The Royal Literary Fund and the Perils of Authorship Timetable

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Please see below for the timetable for the Royal Literary Fund and the Perils of Authorship symposium, which will be taking place next Friday (May 9th) at the British Library.  Twould be great to see BARS members there; tickets can be booked through the British Library Box Office.

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The Royal Literary Fund and the Perils of Authorship Symposium

British Library Conference Centre, Friday May 9th

10:30-10:45: Welcome ​- Dr Kristian Jensen​, British Library

10:45-11:30: Dr Matthew Sangster, British Library – Introducing the Royal Literary Fund Archive

11:30-12:30: Professor Jon Mee, University of York – ‘General science, Political Disquisitions, and the Belle Lettres’: The First Decade of the Literary Fund

12:30-1:30: Lunch

1:30-2:30: Dr Jennie Batchelor, University of Kent – UnRomantic Authorship: The Case of Women in the Royal Literary Fund Archive (1790-1830)

2:30-3:30: Professor Josephine McDonagh, King’s College London – Forms and Rituals of Giving and Receiving at the Royal Literary Fund

3:30-4:00: Tea

4:00-5:00: Professor Max Saunders, King’s College London – Fund of Stories: Modernism, Life Writing and the RLF

5:00-5:45: Roundtable with speakers

5:45-6:30: Drinks Reception

6:30-7:30: Evening Event – The Royal Literary Fund and the Struggling Author: Introduced by Sir Ronald Harwood, and featuring James Walton in conversation with Richard Holmes, Jeremy Lewis and Claire Tomalin

Five Questions: Georgina Green on the Majesty of the People

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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, (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.

CfP Extension: Making, Breaking and Transgressing Boundaries: Europe in Romantic Writing, 1775-1830

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Making, Breaking and Transgressing Boundaries: Europe in Romantic Writing, 1775-1830, which will take place in Newcastle on the 15th of July, has extended its Call for Papers until May 7th, so you now have a little longer to finagle your abstracts through the border posts…

1814: Two Hundred Years On

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On the bicentenary of the first defeat of Napoleon in 1814 and the arrival of ‘peace’ in Britain and Europe, Nicola Watson (Open University) and Ian Haywood (Roehampton University) are delighted to announce a BARS-supported two-day conference devoted to an exploration of the cultural impact and significance of this momentous year.

The programme in text is below, but for full details and to book, please visit the appropriate page on the IES website.

Friday 16th May – The Peninsular War: Triumphalism and Betrayal in Text and Image

10:00 – Registration
10:20 – Welcome from the new ‘Hispanic Horizons’ network
10:30 – Graciela Iglesias Rogers (Oxford): ‘A never-ending war: the events of 1814 from a Transatlantic perspective’
11:15 – Coffee
11:30 – Alicia Laspra Rodríguez (Oviedo): ‘From victory to retaliation: Echoes of Great Britain and Lord Wellington in Spanish poetry, 1813-1814’
12:15 – Agustín Coletes Blanco (Oviedo): ‘A sour victory: British poetical responses to the end of the Peninsular War (1813-1814)’
13:00 – Lunch; visit the free display of prints at the British Museum Prints & Drawings Room
14:30 – Susan Valladares (Oxford): ‘The Edinburgh vs the Quarterly: the ‘Spanish’ debate six years on’
15:15 – Ian Haywood (Roehampton): ‘ “Sad, sad reverse”: radical and caricature responses to the Peninsular victory’
16:00 – Coffee
16:15 – Diego Saglia (Parma): ‘Southey’s Scripting of Spain and the Shape of Europe in 1814’
17:00 – Respondent: Philip Shaw
17:20 – Final word from Sr. Fidel López Álvarez, Minister Counsellor for Cultural and Scientific Affairs, Spanish Embassy, London
17:30 – Wine reception/Vino español

