Five Questions: Simon J. White on Romanticism and the Rural Community

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Simon J White - Romanticism and the Rural Community

Simon J. White is currently a Reader in Romantic and Nineteenth-Century Literature at Oxford Brookes University.  He has published numerous articles and book chapters on working-class and labouring-class writers in the Romantic period, focusing most extensively on Robert Bloomfield, the subject of his first monograph and his 2006 co-edited collection (with John Goodridge and Bridget Keegan) Robert Bloomfield: Lyric, Class and the Romantic Canon.  His most recent monograph, Romanticism and the Rural Community, was published by Palgrave in August 2013.  Below, we discuss this book along with his wide-ranging public engagement activities and his new work on representations of magic and witchcraft.

1) How did you come to realise that you wanted to write Romanticism and the Rural Community?

I did my PhD on the poetry of Robert Bloomfield at the University of York.  The project didn’t start out as a study of Bloomfield’s representation of community, but by the end this was the dominant subject of my thesis.  A substantially revised version entitled Robert Bloomfield, Romanticism and the Poetry of Community was published by Ashgate in 2007.  While working on this book, I realised that the proper organisation of rural communities was central to political and social debates at the turn of the eighteenth century, and featured strongly in 1790s political polemic.  It was even a major factor in deliberations about the future direction of Britain’s imperial project in the Indian subcontinent.  The British were concerned that demographic changes were destabilizing small rural communities, and that this in turn was having a detrimental impact upon trade.  The more I read, the more it became apparent that the idea of what rural communities could or should be was central to the vision of many literary (as well as polemical) writers in the period.  As a result I made the decision to produce a more wide-ranging study.  I secured a one-year AHRC Early-Career Fellowship which enabled me to complete my research and write Romanticism and the Rural Community.

2) How did the project develop over the course of the book’s composition?  Were there other aspects to the project beyond the monograph?

During the course of my research it became apparent that for many Romantic-period writers, the social disintegration of small rural communities was not only, or even principally, about class.  Small rural communities displayed a strong sense of mutuality and common identity when made up of different social groups – dependent labouring people, semi-independent cottagers, farmers and landowners – if all believed that they shared a common purpose.  When large numbers of people within rural communities no longer shared a commitment to ‘agri[culture]’ and husbandry, divisions and competing priorities began to emerge.  This breakdown is presaged in the poetry of Bloomfield, George Crabbe and John Clare, but it is most vividly represented in Ebenezer Elliott’s poetry.  For Elliott, writing in the late 1820s, the main source of community breakdown in small rural villages is the rise and sprawl of the middle classes.  The middle classes wanted their villages to be neat and pretty.  As we move into the twentieth century, the demands of the judges in best-kept village competitions would become more important than the demands of farmers and farm labourers.  Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg’s buddy-cop spoof Hot Fuzz (2007) is about the lengths to which villagers will go in order to secure victory in a best-kept village competition.

I began to make connections between a perceived crisis in rural communities during the Romantic period and the state of rural community life today.  Many of us sense that there is something wrong with modern dormitory villages; few of us would describe them as communities in the old sense of the word.  The middle classes have moved into rural villages in search of the community feeling that they could not find in modern cities, only to recreate the organised and neat segregation of suburbia in the countryside.  In order to investigate these connections, and in partnership with Oxfordshire Rural Community Council, I organised a series of Oxfordshire-focused workshops entitled Rural Community: The Past Shaping the Present Shaping the Future.  The idea was to engage interested stakeholders (representatives of the third sector and local government, and academics from a range of disciplines) in my research, and to stimulate new ways of thinking about rural communities.  The central theme of the workshops was the question – do ideas about what rural communities used to be like still shape policy and practice today, and is this a problem?

3) Your introduction argues against seeing Romantic-period country localities as parts of a ‘homogeneous rural context’ and your chapters pay close attention to the differing social infrastructures of rural communities.  How does the fine-grained appreciation of the complexities and specificities of rural life which your book develops alter our understanding of Romantic-period literature?

My book questions various, still common, assumptions in Romantic studies: that Romantic writers had access to, and celebrated an originary nature (as distinct from a cultivated landscape); that agrarian improvement always had negative consequences for labouring people in the countryside; and that those Romantic writers who demand to be read in relation to the specifics of place are limited.  In fact, by about the first millennium AD, particularly in England, very little of the landscape was untouched by the human hand.  The Romantic distinction between wild and cultivated nature was a myth.  Enclosure had a significant impact in some places (Clare’s Northamptonshire), but not others (William Wordsworth’s Cumberland).  It resulted in improved living conditions for labouring people in some places (Burns’s lowland Scotland), and worse living conditions in others (Bloomfield and Crabbe’s Suffolk).  If we move a hundred miles or so in space or a decade or so in time the physical and social environment can be very different, resulting in a different community dynamic.  Romanticism and the Rural Community reveals that this more nuanced reading of agrarian and social change is displayed in the writing of the period.  My book contends that all Romantic writing about the countryside is rooted in a knowledge and experience of specific places.  It goes on to demonstrate that specifics of time and place in turn influence the representation of community.

4) Your chapters consider both canonical writers (William Wordsworth, Jane Austen, Robert Burns, John Clare) and oft-neglected figures (George Crabbe, Robert Bloomfield, Ebenezer Elliott). How did you settle on these particular writers as the subjects for your arguments about the centrality of rural communities to thought in the period?

I chose these writers because in important works they focus implicitly and sometimes explicitly on questions of community identity and how small rural communities are, or should be structured; politically, socially and economically.  I could have chosen many other writers of the Romantic period who feature rural life or nature more generally in their work, but my project focuses explicitly on the representation of rural community.  I wanted to engage with the complexity of different types of communities, and national and regional investments in community experience and community identity.  My choice of writers and their work enabled me to situate some unjustly neglected writers at the heart of what I argue was one of the major preoccupations of the period, and to produce some revisionary readings of well-known writers.  I believed that I could add substantially to the body of research on Wordsworth in two distinct ways.  Firstly, through my examination of Wordsworth’s response to 1790s political polemic focusing on the rural community in general and the cottager in particular.  Secondly, through my exploration of the way Wordsworth’s ideas about rural community, and how it should be represented in poetry, change from the early 1790s through to The Excursion in 1814.  I was also aware of the long established work on Jane Austen in relation to social change and the landed estate.  But I believed that re-evaluation of this long established research was necessary, particularly in the light of more recent revisionary work on rural history, and my own work on the rural community in 1790s political polemic.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I am currently writing a book entitled Witchcraft, Magic and Regionality in Fiction, 1818-1926 (Palgrave, forthcoming 2017).  I am also developing ‘Mapping Stories of Witchcraft and Magic’, a digital resource linked to the book project, but pan-historical in orientation.  This study will explore the role of witchcraft and magic in the construction of distinctive regional identity in fiction during the nineteenth and early-twentieth century.  A considerable amount of work has been done on the representation of witchcraft and magic in early-modern England and Scotland, in particular the witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  But until recently little work has been done on witchcraft and magic after 1736, when the legislation that had made many magical practices capital offences in England and Scotland was repealed.  But since the millennium, and led by the ground-breaking research of Owen Davies, historians have begun to explore this striking gap in our understanding of the mind-set of ordinary people, and the social-dynamics of local communities throughout Britain during much of the last three hundred years.  It was not until very recently that historians began to study regional variations in magical beliefs and practices during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.  This new area of research is the starting point for Witchcraft, Magic and Regionality in Fiction, 1818-1926, which will be informed by the growing body of work on regional variations, and by the new (historical) discoveries made during the course of my own research.