Après le déluge
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?’