There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall … Whom the gods wish to destroy they first call promising … I was a stage rebel, Orwell a true one — Cyril Connolly, The Enemies of Promise
Isaac Cruickshank, Royal Extinguisher or Gulliver Putting out Patriots
Dear Friends and Readers,
This is the second half of my summary and commentary on Johnston’s Unusual Suspects (see Parts 1-4). This part of Johnston’s book will probably be more familiar territory to those who have read novels of the romantic and regency period, as well as their milieu and development (say in Gary Kelly’s survey). As women who wrote on behalf of radical ideas, 18th century versions of feminism, or reform were given a much rawer response than men, and there were automatically suspect nations (Chapters 7 & 8 of Part 4), so the novel was a suspect genre (Chapter 9). Johnston treats the novel from a political angle to suggest that the novel was not allowed to develop in ways that contextualize what is happening with a real understanding of social forces: publishers were prosecuted; what you wrote affected your career. In Scott’s attack on Bage we see female liberation allowed no play whatsoever. Johnston then moves into the silencing at the end of the 1790s: the destruction of Gilbert Wakefield was at the time understood as an example of what happens when a writer practices liberty of speech, freedom of the press. He uses Mackintosh to show what a man did who wanted to carry on; to see Mackintosh crudely as an apostate is not to see what happened.
We then follow a trail beginning with a man spying on Coleridge and Wordsworth and see how suspicion, the manufacturing of alarm, class and ethnic disdain operated on known individuals. I found these short biographies contained surprises: these were lives reseen by looking at the evidence used in previous studies from a new angle; that of how justified paranoia (they did have enemies) and ostracism shaped these peoples’ lives and a genuine humane sympathy with their politics. Johnston makes these people’s lives and choices make sense: the people are Coleridge, Wordsworth, Southey (he is especially insightful on Southey’s earlier radicalism), Lamb (on his brands of irony), Burns and Blake (how class disdain operates in both cases). The individual chapters are much longer and I include and link to some readings of the works (e.g., Wordsworth’s Borderers, Southey’s Letters from England, Lamb’s “Praise of Chimney Sweeps”) that Johnston just mentioned without going into.
Chapter 9: Suspect Genres, the Novelist who was not: Robert Bage (1728-1801)
Johnston looks at the traditional genres, poetry, plays and the new one, novels for general effects from the political conflicts of the era. Story-lines were not allowed development, attitudes were castigated and ridiculed. Among the periodical set up to monitor the literature of the age the most important was the Anti-Jacobin (1798-99) which was very successful in achieving its aims of stopping people from writing clear protest poetry, and when they did, framing what they wrote as absurd, unacceptable, unpatriotic. Keats was hurt, Southey changed course; Coleridge and Wordsworth moderated themselves; others fled to Italy. Thomas Holcroft was a major victim. Plays were shouted off stage, censored in publications (the author not named); publishers arrested and made wary. Johnston sees this process as a destruction of what genres could have been like, one which marginalized potentially great practitioners. In the area of the novel the anti-jacobin novels won, Austen & Scott produce the respected paradigms; Bronte kind of rebellion romantic in feeling is not political or economic in ideology; Byron was silenced.
Robert Bage was a man rare for providing any ideological content, and one of those attacked by the Anti-Jacobin.
Godwin visits in June 1797; Bage was self-educated, admires Holbach, has friendships with Priestley and dissenting people; author of Man As He Is (a jaded aristocrat), and Hermsprong, Man As He Is Not (an American republican). Bage was a businessman running paper and flour mills who found war got in his way, he did have a long term contract but raw materials hard to get; long term contract supplying Hutton, in Birminghan, a friend and dissenter with paper. Long time association with Birmingham, Priestley crowd.
