Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository


Doctor of Philosophy




Tilottama Rajan


This study analyzes the prefaces of four Romantic-period writers: William Godwin, Mary Hays, William Wordsworth, and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Historically, the preface can be traced back to the insinuatio of classical rhetoric, the purpose of which is to evade audience hostility for writers presenting a bad case. Given the repressive political and cultural atmosphere of the Romantic period, writers like Godwin, Hays, Wordsworth, and Shelley, idealists who seek to disseminate radical ideas in an era of state censorship, must devise a strategy to convey their messages without attracting attention to their subversiveness. Thus, all four writers continually preface their works with ‘elusive’ prefaces, a strategy through which they seek to downplay or elide their radical subject-matter.

Chapter One analyzes William Godwin’s prefaces to Enquiry Concerning Political Justice as a prototype of the elusive preface, through which the urgency and force of his prefatory rhetoric contrasts with the message of gradualism he seeks to convey in the treatise. His novel Caleb Williams, whose first edition preface was suppressed by the publisher for its seditious content, incorporates its preface as an extradiegetic layer of the novel, a technique that Mary Hays will also incorporate in her Memoirs of Emma Courtney, a novel that deploys its elusive preface to placate a middle-class reading audience and to address simultaneously a Dissenting public sphere. Tracing the evolution of Hays’ prefatory author-figure from her early pamphlet Cursory Remarks on an Enquiry into the Expediency and Propriety of Public or Social Worship: Inscribed to Gilbert Wakefield to her last novel, The Victim of Prejudice, Chapter Two demonstrates how Hays’ rhetorical subterfuge allows her to assert her right to philosophy while ostensibly adhering to conventional poses of femininity.

Prose writers like Godwin and Hays seek to convey their idealistic messages to a generally prosaic reading public, making their prefatory insinuatio especially significant. But poets like Wordsworth and Shelley face an especially difficult task in establishing themselves as socially relevant in an age during which poetry is becoming an outmoded form of discourse. Thus, Chapter Three demonstrates how Wordsworth in his preface to Lyrical Ballads becomes increasingly absorbed with the task of establishing the poet’s professional autonomy as he argues for his poetry’s power to rouse a degraded nation from its moral and cultural lethargy. Throughout the four editions of the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth continues to expand his preface and his poetic persona. By the time of his 1815 Poems, he has abandoned the mass audience he once sought to enlighten, instead appealing to a future generation of readers whom he calls upon to vindicate him. Shelley also faces audience hostility, and his attempts to convey his radical beliefs are thwarted by a public sphere whose ad hominem attacks against him hinder his ability to achieve his goals. Chapter Four chronicles Shelley’s immersion in romantic irony, through which his prefaces are characterized by a disjunction between his idealism and his dissociation from his given actuality.