The Romantic Tavern: Literature and Conviviality in the Age of Revolution, by Ian Newman

Peter J. Smith raises a glass to ‘conviviality’ in life and literature

May 30, 2019
Source: Getty
Company you can bet on: the tavern functioned as many things, including as a site of ‘discussions about liberty articulated through toasts, poems, songs and “conviviality”’

At the opening of this fascinating study, Ian Newman assures us, with nimble irony, that “I have had more fun researching and writing this book than accords with the usual image of academic pointy-headed severity.” Yet for all its self-deprecation, this is a learned account that sets about tracing such intricacies as 18th-century state surveillance, the tensions between feminised “fashionable sociability” and “the masculine commercialized politics of clubs and coffeehouses”, and “the pleasure of politics and the politics of pleasure, and how they gave shape to ideas about literature”.

Newman’s locus classicus is not a literary passage but a literal place, the tavern, which functioned as an influential challenge to the “assumptions about the improving capacities of Enlightenment conversation”. Not only were taverns inseparable from politics but, counter to received scholarship, they were the centre of dissent not from labouring classes and the plebeian resistances of the 1790s but rather “a public sphere dominated by wealthy merchants”. The emerging commercial class of tradesmen, investors and merchants constituted a powerful threat to “ancient laws and institutions”. In this way, the tavern functioned as a site of discussions about liberty articulated through toasts, poems, drinking songs and, in Newman’s helpful umbrella term, “conviviality”, which he defines as comprising “humor, pleasure, and mutuality”.

One of the most striking things about the two taverns that Newman focuses on is their sheer scale. The Crown and Anchor (in London just off the Strand and prominent in the 1790s) boasted a dining room that seated 500 and an assembly hall that could accommodate 2,000. Here, ritualised and regular assemblies facilitated the meeting of large numbers of people and allowed a plurality of functions and interpretations: “it was seen variously as a venue for drunken revelry, or for elegant dinners; as a site that embodied the political principles of freedom of speech and the liberty of the presses, or a site providing frivolous luxury to the elite”. But Newman shows how the Crown and Anchor’s several literary and visual representations tended to associate it with sedition.

Music was frequently obscene and uncensored, and titles such as Quim or The Blue Vein typify the unabashed sociability of the gatherings. The ribald lyrics of Captain Charles Morris’ The Plenipotentiary are not for the squeamish: “Thro’ thick and thro’ thin, bowel deep he dashed in,/Till her cunt frothed like cream in a dairy;/And express’d by loud farts, she was strain’d in all parts/By the great Plenipotentiary.”

As Newman moves on to the Romantics, his discussion of anacreontic poetry (concerning wine and love) includes an acute reading of Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale, its wine glass replete with “beaded bubbles winking at the brim”. Emphasis has thus shifted from the actuality to the concept of conviviality: poetry is now “inspired by the idea of wine and no drop need pass the lips: language itself becomes intoxicating”.

Wistfully, Newman concludes by hearkening after the tavern’s convivial prodigality in defiance of modern individualism: “Old taverns are what matter; taverns that we can contemplate with reverence [and] that produce reveries of past associations.”

Peter J. Smith is reader in Renaissance literature at Nottingham Trent University. His latest book, co-edited with Deborah Cartmell, is Much Ado About Nothing: A Critical Guide (2018).

The Romantic Tavern: Literature and Conviviality in the Age of Revolution
By Ian Newman
Cambridge University Press, 304pp, £75.00
ISBN 9781108470377
Published 28 March 2019


Print headline: A toast to liberty and licentiousness

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