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On This Day in 1816: Italy, Romanticism, and the Year Without a Summer (Part I)

We continue the ‘On This Day’ series with a post on Italian Romanticism from Fabio Camilletti, who is Associate Professor at the School of Modern Languages and Cultures, University of Warwick. This post has two parts; the second will be posted here next week.

As always, to contribute a blog to this series about the bicentenary of a significant event in 1816, please contact Anna Mercer.


29 February 1816: Italy, Romanticism, and the Year Without a Summer (Part I)


Damn Bonaparte!

‘Maladett Bonaparte!’ – ‘Damn Bonaparte!’: thus ladies exclaimed around 1816 (at least, according to Stendhal’s testimony), when approaching Porta Orientale, the ancient door of Milan – nowadays Porta Venezia – from whence the Alps could be seen at the end of the Corso, where aristocrats’ carriages used to parade.

Milan - Corso di Porta Orientale

Milan – Corso di Porta Orientale

For them, Stendhal records, the French Emperor was the cause of the early frosts experienced in Lombardy since the French Revolution: in opening the route of the Simplon, Napoleon must have breached the natural wall of the Alps, which had thus far sheltered the city from the inclemency of Northern winds.

Together with the frost, Bonaparte had also brought something else. Many years later, in The Charterhouse of Parma (1839), Stendhal credits to another breach opened by Napoleon – in 1796, at the bridge of Lodi, during the first Italian campaign – the opening of a deeper and far more incisive breach in Italy’s national consciousness, which had slumbered through centuries of political servitude and literary Classicism:

The Battle of Lodi

The Battle of Lodi

On 15 May 1796, General Bonaparte made his entry into Milan at the head of the youthful army that had just crossed the bridge at Lodi […]. The miracles of valour and genius of which Italy was the witness within a few months re-awoke a slumbering people […] In the Middle Ages, the republican Lombards had given proof of a valour equal to that of the French, and deserved to see their town razed to the grounds by the emperors of Germany. Since they had become ‘loyal subjects’, their main business was printing sonnets on little pink taffeta handkerchiefs whenever a girl belonging to some noble or wealthy family happened to get married […] Such effeminate customs were a far cry from the profound emotions aroused by the unforeseen arrival of the French army. Soon new and passionate customs arose. An entire people realized, on 15 May 1796, that everything it had hitherto respected was supremely ridiculous and sometimes odious.

In 1796, in other words, modernity had made its entrance into Italy – under the guise of an army whose soldiers ‘were not yet twenty-five and their commanding general, who was twenty-seven, passed for being the oldest man in his army’. Exactly twenty years later, in 1816, with Napoleon defeated and exiled in Saint Helena, one could easily believe that time had turned back. On the 6th of January, the Austrian monarchs – restored to their throne by the Congress of Vienna – had shown themselves again on the Corso di Porta Orientale. On that evening, the theatre La Scala had witnessed the premiere of Il ritorno di Astrea, a Classicist and apologetic piece by Vincenzo Monti celebrating the return to order. Italy, sang its chorus, was still alive and ‘divine’, but only by the favour of the Austrian Emperor. Italians – as well as Hungarians, the Moravians, and the Czechs – were back to their status of ‘loyal subjects’, all worshipping the Austrian throne that appeared in the middle of the scene – as per the libretto – at the end of the piece.

In sum, all evidence showed that the ‘new and passionate customs’ of 1796 had died – but was it really so? After all, some were still feeling that sonnets printed on handkerchiefs were odious. And, after all, it felt colder.


The Fall of the Sun

In a sense, the ladies parading in the Corso were right. The years from 1812 to 1816 had been particularly severe. 1816, in particular, would become globally known as the ‘year without a summer’ – a year of rains and floods in the whole Atlantic area, plaguing economies that had already been weakened by the Napoleonic wars. Literary works of 1816 bear the traces of such devastation, coupled with the idea that the entire world is growing colder and darker. In Byron’s lodgings in Geneva, the poet, his physician John Polidori, the Shelleys and Claire Clairmont, inspired by the unusual climate of that summer, took pleasure in reading German ghost stories: weather propitiated the abandonment to ‘Northern’ and Gothic imaginary, and the narratives produced in those weeks – the thunderstorms of Frankenstein, the blackened sun of Byron’s Darkness, the Swiss glaciers of Shelley’s Mont Blanc and of Polidori’s Ernestus Berchtold – are all marked by the vestiges of something obscure and apocalyptic that is impacting Europe, deeply interweaving reality and imagination.

The ‘year without a summer’, as is nowadays well known, had most probably been caused by the eruption, on 10 April 1815, of the Indonesian volcano Tambora: ashes and toxic gases caused a remarkable lowering of temperatures all over the world for several years, giving birth to unusually cold summers, rigid winters, and hurricanes; volcanic ashes gave sunsets a brightly red colour, as portrayed in William Turner’s canvases. Two months later, on 18 June 1815, an unexpected night rain had transformed the area surrounding the village of Mont Saint-Jean, near the Belgian town of Waterloo, into a sort of morass: the French army had had to wait for the sun to dry the wet ground, and when Napoleon had finally be able to draw his attack, late in the morning, cannons had remained blocked by the mud, leaving the Prussian troops the time to re-join the British infantry. On that evening, both armies had lost many men, but the British-Prussian coalition of Wellington and von Blücher had won, and the French had been defeated.

