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Five Questions: David Higgins on Romantic Englishness

David Higgins - Romantic Englishness

David Higgins is an Associate Professor in English Literature at the University of Leeds; he currently serves on the BARS Executive and was until recently the Editor of the BARS Bulletin & Review.  His doctoral research focused on the constructions of literary genius in late Romantic periodicals; this project formed the basis of his first monograph, Romantic Genius and the Literary Magazine: Biography, Celebrity, Politics (London and New York: Routledge, 2005).  More recently, he has worked on diverse subjects including Romantic China, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ecocriticism and creativity (working as part of Leeds’ ongoing Creativity Project and acting as Principal Investigator on the AHRC-funded ‘Creative Communities, 1750-1830’ network).  His major research project over the past few years has been an examination of the ways in which narratives of localised selfhood in English Romantic writing developed in relation to larger national and imperial formations.  This work has recently resulted in his latest monograph, Romantic Englishness: Local, National and Global Selves, 1780-1850, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan in September and which we discuss below.

1) In your acknowledgements, you write that Romantic Englishness had its genesis in MA work you conducted in 1997.  How much of your thinking from this time survives in the book, and what major realisations have transformed your thinking about the topic in the intervening period?

I suppose that what survives is an interest in how micro-narratives of individual selfhood intersect with macro-narratives of nation and empire.  What I didn’t necessarily have in 1997 were the intellectual tools or knowledge of the period to make sense of this complex area.  I ended up working on a topic in which I was less interested for my doctoral thesis and first book, which may have saved me from making a total hash of this one…  I think that the main changes in my thinking have been a partial move away from psychobiography, which (unless done very carefully) always has the danger of reducing a complex text to an imagined intention or neurosis, and the development of an ecological concern with writing and place: particularly ideas of ‘the local’ and their implication in larger national and imperial formations.  This shift has been enabled, in part, by the more sophisticated ecocriticism that has emerged in the last decade or so.  My interest in the topic has also been given greater force and direction by recent political and cultural debates about the nature and value of ‘Englishness’.

2) What led you to make your primary focus ‘Romantic-period autobiography written within and about England’?

I’ve been interested in literary and philosophical constructions of selfhood since I was an undergraduate, and this interest was consolidated by an MA module that I took on ‘Romantic Autobiography’ (taught by Greg Dart).  When I came to think about a large project on national identity a few years later, I had already published articles that emerged from my postgraduate work and addressed this topic in autobiographical texts by William Hazlitt and Benjamin Robert Haydon.  Therefore, it seemed natural enough to use ‘autobiography’ as a limiting term that would make the project viable and consonant with my intellectual interests.  The focus on England emerged somewhat later, for two reasons.  First, I was well aware that a lot of important work had already been done on ‘external’ cultural encounter in Romantic travel writing and I wasn’t sure that I could add much to this.  In contrast, ‘internal’ cultural encounter seemed to me an important and under-explored area.  Secondly, I began to become particularly interested in specifically English representations as a response to the emergence of ‘Four Nations’ Romanticism and my sense that, as well as giving much-needed attention to Scottish, Welsh, and Irish Romanticism, this should also cause us to rethink our understanding of a specifically English Romanticism.

3) You contend in your introduction that ‘Englishness was a heterogeneous and unstable category in the Romantic period, and always inflected by alterity’ and point out that this has been occluded by the dominance of narratives which conflate English and British identities. What do you believe are the major perspectives we can gain by recovering a set of a specifically English Romantic-period identities?

I think that there are three answers to this.  Two relate to our understanding of the period, and the other relates to present-day concerns.  To begin with the contemporary situation, it’s clear that debates about the nature and value of Englishness have been given new impetus in recent years due to devolution, immigration, and so on.  Given the ever-present danger of taking a ‘purist’ and exclusionary attitude to Englishness, I think that it’s useful to consider its history, and particularly ways in which English identities have always been porous, complex, displaced, and overdetermined.  My first period-specific answer relates to my reply to Question 2.  Interest in ‘Four Nations Romanticism’ provides an opportunity to consider a specifically English Romantic tradition that might usefully be abstracted from a potentially statist and imperialistic notion of ‘English Literature’ that emerged in subsequent years.  Finally, I think that reflecting on the complex relationship between Englishness and place allows me to complicate the localism that has been so important to the idea of Romantic ecology.

4) Your book examines canonical Romantic poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Clare) and essayists (Hazlitt, Lamb and De Quincey), but also pays extensive attention to William Cowper, Samuel Bamford, Thomas Bewick and William Cobbett. How did you select this cast of writers as your principal subjects, and were there other authors you considered including?

The most obvious thing about that list of authors, of course, is that they are all white and male, although not all middle-class.  I had originally intended to write about a much larger and diverse range of texts, including slave narratives and poetry and memoirs by women.  At that stage, the study was conceived as a more general and far too ambitious account of autobiography and place in the period.  A lot of rich texts were lost when I decided to exclude foreign travel writing, including works by Byron, Letitia Landon, Helen Maria Williams, and Mary Wollstonecraft.  As my argument developed about the autobiographical construction of Englishness through representations of ‘the local’ within an imperial context, this further limited my selection of texts (although I still cover quite a lot of ground).  It’s not that female or black autobiography within England during the period is uninterested in national identity per se, but I did not generally find that these texts connected Englishness and the local.  It’s quite possible, of course, that I have missed some texts that would have worked.  In the end, I just had to go with my instincts about what was viable.  The person I most regret not including is Charlotte Smith, whom I decided to leave out quite late in the day.  Her poetry moves interestingly between local, national, and sometimes global geographies; however, I wasn’t confident enough that she was specifically concerned with Englishness rather than Britishness, or that I had room for another chapter.  Partly to assuage my anxiety about this decision, I intend to write about nation and catastrophe in her poetry as part of my next project.

5) What new projects do you plan to turn your attention to now that this one is complete?

I have a few other things to finish off, but my main focus is on developing a major project on representations of environmental catastrophe in Romantic and post-Romantic writing.  I imagine that this will keep me going for quite a few years.  The first step will be a short book entitled 1816: Empire, Climate Change, and British Romanticism, timed (I hope) to coincide with the bicentenary of the ‘Year Without A Summer’ in 2016.