Saturday 17th May – 1814: War, Peace and Publication

10:00 – Registration
10:20 – Welcome
10:30 – Philip Shaw (Leicester): ‘Between Two Deaths: Napoleon on Elba’
11:15 – Coffee
11:30 – Emma Clery (Southampton): ‘Speculation in 1814: The Gamble of Mansfield Park and the Economics of Defeating Napoleon’
12:15 – Kathryn Sutherland (Oxford): ‘Inhabiting the ruins: Austen, Scott, Burney’
13:00 – Lunch; and visit to British Museum Prints & Drawings
14:30 – Simon Bainbridge (Lancaster): ‘Excursions in 1814’
15:15 – Paul Hamilton (QMUL): ‘1814: The year of living dangerously’
16:00 – Coffee
16:15 – William St Clair (IES): ‘Inventing Romantic Byronism’
17:00 – Discussion on ‘War and Peace in 1814’ led by Nicola Watson and Ian Haywood
17:30 – Wine reception

Five Questions: Peter Kitson on Forging Romantic China

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Peter Kitson - Forging Romantic China

Peter J. Kitson is currently Professor of English at the University of East Anglia; previous to this, he taught at the University of Dundee and the University of Wales, Bangor.  His early research was on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but in recent years he has focused particularly on Romantic-period encounters between Britain and the wider world, publishing monographs on Literature, Science and Exploration in the Romantic Period (with Tim Fulford and Debbie Lee; Cambridge University Press, 2004) and Romantic Literature, Race and Colonial Encounter, 1760-1840 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).  He is an honorary member of BARS, having served for many years on the Executive, most recently as President between 2007 and 2011.  His latest monograph, which we discuss below, is Forging Romantic China: Sino-British Cultural Encounters, 1760-1840, published last year by Cambridge University Press.  He will be giving a plenary address on his work in this area at the Romantic Connections conference in Toyko this June.

1) How did you first become interested in the relationship between China and the West?

I have always been fascinated by the historical and global contexts of the writing of the Romantic period and earlier and later periods, and my specific interest in China grew out of that more general concern.  I suppose the key moment occurred when I collaborated with Tim Fulford in producing an eight volume edition of travel writings from the period, which was published by Pickering & Chatto in 2000-2001.  As part of the division of labour for that series, I edited the materials on China and Japan, along with Oceania, and the Arctic and Antarctic.  In particular, the accounts of the first embassy to China, that of Viscount Macartney in 1792-94, engrossed me, and I wanted to find out more about what Britons actually understood about China in the period.  I was quite struck by the fact that while there existed a substantial amount of writing about China and the west in earlier and later periods, there was comparatively little cultural criticism in the period c. 1780-1840 and it seemed, I thought, rather hubristically, that this would make a manageable project.  I was also intrigued by the comparative absence of China-centred discussions in contemporary orientalist discourse which has generally focused on India and the ‘Near East’ for obvious reasons.  So I wondered what difference would it make when we restore China to the Romantic period, or, to put in in other words, when we sinicize Romantic period writing.  When I researched my earlier book Romantic Literature, Race, and Colonial Encounter, I felt that I should problematize current accounts of race thinking by including chapters on understandings of China and ‘Tartary’ and their peoples in terms of racial discourse.  Once that project was completed, I was free to work on China.

2) What new fields of knowledge did you need to familiarise yourself with in order to write this book?

