Observing Keats

I’m still thinking about John Keats and medicine. I’ve recently written a couple of articles – one on Jane Austen’s ‘Sanditon’ and one on Keats’s ‘Ode to Psyche’ – which consider how professional medicine might have provided nineteenth-century writers with a model for effective literary practice (in the description of characters, for instance, or in the communication of humane knowledge). But I think (or I hope) that, in the case of Keats, there’s still more to say, specifically about how his time as a medical student and dresser in London in 1815-17 trained him in a diagnostic method, and in a particular approach to working with patients, that also informed his poetry.

British medicine in the early nineteenth century was engaged in an ambitious (if uneven) process of professionalisation, exemplified in the 1815 Apothecaries’ Act, which for the first time mandated a (roughly) standardised curriculum of instruction and examination for trainee apothecaries. Keats was one of the first students to enrol at Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospitals after the passing of the act, and, as John Barnard has shown, in 1815-16 he attended the eminent surgeon Astley Cooper’s lectures on anatomy and on surgery. Cooper was an important contributor to the professionalisation of medicine, and especially to the development of a scientific approach to diagnosis and surgical treatment, which rejected systematic theorising and relied instead on empirical data and on detailed anatomical knowledge.

Descriptions of this approach are everywhere in notes taken by students who attended Cooper’s lectures at the same time as Keats (notes that are now held in the archives of King’s College London and of the Royal College of Surgeons). One student, Joshua Waddington, recorded Cooper as saying that the ‘principles’ of surgery ‘are founded upon observation of diseased living, and the examination of diseased dead Animals, and on experiments made on the living’. Another, George Ray, noted down the same maxim: surgical principles ‘are derived from three sources. 1st from the observation of the symptoms of Disease during life. 2ndly from the examination of the appearance of the body after Death. 3rd by experiments on living animals.’ For Cooper, it seems, observation, examination, and experimentation formed a kind of scientific trivium that underpinned surgical practice, and that viewed the living and the dead as the data of medical science.

st-thomass-hospital

St Thomas’s hospital, where Keats attended Astley Cooper’s lectures.

How might this approach have informed Keats’s poetry? To give one example: in ‘The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream’ (1819), Keats uses the Greek myth of the war between the Titans and the Olympians as the narrative framework around which he constructs his definitions of poetry and of the poet. Moneta, the goddess of memory, gifts the poem’s speaker with ‘A power […] of enormous ken / To see as a God sees’ (1:303-4), which enables him to witness the sufferings of the defeated Titans Saturn and Thea:

                     A long awful time
I looked upon them: still they were the same;
The frozen God still bending to the earth,
And the sad Goddess weeping at his feet;
Moneta silent. Without stay or prop,
But my own weak mortality, I bore
The load of this eternal quietude,
The unchanging gloom, and the three fixèd shapes
Ponderous upon my senses a whole moon. (1:384-92)

The critical consensus about these lines (most recently set out by Brittany Pladek) is that they describe an instance of imaginative identification with suffering, of sympathy or (to use an anachronistic word, not coined until the early twentieth century) empathy. The most important words here, in this interpretation, are ‘I bore / the load’. But what load is the speaker bearing? I’m not convinced that he is sympathetically experiencing the Titans’ grief and humiliation. Instead, the feeling he describes appears to be a kind of boredom, or a detached (and therefore, perhaps, professional) indifference. The difficulty that faces him in these lines is not that of surviving the superhuman pain of the Titans, but that of maintaining his disciplined, monotonous observation throughout the ‘long awful time’ of their stillness (it’s a difficulty that’s articulated in the sound of Keats’s blank verse, and specifically in the acoustic repetition of ‘ponderous upon my senses’). In his efforts to understand the Titans, the speaker first and foremost looks at them rather than feeling for them, an approach that agrees with Astley Cooper’s insistence on the centrality of observation and examination to diagnosis.

This is not scientific objectivity, which Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison define as ‘knowledge that bears no trace of the knower’; the speaker’s observation of Saturn and Thea is filtered through his ‘own weak mortality’. But it is knowledge in which the subjectivity of the observer is distanced from those he observes: he characterises the Titans not as living and suffering persons but as visual ‘shapes’. Rather than describing a process of imaginative identification, these lines suggest that, in poetry as in scientific medicine, fellow feeling perhaps needs to be subordinated to observational accuracy. And, to put forward the kind of speculative hypothesis of which Cooper disapproved, I also think that the speaker’s observation of the Titans indicates that there is a place in poetry for ‘experiments made on the living’. ‘The Fall of Hyperion’ may be interpreted as an experiment that tests what happens when a poet tries to observe, diagnose, and describe suffering magnified to eternal, immortal proportions.

‘Condensed Sensibility’: Keats, Medicine, and Sympathy

I’ve just published an essay on John Keats in a special issue of the journal Romanticism. The essay builds on the work of several critics, particularly Nicholas Roe, James Allard, and R.S. White, in arguing that Keats’s poetry was informed by his time as a medical student and dresser at Guy’s Hospital (1815-17). It tries to bring something new to the study of the connections between Romantic poetry and medicine by focusing on the concept of sympathy. Throughout his writing, Keats champions sympathetic feeling for others as one of poetry’s central concerns, but he also imposes limits on the exercise of sympathy, seeking to preserve an objectifying distance between the poet and the emotions that his poetry examines. This model of restrained sympathy was influenced, I think, by Keats’s medical training, and particularly by The Hospital Pupil’s Guide, a volume first published in London in 1816 and ‘addressed to students of the medical profession’, and which Keats is likely to have read. Even if he didn’t, he would have been introduced to a similar understanding of sympathy through his attendance at the lectures of the renowned surgeon Astley cooper, whom White identifies as the lead author of the guide.

