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About this book

A wide-ranging collection of the key contextual documents which inform the Romantic period. It includes material on fiercely debated areas such as the French Revolution, women, the slave trade, science and religion. Documents are supported by substantial editorial material, drawing connections to the major Romantic texts.

Table of Contents

Introduction

Abstract
In the opening canto of his comic epic Don Juan, Lord Byron characterizes the epoch in which he lived as ‘the age of oddities let loose’ (I, 128).1 While illustrating the clear engagement between literature and the kinds of historical, religious, and scientific contexts documented in this Sourcebook, Byron’s account captures forcefully his sense of the period’s sheer excitement, as well as its paradoxes, contradictions, and newness. He declares of the era’s developments:
Simon Bainbridge

1. Historical Events

Abstract
In 1816 the poet Percy Shelley described the French Revolution as ‘the master theme of the epoch in which we live’.1 The events in France were enormously important for all aspects of life in Britain during the Romantic period, though whether the age was one of ‘Revolution’ or ‘Counter-Revolution’ continues to be debated by historians. To many contemporaries, the Revolution (often symbolized by the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, though actually a complex series of events that lasted until at least 1795 — see Timeline on pp. xvii–xix), initially appeared not only to be bringing French government into line with the British model of constitutional monarchy established by the ‘Glorious Revolution’ in 1688 but also to be transforming the world into a paradise on earth. William Wordsworth, who visited France in 1790, commented in his epic poem The Prelude that during this stage of the Revolution: ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven!’ (X. 692–3).2 However, many who had initially supported the Revolution became increasingly disillusioned by the bloody and increasingly imperialistic nature of events in France, including the September Massacres of 1792, the execution of the king and queen in 1793, the outbreak of war between Britain and France in the same year, the Jacobin ‘Reign of Terror’ of 1793–4, and the invasions of Italy in 1796–8 and Switzerland in 1798.
Simon Bainbridge

2. Society, Politics and Class

Abstract
Many accounts of the writing and culture of the Romantic period have stressed the link with the complex and much debated set of economic, social and demographic developments grouped together under the term ‘the Industrial Revolution’. While historians have debated the nature and duration of this ‘revolution’ (some arguing for ‘evolution’ and others that the whole idea is a ‘myth’), to many of those living at the time it certainly felt like an age of rapid change and social upheaval, as the extracts contained within this section illustrate. These extracts comment on the major features which have been seen to characterize the onset of this process of transformation, including: rapid overall population growth; rural depopulation, caused in part by the acceleration of the enclosure movement; expansion in the number and size of large towns and cities; the acceleration and mechanization of production (driven by the harnessing of steam power, creating the ‘factory system’ with what was seen to be its dehumanizing effects on the workforce); the despoliation of the landscape; and the widening gap in wealth between the upper and (emerging) middle classes and the poor.
Simon Bainbridge

3. Women

Abstract
‘It is time to effect a revolution in female manners — time to restore to them their lost dignity — and make them, as a part of the human species, labour by reforming themselves to reform the world.’ Mary Wollstonecraft’s famous rallying cry in the most important book about women of the period, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792; extract 3.4), makes obvious through its terminology her sense that the ongoing debate about political rights for men, heightened by the French Revolution (see Section 1), needed to be extended into an examination of the position and role of women in society. This section begins with extracts from two works that Wollstonecraft criticized in the Vindication as illustrations of, and reasons for, women’s loss of dignity: James Fordyce’s Sermons to Young Women and John Gregory’s A Father’s Legacy to his Daughters. These were popular and frequently reprinted examples of the conduct-book, a form of advice manual which sought to instil within its readership of girls and young women an ideal of femininity characterized by passivity, meekness, and submission. But it was not only in such obviously conservative texts that Wollstonecraft and fellow radical thinkers confronted the ideological subordination of women. Catharine Macaulay Graham described the foremost philosopher of republicanism, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as ‘among the most strenuous asserters of sexual difference’ (extract 3.3). Similarly, in Chapter 5 of the Vindication, Wollstonecraft provided a detailed critical analysis of Rousseau’s highly-limited programme of female education outlined in Émile (1762), arguing that it assumed ‘woman to have been formed only to please, and be subject to man’.
Simon Bainbridge

4. Religion and Belief

Abstract
The previous three sections have shown how volatile the Romantic age was politically, socially, and in the debate over women. This volatility was no less characteristic of the age in terms of religion. As Robert M. Ryan has argued:
For a period of approximately three decades, the decades in which Romantic poetry flourished, religion in England seemed to abandon its character as a guarantor of social stability and to become, as it had during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a force for potentially revolutionary change.1
Simon Bainbridge

5. Philosophy

Abstract
The extracts in this section engage with some of the fundamental philosophical issues of the Romantic period, especially the question of the relation of the self to the world. John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690, extract 5.1) remained a key text in this respect and underpinned Enlightenment theories of knowledge. Locke argues that the mind has no innate ideas or principles but is like a tabula rasa — a blank slate — which is written upon by experience. All ideas are the product of experience, though the mind does play a role in the transformation of sensation and perception into sophisticated ideas and abstract concepts. Locke’s account of this process was developed by David Hartley in his Observations on Man, His Frame, His Duty, and His Expectations (1749; extract 5.2), in which he analysed in detail how primary sensations become associated together to produced all ideas and emotions.
Simon Bainbridge

