Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Book review: A Revolution of Feeling, Rachel Hewitt (2017)

This ambitious study subtitled ‘the decade that forged the modern mind’ deals with the 1790s in the United Kingdom and brings together a number of related strands that readers of more conventional histories or biographies might already have met with in their travels, including the debates centring around the French Revolution and the emergence of the Romantic poets.

Located at the very beating heart of the book sits a particular moment in 1795 when both polemicist and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and first-generation Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge completely independently of one another deployed in what they were writing the metaphor of the Aeolian harp – a device used at the time as an instrument of private entertainment, that produces music by harnessing the movement of the wind – to illustrate what they wanted to say about human emotions. These were for the first time considered by the two writers to be things that take place within the individual, rather than things that happen as a result of interactions between people, or between people and the state.

Hewitt points to this critical juncture as one constituting a disruptive change, but it was one that had followed years of raised and dashed hopes as the French Revolution had morphed into a series of bloody reprisals, and in the UK (which of course then included what is now the Republic of Ireland) sympathetic popular movements aimed at reforming the political settlement had been crushed by Prime Minister William Pitt and his government in an effort to maintain the status quo. Toward the end of the book the author points to an 1820 publication about the emotions by Scottish philosopher and poet Thomas Brown as a moment important for later artefacts that served to underscore the primacy of the notion of the individual.

Following the disappointments of the decade in question, the Victorians, who came later (Jane Austen died in 1817, Victoria was crowned in 1837), opted for closer surveillance of the emotions and the relations between individuals, notably in the sphere of female sexuality, which was vigorously policed in an era characterised by religious Evangelicalism. But Hewitt notes that notions deriving from the pneumatic conception of the human body, that date from the 18th century, still survive in our day, as when we are counselled to allow men to let off steam and release their natural inclinations lest some harm result.

The book has a large scope and is finely detailed with plenty of engrossing stories that illustrate sometimes difficult ideas and concepts.

Hewitt unearths stories that help to give flesh to the bones of mental pictures you might already have built up about important figures such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Wollstonecraft, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Mary Shelley. Even William Godwin, who is nowadays rather often overlooked by people who profess that they want to know more about the era but who, along with his wife, was at the time possibly the most famous among those listed here. For dedicated Austen fans, the poet William Cowper gets a run as well.

Importantly, the book focuses on the lives of real people living at the time who grew up, became educated, made friends, formed attachments, got married, had children, wrote things, published books, started innovative schemes designed to ameliorate problems they saw in the world, and who inevitably died. There is a rich tapestry of interconnected stories here that will satisfy the most dedicated empiricist.

There is a strand in the book that gently raises questions as to whether we are better off with our current understanding of the role in our lives played by the emotions, but it would seem given our more detailed understanding these days of human physiology, especially via the field of neuroscience, and of psychology, that that particular horse has well and truly bolted. Nevertheless, this book offers plenty of material to provide food for thought for those who, like me, are interested in the years dealt with. 

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