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Five Questions: James Grande on William Cobbett

William Cobbett, the Press and Rural England

James Grande currently works at King’s College London as a postdoctoral researcher on the ERC-funded project ‘Music in London, 1800-1851‘.  He completed his undergraduate and postgraduate degrees at Oxford and moved to KCL in 2011 to take up a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship.  He has worked on William Godwin, the literary cultures of London and Norfolk, Dissent, and on a range of other Romantic-period topics, but the central figure in his research is William Cobbett, the subject of his first monograph, William Cobbett, the Press and Rural England, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan in July.  Below, we discuss this book below alongside his co-edited collection The Opinions of William Cobbett, which was published by Ashgate last year.

1) How did you first encounter William Cobbett, and how did you come to decide that you wanted to dedicate your doctoral thesis and (thus far) two books to examining him?

I first came across Cobbett through a special author paper on Hazlitt that I took in the final year of my undergraduate degree.  I read Hazlitt’s ‘Character of Cobbett’ and was intrigued by the way Hazlitt scholars compare their journalism.  Richard Ingrams’s biography of Cobbett had just come out, so I read that, and immersed myself in Cobbett’s enormous published output and the archive of manuscripts at Nuffield College in Oxford.  I was fortunate to hold a doctoral studentship on the Godwin Diary Project, and was originally planning to write a thesis on Cobbett, the Godwin circle, radical life-writing and the public sphere.  But I was well advised that this might be taking on too much, so devoted my doctoral thesis to Cobbett while working as a research assistant on Godwin’s diary.  William Cobbett, the Press and Rural England is a rewritten version of my thesis and The Opinions of William Cobbett is a co-edited selection of his writings aimed at a wider audience, published in 2013 to mark the 250th anniversary of Cobbett’s birth.

2) Your reading of Cobbett’s career in William Cobbett, the Press and Rural England ’emphasizes coherence over contradiction’, seeing it as ‘a serious and sustained attempt to think through a set of ideas that had been crystallized in the pamphlet wars of the 1790s’. How did you come to see these continuities in Cobbett’s thought, and how did you choose the biographical episodes through which you trace the development of his personal ideology?

I was initially attracted to the radical, nineteenth-century Cobbett, but became increasingly convinced that in order to understand the nature of Cobbett’s radicalism we need to go back to the 1790s.  I had read Cobbett’s anti-Jacobin writing, and in particular the pamphlets he wrote in Philadelphia as Peter Porcupine, and for a long time was unsure what to do with it – it was just too reactionary.  But one of the distinguishing features of Cobbett’s career is his unusual evolution from (in crude terms) right to left, and it was his experience as an anti-Jacobin that made him such an effective radical.  In the book, I argue that we should read Cobbett’s ruralism as a response to the revolution controversy and as an eclectic combination of Burke and Paine. There has always been a tendency to view Cobbett as a crude populist who merely reacts to changing circumstances; by contrast, I see his project as the creation of a democratic radicalism that could appeal to ideas of tradition, patriotism and the domestic affections.  This gave him the status memorably described by Hazlitt as ‘a kind of fourth estate in the politics of the country’ – a virtual embodiment of both rural England and the campaign for parliamentary reform.  One of the surprises here was that I came to see Cobbett as much less insular than he often appears. His writing incorporates a broad range of transatlantic influences, and appealed to audiences far beyond a narrow rural constituency.

When it came to selecting particular episodes to focus on, I was guided by the archive I was working with and towards moments in Cobbett’s career that seemed particularly significant and under-researched.  The first chapter presents new evidence for Cobbett’s authorship of The Soldier’s Friend (1792), including a previously neglected letter from the publisher, James Ridgway.  In this letter, Ridgway defends himself from rumours that he had been imprisoned for high treason but concedes that the work had caused ‘greater alarm at its publication than any pamphlet in my memory’ – and Ridgway was one of the publishers of the second part of Rights of Man.  After this foray into radicalism, Cobbett fled to France and then America and the rest of this chapter shows how his myth of rural England developed in the United States.  The next chapter concentrates on the first decade of the 1800s and his strange, sub-Burkean correspondence with William Windham.  I suggest that Cobbett’s move to Hampshire began in imitation of Windham’s patrician independence, but was quickly directed towards more radical ends.  The work Cobbett wrote in Newgate during his imprisonment for seditious libel, Paper Against Gold, is of central importance to the rest of his career.  There has been some excellent recent work on paper money and I have tried to extend this by reading Paper Against Gold alongside Cobbett’s prison letters.  There are chapters on Cobbett’s re-creation of rural England on Long Island, following the 1817 suspension of Habeas Corpus, and his work as press secretary and speechwriter for Queen Caroline during her trial.  There is a chapter on Rural Rides and other major works of the 1820s, Cottage Economy and A History of the Protestant “Reformation” (kept in scare quotes), and the final chapter is on 1830-1 and the relationship as Cobbett saw it between the July Revolution in France and Swing Riots in England.  William IV and the new Whig government tried to make Cobbett a scapegoat for the riots – there are extracts from Rural Rides in the Treasury Solicitor’s archives, with passages that could be construed as seditious marked up – but Cobbett subpoenaed the entire Cabinet as witnesses, conducted his own defence and was sensationally acquitted.  The following year, he completed his providential progress from ‘Ploughboy to a Seat in Parliament’ with his election to the reformed Parliament as an MP for Oldham.  There is a short postscript examining Cobbett’s myriad legacies, for popular journalism, ‘Condition of England’ writing and radical pastoral.