The connection between Waterloo and Tambora is merely speculative: there remains its involuntarily symbolic charm, and the idea that only some apocalyptic fatality could destroy the power of Napoleon, a sort of Icarus or Phaethon who had more ruinously fallen, the more he had attempted to ascend. Not incidentally, when commemorating Napoleon’s death in the poem ‘The Fifth of May’ (1821), Alessandro Manzoni would surreptitiously evoke the mythologem of the reckless son of Apollo: Napoleon, once ‘shining in his throne’, has fallen; in his exile at Saint Helena, ‘at the silent dying of a useless day’, the Emperor’s ‘lightning eyes’ – but Manzoni uses the lyrical term ‘rai’, literally meaning ‘rays’ – bend down, subtly delineating the image of a dying sun. By so doing, Manzoni transforms the chariot of Napoleon-Apollo of imperial iconography into the wrecked carriage of Phaethon: the sun of Austerlitz reveals itself to be a false star, betraying the folly and haughtiness of a usurper who had come to the point of defying God.

Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret, Allegory of the Battle of Austerlitz

Pierre-Nolasque Bergeret, Allegory of the Battle of Austerlitz


Apocalyptic Imaginaries

Not only literature bears the traces of such symbolic short circuits. In the ‘year without a summer’ all Europe seems to be crossed by apocalyptic fears, a sort of post-traumatic aftermath of Waterloo, mixing science and superstition, political metaphors, and the entire panoply of the age’s taste – from the grotesque to the sublime, and through the Gothic. Popular imagery often points to the sun as a seemingly dying star on the point of extinguishing or exploding. Rumours had spread about the planet getting colder, and between 1815 and 1816 spots had been seen on the surface of the sun. Both phenomena could be perfectly explicable: Carlo Riccati, a nobleman from Piedmont who had written a first-hand chronicle of the first two years of the Bourbon Restoration, explained through the data of the Milan observatory of Brera that temperature fluctuations and sunspots were perfectly natural. Still, the idea that the sun was extinguishing, and that a fragment of it was about to fall on earth, had run all over the continent. Rumours fixed the catastrophe for the 18th of July, and it is interesting – Riccati notes – how this whisper had been particularly welcomed in such a formerly revolutionary country as France: while travelling through France and the Brabant, in July 1816, one would have wondered – he writes – to see so many people believing in such superstitious ways among those who had lately erected temples to Reason.

Finally, on the 26th of July, the newspaper Gazzetta di Milano commented the ‘ridiculous prophecy’ that had been cheating so many between Alsace and Belgium. The article was ironic, but also ironic was its incidentally being followed by an article in praise of Wellington, including a meditation on Napoleon that reactivated, again, the image of Phaethon:

Wellington was the first who dared to challenge Bonaparte when this latter, at the peak of his glory, aspired to rule the continent. Wellington made the dream of human ambition to vanish.

It is, therefore, as if an unconscious but tenacious knot encompassed – in the collective imaginary of 1816 – the falling sun and the ruination of Napoleon’s star. The very distribution of the 18th of July gossip is eloquent: Paris, the Alsace, Belgium – that is to say, the military geography of the Hundred Days. On the 11th of July, Riccardi notes, people in Gand (less than 45 miles from Waterloo) had mistaken the trumpet of a cavalry regiment for that of the angel of the last day; like the French army, terror had invaded the entire Europe. Thus comments the Gazette de Lausanne on the 23rd of July:

18 July has passed, and this day, which had to be devastated by the most terrible cataclysm, has offered no other marvel than the return of nice weather. This terrible catastrophe of the planet has often been predicted, but never, perhaps, has terror exalted so many minds and run over so many countries. Since a month, all Belgian churches were full of anxious and fearful masses of people. In Germany there have been towns were people stopped working and disdained daily occupations. In Naples a priest has announced terrible devastations from the pulpit. In Paris, still on the 17th, travelling booksellers distributed a poor writing bearing the title of Details on the end of the world, gathering an alarmed people.

The weather could well have improved, but what collective imaginary was confusedly trying to express, all over Europe, was the idea of a fracture from whence it was impossible to come back. The falling sun, the Northern winds coming from the Simplon, the very idea of something terrible and fateful that has forever changed Europe and the world, unchaining the fury of elements, are nothing but ways of metabolizing and elaborating a historical transition: Napoleon – and, more broadly, the French Revolution and the war, in a word: modernity – was seen as having dissolved the timeless connection binding humankind and nature, opening a fissure between a pre-modern, Arcadian world and a new, enlightened and technicized, one.


