C. Durning Carroll
Anthony S. Jarrells’s book, Britain’s Bloodless Revolutions: 1688 and the Romantic Reform of Literature, argues that the Glorious Revolution served for the British of the eighteenth century as a model for how to prevent the sort of bloody revolution that was to happen a century later in France. For Jarrells, it was the peculiar ability of writing (and the way writing was ultimately shaped into “literature” during Britain’s long eighteenth century) to configure the wishes and hopes of ordinary people that kept England from France’s passionate zealotry. Britain’s Bloodless Revolutions suggests a dialog between non-fictional writing—more ideological because it aimed explicitly to persuade—and the imaginative genres of poetry, fiction and drama, whose political and ideological aims were absent, or at least were rendered covert through fictionalization. This conversation between imaginative and persuasive writing, and the way both worked together to meet the needs of the people, regulated Britain’s revolutionary impulses. Jarrells explains that during the eighteenth century “not only was the literary narrowed to exclude, in large part, moral philosophy, historiography, and political economy, but this narrowed focus also helped to narrow the range of opinion in the larger world beyond letters” (98). Jarrells’s central thesis is that the narrowed focus of literature brought about by non-fictional writing helped depoliticize literature and refocus it on the individual.
The introduction and first chapter provide much of the historical background for Jarrells’s argument. These pages give a good overview of the literary mood of the late eighteenth century, providing a clear sense of the important debates of the period, especially between the Jacobin and anti-Jacobin forces in British literature. The rhetorical sparring between Paine and Burke is particularly relevant here, for as Jarrells cleverly argues, Paine’s in absentia treason trial for publishing The Rights of Man was a sign that the British government (and thus to some extent the British people) had already accepted Paine as the personal representative of a populist movement. Burke’s own role as an MP and his later canonization as the patron saint of conservatism also demonstrated this process of linking political to written representation. As Jarrells explains, during this period “writing became a kind of extra-institutional voice of the people, ‘the people’ themselves being defined in the eighteenth century by their exclusion from governing institutions” (30). Jarrells’s narrative shows how a generalized “people’s voice” was formed into genres as a response to this exclusion from power. These chapters also set up one of Jarrells’s most perceptive insights—that one of the key differences between British and continental thinkers was British opposition to the idea of the “system,” the continental preference for principles of law and politics derived from abstractions and axioms instead of from custom and concrete events. Jarrells compellingly links Britain’s anti-systematic tendencies to the rise of imaginative literature and to its uncanny ability to channel human passions.