6. Aesthetics

Abstract
Though the word ‘aesthetics’ was not widely used in Britain during the Romantic age, gaining its current meaning later in the nineteenth century, the issues of judgement and taste with which aesthetics is concerned were much debated and a knowledge of the key concepts is essential to an understanding of the literary and cultural output of the period. Many of the extracts in this section offer definitions of the three major aesthetic categories of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries — the sublime, the beautiful, and the picturesque — which provided frameworks for the creation and reception of artistic and literary works while also shaping the way in which individuals responded to the world around them. While there are clear links between the aesthetic theories of this section and the philosophical debates of the previous one, it is important to recognize that these aesthetic theories are also inseparable from the social and political concerns focused on in other sections. For example, Edmund Burke would exploit the full force of his own conceptualizing of the sublime when presenting the horrors of the French Revolution in Reflections (see extract 1.4), while his opposed categories of the sublime and the beautiful are constructed in terms of a gendered hierarchy (sublime as masculine, beautiful as feminine) which they consolidate.
Simon Bainbridge

7. Popular Culture, Leisure and Entertainment

Abstract
The documents in this section illustrate the extent and diversity of the cultural activities and leisure pursuits undertaken during the Romantic age, ranging from rural communities’ fireside narratives of supernatural beings to visits to see the solar microscope in London, from the travelling puppet shows exhibited at fairs to the grand tragic performances of Sarah Siddons at Drury Lane, and from broadside confessions of murder to the illuminations of Vauxhall pleasure gardens. The Romantic age has also been identified by a number of historians as the period which sees the beginning of the study of popular culture, with John Brand’s Observations on Popular Antiquities (1777, extract 7.1) and Joseph Strutt’s Sports and Pastimes of the People of England (1801, extract 7.2) occupying important positions as early and influential examples of this work. In the case of Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821, extract 7.4), we have a work purporting to undertake a study of contemporary cultural pursuits in the Metropolis — ‘the grand object of this work is an attempt to portray what is termed “seeing life” in all its various bearings upon society’ — which itself proved enormously popular, becoming a publishing phenomenon of the nineteenth century and generating a series of further versions in broadsheet and dramatic forms.
Simon Bainbridge

8. Literary Production and Reception

Abstract
In 1791, the successful London publisher James Lackington observed in his Memoirs that ‘the sale of books in general has increased prodigiously within the last twenty years’, estimating a four-fold growth since 1771 (extract 8.2). The expansion of the publishing industry and the growth of what Coleridge christened the ‘Reading Public’ were significant developments in the Romantic period. Lackington himself pointed to a number of changes in the demographics of reading and in the structures of publishing that stimulated these changes. Famously commenting that ‘all ranks and degrees now READ’, he argued that the rise in literacy was encouraging a shift among the lower classes from an oral culture of storytelling and the supernatural (of the sort described by Bourne and Brand in the previous section, see extract 7.1) to a literate culture of the printed book and the novels of Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett and Samuel Richardson. Simultaneously, he suggested, the development of book-clubs and the growth of circulating libraries made books available to a much greater readership among the middle classes, especially women: ‘Circulating libraries have also greatly contributed towards the amusement and cultivation of the other sex; by far the greatest part of ladies have now a taste for books.’ Not all commentators were as positive about these developments as Lackington, many reviewers complaining of the sheer number of publications that were now produced. In 1788, for example, the Critical Review referred to a novel as ‘One of the buzzing insects which has received a temporary life from the warmth of a circulating library’.1
Simon Bainbridge

9. Empire, Slavery and Exploration

Abstract
The Romantic age witnessed a remarkable growth in Britain’s imperial power and confidence. Despite the loss of the thirteen American colonies as a result of the War of Independence, Britain had strengthened its control of its other colonies in India, Canada, and the Caribbean, and the defeat prompted a restructuring of colonial policy. Britain’s victory over its major colonial rival, France, in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars resulted in further acquisitions in the Mediterranean, Australia and South Africa, and increased dominion in India and the Caribbean, confirming the nation’s status as the world’s major imperial power and reinforcing a growing sense of the country’s divinely sanctioned right to shape global politics. By 1820, 200 million people, 26 per cent of the world’s population, lived under British rule, and Britain no longer saw itself as simply a trading or colonial nation but as an Empire with a mission to spread its own political, religious and moral values across the globe.
Simon Bainbridge

10. Science

Abstract
The word ‘scientist’ was first used in the 1830s, signalling a shift away from the integrated and comprehensive idea of ‘natural philosophy’ in which emerging disciplines such as astronomy, chemistry, geology, botany, biology, and electromagnetism were part of a more general ‘enquiry into the phenomena and powers of nature’, to use Richard Yeo’s phrase.1 Rather than being seen in a modern way as a number of rarefied and discrete fields that could be understood only by the specialist, natural philosophy was regarded as working alongside other forms of knowledge, including literature. Erasmus Darwin used verse to present scientific ideas to the public (extract 10.3), while in his poem ‘Religious Musings’, Samuel Taylor Coleridge presented ‘Philosophers and Bards’ as united in their endeavours (ll. 227–30). In the 1790s, when Coleridge wrote this poem, science was seen as fundamentally interlinked with ethical, religious, political, and literary debates. The anxiety expressed in a text like Frankenstein, written two decades later, was that science was beginning to cut itself free of its responsibilities to these wider concerns.
Simon Bainbridge
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