As so often with these projects, we begin with the confidence of ignorance, which is a wonderfully enabling commodity, the capital of which, sadly, becomes quickly depleted.  Fortunately, I was awarded a major Leverhulme fellowship for two years, without which I would never have completed the book as it stands.  I needed to familiarise myself with Chinese history, as well as the historiographical debates about it, especially the move from the 1980s to produce a China centred focus.  The book has chapters on visual art and Romantic period drama, so I needed to work on those areas as well.  I had not worked extensively on drama, so I had to research the primary materials, involving a month in the Huntington Library reading scripts in the Larpent collection.  I had to have a good sense of the leading aspects of chinoiserie in the period: architecture, design, porcelain etc, so needed to work on this as well as the various trades in these commodities.  I had to find out a lot about tea and the tea trade.  The book also contains discussions of the translations of Chinese texts, so I had to get up to speed on contemporary and period theories of translation, as well as achieve a good sense of the development of Chinese literature.  A major subject in the book is the British debates about Confucianism.  As well as reading the primary texts of the Confucian canon, I also had to get a grasp of the complex ways in which that canon was constructed and formed, and the debates between the different schools.  It was all fascinating reading.  Not quite as fascinating, but equally important, was gaining an understanding of the contributions and contexts of the British Protestant missionaries in China from 1806 onward – Robert Morrison, William Milne, W.H. Medhurst and so on – and their amazing life stories.  So I had lots of archival work to do on their accounts and correspondence.  Obviously, I had help from very generous Chinese scholars on matters relating to the language itself, but negotiating and referencing the various transliteration systems (Wade-Giles, Pinyin) and their implications was also a real challenge.  I hope I got it right!

3) Forging Romantic China makes clear that viewing Britain as ‘a modern, technological, and industrial power’ encountering in the Qing empire ‘an older and now stagnating polity’ is inaccurate, stressing instead ‘the complexities and multipolarity of exchange between Britain and China in an already globalized world’. What implications does your recovery of the extent of Chinese economic and cultural influence in the period have for our conventional narratives regarding imperial expansion and the development of British Romanticisms?

There has been a great deal of work on the concept of world systems in historical terms.  Most famously, Andre Gunder Frank posited the notion of a developed global economy led by China and India until c. 1800 and interrupted by northern European, then North American, industrial and technological hegemony in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Many other studies of Chinese history, science, and culture have made similar points.  For Britons in particular, the crucial importance of the tea trade with China, managed by the English East India Company, made China a subject of major importance to many people.  William and Dorothy Wordsworth’s brother John was engaged in the tea trade and visited China twice.  Coleridge, apparently, considered Canton as a place where he might recuperate his health in 1804, before settling upon Malta.  How would the course of British Romanticism have changed had he gone there?  Jane Austen’s ‘sailor brother’ Frank also spent time in Canton.  Lamb, and Peacock served in the offices of the East India Company in London.  These are just a few examples of the many personal and family connections that the tea trade established.  As such, it seems to me, China was a crucial topos in the minds of Britons.  More and more, as I researched, I met China everywhere, but often in fugitive and unexpected references and places, for instance in the middle of Book 8 of the Prelude.  So I think we do need to look at Romantic period writing afresh and account for the ways in which China features as a significant, if not always obvious, presence.  We have tended to rely, too often, on De Quincey’s vehemently racist writings about China and the ‘Far East’ as if they were numinously metonymic for Romantic attitudes to China, but casting the net more widely to include, drama, translations, diplomatic accounts etc, we find a much more nuanced, conflicted, and complicated view of China emerging.  My researches thus led me to argue that China featured as an important ‘other’ for Britons in the period in more profound ways than we have previously thought, acting almost as a kind of reflection of the emerging British imperial polity.  In the earlier part of the period, the British were very much in awe of China and were negotiating from what they perceived as a position of cultural weakness, arguing for reciprocity.  In fact, my research led me to believe that it was difficult to apply conventional notions of post-colonial othering to China given the power and prestige of the empire up until the 1830s.  It is very clear that there were many important collaborations and negotiations with China in the period that belie any sense of a simple relation of colonial centre and periphery.  Much of the key knowledge about China emerges not from London, but from Bengal, Serampore, and Canton.  I also think we need to engage more fully with notions of civility, hospitality, and exchange in our understandings of encounters with other peoples.

4) Which works from among the corpus of Romantic Sinology you discuss and the productions informed by this corpus do you believe deserve a wider contemporary readership? Are there particular works that you think could be usefully taught on undergraduate or postgraduate programmes?