Johnston makes it clear Bage a reformer not a revolutionary in his first four novels. But what he did present was harangued against by Scott. Bage had departed from middle class novel norms by in one novel allowing a young woman who has made a romantic/sexual mistake to be rehabilitated into society. Scott explicitly wrote that ruined women must be stigmatized; in another a heroine prefers the harem to death; one heroine defends herself with a pair of scissors. Man as He Is expands out particular criticisms to suggest wider changes by gov’t policy. Johnston quotes Bage’s books to great effect and we get the dry witty quality of Bage’s strong critiques of corruption, war. Bage published anonymously; he was not interested in a writing career. Johnson argues that Bage’s revealing his last hero a aristocrat shows reader that such a title and money allows tiny minority of people to escape punishment, grow rich.
The gov’t of the day harassed him by excise taxes (directed to war); overcharged he gets his materials back only to have them seized again; he feels the effects of this constant harassment and interruption of his business; at one point he wrote he would like hanging himself. In reprints of his works Barbauld takes him to task for going against received notions and norms; Scott reprints worst Bage’s novels. We know that Austen had a copy of Hermsprong in 1796, in time for some influence. Johnston remarks how critics, and film makers today try to bring to bear in her novels positions only mentioned minimally by her and centrally by Bage. Conservative paradigms, Austen’s and Scott’s predominate by the end of the era; the effect of Barbauld’s collection.
A University of Victoria theater production of Endgame
Part 5: End-games. Endgame as a title is an allusion to Beckett’s play; its literal meaning refers to when the game is called to a half, the last of the chess pieces so this is exemplified by the prosecution of Wakefield for daring to argue with the Bishop of Llandaff; his incarceration utterly unjust. Mackintosh stands in as the representative of radical disillusionment.
Chapter 10: The End of Controversy: Gilbert Wakefield (1756-1801). Wakefield exemplifies the book’s thesis: he died as a result of absolutely unjust incarceration after acareer as a controversialist who made the mistake of rising to broad principles in his attack on complacent bishop of Llandaff, Richard Watson, a bland, condescending sycophant (the David Brook of his day?). Before this, Wakefield had done battle with several people and used religious language. Wakefield did things like attack the war, Pitt and Grenville, and show how false is the idea that sedition in the UK is everywhere.
Wakefield had had a career among the dissenters, as a controversialist; would attack notion it was sinful not to go to church (thus exposing worship is social worship); he went further than his 6 central theses (includes idea that alliance of church and state is a fraud). He argued that the prosecution of the reform movement was meant to silence opposition to foreign and domestic policies. His defense was his peaceable scholarly character, his friends in high places, that the trial itself is wrong – irony he was visited by known and famous people and yet they could do nothing for him.
He was forced to be in jail for a long time before trial; put in Dorchester way outside where he came from and notorious for bad conditions; then put into solitary confinement for 16 hours day. All sorts of famous friends visited him. His great Juvenilian poem in appendix; most imitations are conservative in thrust, not his.
Wordsworth has him partly in mind in his planned Recluse, the “Solitary” figure: that outline of Wordsworth’s early career resembles that of Wakefield only Wordsworth didn’t publish (only is too weak a word).
Chapter 11: The Great Apostate: Judas, Brutus, or Thomas? James Mackintosh (1765-1832). I did not find this chapter as convincing: Mackintosh did not hurt as much and was following his own character and tendencies throughout. He did not change all that much. Mackintosh was always currying favor, trying to to build a career; e.g., when he left Scotland as a doctor; first he tries to make connections with all the main liberal editors, reformers, he failed. His original fame came from a polemic against Burke defending French revolution, Vindiciae Gallicae, strong but not as available linguistically as Paine’s. Hazlitt is quoted, but Hazlitt’s sketch shows Mackintosh to have been an academic intellectual at heart (eg. Discourse on Study of Law and Nations). He had attacked Pitt for abandoning reform in A letter to R.Hon. Wm Pitt, on his Apostacy. Pitt turned this around to be against reform itself. Pitt’s target and legislation a “free form vigilantism against anyone who wrote, or sol, liberal material of any stripe.” Mackintosh wrote that Pitt’s aim was to subsidize European monarcihes to overthrow the French, evoking from French our country is in danger (a levee en masse).
