Five Questions: An Inventive Age: Writing of the Industrial Revolution, 1770–1830

      Comments Off on Five Questions: An Inventive Age: Writing of the Industrial Revolution, 1770–1830
An Inventive Age: Writing of the Industrial Revolution, 1770–1830Studies in Romanticism, 61.2 (Summer 2022). Cover featuring a watercolour by Thomas Hornor, c. 1817, of the rolling mills at Merthyr Tydfil, from the National Museum of Wales.

Below, we discuss the Summer 2022 special issue of Studies in Romanticism, guest-edited by Jeremy Davies and entitled An Inventive Age: Writing of the Industrial Revolution, 1770–1830. The contributors are as follows:

Siobhan Carroll is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Delaware. Her first book was An Empire of Air and Wa­ter: Uncolonizable Space in the British Imagination, 1750–1850 (Pennsylvania, 2015), and her current book project is on improvement, agency, and Ro­mantic narrative form.

Jeremy Davies is an Associate Professor of English at the Uni­versity of Leeds. His last book was The Birth of the Anthropocene (California, 2016), and his next is provisionally called ‘The Altered Landscape, 1793–1830.’

Eric Gidal is Professor of English at the University of Iowa and the editor of Philological Quarterly. His recent work includes Ossi­anic Unconformities: Bardic Poetry in the Industrial Age (Virginia, 2015), and articles on Scottish and French Romanticism and environmental history.

Nigel Leask is Regius Professor of English Language and Lit­erature at the University of Glasgow, and a Fellow of the British Academy and of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. His latest monograph is Stepping Westward: Writing the Highland Tour 1720–1830 (Oxford, 2020).

Jon Mee is Professor of Eighteenth-Century Studies at the Univer­sity of York. His books include Print, Publicity, and Popular Radicalism in the 1790s (Cambridge, 2016); forthcoming projects include two co-edited collections of essays, Institutions of Literature, 1700–1900 (Cambridge, 2022) and Remediating the 1820s (Edinburgh, 2023). 

1) Why did you decide to produce a journal special issue on the Industrial Revolution?

Jeremy Davies: It began for me with trying to find a new direction for Romantic ecocriticism. That led me to want to reconnect Romantic literary studies with economic history – trusting that economics and ecology are as closely similar at root as their names suggest. The relationship between culture and economic transformation around 1800 is a classic scholarly problem, but modern Romantic studies has been strangely out of touch with the state of the art in economic historiography. (This isn’t to downplay all the good recent work on literature and economic thought in our period, let me say.) That aspiration to re-join two fields obviously meant a need to collaborate. Hence this special issue. Jon Mee contrasts theories of industrial innovation in the 1790s and 1830s. Siobhan Carroll writes about Walter Scott and the rise of coal. Eric Gidal looks at how Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine got on board with modern transport, and Nigel Leask considers the Highland economy in its Atlantic context. My own essay is about Anna Laetitia Barbauld and the role of land availability in economic development.

We’ve had a lot of Zoom meet-ups during the four (!) years that we’ve been working on this collection. It’s been the most genial shared academic enterprise I’ve known. We hope very much that others will want to respond to the arguments we’re putting forward. The aim is for wider collaborations in the future, so we’d all be glad to hear from any scholars interested in the questions we explore. The trope of the ‘Industrial Revolution’ is a key rubric for me personally, but it isn’t a shibboleth. I think that engaging with the latest work in economic history can help literary critics think more rigorously about empire, class, family life, nationhood, geography, improvement… all sorts of things. I’d love to make contact with anyone who finds this agenda promising.

2) How does an emphasis on economic history challenge or at least alter our accounts of the literature of this period? 

Eric Gidal: I see our contributions as providing an expansive and robust account of the role of print culture in economic and environmental history. Rather than confining our attention to early expressions of ecological thought or judging authors on the basis of ideological resistance or complicity, the contributions to this issue provide detailed descriptions of materials printed during a period of rapid economic and social transformation. John Aikin junior’s A Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles round Manchester (1795); Thomas Garnett’s Observations on a Tour of the Highlands, and Part of the Western Isles of Scotland (1800); Anna Barbauld’s Eighteen Hundred and Eleven (1812); William Wordsworth’s The Excursion (1814); Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814), The Bride of Lammermoor (1819), and Redgauntlet (1824); the first two decades of Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine (1817–34); and Edward Baines junior’s History of the Cotton Manufacture in Great Britain (1835): these publications offer a material record of enormous changes in the British economy that have had world-altering consequences. While we think through the arguments, ideas, and narratives forwarded in each of these volumes, we also recognize them as physical products of an expansive information and media infrastructure that facilitated many of the changes they record.  I think this special issue demonstrates that economic history can reveal not only how individual writers apprehended the structural transformations of their day, but how new modes of information management, knowledge production, and creative expression emerged from within increasingly complex economies.  Topographies, tours, prophetic and philosophical poems, historical novels, magazines, and economic histories themselves are all genres we recognize as assuming modern parameters during this period and it makes sense to me to view them as active elements of an industrializing world.   

