University of South Carolina
The implicit claim of Kevin Gilmartin’s Writing Against Revolution: Literary Conservatism in Britain, 1790-1832, is that containment is as apt a metaphor for romantic-period writing as the more widely used explosion. Of course, the effort by conservative writers to counter what was thought by many in the period to be a very real threat of revolution did itself lead to an explosion of print. Indeed, it is precisely this tension that Gilmartin finds at the heart of the “counterrevolutionary” enterprise: how do those who see print as a suspect vehicle of revolution engage in a print-based campaign to counter such a threat? Gilmartin’s first book, Print Politics: The Press and Radical Opposition in early Nineteenth-Century England (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996), explored the radical side of the struggle. His new study brings a similar, rigorous approach to the “pervasive rhetorical and literary dilemma” (13) that occupied those writers working to forestall the movement chronicled in Print Politics. The five chapters of Writing Against Revolution trace the myriad forms in which this rhetorical and literary dilemma found expression: from pamphlets and tracts (chapters one and two), periodical reviews (chapter three), and novels (chapter four), to attempts (chronicled in chapter five) by two canonical writers of the period—Robert Southey and Samuel Coleridge—to extend counterrevolutionary practices beyond specific moments of crisis and to articulate “a model for a more stable society” (207). Against a scholarly field that tends to associate romantic writing with progressive strains and causes, Gilmartin aims “to demonstrate the enterprising and productive (rather than merely negative and reactive) presence of counterrevolutionary voices in the culture of the romantic period” (9).
Gilmartin’s account of the counterrevolutionary movement begins in the tumultuous early years of the 1790s—although not, as might be expected, with Edmund Burke. Burke occupies a kind of Coleridgean “life-in-death” presence in Gilmartin’s study: while the “nervously imperfect rhetorical organization” (7) of the Reflections (1790) inspires Gilmartin’s interest in the “range and complexity of counterrevolutionary expression” (9), Burke’s ambivalent relationship to British conservatism and utter distrust of “political men of letters” make his a less than vital presence in a campaign set, for better or worse, on waging war on the compromised terrain of print. As the first two chapters of the book demonstrate, Gilmartin’s concern with writers like William Paley and Hannah More is not with “abstract ideological positions” such as those that have come to characterize the Burke / Paine debate, but rather with “the social and cultural circumstances under which political expression and persuasion actually took place” (64). The pamphlets and tracts issued by John Reeves’ Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers and More’s Cheap Repository betray a willingness—however begrudged—to engage Burke’s “swinish multitude” as actual subjects of public discourse. Paley’s Reasons for Contentment; Addressed to the Labouring Part of the British Public (1792), for instance, begins in the social space of the theater, acknowledging the laboring class as a public. Although he fairly quickly retreats to the private realm of the home, where social place and duty can be imagined in more purely individual terms, the rhetorical gestures of Paley’s pamphlet perform loyalist anxieties over addressing the populace. As Gilmartin shows, Paley cannot completely seclude his laboring subject indoors. Instead, he places him between the collective space of the theatrum mundi and the individual space of the home—somewhere accessible to public discourse, that is (“at his door,” Gilmartin notes), where he can be reasoned into contentment.
The danger with making laboring class readers participants in public debate, however, is that they become accessible to other arguments as well—arguments geared to provoke “envy and resentment” (37) among the less well-off. But as Gilmartin’s deft analysis of Paley’s pamphlet suggests, the goal of counterrevolutionary writing was not merely to address the reader, but also to manage that reader’s place in the fallen realm of the public. Loyalist associations like Reeves’, which was founded in 1792 and which distributed Paley’s pamphlet, helped to forge the “necessary institutional framework” (37) required to police the participation of laboring-class readers in public discourse.