With Hopkins then we are only one step away from the modernist generation. The work of Jerome McGann has amply demonstrated how much the modernist artists such as Pound were influenced by medieval art and artist. At the beginning of the twentieth century there was a popular awareness of the medieval past, Alexander points out, which made a second Medieval Revival possible. Indeed, he believes Ezra Pound and W.B. Yeats to be the main poets who continued the movement; but there were others whose medievalist creations are popular even now. With the film adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis he has landed in the twentieth century and proven that the fascination with all things medieval is still very much alive.
This book is a pleasure to read. The author's wealth of knowledge, visually illustrated by means of more than a hundred aptly chosen often unknown documents and paintings is compacted in just 289 pages (without the index). My only regret in respect to the illustrations would be that the reproductions of the paintings do not show the frames which for medieval artists as well as for those painters inspired by the age carried so much meaning. Alexander has the unusual talent of carrying his erudition lightly: his research results are contextualised as well as humanised by the odd, amusing anecdote. Thus while Walter Scott's pioneering and influential role in the popularity of medievalism is convincingly, repeatedly and seriously argued, Scott is also presented as the obsessive collector of precious artefacts. Then follows the anecdote: Scott is said the have stage-managed the first visit of George IV to Edinburgh in all its details, but after the King had drunk a whisky, Scott managed to take the glass with him, hidden in the tail-pocket of his coat. Only, Alexander then remarks laconically, Scott sat upon it.
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