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The life's work of Francesco De Sanctis illustrates the Italian quest to secure full sovereignty, national identity and a liberal citizenry. De Sanctis's critical theory is underlain by a principle of realism, his distinct legacy to subsequent generations of theorists. He survived as freelance lecturer on the subject of Italian literature and emigrated to Zurich, where he taught Italian literature at the university. Retiring from public service in 1880, De Sanctis had served his young nation state as a member of parliament, minister of education and professor of a state university. There is considerable coherence between De Sanctis's theory of literary criticism and his aesthetic theory. De Sanctis's historicist framework satisfies his Realist demand for a relation between life and art, where life is always understood as social and political life. The concept of a national popular culture is one of De Sanctis's distinguishing marks as an aesthetic and cultural theorist.
Crossing the Channel for the first time, Lucy Snowe, the autobiographical voice of Charlotte Brontë’s 1853 Villette, beholds a vision:
In my reverie, methought I saw the continent of Europe, like a wide dreamland, far away. Sunshine lay on it, making the long coast one line of gold; tiniest tracery of clustered town and snow-gleaming tower, of woods deep-massed, of heights serrated, of smooth pasturage and veiny stream, embossed the metal-bright prospect. For background, spread a sky, solemn and dark-blue, and – grand with imperial promise, soft with tints of enchantment – strode from north to south a God-bent bow, an arch of hope.
Brontë’s description of Europe imagined, or seen, for the first time by a rootless, adventuresome British woman has often been taken as emblematic of the Victorian experience of the Continent: a quasi-Gothic, quasi-Romantic land offering pleasures both gemütlich and ‘imperial’, pleasures that promise a release from British social strictures. It accords well with our experience of a large number of Victorian writers, from the Brownings to George Meredith, Walter Pater, and Oscar Wilde, to name only a few, for whom ‘Europe’ represented both inspiration and refuge, whether that Europe be Bohemian Paris or the Italy of the Risorgimento. The passage does not end on such a rainbow-tinged note, however. Characteristically, Lucy Snowe retracts: ‘Cancel the whole of that, if you please, reader – or rather let it stand, and draw thence a moral – an alliterative, text-hand copy – “Day-dreams are delusions of the demon.”
Imagine, if you will, the following: a boy born to English parents, in Calcutta, during the waning years of the Napoleonic Wars. The boy's father dies four years later, and the boy is soon thereafter sent away from his mother - who had in the meantime resumed a prior attachment to an army captain - to distant England, where he will be schooled. (En route, the young boy catches sight of the exiled Bonaparte, tending the garden in his St Helena retreat.) His schooling is perfectly correct by the standards of his class and time, and perfectly nightmarish; he is initiated into the rituals of English social formation by the tyrannies, physical, moral, and sexual, of the pre- Victorian public school, and memories of these humiliations and the loneliness consequent upon them will follow the boy into adulthood and middle age. Youthful degradation leads to a prolonged period of diffident attempts to start a career and more serious cultural experimentation: an undistinguished period of time at Cambridge; travels to Paris, Weimar, and beyond, where the young man develops tastes for bohemian life; and a rapid dissipation of his patrimony thanks to gambling, unwise investments, and a bank failure. This once-genteel young man then turns to the London Grub Street of his day for a living, and begins to turn out spirited and witty sketches for newspapers and magazines. The list of his published pieces numbers in the hundreds, and the young man has married - unwisely, as it turns out, for his wife inexplicably and inexorably falls into a mental illness that results in her confinement in a series of asylums.