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Five Questions: Georgina Green on the Majesty of the People

The Majesty of the People - Georgina Green

Georgina Green is currently a Research Fellow at the University of York; prior to taking up this appointment, she completed her PhD at the University of Oxford and conducted research at Carleton University and the University of Warwick.  Her work centres on political and literary interactions in the 1790s and particularly on the relationships between individuals, groups, networks and the populace at large.  These concerns inform her first monograph, The Majesty of the People: Popular Sovereignty and the Role of the Writer in the 1790s, which was published in February by Oxford University Press and which we discuss below.

1. How did you first become interested in the idea of the majesty of the people?

I think my interest in popular sovereignty began with little more than an intuitive interest in the parallels between the problems of political representation and ‘literary’ anxieties about the inadequacy of language.  I had become interested in Wordsworth’s angst about the poet’s authority during my undergraduate reading of The Prelude.  I remember simply knowing ‘I want to look at anxieties about authority’.  This seems ridiculously vague and all-encompassing now, but I began by looking at eye-witness accounts of the French Revolution.  I read Helen Maria Williams’ Letters from France.  From the spectacular opening of the first volume of her letters, it is clear that Williams’ bid for authority was not only tied up in her eye-witness status, but in her sympathy with the revolutionary crowd.  Through reading Mary Favret (Romantic Correspondence: Women, Politics, and the Fiction of Letters (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)), Gregory Dart (Rousseau, Robespierre and English Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)), and Steven Goldsmith (Unbuilding Jerusalem; Apocalypse and Romantic Representation (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993)), I became very interested in a Jacobin desire to transcend representation, and rather to embody the people; as Goldsmith puts it, ‘the Jacobins were able to seize power in Paris mainly because of their opposition to representation, because of their claim to embody immediately “the will of the people”‘.  This urge to transcend representation in a political context seemed to resonate with what had always intrigued me when I had come across it in literary texts and manifestos from The Prelude to the positivist fantasies of the Imagist movement: a concern about the inadequacy of language.  Despite this quite abstract beginning, this interest was modified and sustained by the richness of 1790s’ print culture, and I hope this comes across in the book.

2. How did you select and order the six authors around whom your book centres?

I wish I could say that the selection process was fair and transparent, or even strategic, but it was quite organic if I am honest.

As I’ve said, I began by reading Helen Maria Williams and became interested in how a commitment to popular sovereignty shaped writers’ conceptions of their own role and how they write.  From there I moved on to Thomas Paine who seemed impossible to overlook, given his importance to accounts of the relationship between politics and language in the period.  While I was doing this work I seemed to repeatedly stumble upon John Thelwall in connection to the phrase ‘the people’, and fortuitously, a Thelwall conference organised by Steve Poole was in the works.

It was with Thelwall and his involvement with the London Corresponding Society that I moved beyond my original preoccupation with revolutionary France and attempts to diffuse totalitarian claims to power legitimated by reference to the people.  In Britain, Thelwall was instead confronting the invisibility and irrelevance of the people at large in the political realm as it was conceived of by the political elite (and particularly by Edmund Burke).  Thelwall’s thinking about the role of the writer or intellectual in challenging this invisibility was articulated largely in a public disagreement with William Godwin.

I had to get Godwin’s side of the story too, and I found that Godwin’s disagreement with Thelwall was rooted in his concern about the passivity of individual reason when the individual becomes part of a crowd.  Godwin seeks to demystify the collective entity ‘the people’ because of the power of collective or representative identities to subsume individuals and to recruit them to a cause without engaging their power of reason.  The people are not necessarily either just or reasonable, for Godwin.  Godwin associates collectivity with passivity, and this becomes a concern about the ideal reader.

This concern with an ideal reader and about the passivity of reading reminded me of the preface to the Lyrical Ballads, and at this point I decided that the work would include Coleridge and Wordsworth.  Coleridge was also concerned about the passivity of the people, but not only because of the power of the crowd or the demagogue, but because of the forces of poverty and oppression which have degraded them.  His apologetic for the people is a negotiation between the actual people and the ideal people, an apologetic that mirrors and accompanies his 1790s theological apologetics for revealed religion.