But after the execution of Louis XVI, Mackintosh found his name was used as a bad associate to have. Johnston himself resorts to a kind of coy arch talk about careerism as explanation for why Mackintosh’s Discourses offended; Hazlitt said Mackintosh was too much an academic at heart. He retired to study. Discourses was a moderate book, gov’ts are there to protect us with “security against wrong.” His prose appealing because of its personal and religious quality. He was attacked by his friends as a trimmer, but he had been that way all along. It was hard for people to see he was consistent. When he was awarded a judgeship in India, his record in India unimpeachably progressive: reform penal law, the police, against death penalty. He came home and has an honorable liberal record in his voting habit (p 222) plans an unwritten History of England from the time of the Glorious revolution (one was written in the 1790s and had been suppressed).
Mackintosh was at the last active in founding The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Part VI: The Romantic Poets, the Police and the State of Alarm: Johnston uses a cartoon by Gillray, “New morality,” or “The promised Installment of the High Priest of the Theophilanthropes, with the Homage of Leviathan and his suite” (August 1798) and calls it “The Last Line-up,” to identify the individuals he’s now proceeds to draw portraits of.
Chapter 12: “A Gang of disaffected Englishmen: Spy Nozy and the Somerset Gang.” Johnston retells Coleridge’s famous half-mocking account of a spy sent to listen in on his, the Wordsworths’, and various dissenting and potential and real unusual suspects. The spies report is retold by Coleridge in a way that makes him sound like an innocent and the whole thing hilarious, but the spying was serious. What saved them was they were recognized (according to Johnston) as “disaffected Englishmen.” I admit this does not make much sense to me – the other people the gov’t went after were disaffected Englishmen. If they were discussing some serious issues, the man could have reported it by word of mouth. My guess is the gov’t saw they were poets and not organizers and would not attract followers or organize themselves. Spy nozy was the man’s interpretation of Spinoza: the incident shows class disdain – Johnston does not mention this. It does show the group were spied upon, monitored.
Chapter 13: “Whispering Tongues can poison truth: Coleridge and Thelwall, 1796-1798. This chapter is about a thwarted friendship and stunted growth of a group of people. Coleridge corresponds with and seems to be eager to have Thelwall and his family come and live there – it’s so cheap and they will spend their lives in this retreat. Thelwall so harassed and destroyed seemed eager to reciprocate but when he left Coleridge wrote letters discouraging him to come after all. What happened? Was Coleridge somehow pressured lest he involve the Wordsworths, himself chickened out?
We see that he thought the better of it – rightly feared the results for all concerned, that in fact that spy system was operating to disseminate any grouping, silence them all – but he comes out very badly in these letters as he writhes and turns. Thelwall and Wordsworth truer to themselves than Coleridge. Johnston produces a letter by Coleridge to a magistrate Chubb where instead of really persuading Chubb to help Thelwall live there, Coleridge insinuates Thelwall will be a risk. Johnston seems to me to misread a bit of Coleridge’s letter to Chubb: Johnston says Coleridge is promising to tame Thelwall by having Thelwall live near them; Coleridge’s words suggestthey will teach Thelwall to submit. There is a difference even if the outcome is the same.
This chapter has new material: Johnston directs the reader to Wordsworth’s dramatic poem or play (done in the 1950s), The Borderers, which Johnston characterizes as “one of the most searching examinations of post-revolutionary disillusionment and despair ever written, with insights worthy of Stendhal, and Tolstoy, many of them distilled from Wordsworth’s main source, Schiller’s Robbers.” It was read aloud by the group. Johnston goes over Coleridge’s ode “Fire, Famine, Slaughter” and shows it to be a startlingly brave revolutionary poem.
Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland, by Thomas Girtin, circa 1797-9 “I think I see a second range of towers”: The Borderers (1797-99) (Mortimer to Rivers as they approach the ruined castle, Act II, scene iii)
My reading of this play: I first read some articles on The Borderers because it is more than a little incoherent and unreadable and exists in two slightly different versions with the characters renamed. To be played (at an American university) it had to be revised once again. I see in the play (which is called gothic by some) a number of the motifs that powerfully resonate today. The play’s villain wants to fool or drive this hero into killing someone — so as to make him share in some blood guilt and join this band of revolutionaries. The villain does believe the old man guilty of being part of the ancien regime and holding it up. In Wordsworth’s play the old man starves and freezes to death because the hero lives him on a heath to die since the hero hasn’t got the stomach or whatever it takes to kill him outright. So the play shows us an example of someone being murdered for his ideology. The 18th century parallels might be guillotined people, but the way Wordsworth writes has no specific reference. The characters do feel there is evidence against the old man, but there is no trial so the modern parallel is killing people using drones with nothing more than the evidence of surveillance, or captured people tortured or driven to “confess” The archetype is the blind Oedipus led by his daughter, Antigone. In Schiller’s play a villain drives the hero to stab his beloved (the heroine) through the heart.
In one of the Northanger novels, Horrid Mysteries, there’s a Rosicrucian scene of ritual introduction of a member to the sect, and one of the things the new member must promise is to kill whomever the group requires — whether the person is a relative or friend doesn’t matter. Unlike Wordsworth’s play, Horrid Mysteries does not bother to justify the demand at all — it’s not a serious book. Wordsworth’s play is. The use of the pathetic daughter makes the murder more abhorrent, but its justifications are spelled out too. Wordsworth has some characteristic gothic motifs, and understands why the outlaw might operate or feel this way, but he stands outside and condemns the outlaw who demands such an act and the act too. One problem with The Borderers than as political discourse is by using the fantasy elements of gothic, Wordsworth does not bring in the real French case — the allied armies massing in Europe to attack the new revolutionary group, the fomenting of counter-revolution in the countryside, some of the causes of the terror – which killed less people than the French 2nd republic did in 1870-71.
Johnson does persuade us of Thelwall’s tragic loss, how hurt he must have been, and how this sort of thing is done to people unanswerably. Excellent chapter hard to summarize to do it justice
Chapter 14: Wordsworth (1770-1850), The Prelude and Posterity. This chapter brings out the problem with the book: it depends upon assuming a counter-factual “what if:” Johnstone assumes Wordsworth’s Prelude would have made a big positive impact if it had been published at the time; he says at one point that all masterpieces do, and works exist in this ideal realm modifying one another – we are back in Matthew Arnold and T.S. Eliot’s probably dream world of a tiny intellectual elite which even they would disagree on.
He does show that the incident of the spy leading to the non-renewal of Wordsworths’s lease, despite all uncomfortable denials, made a great change in the Wordsworths lives: some good, they went to Germany, some probably bad, they lost a companion. He insists that Byron and Shelley would have been changed, their poetry different – for the better. And he brings out three different versions of a long passage in The Prelude showing Wordsworth was bitter and recognized justice and liberty killed insofar as powers could. The chapter also has excellent definition of hegemonic versus legal: the dangers to all these romantics come from the losses hegemonic pervasive control inflicts on them in all sorts of incalculable ways.
PacoRibeira, 18th century Portugal
Chapter 15: More Radical than Thou, Robert Southey (1774-1843). This was an eye-opener for me. For the first time I felt I understood why Southey changed his outlook. It made sense of his satiric Letters from England: it fits into the trajectory. The chapter begins with how how originally Southey came to be radical beyond that it was in him to be “psychologically rebellious.” Johnston brings out how Southey was subject to adults and authority figures around him (more than such a person would be today); orphaned, lived with aunt and then uncle; buffeted by suspicion and discouragement. He was gotten into by his uncle, Herbert Hill, and then expelled from Westminster Schools for a a column in The Flagellant, a student periodical, where he exposed the viciousness of flogging. Headmaster sabotaged his admission to Christ Church, Oxford; uncle gets him into Balliol. Not keen on career choices. 1795 aunt kicks him out, uncle sends him to Lisbon. How from an American perspective the scheme for a Pantisocracy in eastern Penn is not outrageous unreal wild idea. Southey works hard to make it happen and in the process forges career as money-making writer; early work is readable and radical, Fall of Robespierre, Wat Tyler. Anti-Jacobin attacks him, but he did not organize and his poems also simply express unhappy emotional states. Others: “After Blenheim,” “Devil’s Thoughts,” and “History:”Southey wants to escape; Clio says the worse history gets, the more we should write about it; but Southey tired, Gilbert Wakefield case spells end of freedom of press (with Flower, on trial for sedition). Visits Wakefield & Flower, also attacked income tax. Now great relief when sent to Lisbon; departure for Lake District in 1803 a surrender.