3) Why did you decide to focus particularly on Cobbett as a writer of various kinds of letters?

My doctoral thesis was on ‘William Cobbett’s Correspondence’ and explored the open letter rhetoric of his journalism – often credited with creating the modern leading article – alongside the archive of manuscript letters.  Correspondence is still key to how I read Cobbett.  His arguments are always addressed to specific audiences, from political allies and opponents to groups of ordinary people.  This gives them their brilliant directness (‘Wilberforce, I have you before me in a canting pamphlet’) and invests them with a situatedness that is unmatched in radical writing of the period.  In this respect, Cobbett draws on the epistolary tropes of intimacy, authenticity and spontaneity, as well as the unique place of letters in everyday life.  The book includes many previously unpublished letters from the remarkable archive at Nuffield, assembled by the guild socialist G.D.H. Cole, who edited, collected and wrote an important biography of Cobbett.  These letters tell us a huge amount about how Cobbett worked and on the role of his family – particularly his seven children – in his literary, political and agricultural projects.

Opinions of William Cobbett

4) How did you and your co-editors, John Stevenson and Richard Thomas, choose the pieces which you include in The Opinions of William Cobbett, and are there particular selections from among these which you’d recommend for converting newcomers to his work?

Cobbett published an estimated twenty million words – a figure unrivalled in the history of English letters – so there was plenty to choose from.  We decided on thematic sections, and tried to find passages that would work well as short extracts, present the full range of Cobbett’s opinions and convey his power as a writer.  To Hazlitt, he was ‘one of the best writers in the language’, and even the Attorney General, leading the prosecution in 1831, described him as ‘one of the greatest masters of the English language who has ever composed in it’.  Newcomers to his work might be surprised by the variety of his writing.  So we see Cobbett thundering against ‘Old Corruption’, but there are also moments of Romantic autobiography and sentimental comedy.  For example, one of the longest extracts is a autobiographical passage describing his time as a soldier in New Brunswick and imagining an alternative life in which he had never returned to England and achieved political celebrity.  And one of my personal favourites is a brilliantly funny scene from his anti-Malthusian comedy, Surplus Population.

As one of the reviews pointed out, the selection does not try to present a sanitised version of Cobbett.  His violent prejudices, including his anti-Semitism, cannot be politely ignored.  Linda Colley wrote more than a decade ago that ‘Cobbett’s unfailing concern for the English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh labouring poor, and his work on behalf of adult male suffrage make him – up to a point – a plausible hero for the democratic Left’, and the qualification here is important.  Colley also discusses Cobbett’s enduring legacy for British political journalism and if anything his concerns and style of journalism seem to have even greater relevance today, in the context of the financial crisis, political and press corruption, anxieties about the national debt and the post-devolution debate about national identity and Scottish independence.  However, with the rise of the Tea Party in America and UKIP in Britain, Cobbett’s particular brand of Enlightenment common sense now seems to be almost exclusively the province of the modern right.  There is nothing inevitable here, and I would contest any straightforward comparison, but this does seem to be what has happened.

5) What new projects are you currently pursuing?

John Stevenson and I are editing a volume of essays from a conference on ‘Cobbett at 250’, which will be published next year by Pickering & Chatto and will, incredibly, be the first collection of essays devoted to Cobbett.  I am really excited about the range of topics and contributors, including scholars from Romantic and Victorian literary studies, social and political history and sociology.

My current research is linked to my new post as a research fellow for ‘Music in London, 1800-1851’, directed by Roger Parker and based at King’s College London.  The project is focused on non-elite music and on the social and political meanings that music carried in metropolitan culture.  My own research is on the intersections between music, literature and religious dissent, so this takes me back to the intellectual milieu of the Godwin diary and my earlier postdoctoral research on nineteenth-century nonconformism.  If any BARS members are interested in getting involved with the broader project, there is a website – musicinlondon.org – with further information and details of upcoming conferences.