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Ranging across literature, theater, history, and the visual arts, this collection of essays by leading scholars in the field explores the range of places where British Romantic-period sociability transpired. The book considers how sociability was shaped by place, by the rooms, buildings, landscapes and seascapes where people gathered to converse, to eat and drink, to work and to find entertainment. At the same time, it is clear that sociability shaped place, both in the deliberate construction and configuration of venues for people to gather, and in the way such gatherings transformed how place was experienced and understood. The essays highlight literary and aesthetic experience but also range through popular entertainment and ordinary forms of labor and leisure.
The early 1790s witnessed Britain's emergence as the leading counterrevolutionary power in an age of revolution, a position it held through the Napoleonic era and into the post-Waterloo restoration of legitimate continental regimes. The deployment of British troops against the threat of French republicanism abroad was accompanied by ideological mobilization at home, with profound consequences for literature and the arts as well as the press and public opinion. Yet scholars have not always looked closely at the way a conservative defence of the crown, the established church and the unreformed constitution shaped public expression. The fact that Romanticism has guided British literary studies in the period has itself narrowed the range of attention. The rubric for this volume, the 1790s, indicates a shift in conceptions of literary history. Yet to understand how counter-revolutionary culture has been overlooked it is worth setting out from the framework that Romanticism long provided.
In Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries, one of the few surveys to attend closely to conservatism, Marilyn Butler observed the way Romantic studies connected ‘changes in the arts of the 1790s with change in politics’, yielding the language of ‘Romantic Rebellion’ and ‘Romantic Revolution’. Challenging this reductive equation of political and aesthetic upheaval, Butler instead identified the preceding decades (1760 to 1790) with liberal developments in the arts, notably primitivism and neo-classicism, and then argued that after 1792 there was a ‘marked political reaction, towards a conscious conservatism, which in the next decade made itself felt deeply and decisively in the arts’.
Romanticism becomes a spiritual dispensation, an individual or coterie struggle to come to terms with the eclipse of shared Christian doctrines. Reclaiming visionary Romanticism as a spiritual exercise did not yield agreement on the extent to which an apocalypse transferred to consciousness or to nature actually sustained Christian faith. English literary Romanticism as a discrete aesthetic project worked out across two generations by a visionary company of male poets has given way to an interest in the many other voices that found expression in the Romantic period. As the older Dissenting congregations tended just to hold their numbers or even to decline during the Romantic period, growth and expansive activism was achieved elsewhere, in a more emotional register and often at the lower end of the social scale, with the rise of Evangelical piety. Before there was 'Romanticism' there were a host of contemporary sectarian literary designations, conceived in antagonism and sustained in debate.
Robert Southey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge came into their own as vigorous public critics of radicalism and as defenders of the established Church and unreformed constitution during a sustained revival of radical fortunes that began in the first decade of the nineteenth century with the emergence of Sir Francis Burdett's Westminster reform organization and the radicalization of William Cobbett, and then culminated more threateningly in the post-war era of the unstamped weekly press and mass public agitation for parliamentary reform. If the “cry about Jacobinism” was arguably outmoded by the end of 1790s, sporadic outbreaks of political violence continued right through the era of Luddism and Peterloo, and flexible new practices of popular organization and expression clearly drew on the example of Paine and the London Corresponding Society. In taking up the public campaign against subversion, Southey and Coleridge joined their “Lake School” friend and collaborator William Wordsworth in repudiating early radical sympathies, and drew the scorn of a younger generation of more liberal poets and essayists including Shelley, Keats, Byron, Hazlitt, and Leigh Hunt. The generational rifts that emerged here still shape British romantic studies, particularly where the timing and intensity of a retreat from radicalism remain matters of critical concern. In closing this study of writing against revolution with the conservative careers of Southey and Coleridge, I am less concerned about the contrast with early radicalism than about the way both writers sought to revise and extend established patterns of counterrevolutionary expression, in order to establish more secure conditions for their own combative literary enterprise.