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Jean-Jacques Rousseau and British Romanticism

Gender and Selfhood, Politics and Nation


Edited by Russell Goulbourne and David Higgins


London: Bloomsbury, 2017

Hardcover. vii+253 p. ISBN 978-1474250665. £59.99


Reviewed by Laurent Bury

Université Lumière–Lyon 2





When one comes across a book whose title includes the word “Romanticism”, one has to wonder what it covers exactly. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and British Romanticism all the more requires such a precaution as it is a collection of papers. The editors have solid credentials in each aspect of their subject: Professor Russell Goulbourne has notably translated Rousseau’s Reveries of the Solitary Walker (OUP, 2011) and Associate Professor David Higgins has published, among other things, a book about Romantic Englishness (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Nevertheless, it seems important to mention that “Romanticism” is here sometimes given a chronological rather than ideological meaning, as the volume includes a few chapters about the Romantic period rather than the Romantic poets and writers: “Rousseau and the British Romantic era” might have been a more accurate, though less attractive, phrasing. In Pascal Fischer’s “Reading Rousseau in the Anti-Jacobin Novel”, one may wonder what politically conservative authors like George Walker, Elizabeth Hamilton, Charles Lucas and Charles Lloyd ever had in common with figures like Wordsworth, Byron or Shelley, apart from the fact that their novels were published in the same decade as the Lyrical Ballads. Similarly, Heather Williams’s “Rousseau and Romanticism in Wales” extends the notion of Romanticism as far as to include late-eighteenth-century Welsh personalities who read Rousseau either in French, like the notorious “Ladies of Llangollen”, or in English, like the Glamorgan bard and “London Welshman” Iolo Morgangw or the Unitarian minister and radical thinker Tomos Glyn Cothi.

Another problem, which the editors of this collection do not eschew, is that of the very omnipresence of Rousseau’s influence. In the last of the eleven essays gathered in the volume, Gregory Dart writes: “Indeed, it is one of the most intriguing things about the reception of Rousseau in England in this period that, certain formal lines of educational and political discussion aside, his literary influence is at once everywhere and nowhere, pervasive and yet difficult to pinpoint, a parasite in the blood” [211]. As acknowledged by Goulbourne and Higgins in their Introduction, “Rousseauvian ideas and rhetoric permeated British Romantic discourse to an extent that went beyond whether or not individual writers had read particular texts by him” [3], the most famous case in point being Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which takes place in Geneva and elsewhere in Switzerland, which is suffused with ideas borrowed from Julie, Emile or the Discourse on Inequality, but where “the lack of any explicit reference to Rousseau is equally telling” [2]. Because of the ungraspable quality of Rousseauesque (an adjective which sounds much more congenial to French ears than “Rousseauvian”) influences, this books justifies its own existence, even though its subject has already been much studied. The editors reproach Irving Babbitt’s Rousseau and Romanticism (1919) with “a peculiarly moralistic methodology” [3], and more recent publications seem to follow various agendas without always reflecting “the range and complexity of Rousseau’s impact on British Romanticism” [4].

The first essay is devoted to British Romantic women writers (excluding Mary Shelley, perhaps for the abovementioned reason). Stephen C. Behrendt explains that those ladies’ “relationship with Rousseau was characterized by a conflict between attraction and repulsion” [26]. Jean-Jacques may have been one of the fathers of the French Revolution, but his vision of women was essentialist and grounded female submission to men in women’s physical weakness and excessive emotions. The gender difference ascribed to Nature by Rousseau was vigorously opposed by writers like Mary Wollstonecraft or Catherine Macaulay.

In “ ‘Rousseau’s Ground’ : Locating a Refuge for the Libertarian Man of Feeling in Julie, or the New Heloise and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage”, Helen Stark underlines how Byron used Rousseau’s bestselling novel as “a key intertext of Canto 3” of Childe Harold, written during his stay in Switzerland in 1816. The English poet saw Rousseau and himself as male exiles, as men of excessive feeling who had been excluded by society, and as libertarians fighting against dictatorship. By depicting Clarens as a possible refuge for persons of sensibility, Byron contributed to the literary tourism which developed round Rousseau’s birthplace in the early nineteenth century, a subject which is partly that of Simon Bainbridge’s “ ‘The Columbus of the Alps’ : Rousseau and the Writing of Mountain Experience in British Literature of the Romantic period”. Though no active mountaineer himself, Jean-Jacques played a major role “as stimulating the desire to climb upwards and achieve elevated status” [52] and was instrumental in the revaluation of summits. Ascent was perceived as having the power to transport human beings above the world’s conflicts, “but the Genevan was particularly identified with an understanding of ascent as transformative and uplifting that was distinct from traditional religious accounts of mountain revelations” [62]. Nevertheless, climbing the Alps only provided Byron and Shelley with a form of essential isolation, rather than the serenity promised by Rousseau.

On a more explicitly political level, Geneva appeared to British Romantics as the “Enchanted Ground” of patriotic virtue and enthusiasm, of genuine republicanism. According to Patrick Vincent, Rousseau also “helped popularize Switzerland . . . as a source of liberal selfhood among progressive-minded travellers” [91]. Wordsworth in his Descriptive Sketches (1793), Godwin in his novels St Leon (1799) and Fleetwood (1805), the Shelleys in their History of a Six Weeks’ Tour (1817), all engaged in a discussion on the Swiss myth of liberty. Among the second Romantic generation, Percy Bysshe Shelley was probably the most influenced by Rousseau’s work, as shown by two papers. In “ ‘The Scene Itself’ : Rousseauvian Drama and Roman Space in Shelley’s The Cenci”, Rebecca Nesvet displays almost excessive ingenuity in trying to show that Beatrice Cenci is a new Roman matron, a female Brutus, and that the play aimed at reinventing the Roman republic. Thomas Roche studies Alastor; or, the Spirit of Solitude as “the story of a poet whose life parallels in a number of ways the biography of Jean-Jacques Rousseau” [149], as Alastor admits to feeling the same desire for a kindred spirit as was expressed in the Confessions, the same dissatisfaction as Rousseau’s own easily inflamed mind.

In “Rousseau’s Boat : The ‘Fifth Walk’, Romanticism and Idleness”, Rowan Boyson scrutinises how British Romantic writers reacted to “the luminous scene of drifting on the Lac de Bienne by the Ile de St Pierre, first treated in the Confessions and then rewritten as the ‘Fifth Walk’ of the Reveries” [167]. In her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), Mary Wollstonecraft emphasizes the active sensuality of her feminine retelling of the boating episode. In Fleetwood, Godwin describes an experience which, though delicious, entails a regrettable loss of contact with the social world. In The Prelude, Wordsworth denounces the risk of stasis entailed by Rousseau’s idleness. The ‘Fifth Walk’ was “a crucial component of this discourse on ease ..., an indelible, lyrical image of subjective dissolution and freedom, even if they all re-angled the scene in line with their own commitments” [179].

Frances Ferguson discusses at length the influence which Emile may have had in Britain, and in particular how Anna Barbauld reacted to Rousseau’s treatise in her own essay “What Is Education?” (1798). Focusing on Romantic essayists, Gregory Dart details how Charles Lamb advocated “the rules of truth-telling that were expounded so exactingly” in the Reveries [222], how William Hazlitt used Rousseau “as a stick with which to beat the apostate Lakers Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey, and on occasion the Whig poets Moore and Byron” [219] and how De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater “was indelibly marbled with Rousseauvian traits: tendencies to indiscretion, revelation, self-justification and literary betrayal that all owed a great deal to Rousseau’s example” [224].



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