Et In Arcadia Ego

On 29 February 1816, in Milan, the weather was fine; temperature, however, had remained low, at least if compared to contemporary standards – between 4 and 10-15 degrees, in February-March – oscillating between 2 degrees in the morning and 5.5 degrees in the afternoon. This data is taken from the measurements of the Milan observatory of Brera, published as an appendix to each volume of Biblioteca italiana, a literary and scientific journal printed in Milan and directly funded by the Austrian government. On that day, the first issue of the periodical made its first appearance: the journal was opened by a short text by Madame de Staël, Sulla maniera e la utilità delle Traduzioni (On the Custom and Usefulness of Translations), which – as the following months would make clear – was to be the inaugural act of the so-called ‘Classicist/Romantic quarrel’.

Biblioteca Italiana vol. 1, 1816

Biblioteca Italiana vol. 1, 1816

The debate would enflame Italy for years, dividing those who felt that it was necessary for Italian literature to open itself to the literary novelties coming from the rest of Europe (the ‘Romantics’) and those who reclaimed, instead, the legacy of Classical tradition as the most characteristic trait of Italian identity. In years of political and cultural censorship, the quarrel incorporated and challenged, under the guise of a literary skirmish, a deeply political problem concerning Italian identity and its role within the broader scenario of modern Europe. While Austrian diplomat Klemens von Metternich contemptuously claimed that Italy was ‘a geographical expression’, the quarrel raised questions that would deeply permeate Italy’s later cultural history: the onerous heritage of its historical past, its troubled transition into modernity, its ambiguous relationship with foreign cultures and their ‘lure of Italy’ – in many cases, a badly dissimulated colonial attitude.

Of this attitude, Staël’s article was a perfect example. She made a conventional paean of praise to Italian culture and its tradition: still, Staël could not help but noticing how Italian culture had lost its central and propulsive role, and how the most lively cultural experiences were now taking place elsewhere, in the ‘rest of Europe’, ‘beyond the Alps’, in the North. Even Italy’s sun, an already outworn Grand Tour cliché, was almost useless, for a people – such as the Italian – plagued by centuries of Classicism and sterile classical philology: presently, it was nothing but a motionless star, shining over a landscape made of ruins and tombs.

5. Sablet_Eleėgie romaine (1791)

Sablet’s Elégie romaine, 1791

This image was combined, in the article’s ending, with an insulting consideration of the role of Italy in the Europe to come, relegating it to an unspecified ‘prestige’ in literature and the arts:

nations must have some interest moving them. Some have it in the war, some in politics: Italian must find their prestige in literature and the arts, without which they would lie in a dark sleep, whence even the sun could not awake them.

The fracture between North and South, and between cold and warm, aimed thus at delineating a specific political and cultural geography, placing Italy in a subaltern position against Transalpine Europe: an equation between climate and the national inclinations grounded in the thought of the French Enlightenment, but which in 1816 could possess far more literal resonances.

CfP: Placing Charlotte Smith – deadline March 1st

Just a few days left to submit abstracts for ‘Placing Charlotte Smith’…
Placing Charlotte Smith—Canon, Genre, History, Nation, Globe
Chawton House Library, Chawton, UK
14-15 October 2016
Charlotte Smith
Two hundred and ten years after Charlotte Smith’s death and nearly a decade after the publication of The Works of Charlotte Smith, Smith scholarship is coming of age.  The conference Placing Charlotte Smith will convene at the beautiful Chawton House Library to explore the latest research on Smith and her places. What are we learning about her place in the canon, or in the development of various genres? What sort of commentary does her placement of characters in history offer? What attitudes do her works demonstrate about place and the idea of a polis/nation? Where are the places Smith is or might be memorialized? What are the various meanings of the natural places she explores in her fiction, poetry, journalism, and children’s literature?  Is there now such a thing as a global Smith?
In addition to panel presentations and discussions, the conference will feature performances of musical settings of Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets and of Beachy Head.  Because Chawton is not far from some key Smith locales, plans include an optional excursion to significant places for Smith’s life and work, including Bignor Park, Beachy Head, and Stoke-on-Guildford.  The conference will also feature a discussion about founding a Charlotte Turner Smith Society.
A 250-word abstract, accompanied by a brief C.V. must be submitted to both organizers before 1 March 2016.  Full panel proposals are welcome.
The organizers of Placing Charlotte Smith are:
·         Elizabeth A. Dolan (Lehigh University)
·         Jacqueline Labbe (Sheffield University)
Follow the conference on Twitter @CSmithChawton  or visit the Chawton website.


CfP: Works in Progress

Please see below for a Call for Papers for ‘Works in Progress’, the second annual Graduate Conference for Adaptation and Textual Studies, which will take place at De Montfort University in Leicester on Thursday 7th July.

Works in Progress

De Montfort University, 7th July 2016

All texts and artworks will have at one stage been a work in progress, despite the tendency to value them as cultural artefacts once they are deemed finished and made available for consumption. Redrafting and editing are processes which strive towards a “final” product, meaning their publication often results in the loss or occlusion of multiple ancillary versions. Such materials are important to our understanding of how texts and works are shaped and reshaped, and by whom.

