1819 - and all that

England in 1819
December 25, 1998

This year has been a year of centenaries and celebrations, a year when significant dates are commemorated. It is 30 years since the brief Paris euphoria of 1968; it is a half century since the creation of the National Health Service. Jazz lovers have been celebrating the centenary of George Gershwin's birth while the theme of this year's major Romanticism conference was the bicentenary of 1798, the year that Wordsworth and Coleridge published their Lyrical Ballads.

It has been a year for centenaries, but then so is every year, for it is always possible to find a crucial date in the past that must be reflected upon and commemorated. Why should one event, one year or one historical period be considered more important than another? What relationship between past and present is assumed in the notion of a centenary? How does that relationship affect our selection of the important event to be commemorated? It is questions such as these that propel James Chandler's complex and thoughtful study, England in 1819.

Taking as his title and as the focus of his study Shelley's sonnet, "England in 1819", Chandler speculates upon the paradox he has set himself. On one hand, he feels that 1819 was a particularly significant year. It was the year of the Peterloo massacre, the year of Keats's great odes, the year of Scott's Ivanhoe, the year of Shelley's "Mask of Anarchy" and "Ode to the West Wind", the year that inspired many in the later Chartist movement to campaign for reform. It was also, Chandler argues, a year in which writers became acutely conscious of their place in history. They wrote about the significance of the events they were living through and of the special nature of "the spirit of the age", to quote the title of one of Hazlitt's best-known works.

On the other hand, the notion of "the spirit of the age" was a Romantic concept and thus to write about the historical context of literature might be - contrary to current prevailing new historicist ideas about the ahistoricism of Romanticism - precisely to accept blindly Romantic ideology. Moreover, the legacy of new historicist criticism has been to question the privileging of the literary or canonical text over other documents of the period. So to claim that 1819 is "hot" - to use Levi-Strauss's term, which Chandler adopts - because that was the year in which Keats and Shelley were writing their major poetry raises all sorts of interesting questions about why these writers or writings are chosen as particularly representative of a period.

Much of this book, then, is given over to a discussion of the philosophy of history and the problematic relationship between literature and history. Chandler revisits the historiographical debate between Sartre and Levi-Strauss in order to bring new historicism closer to what he sees as its structuralist antecedents. He goes on to discuss the use of the anecdote, the notion of representativeness and the question of historical determinism, drawing upon such theorists as Kenneth Burke, Georg Luk cs and Fredric Jameson.

The second half of the book offers case studies, readings of Scott, Byron, Keats and Shelley. Keats's Ode to Psyche, for example, often described as a most private poem - in which the goddess is offered not a public shrine but a refuge in "the wreathed trellis of a working brain" - is set in the context of previous treatments of the Psyche myth. Keats had read both Mary Tighe's version of the poem and also the account of the story in Apuleius's Metamorphoses. Chandler argues that Keats wrote the reception histories of these other versions of the myth into the poem, so that the poem becomes much more historically aware than is usually thought. A fascinating discussion of Shelley's play The Cenci addresses the question of what Shelley describes as the "restless casuistry" of its heroine Beatrice's advocates and critics. Casuistry involves attempting to apply general rules to specific circumstances, with often legalistic or hair-splitting sophistication. Thus by attempting to justify Beatrice's murder of her father, critics are compelled to negotiate the relationship between the general and the particular, between present and past, between the timeless doctrine and the historically specific event. Chandler argues that Shelley's dramatisation of these questions in theatrical form makes the significance of casuistry that much more self-conscious and self-referential: "The Cenci presents more than just a case. It presents a case of a case ... Shelley's interest lies in the circumstances of casuistry itself".

There are two disappointments about the book. The first is one that Chandler himself acknowledges, that he deals only with literary texts and says nothing about the popular or material culture of 1819 - the music, the art, the architecture, the sport. A thick history - and a more enjoyable read - would have included these things. The second disappointment is the language in which the whole book is written. It is necessarily and understandably abstract, because of the nature of the historiographical texts it discusses, although it compounds the abstractions with neologisms - historicise, aestheticise, synopsise(!). But it is also linguistically sophistic in ways that sometimes work most interestingly and sometimes do not. A reading of Shelley's sonnet, "England in 1819", for example, points out that the jaded state of England described in the first 12 lines is more open to the possibilities of optimistic change than critics have credited it, and therefore it concludes most interestingly that "the idea of 'condition', the unstated term that haunts the poem, thus seems to reappear in its grammatical sense". But elsewhere, when discussing casuistry and historical explanation, Chandler argues that "'case' and 'cause' are terms that share a grammatical intimacy we have scarcely begun to realise". "Case" and "cause" are, in fact, derived from different Latin roots, and to link them in this way seems to be to confuse an already complicated argument.

At the 1998 Romanticism conference, nobody was talking about Chandler's book. It takes some time for books to gain currency. But in succeeding years, it is hard to imagine anyone working on the situation of historical situatedness - as Chandler himself would probably put it - who will not find it necessary to engage with the arguments raised in this magnum opus.

Jennifer Wallace is a lecturer in English at Peterhouse, Cambridge   

England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism

Author - James Chandler
ISBN - 0 226 10108 8
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £.95
Pages - 584

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