First, I think we do have to be prepared to look at the works we already teach afresh, especially texts such as Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, Wordsworth’s Prelude, and Austen’s Mansfield Park, to look for how representations of China are mediated.  We have to be prepared to supplement our canonical readings of De Quincey with other texts from the period that present a different view of China; the many translations, for instance, of Chinese drama, fiction, and poetry.  Certainly, I think dramas such as Arthur Murphy’s The Orphan of China (1759) and Andrew Cherry’s The Travellers; or, Music’s Fascination (1806) are important texts that deserve study.  Murphy’s drama is a version of a frequently adapted thirteenth-century Chinese drama, Zhao shi guer, which Voltaire also had a go at.  It’s a strong, well-written drama, performed throughout the period and well worth analysis.  The hook of the drama is that the leading figure, the mandarin Zamti, must either sacrifice the life of the heir to the dynasty he is loyal to, or that of his own son.  Oliver Goldsmith’s The Citizen of the World (1760) is rightfully receiving more and more of the attention it deserves as an important text about China and Britain.  I am also a strong advocate for Charles Lamb’s essays ‘Old China’ and ‘Dissertation on Roast Pig’ (as for Lamb more widely) which are important in their views of China; when I taught them to undergraduates, they went down very well, like the newly-discovered roast pork.  Leigh Hunt’s ‘The Subject of Breakfast—Tea Drinking’ is also pedagogically very palatable.  Generally, when we look at Romantic period attitudes to nature we really should be referencing the crucial debate about the Anglo-Chinese garden, recently re-invigorated by William Chambers and Horace Walpole, as an informing context for the picturesque and the sublime.  The accounts of the Macartney and Amherst embassies and some of the travel accounts of the missionaries also work well in period courses about travel writing.

5) What are you planning to do next?

I am working on a sequel to Forging Romantic China at the moment.  That book finishes in the late 1830s with the first Opium War looming and I would like to write something about the Opium trade and the war itself.  There has been a lot of scholarship on the accounts of the Second Opium war of the 1859-60 and the sacking of the Summer Palace, but those of the first have largely escaped discussion except as source material for the standard histories.  I was wondering about the ways in which this might be connected with contemporary discourses of opium: medical, aesthetic, and commercial.  I also have a project titled Romanticism’s Other Asia in mind that would encompass period reflections on Japan, Mongolia, and Tibet.  I am busy with Will Christie at Sydney and others in setting up a research network about China and nineteenth-century writing more widely, involving Chinese scholars.  I am currently guest-editing a special number of the European Romantic Review on this subject with contributions from distinguished scholars, about which I am very excited.

Stephen Copley Bursaries

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A reminder that the deadline for BARS’ Stephen Copley Postgraduate Research Awards is May 1st.  If you are a postgraduate scholar who needs to access research collections at a distance from your own institution, it may well be worth considering an application.  More details can be viewed here.

Five Questions: Jeremy Davies on Bodily Pain in Romantic Literature

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 Jeremy Davies - Bodily Pain in Romantic Literature

Jeremy Davies is Lecturer in English at the University of Leeds; prior to taking up this post in 2011, he studied and taught at Cambridge, Glasgow and Queen Mary.  His research focuses principally on the intersections between Romantic poetry, medical thought, and ecology, and he has published essays and articles on Percy and Mary Shelley, Jeremy Bentham, and sustainability and nostalgia.  Below, we discuss his first monograph, Bodily Pain in Romantic Literature, recently published by Routledge.  The first thirty pages of this fascinating book can be viewed here.

1) How did you come to work on the history of bodily pain, and how did you select the four authors you concentrate on (Jeremy Bentham, the Marquis de Sade, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Shelley)?

It probably goes back to the first time I opened Prometheus Unbound.  I remember being fascinated and a bit revolted by the monologue with which Shelley’s drama begins.  Prometheus describes in grisly detail the tortures to which he’s being subjected, and welcomes them as a glorious empire over which he has dominion.  I wasn’t sure what to make of that rhetoric of martyrdom, and that puzzlement stayed with me in a productive way: the book ends with a reading of Prometheus Unbound.