The second annual Graduate Conference for Adaptation and Textual Studies (GradCATS) aims to explore the significance of alterations and decisions made during the construction, editing or reproduction of all kinds of creative works, including manuscripts, printed books, films, television programmes, music, photographs, dances, and paintings. We are open to a consideration of “works in progress” on a broad scale, from planning documents, drafts, cut or unfinished materials, through to republications, reproductions and adaptations. Proposals for 15-20 minute papers and panel sessions are welcome from postgraduate students working in, but not limited to, the following areas:

• Republications and revisions of texts
• Unfinished works, extra-textual materials or marginalia
• Adaptation and translation as rewriting
• Editing and production theory and practices
• The status of proposals, abstracts, pitches and film, television and radio treatments
• Revisions which are arguably regressive or which are for private consumption
• How the commodification and publicity of a work affects its final form
• How conflict between collaborators affects the finished product
• Methodology behind the search for “lost” or discarded versions or editions
• Artists, writers, performers or sportspeople themselves as works in progress
• Works that depend on audience participation and feedback

Proposals of up to 250 words should be submitted online here by Friday 15th April 2016.  Alternatively, email them to

Interdisciplinary MOOC on the Gothic Revival

BARS members may be interested in a new Massive Open Online Course on the Gothic that’s being run from the end of this month by Dale Townshend and Peter Lindfield – more details below.

Interested in the Gothic?

Want to learn about Gothic literature (including The Castle of Otranto and Frankenstein), the eighteenth century, Gothic Revival architecture, interiors and furniture, Horace Walpole and Strawberry Hill?

Then register for our free six-week MOOC:

The Gothic Revival, 1700–1850: Interdisciplinary Perspectives

Written and produced by Drs Dale Townshend and Peter Lindfield at the University of Stirling, Scotland.

STARTS 29 February 2016

To register, visit:

Our MOOC’s trailer can be viewed at:

cropped to image, recto

A Special Five Questions Interview: Heather Glen on Marilyn Butler’s Mapping Mythologies

Marilyn Butler - Mapping Mythologies (2)

Professor Heather Glen has many notable academic achievements to her name: she is the author of Vision and Disenchantment: Blake’s Songs and Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads and Charlotte Brontë: the Imagination in History, and an editor of Wuthering Heights, The Professor and Charlotte Brontë’s last five Angrian novelettes.  She is currently completing a book on Wordsworth and the discovery of ‘the people’ in the 1790s.  In this special interview, though, we discuss her recent work preparing for publication Mapping Mythologies, a book which was largely completed by the much-missed Marilyn Butler in the mid 1980s.  Mapping Mythologies was published in August last year by Cambridge University Press.  Celebrations of its publication and commemorations of the kindness, brilliance and generosity of its author were at the heart of ‘Marilyn Butler and the War of Ideas’, a commemorative conference held at Chawton House Library in December.

1) How did you first discover the manuscript that has now been published as Mapping Mythologies?

Linda Bree from Cambridge University Press and I were helping David Butler sort Marilyn’s papers to go to the Bodleian Library.  Amongst the masses of drafts for different projects – some hand-written, some in fading print on perforated-edged continuous computer paper – we found a ring binder containing the neatly typed manuscript of an apparently completed book.  On top was a letter, written in 1985, by the late and still much missed Kim Scott Walwyn, then commissioning editor for literary studies at Oxford University Press.  She and Marilyn had evidently been discussing the publication of a much larger work, with more extensive chapters on later romantic mythologizings.  In this letter, Kim urged Marilyn to go ahead and publish this, the first part, as an independent volume.  It would, she suggested, need very little work: it could be done in a couple of months.

I took the typescript away, and read it with mounting interest, realizing as I did so that this was the hinterland to Marilyn’s work on Southey, Shelley, Byron, Keats, and early nineteenth-century orientalism.  It dealt, however, with an earlier group of authors and a distinctively British ‘mythologising’, and raised questions of a rather different kind.  It was succint, suggestive, and laid out a compelling argument.  And it was written with the inimitable blend of witty sophistication and democratic clarity that characterized Marilyn in her prime.  It seemed to me well worth publishing.

2) What were the major challenges that you faced in preparing the manuscript for the press?

That initial manuscript was less finished than it looked.  The notes and references were sketchy at best; there was some repetition, and in a few places there seemed to be lacunae.  And there were, in fact, some later drafts of various parts of it.  When it was decided that I should prepare the book for publication, I had taken with me not merely that manuscript, but several box files of Marilyn’s writings dealing with related subjects.  These papers – now deposited with the rest in the Bodleian – show that Marilyn herself didn’t quite think that Mapping Mythologies was finished.  She returned to it again and again in her heyday, sometimes to use material for a lecture or a conference paper, sometimes simply to re-work a point with which she was dissatisfied.  As I worked my way through, when I came to a passage that seemed problematic I learned to trawl through the box files to see if there was a later rewriting that I might be able to use, weave in or substitute.  I didn’t see it as part of my editorial brief to rewrite passages myself: I simply drew on Marilyn’s later text.  Indeed, I more than once had the humbling experience of gradually coming to realize that a formulation of hers that I had thought clumsy, or not quite right, was actually saying something much more precise, and more subtly original than I had at first supposed.

