A decade of dis­rup­tion

MARISA LIN­TON ad­mires a novel take on 10 rau­cous and rad­i­cal years that shaped mod­ern Europe

BBC History Magazine - - Books / Reviews - Marisa Lin­ton is the au­thor of Choos­ing Ter­ror: Virtue, Friend­ship, and Au­then­tic­ity in the French Rev­o­lu­tion (OUP, 2013)

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.