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Kevin Gilmartin, Writing Against Revolution: Literary Conservatism in Britain, 1790-1832

Monday, January 19, 2009 - 04:02
Kevin Gilmartin, Writing Against Revolution: Literary Conservatism in Britain, 1790-1832. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. Xii + 316 pp. 3 Illustrations. $90.00 (Hdbk; 0-521-86113-6).

Reviewed by
Anthony Jarrells
University of South Carolina

The implicit claim of Kevin Gilmartin's Writing Against Revolution: Literary Conservatism in Britain, 1790-1832, is that containment is as apt a metaphor for romantic-period writing as the more widely used explosion. Of course, the effort by conservative writers to counter what was thought by many in the period to be a very real threat of revolution did itself lead to an explosion of print. Indeed, it is precisely this tension that Gilmartin finds at the heart of the "counterrevolutionary" enterprise: how do those who see print as a suspect vehicle of revolution engage in a print-based campaign to counter such a threat? Gilmartin's first book, Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in early Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996), explored the radical side of the struggle. His new study brings a similar, rigorous approach to the "pervasive rhetorical and literary dilemma" (13) that occupied those writers working to forestall the movement chronicled in Print Politics. The five chapters of Writing Against Revolution trace the myriad forms in which this rhetorical and literary dilemma found expression: from pamphlets and tracts (chapters one and two), periodical reviews (chapter three), and novels (chapter four), to attempts (chronicled in chapter five) by two canonical writers of the period—Robert Southey and Samuel Coleridge—to extend counterrevolutionary practices beyond specific moments of crisis and to articulate "a model for a more stable society" (207). Against a scholarly field that tends to associate romantic writing with progressive strains and causes, Gilmartin aims "to demonstrate the enterprising and productive (rather than merely negative and reactive) presence of counterrevolutionary voices in the culture of the romantic period" (9).

Gilmartin's account of the counterrevolutionary movement begins in the tumultuous early years of the 1790s—although not, as might be expected, with Edmund Burke. Burke occupies a kind of Coleridgean "life-in-death" presence in Gilmartin's study: while the "nervously imperfect rhetorical organization" (7) of the Reflections (1790) inspires Gilmartin's interest in the "range and complexity of counterrevolutionary expression" (9), Burke's ambivalent relationship to British conservatism and utter distrust of "political men of letters" make his a less than vital presence in a campaign set, for better or worse, on waging war on the compromised terrain of print. As the first two chapters of the book demonstrate, Gilmartin's concern with writers like William Paley and Hannah More is not with "abstract ideological positions" such as those that have come to characterize the Burke / Paine debate, but rather with "the social and cultural circumstances under which political expression and persuasion actually took place" (64). The pamphlets and tracts issued by John Reeves' Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers and More's Cheap Repository betray a willingness—however begrudged—to engage Burke's "swinish multitude" as actual subjects of public discourse. Paley's Reasons for Contentment; Addressed to the Labouring Part of the British Public (1792), for instance, begins in the social space of the theater, acknowledging the laboring class as a public. Although he fairly quickly retreats to the private realm of the home, where social place and duty can be imagined in more purely individual terms, the rhetorical gestures of Paley's pamphlet perform loyalist anxieties over addressing the populace. As Gilmartin shows, Paley cannot completely seclude his laboring subject indoors. Instead, he places him between the collective space of the theatrum mundi and the individual space of the home—somewhere accessible to public discourse, that is ("at his door," Gilmartin notes), where he can be reasoned into contentment.

The danger with making laboring class readers participants in public debate, however, is that they become accessible to other arguments as well—arguments geared to provoke "envy and resentment" (37) among the less well-off. But as Gilmartin's deft analysis of Paley's pamphlet suggests, the goal of counterrevolutionary writing was not merely to address the reader, but also to manage that reader's place in the fallen realm of the public. Loyalist associations like Reeves', which was founded in 1792 and which distributed Paley's pamphlet, helped to forge the "necessary institutional framework" (37) required to police the participation of laboring-class readers in public discourse.

Hannah More's Cheap Repository Tracts (1795-1798) do not evidence the same level of anxiety about addressing laboring-class readers in print. As Gilmartin explains, More saw "resourceful literary production as a way of rescuing Britain from the twin threat of religious infidelity and political subversion" (15). Although Village Politics (1792) is the better known of More's works, Gilmartin grounds his account of her writing in The History of Tom White the Postilion (1795) and its sequel, The Way to Plenty, which he finds "more typical" of the work that gave More "a leading role in the anti-radical and counterrevolutionary campaigns" (55) of the period. This tale of a post-chaise driver's dissolution and eventual redemption features virtues that can be found in much of More's propagandistic fiction—among them temperance, frugality, loyalty, and household management. But in its turn from mere plot to an episodic and list-like structure, what Tom White emphasizes, finally, are "the material and institutional conditions for moral reform" (58). In this, More's writing strikes a chord similar to that of loyalist writers like Paley. At the same time, what Gilmartin describes as More's "enterprising," middle-class spirit propels her work beyond standard loyalist defenses of constitution and tradition. The portrait that emerges here is of a writer savvy enough to do battle with the radical opposition by embedding her reactionary views in a modernizing project of her own—one where the authority of the gentry is superseded by centralized networks of distribution and surveillance.