Chapter 16: Radical in Lamb’s Cloak: Charles Lamb (1775-1834). This chapter is enormously enjoyable because of the quotations and works referred to. Johnston opens with young Charles Lamb’s enthusiasm over Thelwall (accused of treason, acquitted and thereafter harassed and his career and livelihood and reputation destroyed) to Coleridge; identified viscerally, admired Thelwall’s bravery. Lamb’s reputation has suffered because of the spread of the adjective “gentle” and “gentle-hearted” beginning with Coleriage; Lamb asked him to blot the expression out of his “Lime Tree Bower my Prison;” sentimental obfuscation is a good disguise. Lamb was one of those attacked by Anti-Jacobin. His sonnets express emotion, are on friendship, which he needed. Johnston retells story of Mary’s murder of the mother and how Lamb taking on life-long responsibility for her limited his possibilities; 33 years as clerk for long hours in East India Company, endless moving. His early writing is virulently pro-French revolution found in extended runs of Albion, edited by John Fenwick (1801-2) – all anonymous. His signed self-presentation was highly self-protective; he shows how Jacobinism is used as a bad-mouthing word for people with humane decent agendas; Lamb in effect describes political profiling.
Lamb’s finest work though found in his later years in his essays. Thomas McFarland described these as in a style that manifests the politics of survival (p. 282), others called his ways “acquiescent protest” and “serious levity.”
I read “The Praise of Chimney Sweeps” and found it to be quietly savagely ironic; he seems to be celebrating what is horrific cruelty to these boys; a nightmare world which produces such creatures; “Modern Gallantry” explicit about how courtesy from males is only to limited group of upper class females; the rest are prey. You have to read the texts to get this.
Johnston argues that the idiosyncracy of Lamb’s style and perspective is another result of these decades of repression of all dissent, active republican politics. Lamb expresses outrage at social injustice rather than a considered political opinion. Thomas de Quincey writes of the tabooing of Holcroft, Godwin, Wollstonecraft, Hazlitt, there to offer up to hated and scorn, so Lamb’s way was to appear to care nothing for politics.
Chapter 17: ‘A man for a’ that': Robert Burns (1759-96)
A moving chapter which presents Burns as having been far more politically and preciselyi radical and pro-French revolution than his works let on: Johnstone argues that the muddled feel of the texts is the result of a deliberate obfuscation Burns had to practice lest he lose his place or job, and a remarkable line by Burns: “for who can write and speak as thou and I – /My periods that deciphering defy (p. 303). Johnston says his views accord with Crawford’s but Crawford’s ODNB Life of Burns presents a far more complicated picture of a nationalistic poet as devoted to poetry as art and gathering texts and a human man with lots of failings. Here one can see that Johnston is skewing evidence by concentrating on a few years in the 1790s, and ignores Burns’s behavior towards women which was highly irresponsible (and surely callous and/or indifferent): Burns had sex sufficiently so often with so many women that he impregnated so many that it’s hard to keep count.