Coleridge turns to Wordsworth to redeem the people when his own apologetics fall short.  Wordsworth, too, is concerned about a people degraded by necessity, but his concern is linked to his understanding of popular sovereignty as an original or constituent power, outside of the structures of law and established government.

This is a picaresque version of the book’s argument.  The chapters do not reflect the order in which I did the original reading and research, and I thoroughly revised their sequence in revising for publication.  With the help of my examiners and the readers at OUP, I realised that my argument would be helped and foregrounded by a second order of organisation into parts, and this resulted in a reordering of the individual chapters.  The first part ‘The political existence of the people’, looks at attempts to challenge the willed blindness of the political elite in Britain to the political existence of the people at large, or the ‘people out of doors’, and includes the original work on Thelwall and the London Corresponding Society.  The second part, ‘The sovereignty of justice’ looks at the tension between justice and the will of the people, and incorporates the work on Paine, Williams and Godwin.  The final part, ‘Redeeming the People’, looks at Coleridge and Wordsworth and the apologetics for popular sovereignty that they develop,  Coleridge in tandem with his apologetics for revealed religion, and Wordsworth, ultimately, through the inspiring example of the Peninsular Uprising.

3. In what ways do you see the developments of the 1790s as informing later political thought?

The underlying aspiration shared by many of these writers is to be able to associate the sovereignty of the people with a just, virtuous way of life, rather than with the drives of necessity or of animal appetites.  This aspiration ultimately informs and motivates emerging ideas about the importance of ‘culture’.  Culture becomes a means of redeeming the people, even if we might be unhappy with that manoeuvre because it moves away from considering the people as an historical, empirical and actual entity and instead refers to the people ‘philosophically characterized’, as Wordsworth puts it.

4. How does later political thinking in turn inform your own approaches to the period?

Later political thinking helped me to understand the deep and multi-faceted ambivalence of the concept of the majesty of the people, and thereby to overcome any implication that those writers who faced that ambivalence in the 1790s were simply articulating something like class-based prejudice.  For the most part I tried to avoid using later political thinking as some form of evaluative criteria with which to bash my subjects, but rather used it to underline the ethical considerations shaping their 1790s writings.  In the afterword, though, I hint that Giorgio Agamben’s thought on bio-politics might provide a counterbalance to materialist critiques, offering a potentially positive framework for reevaluating the ‘Romantic ideology’.

5. What new projects are you currently working on?

In the final chapter of The Majesty of the People, which looks at Wordsworth, I began to think about the value attached to ‘safety, mere safety’, as Wordsworth puts it.  Extending this work, I’ve been thinking further about the natural law maxim ‘the safety of the people is the highest law’.  I am looking at how appeals to this principle are mobilised both to defend and to suppress the radical popular movements of the 1790s.  I’m also interested in how writers of the period attempted to disarm such claims.

Currently, the majority of my work is associated with my post as a research fellow for the project ‘Networks of Improvement: Literary Clubs and Societies, 1760-1840’, working collaboratively with Jon Mee and Jennifer Wilkes at the Centre for Eighteenth Century Studies at the University of York.  The project as a whole looks at the sociable life of reading and writing in clubs and institutions of the period.  I’m looking at the role of these clubs in discipline formation, and I’m particularly looking at Bristol and Bath.  I’m also interested in the concept of the ‘network’ or its ancestors as it appears in the discursive material associated with these clubs (including journalism, toasts, constitutions, lectures, or print proceedings).  On a more practical level, a major aspect of my role has been to develop an online application which allows users to contribute to a database of clubs and club membership, www.eccsn.net (eccsn stands for eighteenth century clubs, societies and networks).  The database is not launched publicly yet but if any readers are interested in it please do contact me, as we are always looking for contributors and collaborators.