By the end of the 1790s, the reach of such centralized networks equaled and even surpassed those established by radical groups like the London Corresponding Society, whose activities in the middle years of the decade were a cause of escalating concern for the government. Although the LCS was effectively suppressed by 1798, these last years of the decade still saw no shortage of what John Robison called "proofs of a conspiracy" against government and religion. Gilmartin points to a shift in the print-war terrain during this time—from pamphlets and tracts to the "more sustained and reliable" (96) medium of the periodical review. Starting with the Anti-Jacobin; or, Weekly Examiner (1797-1798), whose "distinctive character" makes it the "inaugural moment for a subsequent lineage of conservative magazines and reviews" (96), periodicals like the Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine (founded in 1798), the Quarterly Review (1809), and Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine (1817) worked to extend the policing functions introduced by loyalist associations to include literature itself (the Anti-Jacobin Review, for instance, found evidence of sedition in children's literature). In the "review of reviews" feature that developed in relation to the long review essay made popular in the pages of the Edinburgh Review (1802), conservative writers were given wide latitude for commentary—both on a particular work and, often more importantly, on a work's reception in the press. Rhetorically, though, as Gilmartin argues, these reviewers aimed to do no more than clear away the discursive debris cluttering the public's understanding of the benefits of an unreformed constitution. There was no suggestion that government itself should be responsive to the press.

Gilmartin concludes this richest and liveliest of the book's chapters with an analysis of Blackwood's Magazine's six-part series, "The Warder" (1819-1821), in which the loose, conversational structure of earlier pieces like "The Tent" (1819) gives way almost naturally to the "parliamentary authority" (145) of Liverpool MP and original Anti-Jacobin, George Canning, whose reprinted re-election speech offered a stolid defense of the recently passed Six Acts. Equally rich, though considerably less lively, is Gilmartin's survey in the next chapter of the "counterrevolutionary novel". Even in summary most of these novels are terrifically dull. Fortunately, Gilmartin's sly sense of humor provides just enough distraction to keep us with him through many a picaresque adventure plot and scene of domestic conversation. The intent here is not "to vindicate" anti-Jacobin fiction from "well-deserved charges of exaggeration and slander," but rather to trace the various strategies developed by novelists of the period to "[hunt] down" subversion (160). Gilmartin's account demonstrates, first, that anti-Jacobin novels, too, participated in the general push toward formal innovation emphasized throughout Writing Against Revolution; and second, that in their dependence on a domestic framework "to neutralize the threat of revolution as well as libertine seduction" (153), anti-Jacobin novels introduced a female subject whose potential agency and power could not always be contained by the traditional plot structures conservative writers relied upon to keep radical ideas from insinuating themselves into this popular genre.

What the first four chapters of Writing Against Revolution show—quite subtly—is that the innovative, modern character of romantic-period conservatism is an integral part of the imaginative vibrancy that we have long associated with romanticism. Thus it can seem a bit anti-climactic to turn, in chapter five, to Southey and Coleridge, whose different but related attempts to transcend particular moments of crisis and to write their nation into a permanent state of counterrevolution have the combined effect of closing off the energies and openings that emerge in other works discussed in the book (not to mention in Southey and Coleridge's own earlier work). Both Southey and Coleridge project a society where the literary and the institutional unite and put to rest, once and for all, "the antinomies of the 1790s" (212)—Southey in his outline of a system of church-sponsored education; and Coleridge in his theory an intellectual-religious "clerisy" class. The attempt to achieve such a state is not without tensions of it own—in particular, the need for a reformist project to lift a fallen, post-Enlightenment world from the degradations of the radical culture that has come to define it. But as Gilmartin explains, Southey and Coleridge's "late protest against the erosion of the old regime" (212) ultimately failed in the face of a quite different program of reform.

The claim that the 1832 Reform Act signaled not (or not only) the effective channeling of revolutionary desires but rather a decisive end to the counterrevolutionary project of returning to a pre-capitalist past is both provocative and fitting in a book that aims to challenge our understanding of writing and politics in the romantic period. That Gilmartin brilliantly succeeds in achieving this aim is impressive enough. But Writing Against Revolution does something more as well: it provides us with a prehistory of our own historical moment. When we recall that the word "Jacobin" occasioned the emergence of the word "terrorist" (in the 1790s), we see that the broad-brush labeling and "with us or against us" logic that characterize the current U.S. administration's tactics against dissent are neither new nor dumb. Gilmartin's account of conservative innovation in the romantic period reminds us that we underestimate the forces of reaction at our peril.