3) How do the essays in this special issue speak to your previous work?

Nigel Leask: My most recent book, Stepping Westward (2020), was a study of the Highland Tour. I found Jeremy’s invitation challenging and thought-provoking to the extent that the Highlands was a region of Britain that failed to industrialise, hence ‘the Highland problem.’ Unlike Jon’s Manchester, or Siobhan and Eric’s Lowland Scotland, ‘Britain’s farthest glens’ lacked coal or iron, and industrial development was dogged by their harsh natural environment, and problems of labour supply. But the essays in ‘An Inventive Age’ (Wordsworth’s words, remember!) challenge a retrospective notion of the industrial revolution ‘marked by the coal smoke of the later nineteenth century,’ as Siobhan puts it. A more complex and variegated sense of the meaning of ‘industry’ emerges here, which allows for more traction with literary romanticism.

Travel writers that I’d studied in Stepping Westward – e.g. Thomas Pennant, Thomas Garnett, even Dorothy Wordsworth – were concerned with how to unlock the ‘cornucopian promise of the north,’ as well as appreciating it as ‘romantic’ wilderness. Fisheries, moorland cultivation, spinning schools, and kelping were all proposed as hybrid schemes of improvement very different from the standard ‘industrial’ model. In my book I under-emphasised the dependence of such improvement schemes on colonial markets, to the extent that (for instance) herrings, cheap ‘Osnaburg’ linens, and jute sacking were exported to service the West Indian slave economy. In the end, as Andrew Mackillop has argued, the most successful branch of the Highland economy was the export of human capital, either as military or colonial service, or in the shape of forced emigration, leading to the tragic depopulation of the region that persists today.

As Fredrik Albritton Jonsson indicates in Enlightenment’s Frontier, the ‘highland problem’ resonates with current ecological interest in the ‘limits to economic growth’ impelled by our need for carbon discipline. These essays demonstrate the unevenness of industrial development across Britain, and the degree to which writers responded to the changing regional landscapes around them, rather than to a single heroic narrative of technological progress. My response underlines the extent to which local initiatives at regional and national level were dependent on Atlantic and global colonialism, fundamental to Britain’s economic paramountcy in the nineteenth century.

4) Did working on the issue alter your thinking about the Romantic period?

Siobhan Carroll: Personally, I was struck by how applying the lens of economic history to my corpus ended up reinforcing the utility of ‘the Romantic Period.’ In researching my contribution, for example, I spent a lot of time with Paul Warde’s research on British fuel use.  Seeing the decades we associate with Romanticism stand out in the tables as years experiencing dramatic changes in fuel use – marking, among other things, the high point of Britain’s pre-twenty-first century use of wind power – was really striking. There’s been a lot of debate among Victorianists as to whether periodization is intellectually useful in our current moment; and while I think one’s period should be determined by one’s research questions, seeing the Romantic Era ‘emerge’ (as it were) from the economic data was a significant moment.

The other element that stood out was the unexpected confluences in our research. When we originally talked about doing this issue, nobody mentioned Scotland in their essay pitches. But (as was pointed out to us in the BARS Economies and Ecologies roundtable) – Scotland and/or Scottish writers ended up playing a significant role in the special issue. Similarly, there were surprising moments of overlap in our essays’ concerns with infrastructure, transportation, and environmental change. My sense is that these connections aren’t accidental, but indicate places where something interesting was happening in the Romantic archive. Sites of future research, I hope!

5) Are you currently working on any related projects?

Jon Mee: Jeremy’s idea for this volume was very timely for me as I’ve been writing a book on the area around Manchester associated with the take-off phase of the Industrial Revolution. The matrix for the book is provided by John Aikin junior’s Description of the Country from Thirty to Forty Miles Round Manchester (1795) which takes up the opening section of my essay for ‘An Inventive Age.’ Having my head opened up to other voices considering related issues has been of real substantive – and therapeutic – value, especially when trying to work out issues like the relationship between the provincial and the global, the benefits or otherwise of network analysis, and questions about the determining power of socio-economic regimes. Part of the impulse for my book came from the feeling that the ideas that came tumbling out of the area have tended to be neglected because the Industrial Revolution has been cast as the embarrassing Other of romanticism rather than a complex part of what made up Wordsworth’s ‘inventive age.’ I’ve been trying to trace the ways that the darker strands mixed with liberal impulses hardened into something like the ‘historical mission’ described by Marx in Capital without taking that process to be pre-determined by totalised externalities. Less grandly and more locally that has also involved thinking about the fate of platypus and wombat specimens sent to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne! In a period of lockdown, talking to others has been at a premium, but I’ve been lucky to have my way lit by Jon Klancher’s work on London arts and sciences institutions and Kevis Goodman’s generous act of lending me the manuscript of her Pathologies of Motion. ‘An Inventive Age’ has been an affirmation for me of collaboration and confirmation that every monograph is ultimately the product of a distributed agency.