Après le déluge

The Oldie - - BOOKS - RU­PERT CHRISTIANSEN

A Revo­lu­tion in Feel­ing: The Decade that Forged the Mod­ern Mind By Rachel He­witt Granta £25.00 Oldie price £22.25 inc p&p

This am­bi­tious and en­gross­ing book ex­pands and ex­plores the fa­mil­iar his­tory of the in­tel­lec­tual dis­il­lu­sion pri­mar­ily caused by the ‘fail­ure’ of the French Revo­lu­tion. Rachel He­witt, au­thor of a much-ad­mired his­tory of Ord­nance Survey map-mak­ing, pro­poses that the moral, po­lit­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal re­assess­ments, pre­cip­i­tated by this trauma, ‘forged’, as her sub­ti­tle pro­claims, ‘the mod­ern mind’. It’s a con­tentious the­sis, com­plex and por­ous, but there is no doubt as to the fas­ci­na­tion of the is­sues raised or the depth of thought­ful schol­ar­ship He­witt de­ploys as she fol­lows its tra­jec­tory.

The text al­ter­nates be­tween three cen­tral nar­ra­tives: the com­edy of Co­leridge and Southey’s aborted scheme for a com­mu­nis­tic set­tle­ment in Penn­syl­va­nia and its af­ter­math; the tragedy of Mary Woll­stonecraft, which reads like an eigh­teenth-cen­tury Doris Less­ing novel; and the not al­to­gether un­fruit­ful fail­ure of Thomas Lovell Bed­does’s Pneu­matic In­sti­tute and its ex­per­i­ments with the sci­ence of hy­draulics. Through it all is wo­ven the poignant fig­ure of Tom Wedg­wood, the sickly, lonely and frus­trated heir to the Pot­ter­ies for­tune, des­per­ate for a pur­pose in life, a gen­er­ous in­vestor in all man­ner of no­ble, lost causes and, just be­fore his pre­ma­ture death, a pioneer of pho­tog­ra­phy.

Al­though the fo­cus is on the 1790s, the per­spec­tive ex­tends more broadly – back­wards through the En­light­en­ment’s in­ter­est in the rel­a­tive value of rea­son and emo­tion (or ‘the pas­sions’) and Rousseau’s sen­sa­tional ideas about the nat­u­ral and au­then­tic, and then for­wards, to cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy and the pop­u­lar ‘Men are from Mars, Women from Venus’ trope.

What might also fea­ture, but oddly doesn’t, is the cur­rent cliché about the im­por­tance of in­fus­ing into po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions ‘com­pas­sion’ – a danger­ous term, much favoured by Marat and Robe­spierre, that ap­pears to have re­placed the more rea­son­able pri­or­ity of dis­pens­ing jus­tice.

The essence here is that the 18th cen­tury had gen­er­ally fos­tered an op­ti­mistic and ‘benev­o­lent’ out­look, based on a be­lief that ‘let­ting it all hang out’ was es­sen­tial to psy­chic health – a po­si­tion re­in­forced by no­tions of the ex­is­tence of a uni­ver­sal, in­vis­i­ble fluid that func­tioned as a pos­i­tive life force, the block­age of which was the cause of vi­o­lence, frus­tra­tion and dis­ease.

He­witt’s fin de siè­cle cast list all lost con­fi­dence in that par­a­digm: Co­leridge’s Pan­ti­soc­racy foundered on ar­gu­ments over the sta­tus of women, prop­erty and ser­vants; Bed­does’s ex­per­i­ments dis­proved mag­i­cal flu­ids (though his study of ni­trous ox­ide pro­moted a chem­i­cal that re­mains a use­ful anaes­thetic); Mary Woll­stonecraft dis­cov­ered that no amount of ra­tio­nal think­ing could con­trol her un­ruly ‘fem­i­nine’ emo­tions; while the ‘Nurs­ery of Ge­nius’, spon­sored by Tom Wedg­wood to unite all the tal­ents in a school fol­low­ing the purest prin­ci­ple of Rousseauan ide­al­ism, never got off the ground.

One prob­lem with all this is that the ba­sis for He­witt’s gen­eral con­clu­sions about the cul­tural Zeit­geist are drawn from a minute sam­ple of left-lean­ing and al­to­gether ex­cep­tional in­tel­lec­tu­als: ex­tend the range to in­clude the young Jane Austen, Cob­bett and Ha­zlitt, for ex­am­ple, and the pic­ture would look very dif­fer­ent. What or­di­nary folk might have thought about things is al­to­gether ig­nored – to un­der­stand that, one can turn to Jenny Uglow’s much more com­pre­hen­sive survey, In Th­ese Times.

It is also ques­tion­able that the 1790s was a pe­cu­liarly cru­cial decade in terms of its last­ing im­pact: surely the 1930s or 1960s have more ob­vi­ously and im­me­di­ately ‘forged the mod­ern mind’ – a sub­ti­tle hostage to for­tune. Per­haps what is iden­ti­fied here is sim­ply a re­cur­rent ebb and flow of youth­ful hopes raised by the­ory and dashed by ma­tu­rity and ex­pe­ri­ence – one senses a com­pa­ra­ble left to right turn be­ing made in the wake of Cromwell’s Com­mon­wealth, of Stal­in­ist com­mu­nism, even of the Blair and Obama regimes.

It is also clear that the rad­i­cal spirit wasn’t elim­i­nated by Pitt’s Gag­ging Acts or the dis­ap­point­ments re­sult­ing from the French débâ­cle of 1793-4, the fail­ure of the United Ir­ish re­bel­lion and the short-lived Napoleonic lib­er­a­tions. Be­lief in the pos­si­bil­i­ties of progress and im­prove­ment was merely tem­po­rar­ily in­hib­ited, resur­fac­ing in the next gen­er­a­tion of By­ron, Shel­ley and Keats, and yield­ing so­cial re­form in the Peel­ite 1820s and 1830s – by which time, Malthu­sian think­ing, Evan­gel­i­cal­ism, Util­i­tar­i­an­ism and in­dus­tri­al­i­sa­tion had changed the cul­tural con­ver­sa­tion.

None of th­ese reser­va­tions de­tracts from He­witt’s achieve­ment. Rich in ideas and vivid in de­tail, writ­ten with un­fail­ing panache and clar­ity, this is a piece of bold re­vi­sion­ism that opens new hori­zons on the cul­ture of the Ro­man­tic era.

‘Is it pos­si­ble I might be ar­rested for self-hate crimes?’

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