It was time-consuming but relatively easy to complete the notes, especially once I had made the decision not to try to update them with references to more recent work.  In Marilyn’s own historicist spirit, I thought it important to present Mapping Mythologies as a book that had been conceived and in large part completed in 1984.  This is also why, with some prodding from Jim Chandler, I wrote such a long Preface.  I thought it was important to contextualize Mapping Mythologies as a strikingly original intervention in debates of the 1980s, such as those initiated by Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, with its exploration of the cultural bases of nationalism, and by the ‘Cambridge school’ of intellectual history, with its then ground-breaking emphasis on historicist and contextualist interpretations of what had become fossilised as ‘the history of ideas’.

There has been one major revision, that of the title.  Marilyn’s working titles were A Map of Mythology or Poets and Myths.  Linda Bree suggested Mapping Mythologies as both more dynamic and more pluralistic.  The rather clunky subtitle was Marilyn’s own subtitle: I wanted to keep it to draw attention to what I saw as the book’s central, shaping, and quite original idea: the connection between the cultural projects of the poets it discusses and the beginnings of what we now call cultural history in the literary histories and popular antiquarianism of eighteenth-century England and Wales.

Editing Mapping Mythologies was an enormous privilege, and I gained a great deal from it.  It gave me a whole new perspective on eighteenth century poetry and cultural history.  It made texts I had never thought much about spring to life: The Castle of Indolence, Chatterton’s African poems, Warton’s History of English Poetry, Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood. Reading those scribbled over print-outs, I could sense, again and again, the excitement with which Marilyn felt her way towards a new idea, see how she was arguing with the books she was reading, and gradually refining and clarifying her thoughts.  It was a revelation: a privileged glimpse of the inner life of a friend I thought I had known very well, and an exhilarating example of what it means to have an intellectual life.

3) How do you see Mapping Mythologies as expanding on Butler’s earlier book-length studies?

It doesn’t so much expand on them as take a new direction. Marilyn’s critical biographies of Peacock and Maria Edgeworth had dealt with single authors.  Jane Austen and the War of Ideas opened out to consider the differences between Austen and her contemporaries.  Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries was briefer, but paradoxically covered more ground: it was an ‘overview’ of a whole period.  It was, however, not a conventional ‘survey’of the period in question, but one that consciously revised accepted ways of seeing it.

Mapping Mythologies is also a revisionary overview, but it is rather more polemically pitched.  It is, indeed, in part, a response to some of the more negative reviews of Romantics, Rebels, and Reactionaries that were appearing whilst Marilyn was writing it.  In particular, she is responding to those that accused her of privileging historical contexts over literary texts, of implying that (as one put it) ‘the work of art is caused by the age, and is not in any sense the cause of it’.  In this, her next book, she delivers a witty but entirely serious riposte to such criticisms by turning to a series of writers – poets, literary historians, antiquarians – who saw themselves as makers of history, often in a peculiarly literal sense; for whom tradition was not something given but chosen, sometimes even made up.  Mapping Mythologies is not merely a renewed argument for a historicist literary criticism, pitched against those giants of romantic studies in the 1980s, Frye, Abrams, Bloom, and Hartman.  It offers a quietly original view of how imaginative works might indeed be instrumental in the shaping of history.  It is a view that anticipates much more recent, more speculative, theories of aesthetic agency and of cultural politics.

4) To what extent do you see themes and strands from Mapping Mythologies being developed in Butler’s later essays?

This book on the eighteenth century was always intended as the first part of a longer study of romantic mythologizing.  Marilyn had begun to explore the significance of myth, or ‘paganism’, in the writings of romantic poets in Romantics, Rebels and Reactionaries.  She was to explore it further in a number of published essays, which she conceived of as chapters in that unfinished second part (e.g. ‘Nymphs and Nympholepsy: the Visionary Woman and the Romantic Poet’ (1985), ‘The Orientalism of Byron’s Giaour’ (1988), ‘Romantic Manichaeism: Shelley’s “On the Devil” and Byron’s Mythological Dramas’ (1989),‘Shelley and the Empire in the East’ (1996)).  Mapping Mythologies is, as I have suggested, the hinterland to this work.

But it was a hinterland that sometimes came into view.  During the decade after she finished Mapping Mythologies, Marilyn returned to some of the subjects she had first touched on there in conference papers and published essays.  She reworked some of her thinking on images of the British nation in ‘Romanticism in England’, in Roy Porter and Mikulás Tiech’s volume, Romanticism in National Context (Cambridge, 1988); on ‘Antiquarianism (Popular)’, in Iain McCalman, ed., An Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age (1999); on ‘Blake in his time’ in Robin Hamlyn and Michael Phillips, eds., William Blake (Tate Gallery, 2000).  She gave conference papers on ‘the Bristol school’ and on Iolo Morganwg.

And she also pondered the larger theoretical questions that had emerged for her during the writing of Mapping Mythologies in several seminal essays published between 1985 and 1996 – especially, perhaps, ‘Against tradition: the case for a particularized historical method’, in Jerome McGann, ed., Historical Studies and Literary Interpretation (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1986); and ‘Repossessing the past: the case for an open literary history’, in Marjorie Levinson, ed., Rethinking Historicism, (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989).

