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Anthony Jarrells, Britain's Bloodless Revolutions: 1688 and the Romantic Reform of Literature

Thursday, October 1, 2009 - 02:35
Anthony Jarrells, Britain’s Bloodless Revolutions: 1688 and the Romantic Reform of Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. Ix + 229 pp. $80.00 (Hdbk; 1-4039-4107-6).

Reviewed by
C. Durning Carroll

Anthony S. Jarrells’s book, Britain’s Bloodless Revolutions: 1688 and the Romantic Reform of Literature, argues that the Glorious Revolution served for the British of the eighteenth century as a model for how to prevent the sort of bloody revolution that was to happen a century later in France. For Jarrells, it was the peculiar ability of writing (and the way writing was ultimately shaped into “literature” during Britain’s long eighteenth century) to configure the wishes and hopes of ordinary people that kept England from France’s passionate zealotry. Britain’s Bloodless Revolutions suggests a dialog between non-fictional writing—more ideological because it aimed explicitly to persuade—and the imaginative genres of poetry, fiction and drama, whose political and ideological aims were absent, or at least were rendered covert through fictionalization. This conversation between imaginative and persuasive writing, and the way both worked together to meet the needs of the people, regulated Britain’s revolutionary impulses. Jarrells explains that during the eighteenth century “not only was the literary narrowed to exclude, in large part, moral philosophy, historiography, and political economy, but this narrowed focus also helped to narrow the range of opinion in the larger world beyond letters” (98). Jarrells’s central thesis is that the narrowed focus of literature brought about by non-fictional writing helped depoliticize literature and refocus it on the individual.

The introduction and first chapter provide much of the historical background for Jarrells’s argument. These pages give a good overview of the literary mood of the late eighteenth century, providing a clear sense of the important debates of the period, especially between the Jacobin and anti-Jacobin forces in British literature. The rhetorical sparring between Paine and Burke is particularly relevant here, for as Jarrells cleverly argues, Paine’s in absentia treason trial for publishing The Rights of Man was a sign that the British government (and thus to some extent the British people) had already accepted Paine as the personal representative of a populist movement. Burke’s own role as an MP and his later canonization as the patron saint of conservatism also demonstrated this process of linking political to written representation. As Jarrells explains, during this period “writing became a kind of extra-institutional voice of the people, ‘the people’ themselves being defined in the eighteenth century by their exclusion from governing institutions” (30). Jarrells’s narrative shows how a generalized “people’s voice” was formed into genres as a response to this exclusion from power. These chapters also set up one of Jarrells’s most perceptive insights—that one of the key differences between British and continental thinkers was British opposition to the idea of the "system," the continental preference for principles of law and politics derived from abstractions and axioms instead of from custom and concrete events. Jarrells compellingly links Britain’s anti-systematic tendencies to the rise of imaginative literature and to its uncanny ability to channel human passions.

Chapter Two reads Wordsworth’s poems in light of Jacobin writings of the era. Jarrells argues that Wordsworth’s commitment to the use of ordinary language in poetry helped depoliticize writing, while alienating it from the systematic thinking associated in the English mind with France and Germany. The focus on individual instead of collective experience in Wordsworth’s poetry, Jarrells explains, was the poet’s attempt to regulate the violent impulses of a nation on edge. Describing the mood of 1790s Britain, Jarrells adds “there is the sense [in the period] that literature—good literature, well-conducted literature—will play a role in aiding or averting a violent outcome” (77). As Jarrells points out, giving literature these attributes meant, in part, nationalizing it—creating a uniquely British literary identity. In his section on Coleridge, Jarrells describes how Coleridge contributed to this process of individualization and national identity by using non-fiction to create a distinctly English literary canon of imaginative works that would stand apart from foreign writing. Jarrells connects this formation of British identity to the growth of genre. The richness of imaginative writing in Britain, Jarrells puts forth, gave that country a rhetorical structure distinct from the continental one.

Chapter Three is a detailed analysis of the works of William Godwin and his connections to radicalism. Despite his radical politics, Godwin became a devotee of individual over systematic thought. His distinction from Wordsworth, however, lay not only in choosing the novel for the expression of his ideas, but also in a certain anti-populist stance that sought to preserve social distinctions even as it worked to dismantle the social and governmental institutions that thwarted individualistic thinking. Godwin attempted to keep the political in the literary even as he also wanted to use the literary to desystematize the political. Jarrells argues, “Godwin’s move towards an individualist, removed literary sphere is a move away from a literature based on publicity—specifically, on the violent tendencies of the public model of letters” (103). Jarrells also links this individualistic strain in literature to women’s writing of the era, (including that of Godwin’s wife, Mary Wollstonecraft) and their own arguments for equal rights.

Chapters Four and Five, constituting the second part of the book, read the novels of Scott and Austen as key forces in the Romantic reform of literature. Jarrells argues that Scott’s historical novels rewrite history along individualistic lines. Scott’s novels “theorized the modern world [he] wished to enter by displacing the violence that accompanied it into the dark ages of the past” (155). This form of misremembering the recent past gave Scott’s Romantic present a rosy tint undimmed by blood. Austen’s own novels, by avoiding politics altogether, showed the distance individualism and genre had already come. By helping to form and shape the novel, Scott and Austen encouraged the further growth of disciplinarity in literature, turning the focus of imaginative works away from broadly social concerns and towards the analysis of individuals in their microcosmic social relations.

While Jarrells does an outstanding job of delineating the debates between the key thinkers of British Romanticism about how the rights of the people were to be constructed in the light of 1688, his argument might have been helped at moments by taking a longer view of British history. English history is distinct in the way it has continually allied writing with political liberation. As early as 1100, for example, King Henry I issued his Charter of Liberties delineating the reciprocal obligations he and his barons would hence-forth respect. Henry’s Charter of Liberties provided the legal precedent for the Magna Carta of 1215. That document, in turn, established a precedent for the Petition of Right, signed by Charles I in 1628, granting powerful rights to Parliament and consequently sharply limiting his royal prerogative. Charles’ own failure to respect those rights he had already granted led to Britain’s rather bloody Civil War. The Glorious Revolution too, produced its own legal document—the 1689 English Bill of Rights. Taken together these documents gave the British people an established set of constitutional rights that existed well before the emergence of Romantic writing and its separation into genres. If writing was a socially-regulative force, it is likely that these legal (and ostensibly non-literary) documents played an important role in that regulation.

Even if the Romantic construction of the Glorious Revolution as bloodless was a fiction, as Jarrells so convincingly shows, that fiction had long been enabled by Britain’s constitutional history. The Glorious Revolution and its later re-interpretation as bloodless may merely have been the logical next step along a long road of expressing individual rights through writing. In trying to understand why the British did not rebel when France did and why imaginative literature rose, this running public rights debate may well have had an important role to play. Acknowledging and referring to this history might have helped the reader better understand how the movement from public writing to the inward turn of literature and of a distinctively British literary canon, actually occurred.