When I was struggling to come up with a topic for a PhD thesis, pain occurred to me as a way of thinking about languages of the body in Romanticism.  I soon realised that the Romantic period was the last one before the development of surgical anaesthesia, the most dramatic turn in the medical history of pain, and it all seemed to click into place.

Shelley was there from the start, then, but the rest of the quartet all made their way in through different doors.  Sade was a characteristically mind-expanding suggestion from my doctoral supervisor.  The discussion of Bentham was one of those things that starts off as a passing sentence, which requires another sentence of explanation, and then expands into a chapter.   The early years of my thesis were those of the debate sparked by the revelations of the US treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.  Bentham’s writings on torture were being invoked very seriously as supposed proof that ‘Enlightenment values’ were compatible with the strategic deployment of torture.  It seemed worthwhile to scrutinise what he’d had to say about inflicting bodily hurt more closely than others were doing.  Coleridge came last.  I’d known for a long time that I was going to write about him, but I decided not to confront him in my thesis, and I got down to work on him only after coming to Leeds.  In a funny way – but perhaps inevitably – the chapter centred on him became in some respects the one holding the book together.

2) Were there other writers you considered but ultimately left out or reduced to cameo roles?

Intriguingly (to me) I’ve just dug out a piece of paper on which, on 23 January 2006, I was scribbling disconnected ideas for possible PhD projects.  ‘Pain’ is underlined, and a bunch of ideas follow. Prometheus Unbound is there, but so too are Hyperion and Lamia.  Keats isn’t in the book; I suppose I was thinking of Hyperion in his palace, and Lamia’s metamorphosis.  Also on that first piece of paper are Thomas Lovell Beddoes and George Cannon, neither of whom got into the book in the end.

Of the writers who play cameo roles, Adam Smith stands out as one who could have taken up a lot more room: his attitude to pain in The Theory of Moral Sentiments is fascinatingly ambivalent.  Southey is another, and Harriet Martineau’s Life in the Sick-Room is a compelling text but a bit late for my purposes.  The book could have developed into a history of Romantic-period medical ideas about pain.  In that case I’d have said more about people like John Brown and Erasmus Darwin, and I might have been tempted back in time to deal with the extraordinary archive of consultation letters that passed between the Edinburgh physician William Cullen and his patients.  But I didn’t take that path.  I did write about the fierce mid-eighteenth-century debate among medical theorists as to whether freshly dissected organs were capable of feeling pain, and about the key role played by pain in David Hartley’s vibrationist theory of how the mind works.  In both those cases, though, I’m most interested in how the issues raised play out later on, in Romantic texts that have a less direct relationship with the history of medicine.

3) What’s so interesting about pain in the Romantic period?

For me, that mostly depends on which individual writer you’re thinking about.  There are some general factors, though.  Surgical anaesthesia finally emerged in 1846, so the preceding couple of generations are the last ones on the far side of that transformative change.  By then, the technology required for anaesthesia had been in place for decades or more (Humphry Davy suggested the possibility of nitrous oxide anaesthesia in 1800, for instance), but nobody had joined the dots.  Historians of medicine have puzzled over the question of why that was so.  This ‘anaesthesia problem’ makes the Romantic period a loaded site for thinking about attitudes to pain.

Then there’s Foucault’s account of the development of clinical medicine after the French Revolution.  He suggests that an epistemic shift is captured by a change in doctors’ characteristic opening question to their patients: from asking them ‘What is the matter with you?’ (an invitation to narrative) to asking ‘Where does it hurt?’ (a decoding of internal signs).  That too gives Romantic-period pain a particular resonance.  Thirdly, you could look to Romantic aesthetics.  What’s the relationship between bodily pain and the culture of the sublime, especially given that many of the canonical Romantics were chronic pain sufferers?  I dwell on Coleridge and Shelley, but you might also think about Byron’s club foot, Dorothy Wordsworth’s migraines, and much else.