Burns is presented as someone writing sedition which he kept up even after authorities set upon him; he was far more vulnerable than English counterparts (more upper class): he would just have been fired, no need to stage a trial. The period covered is 1791-196: he quotes a contemporary explaining why Burns was isolated to some extent in his last years – after Edinburgh trip; “exiled from polite society on account of his radical opinions, he became sourer in temper & plunged more deeply into dissipations of the lower ranks…. “but this reads like bad-mouthing: Burn always drank & was promiscuous; he suffered depressions, he was ill; much of the argument depends on an analysis of select poems and how his enemies did what they could to ruin him: they could have been after him for his sexual misconduct, hatred of religious hypocrisy; that he gave some spoils due him as exciseman to the revolution is too much pressed; he followed what was happening abroad. Johnston tells of an incident where Burns tricked into exposure when he thinks all the men are going to aggressively assail a favorite woman – a dirty trick which reminds me of other accounts of upper class people humiliating lower class or vulnerable and sensitive people among them: Tom Branson tricked (Downton Abbey) or an incident in Dance to the Music of Time (where a bucket of urine is timed to spill over a door as the victim emerges), in Burney’s diaries at Streatham. Burns openly praised a theatrical epilogue praising Wollstonecraft and then worried because he knew he was monitored and at risk of losing job. The struggles “not quite ancient” which correspond to earlier are not French but local, Thomas Muir, later indicted, convicted, transported. A glued over piece of paper. The most effective parts of the argument come from the poems analysed, not well known – he identifying with someone imprisoned for debt, Esopus to Maria
Chapter 18: Blake’s America, the Prophecy that failed, William Blake (1757-1827). In this chapter again Johnston dwells on important personal kinds of experience others often overlook or don’t tell clearly.
Blake’s Jerusalem reminds me of Austen’s Plan of a Novel – actually the same use of private references, same pathetic lack of range, and same absolute rejection of mainstream cliches, tropes, values.
An incident in 1803 where Blake hustled a private out of his garden at Felpham for having insulted him (as Blake thought); for this Blake was arraigned and tried, with quotations that make him sound as ripe for hanging or transportation. Luckily, Hayley, Blake’s patron, was powerful in this area and got character witnesses, himself was a character witness, helped see Blake was arraigned as a “public nuisance” (though this reminds me of police moving into private people’s apartments and shooting them). Johnston says Blake was shocked into silence. Chicester assizes at time of Despard’s execution. Lennox, 3rd Duke of Richmond hostile to Blake, thought to make an example of Blake as a seditionist would be to shore himself up as unimpeachably patriotic after being part of groups advocating parliamentary reform. In later years Blake claimed someone had been sent to entrap him.
In London Blake completed 1st version of masterwork, Jerusalem: the people who were involved in this incident are immortalized in the poem – along with great names from European history, cultural history; reviewers didn’t like (or understand) poem or visionary art. Contrast to America, written 10 years earlier (1793), revolution anticipates French, weeping illustrations suggest Blake pessimistic about his prophecies; preface to Milton has clear version of poems prefacing chapters of Jerusalem. Johnston shows how America is a very odd sort of poem – not understood by most, combining revenge, private feelings, vast public allegory.
Coda: Johnson answers the people who say, so what? and there is nothing unusual here, what did they expect, they deserved it. He begins with how Pitt was responsible for bad policy (Barrell in his review of Johnston’s book asks why Pitt is so respected and argues he was an awful prime minister; his early speeches on behalf of reform were political grandstanding). Johnston goes on to show how Pitt poked mean fun at writers he persecuted and stigmatized. He then reprints Liu’s heart-felt preface to a book on this period that these people matter: again he is discussing writing we could have had, are struggling to recover. Liu’s and other books include the writing we have that bears witness to the struggle and how it happened and so does Johnston’s. He urges us, let us recover what we can. It will show us how the people and their movements fail. Johnston calls this discouraging, but he is himself still a believer with Wordsworth and has faith in social man. We are to feel humanely for these people – multiply it out – recognize that such things do matter. He records and honor the ruined lives – we can see more deeply into what is half-there and into our own lives. He makes us see their works freshly in terms that connect to us.
The US Occupy Movement in its early stages — still plus ça change, moins ça change; see my “No pretense of regard for life or humanity.”