5) In what ways do you hope that Romanticists will engage with and learn from Mapping Mythologies now that its insights are available to them?

One answer to this question is that some of those insights have been available for a long time: partly through the published work outlined above, and partly through Marilyn’s vivid contributions in more informal contexts – supervising graduate students, participating in conferences.  She always saw her own work pragmatically, as something that others could pick up and take forward.  Academic work was for her not a solitary search for stardom, but an ongoing conversation; she loved being part of it, and she was genuinely excited by other people’s ideas.  The ideas and material that she was unfailingly generous in sharing have been questioned, refined, and expanded on in much more detailed scholarship – such as Nigel Leask and Philip Connell’s Romanticism and Popular Culture in Britain and Ireland (Cambridge, 2009), and the series of brilliant publications on Iolo Morganwg and the Romantic Tradition in Wales produced by researchers at the Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies, University of Aberystwyth.  But there is much more in Mapping Mythologies that might be taken up, argued with, developed – its brief but suggestive new readings of Thomson and of Collins and (more provocatively) of Lyrical Ballads; its concern with provincial towns, bookshops, journals as centres of oppositional culture in eighteenth-century England; its insistence on importance of popular antiquarianism and its place not merely in the intellectual history of the eighteenth century but in a longer tradition of cultural politics (to name but a few).

The original manuscript of Mapping Mythologies had no conclusion: it simply ended with the chapter on Blake.  The few pages I have included as a Coda were actually a fragmentary draft of an essay or a lecture, apparently written in the late 1980s, that I found amongst Marilyn’s papers and that seemed to pull together much of the thinking in that book.  But also, and appropriately, they seemed to be the beginning of a new project: they ended on an upbeat, exploratory note.  For beyond its particular insights and provocations, Mapping Mythologies offers a timely reminder of the kind of bold thinking that years spent in historical scholarship can make possible, of the importance of keeping in mind the larger picture, as well as the close-up view.  The exigencies of academic careers, the pressures imposed by the demands of the REF, have come to mean that the standard academic publication is now the exhaustively argued essay or monograph on a specialised topic: it is more usual now for literary critics to look for an untilled corner in which to stake out a position than to draw a map of a whole field.  Mapping Mythologies, with its insistence on the centrality of the literary (in its widest sense) in the intellectual and political landscape, might, I would, hope, give its readers an expanded sense of their subject.  As Marilyn puts it in her final sentence, ‘Must we really go on treating this as mere superstructure, rather than as the thing itself?’

On This Day in 1816: Introducing ‘The Year Without a Summer’ Part II

Here is part II of the essay ‘Every Cloud: How Art and Literature Benefited from a Year Without Summer’ by Eleanor Fitzsimons. This is part of the ongoing ‘On This Day’ series celebrating the literary and historical events from 1816 in 2016 (if you missed part I, you can read it here).

If you want to contribute to the ‘On This Day’ series with a post on literary/historical events in 1816, please contact Anna Mercer ( 



Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810. National Portrait Gallery

Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen, pencil and watercolour, circa 1810. National Portrait Gallery

The English novelist Jane Austen spent the summer of 1816 in the village of Chawton in Hampshire, where she shared a cottage with her sister Cassandra, her chronically ill mother and an assortment of nieces and nephews. In a letter to her niece Anna, written on June 23, 1816, Austen described how their neighbor Mrs. Digweed had been soaked to the skin by a rain shower she characterized as ‘beyond everything’. The appalling weather kept the author indoors: ‘Oh! It rains again; it beats against the window’, she told her nephew Edward, adding, ‘such weather gives one little temptation to be out. It is really too bad, and it has been for a long time, much worse that anybody can bear and I begin to think it will never be fine again’. On July 9, Austen, accompanied by her niece Mary Jane, attempted a jaunt to nearby Farringdon in the family’s donkey cart: ‘we were obliged to turn back before we got there’, she told Edward, ‘but not soon enough to avoid a Pelter all the way home’.

At the time, Austen was working on The Elliots, which she later renamed Persuasion. Although she had thought the book finished in July, as she sat indoors watching rain cascade down her windowpanes, she decided that she was dissatisfied with its ending and spent a further three weeks rewriting the final two chapters. By autumn, Austen’s health had deteriorated dramatically. Her back ached continuously and she felt unable to walk even a short distance. Although she blamed her wretchedness on rheumatism brought on by the unusually damp weather, her symptoms were indicative of something far more serious, possibly Addison’s disease, a tubercular disease of the kidneys. By winter she was housebound, but she remained stoic: ‘Air and exercise is what I want’ she assured her family. In May 1817, Jane Austen was taken by carriage in the pouring rain to Winchester Hospital where she died in the arms of her sister Cassandra on July 18, 1817.