I’m most interested, though, in how bodily pain became intellectually productive for a series of individual writers.  As a starkly exceptional and extreme state of life, pain confronted certain thinkers with particular challenges for their idiosyncratic views of the world.  I look at how some writers’ characteristic agendas and preoccupations – which might not obviously have anything to do with physical hurt – ran up against problems raised by pain, and at how they struggled creatively with those problems.  Hence the kind of questions I concentrate on.  Does Bentham believe that sufficiently intense torture is bound to overcome its victim’s ability to resist interrogation, and what does his answer tell us about his psychological theory?  How do Sade’s depraved anti-heroes experience pain differently from the victims of their cruelty, and what does that mean for the relationship between Sade’s characters and their sensations?  Why did Coleridge suggest that he’d achieved an intellectual breakthrough by ‘metaphysicizing on Pain’, or – much later – argue that pain helps knit together the great chain of being by reinforcing a polarity between the subjective and the objective?  What’s with that first act of Prometheus Unbound? And so on.

4) How have modern medical discourses helped you to reconsider earlier modes of representing pain?

In recent decades there’s been a lot of great work investigating the nature and significance of pain.  Scholars have reinterpreted pain not as the product of impulses flowing along specific pain pathways in the nervous system, but instead as an embodied experience that’s necessarily constituted partly by ideas, emotions, and cultural entanglements.  That’s helped to undermine the clinically disastrous opposition between ‘authentic’ and ‘psychogenic’ pain, and to bring about more thoughtful and efficacious – because more holistic – methods of treatment for the enormous number of people who suffer from chronic pain.  Within medical institutions, that humanist project still has much more ground to win.

For all that, I think that on a still more basic level the cultural study of bodily pain has run into a bit of an impasse.  I argue in the book that we can divide recent pain studies in the humanities into two broad schools.  There’s a currently dominant tradition arising from the medical humanities, concerned with pain experience as acculturated and meaning-laden.  There’s also a relatively subordinated one, best represented by Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain, that discerns an inescapable negativity or resistance to language within the feeling of pain.  The two traditions have been at cross purposes lately.  Though Scarry’s work continues to generate much discussion, it’s often read rather selectively by medical humanists, and without attention to some important precursors (Frederik Buytendjk, David Bakan).  I argue that Scarry’s analysis still has more to offer than has fully been recognised.  Part of the problem, I think, has been some very imprecise use of the word ‘pain’ by historians of culture.

I try to develop a new account of pain that draws on both recent traditions, and to argue that physical pain is indeed intrinsically mediated by culture, and yet not identifiable with any positive meaning that it carries.  I think that the most economical and most serviceable way to characterise bodily pain is as a demand to pay attention to the otherwise diffuse, background sense of sensing the world that arises simply from the fact of embodied existence.  Pain is a more or less intense compulsion to notice what Daniel Heller-Roazen calls the ‘inner touch’: the sense of one’s own body that normally hovers on the edge of perception.  Characterising physical hurt in this way – as an experience that summons up the feeling of having feelings, in a nutshell – makes it a distinctively reflexive and ironic phenomenon.  It neither belongs to language nor is merely opposed to it.  That ironic dividedness, I argue, is at the root of its importance for the Romantic-period writers I discuss.

5) What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on a short book called The Birth of the Anthropocene.  It begins from the fact that talking about the present environmental crisis often involves references to extremely long-ago times: ‘CO2 levels are at their highest for at least three million years,’ or whatever.  That doesn’t really happen in other kinds of political discussion.  It seems that ecological politics needs to be able to tell a story about the deep past in order to explain its concerns and its aims – but it’s not very good at telling stories like that at the moment.  I think that we might find such a story, a kind of origin myth for green politics, in the idea of the Anthropocene epoch.  Over the last decade, many Earth scientists have concluded that the Earth is entering a new geological epoch, one in which human activities are a principal influence on the planet’s geology.  That is, after nearly 12,000 years of the Holocene epoch, we’re witnessing the birth of the Anthropocene.

