To Transport and Ravish: Material Manifestations of the Tropes of Transcendental Sublimity in Wollstonecraft, Wordsworth, Radcliffe, and Austen
Tropes that romanticize loss of control and violent violation, most frequently of a feminized soul or mind, are pervasive in the discourse arising from the Longinian tradition of transcendental sublime theory. The fundamental premise of this study is that the conceits of sublimity – and most particularly, the echoing trope of transport and ravishment – bear a different social burden in the works of Romantic women as opposed to those of their male contemporaries. The non-fiction writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and Dorothy Wordsworth are illustrative of a disjuncture between the romanticization of lost control and the necessity for almost super-human self control required for women of the era to successfully negotiate their surroundings. Their travel writings in particular offer an insightful juxtaposition between literal and figurative transport, and they betray an increasing skepticism regarding the practicability, or even the desirability, of the sublime as an aesthetic ideal. The fiction of Ann Radcliffe and Jane Austen likewise capitalizes on the correlation between literal and figurative transport and ravishment in order to criticize the aesthetic hierarchy of their artistic and intellectual environment, as their novels, in differing ways, work to literalize and thereby deromanticize the oppressive aspects of sublime rhetoric. For women of the era, living in a socially encoded state of vulnerability, dependence, and exacting moral culpability, the idea of violent transport culminating in a forceful consummation would not have been the substance of transcendent vision, but of annihilation. This study explores the point of tension between these tropes of gendered oppression codified in the traditionally privileged transcendental discourse and the writing of women who problematized and challenged this rhetoric.