The world had been forecast to end precisely twelve months earlier, on July 18, 1816. Seeking an explanation for the bizarre weather, a superstitious populace had concluded that such weird portents could only indicate an impending apocalypse. This supernatural thinking was forgivable. News of the eruption of Mount Tambora did not reach Europe for many months and, even if it had, the link between volcanic eruptions and unseasonal weather was not recognized until 1913, when William Jackson Humphreys, an American physicist and atmospheric researcher with the U. S. Weather Bureau, presented evidence to the Cleveland meeting of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America. However, in the absence of a sound scientific explanation, news of the planet’s imminent demise was widely accepted. Such fear mongering prompted opium-addled poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge to remark ‘this end of the World Weather is sadly against me by preventing all exercise’. At the time, Coleridge had left his home in the Lake District and was living in London as a patient and houseguest of Dr. James Gillman, who had prescribed daily walks as an integral part of his treatment regime.

Attempts were made to calm the situation. While newspapers carried soothing editorials, clerics held public prayer services and recommended mass demonstrations of piety, but apocalyptic fear was fuelled by a series of sunspots, visible to the naked eye, which were interpreted as proof of the disintegration of the sun. Keen to strike a lighter note in the face of mass hysteria, English satirist William Hone published ‘Napoleon and the Spots on the Sun or the Regents Waltz’, a satirical ditty in which he claimed that Napoleon had escaped from the Island of St. Helena and invaded the sun in revenge for his defeat at Waterloo. The solution proposed by Hone involved catapulting the Prince of Wales, then Prince Regent, into space where he would engage in hand-to-hand combat with Britain’s nemesis.

The citizens of Europe had every reason to feel aggrieved with their rulers. During the early years of the nineteenth century, the entire continent had been ravaged by a serious of ruinous wars that left its populace ill-equipped to withstand the destruction wrought by devastating weather patterns. Bands of unemployed veterans recently returned from the grueling Napoleonic campaign now faced rocketing food prices, destitution and disease. They had surely had their fill of wet weather too. It had poured with rain on June 18, 1815, the eve of the Battle of Waterloo, turning the battlefield into a quagmire and compounding the horror of the occasion. By 1816, these battle-weary men were back in Britain, feeling abandoned by their rulers. In response to the lack of gratitude for the loyalty they had shown to the Crown, these men took to rioting in the streets, looting everything they could get their hands on and considering it no more than their due.

Widespread unrest culminated in the ‘Bread or Blood’ riots that erupted in East Anglia, home to painter John Constable who lived in the Suffolk village of East Bergholt. Constable, a committed Tory who had lost two cousins at Waterloo, had little patience with the band of armed veterans and laborers that marched on the cathedral town of Ely in protest at food shortages, holding the town’s magistrates hostage and fighting a running battle against the militia. Rather than incorporate the inclement weather into his work, as Turner had, Constable did precisely the opposite, painting idyllic representations of bucolic Albion as a reaction to this social and climactic upheaval; The Wheatfield and Flatford Mill, both painted in 1816, are examples of this.

As ever, enterprising folk found opportunity in a crisis. When the German oat crop failed, leaving people unable to feed their horses, the entrepreneurial Baron Karl Christian Ludwig von Drais de Sauerbrun enjoyed a sudden upsurge of interest in his latest invention, the bicycle. There were cultural benefits too: the spectacular sunsets and ominous sulphurous skies that lit the skies with bilious yellow and orange tints, found their way into the paintings of J.M.W. Turner and recent scientific analysis demonstrates that the works he completed in the years immediately following major volcanic eruptions contain significantly higher levels of red pigmentation in his extravagant sunsets. His Chichester Canal, which is included in the Tate Britain collection, captures the distinctive sepia hue so characteristic of refracted sunlight.

Turner paid a high price for accessing such beauty. He was dogged by bad weather all summer long and left Yorkshire to travel throughout continental Europe where conditions were, if anything, even worse than those he had endured at home. This caused him to exclaim:

Rain, Rain, Rain, day after day. Italy deluged, Switzerland a wash-pot, Neufchatel, Bienne and Morat Lakes all in one. All chance of getting over the Simplon or any of the passes now vanished like the morning mist.

Switzerland in particular was battered. Prodigious rainfall filled Lake Geneva, adding two meters to the water level and flooding low-lying districts for miles around. Homes were destroyed, livelihoods lost and livestock drowned, their bloated corpses found floating across the brimming lake. Turner arrived just in time to witness the disastrous wheat harvest that resulted in a serious flour shortage and inflated the price of a loaf of bread to the extent that Swiss dinner guests were asked, politely, to bring their own.

Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, oil on canvas, exhibited 1840. National Portrait Gallery

Mary Shelley by Richard Rothwell, oil on canvas, exhibited 1840. National Portrait Gallery

Eighteen-year-old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, who called herself Mary Shelley by then, had been in Switzerland since June 1816. Along with her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and her stepsister, Claire Claremont, she was renting the modest Maison Chapuis on the southern shore of Lake Geneva, close to the opulent Villa Diodati that was occupied by Lord Byron and his entourage. Unremitting rain put paid to any plans for alpine walks, boating trips and sightseeing excursions. In her journal, Mary recorded: ‘it proved a wet, ungenial summer, and incessant rain often confined us for days to the house’. When Byron and Shelley embarked on a sailing trip to the medieval fortress of Château de Chillon, torrential rain delayed their return, obliging them to take refuge for two days in the Hôtel de L’Ancre in the lakeside resort of Ouchy. It was during this enforced hiatus that Byron wrote his narrative poem The Prisoner of Chillon.

