A decade of disruption
MARISA LINTON admires a novel take on 10 raucous and radical years that shaped modern Europe
A Revolution of Feeling: The Decade that Forged the Modern Mind by Rachel Hewitt Granta, 560 pages, £25
The 1790s was a tumultuous decade. Traditional beliefs and hierarchical social structures were thrown into question, and a new world rose in their place – a world that was recognisably the origin of our own. The source of that stirring was the French Revolution of 1789, which began in a spirit of idealism, humanitarianism and the ‘rights of man’.
Rachel Hewitt’s new book traces the impact of this seismic experience on a group of English intellectuals and writers, including the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, the political theorists Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, the physician Thomas Beddoes, and the pioneer of early photographic techniques Thomas Wedgwood. They were inspired by the French Revolution to think in new ways about politics, education, sexuality and the relations between men and women. Wollstonecraft made the case for equality in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, later observing the revolution in Paris at first hand. Coleridge and Southey, meanwhile, planned to found a ‘pantisocracy’, a community based on political and social equality.
All too soon, faith in humanity’s potential to create a freer and fairer world foundered. In France itself, the use of the guillotine for the revolution’s enemies, and civil war in the Vendée, brought many revolutionaries to cynicism or despair. For English radicals, the outbreak of war between Britain and France in 1793 made sympathy for the principles of liberty and equality a dangerous venture. The British government suspended habeas corpus (which minimised unlawful imprisonment) and tried some political radicals for treason, darkening the atmosphere for English radicalism. Southey and Coleridge’s dream of a utopian pantisocracy remained unrealised following a disagreement. And Wollstonecraft discovered, during the course of an unhappy love affair that ended when she was abandoned by her lover, that sexual liberation worked mostly in favour of men and at the expense of women.
What gives this familiar story a winning freshness is Hewitt’s insistence on seeing the 1790s through the prism of the emotions of the people who experienced ‘the times that try men’s souls’. She draws on recent historical thinking on the importance of emotions to give us a vivid
English intellectuals and writers were inspired to think in new ways
and convincing new interpretation of the revolutionary decade. Her insights enable us to re-assess what we thought we knew about the late 18th century, and to see the experience of revolution with new eyes.
The 1790s brought about “a revolution of feeling” as well as a political one. Radicals alternated between joy and profound despair. “How I am altered by disappointment!” wrote Wollstonecraft. Many of the rights for which the radicals strove – democracy, education for all, equality between men and women – are things we take for granted now. Yet by the end of the 1790s, achieving those rights seemed further off than ever. The birth pangs of liberty were painful indeed.
Louis XVI is guillotined during the French Revolution. Rachel Hewitt’s new book argues that the tumult of the 1790s had a lasting impact on Europe