All this might sound a bit remote from Romantic literature.  But geology itself emerged as a science in the Romantic era, and the most widely accepted start date for the Anthropocene is precisely our period: the ‘base’ of the Anthropocene is most often associated with industrialisation in late eighteenth-century Britain.

I think the Anthropocene gives us a vantage-point from which to think our way back into deep time, geological time.  Recognising industrial civilization as a geologic force allows us to see it in a fresh light, as the source of a new epoch within a series of epochs that stretches back many millions of years.  If the idea of the Anthropocene helps us to narrate the long historical context of the present crisis, it might serve – I hope – to nourish and revivify the ecological movement.  As the poet Don McKay puts it, the Anthropocene can enable us to recognise human beings as ‘members of deep time, along with trilobites and Ediacaran organisms … one expression of the ever-evolving planet.’

Anna Fleming on Romantic Locations and after

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In the second of our pieces following on from Romantic Locations, Anna Fleming, of the University of Leeds, reflects on the conference and its aftermath.

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Over three days, thoughts on the Romantic conception of place were explored from within perhaps the most Romantic of locations: Dove Cottage, in the heart of the Lake District.  Papers addressed the relationship between different authors and particular locations.  From the Wordsworths’ process of making Grasmere a home, to continental tours, literary tourism, and the history of mountaineering, the papers were wide-ranging and probing.  Alongside the stimulating discussions, the place itself provided the opportunity to directly experience a location in which Romantic ideas and poems were composed.  (A candlelit drinks reception in the cottage itself certainly added to my sense of how the Wordsworths inhabited that space!)  Jeff Cowton, curator of the Wordsworth Trust, treated us to a glimpse of some physical treasures from the archive, including manuscripts by Dorothy Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  I then found many of the ideas raised in the conference were played out in the wider ‘Romantic location’ when I left the conference to explore another part of the Lake District with some mountaineering friends.

The walks we did on Saturday and Sunday elaborated upon the difference between the sublime and picturesque which emerged as a debate during the conference.  On Saturday, icy winds brought frequent batterings of snow and hail as we headed to the summit of Dale Head.  This was far from a picturesque experience.  Visibility was reduced to a few metres in the cold damp clouds, and one was guarded, watching each step whilst cautiously navigating and guzzling snatches of flapjack for sustenance.  Yet during this onslaught there were stunning moments – times when the cloud shifted, sunshine appeared and you became aware of neighbouring mountains, suggesting the immense region you were part of even whilst all was obscured within the clouds’ embrace.


There were also weirdly disorienting experiences.  As a blizzard blew across the ridge, I looked ahead and saw two black birds, perhaps crows or ravens, hopping along side by side.  I thought how strange it was for birds to move like that, together, but perhaps the severity of the conditions had caught them.  I then realised they were not birds nearby, but humans far away.  The authority of vision was suddenly subverted, giving me an appreciation of the way in which knowledge is based on perception – and that it can be entirely misled.  This felt like a version of the threshold experience, outlined in a conference paper on Keats’ poetry, as I crossed into a new suspicion of the things I assumed I know.

Sunday, on the other hand, was a beautiful day of blue skies and sunshine, untroubled by bewildering experiences.  The cold air and snow on higher fells made distant peaks stand out in a panorama of clear scenery.  This was certainly closer to the picturesque version of the Lakes, yet the prevailing wind and the patches of deep, wet, cold bog on our route once again impeded a purely luxurious pleasure in the surroundings.  These bogs gave rise to a more performative use of mountain space, demanding some bold leaps to avoid a foot drenching before the long journey back to the city.

newlands valley

Underlying many different reflections at the conference on the Romantic engagement with place was the role of a guide: a person or a text that introduces you to unknown surroundings and helps you to find your way in that physical or intellectual terrain.  In my explorations this weekend, I found myself indebted to the maps I was carrying, one from the Ordnance Survey and others in the process of being charted by a new generation of Romantic scholars.