Confined to Byron’s rented villa, the party huddled by the fireside, recounting chilling tales of the supernatural as lightning cleft the skies above and thunder reverberated off the mountains that surrounded them. Byron found the weather frustrating and complained of the ‘stupid mists, fogs and perpetual density’, but enforced confinement allowed him to complete several works including his autobiographical ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, which includes a vivid description of the storms that raged across the lake as the ‘big rain comes dancing to the earth’. His apocalyptic poem ‘Darkness’, which describes an ‘icy Earth’ presided over by an ‘extinguished sun’, was written, by his own account, on ‘a celebrated dark day, on which fowls went to roost at noon, and the candles were lighted as at midnight’. It contains the line: Morn came and went, and came, and brought no day’.

In late July, in defiance of the weather, the Shelleys set out to visit Mer de Glace, a vast glacier that nestled in the Chamonix Valley at the base of Mont Blanc, but a dense white mist descended and Mary recorded that ‘the rain continued in torrents’. Shelley incorporated the rain-swollen torrent of the River Arve into his poem ‘Mont Blanc: Lines written in the Vale of Chamouni’, and he used that image to denote great power. Although the weather curtailed their activities, all were enthralled by the frequent and frenetic thunderstorms that reverberated off the mountains, imbuing the landscape with a supernatural light. Mary described these tempests as ‘grander and more terrific than I have ever seen before’, and described in her journal how, as each discharge of lightning rent the clouds, the landscape was: ‘illuminated for an instant, when a pitchy blackness succeeded, and the thunder came in frightful bursts over our heads amid the darkness’.

Safe indoors, they would read aloud from Fantasmagoriana, a collection of ghost stories. In Shelley’s preface to Frankenstein, he described how hearing these stories ‘excited in us a playful desire of imitation’. Byron issued a challenge to those present that they should write a story ‘founded on some supernatural occurrence’; he started immediately on ‘A Fragment’, which is recognized as one of the first stories to feature a vampire and hailed as a key inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, oil on canvas, 1819. National Portrait Gallery

Percy Bysshe Shelley by Amelia Curran, oil on canvas, 1819. National Portrait Gallery


Lord Byron by Richard Westall, oil on canvas, 1813. National Portrait Gallery

Lord Byron by Richard Westall, oil on canvas, 1813. National Portrait Gallery

Although Mary struggled to settle on a theme, she found inspiration in a conversation between Byron and Shelley concerning the reanimation of a corpse. In her preface to the third edition of Frankenstein or the modern Prometheus, she described how her gothic tale of rejection and revenge was informed by a ‘waking dream’ that she experienced later that night, when the ‘bright and shining moon’ hanging over Lake Geneva shone through the shutters into the bedroom she shared with Shelley. This preface also mentions the ‘incessant rain’ that beat against the windows of the Villa Diodati, keeping them all indoors. Percussive rain accompanied the creation of Frankenstein and found its way into her story; ‘rain pattered dismally against the panes’ as the eponymous scientist gave life to his monster.

Mary punctuated her narrative with the thunderstorms that raged above. In one instance, Victor Frankenstein describes a storm that ‘advanced from behind the mountains of Jura’:

The thunder burst at once with frightful loudness from various quarters of the heavens. I remained, while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight. As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak, which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump. When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in a singular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced to thin ribbands of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed.

Later, he is described watching a terrifying storm from the same lakeside spot where Mary herself stood. His words echo almost exactly the entry Mary made in her journal on June 1, 1816:

…the darkness and storm increased every minute, and the thunder burst with a terrific crash over my head. It was echoed from Saleve, the Juras, and the Alps of Savoy; vivid flashes of lightning dazzled my eyes, illuminating the lake, making it appear like a vast sheet of fire; then for an instant everything seemed of a pitchy darkness, until the eye recovered itself from the preceding flash. The storm, as is often the case in Switzerland, appeared at once in various parts of the heavens.

Weather is inescapable in the works of the Romantics, and never before had they experienced the conditions that characterized the ‘year without summer’. Yet, had a benign Swiss summer encouraged Byron and the Shelleys to abandon their fireside tales and embark on Alpine walks instead, we might not have Frankenstein, or at a stretch, Dracula. Had clement weather permitted Jane Austen to leave her cottage in Chawton, her wonderful Persuasion might have a different, less satisfying ending. The incessant downpour that prevented J.M.W. Turner from entering Weathercote Cave swelled the Ure, the Washburn and the Wharfe, and filled the high glacial Malham Tarn, providing him with dramatic subjects at every turn. At Malham Cove, Turner painted the arc of a rainbow. He sketched children as they gazed down on the raging torrent at Cotter Force and he captured the torrential descent of the Aysgarth waterfalls. He even hired a guide to take him underground so that he could sketch Dow Cave by candlelight, keeping one ear to the roar of the swollen river. The old adage reminds us that every cloud has a silver lining. Certainly, there was no shortage of clouds during the bleak summer of 1816 and the dramatic weather that prevailed permeates some of our best loved art and literature.