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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Scandalous Figures: Authorial Self in Eliza Haywood, Laurence Sterne, Charlotte Smith, and Lord Byron

  • Author(s): Campion, Amy Thomas
  • Advisor(s): Goldsmith, Steven
  • et al.

Characterized by originality and proprietorship, the modern paradigm of authorship developed in the British long eighteenth century alongside philosophical upheavals in concepts of identity and an increasingly free-for-all literary marketplace in which the author was commodified along with his or her works. Literary historians have associated the “author-function” with the logic of copyright law, introduced in 1710, but the ideology of original authorship also developed as a defense against the more chaotic practical reality of the circulation and ownership of texts. In Scandalous Figures I demonstrate how Eliza Haywood, Laurence Sterne, Charlotte Smith, and Lord Byron resisted this defensive formation by acknowledging the fluidity of modern identity, incorporating it into their self-representations, and paradoxically transforming it into a practice of the self. Each of these authors capitalized on the intersection between authorial identity and several areas of cultural fascination: sensibility, the philosophy of personal identity, fictionality, theatricality, and the evolution of a reading public. Especially important was their awareness that scandal blurs the boundaries between categories that were sites of intense cultural energy, in Byron's time as in Haywood's: fact and fiction, private and public, life-writing or history and literature. Rather than pin their authorial names to an essential self, these authors ironically accept the way a name circulates through imaginations, economies, and significations. The striking similarity in their self-performances, across periods and genres, indicates the persistence of an alternative genealogy alongside the development of the mythic status and “fictional identity” of the original, proprietary author. If the formation of the unitary Romantic subject was the result of one strategy to navigate the shifting terrain of identity categories, then the performance of a fictional, scandalized subject was another.

For Haywood, who took advantage of both her celebrity as a well-known actress and the opportunities of anonymous publication, the authorial self was a chameleon whose identity depended upon the genre and market in which she appeared. Emphasizing the theatrical, fictional, associative, and Lockean performance of authorial identity, Sterne took on the selves of his characters and scandalously transformed “Laurence Sterne” into just another role and written self. Smith's authorial self took the form of a novelistic heroine of sensibility who claimed authenticity even as she exposed the conventional lineaments of this character and their limitations. By infusing the novel and lyric with autobiography, she demystified the “romance of real life;&rdquo of an author. Byron's written self, the Byronic hero, was eroded by his embrace of the fictionality of his authorial identity and by his “mobility,” whereby the self is contingent upon the cultural forms in which it appears. The sign of Byron's recognition of the pervasiveness of fictionality in literature and life was laughter. For all of these authors, the groundlessness of self is not a deconstructive negation of the author but a practical strategy dependent on the author's social construction, which occurs through the forms and discourses that guide the social imagination, and through the desires and anxieties that fire the market.

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