The Hospital Pupil’s Guide insistently presents medicine as an objective and scientific practice, a stance designed to reinforce the growing professionalisation and intellectual authority of medical work and medical practitioners in the early nineteenth century. But while the guide celebrates the ‘rational exercise of the mental faculties’, it also highlights the important but ambiguous role of sympathetic feeling in professional medicine. It advises its student readers that ‘in the practice of the Profession, benevolence of disposition’ is ‘imperiously demanded.’ This argument betrays a fear that, as medicine becomes professionalised, its practitioners may act as, or be viewed as, unfeeling specialists rather than gentlemanly benefactors.

However, the guide also warns that correct professional action depends on the capacity to mediate between sympathy and professional expertise: ‘genuine sensibility, while it enters into the sufferings of others, is yet a principled feeling, and its first emotion is to relieve that suffering. In his prosecution of the line of conduct dictated by his judgment, the surgeon is deaf to the pains of his patient’. The Hospital Pupil’s Guide characterises this as a ‘condensed sensibility’, and concludes that ‘a man who has not obtained this self-control, is unfit for the practice of his profession’.

How does this model of ‘condensed sensibility’ influence Keats’s thinking about poetry? There is evidence for its importance to him throughout his letters, even when he is arguing that poets have a particular capacity for unmediated and unrestrained sympathy. In November 1817 his claim that ‘if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existince [sic] and pick about the Gravel’ is followed by his admission that ‘I sometimes feel not the influence of a Passion or Affection during a whole week—and so long this sometimes continues I begin to suspect myself and the genuiness [sic] of my feelings at other times—thinking them a few barren Tragedy-tears’. This insusceptibility, he claims, is not ‘heartlessness but abstraction’. Like the self-control advocated in his medical training, Keats’s abstraction distances him from other people, but it also enables him to develop self-knowledge through an objectifying examination of his feelings.

John Keats

John Keats, 1819

Throughout 1819, worried about his financial prospects, Keats frequently considered the possibility of resuming his medical career. Writing in a letter about the possibility of taking a position as a surgeon on a merchant ship, he applauds the clinical stance of such work, its emphasis on the impartial analysis of, rather than the sympathetic identification with, other people: ‘To be thrown among people who care not for you, with whom you have no sympathies forces the Mind upon its own resourses [sic], and leaves it free to make its speculations of the differences of human character and to class them with the calmness of a Botanist’. The removal of sympathy has two related effects: it turns the mind away from others and towards self-knowledge, and it enables the scientific observation and classification of other people’s personalities. Although Keats decided not to re-enlist in the medical profession, his poetry makes consistent use of these objectifying strategies of internalisation and systematic observation. It also asks how these strategies might work in co-operation with the exercise of the sympathetic imagination.

Keats’s ‘Ode to Psyche’, for example, reveals several similarities between the methods of medicine and poetry. If the ode as a form aims for synthesis, then this particular ode aspires to a synthesis between sympathy and self-possessed impartiality. Keats presents a number of different approaches to poetic creativity over the course of the poem, and the movement between them constitutes, among other things, an effort to withdraw from or delimit sympathy. First, there is the intimate apostrophe of the opening lines:

O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung

By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear,

And pardon that thy secrets should be sung

Even into thine own soft-conched ear: (ll. 1-4)

This apostrophe implies communication and relationship, but it also distances the poet from other people by figuring the human soul as a generalised abstraction, which is personified in and addressed through the figure of Psyche: Keats’s deployment of apostrophe, like the model of medicine set out in his hospital training, simultaneously involves connection with others and detached observation.

There is a comparable ambiguity in the poet’s relation to Psyche in the ode’s final stanza:

Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane

In some untrodden region of my mind,

Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,

Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind: (ll. 50-53)

In these lines Keats internalises his observations of Psyche, worshipping her within his subjectivity. This process encapsulates the ambivalence towards sympathy shared by Keats’s poetics and the medical profession. The affective ramifications of the poet’s thoughts, ‘new grown with pleasant pain’, might suggest that his worship is an expansive process of imaginative sympathy with the feelings of humanity, encapsulated in the figure of Psyche. As in medicine, however, this sympathy is simultaneously an objectification, a conversion of other people’s circumstances and sensations into a cognitive assessment of symptoms, and that objectification is realised through Keats’s internalisation of the Psyche myth in his mind. The ode stages a poetic method which is founded on strategies of internalisation, self-examination, and observation. As in nineteenth-century medicine, sympathy in this poem is informed by, and to some extent dependent on, a disciplined resistance to feeling.

The Victorians, Paris, and Europe

As I’ve written in previous posts, the Victorians often used Paris as a synecdoche for Europe as a whole, and specifically for a European approach to politics and culture that was the opposite of Britishness (which they often identified, narrowly and exclusively, with Englishness). But as the examples below hopefully show, even those Victorians who tried to impose a firm boundary between British and European culture also recognised how closely their national identities were shaped by understandings of and responses to Europe. It’s hard to be nostalgic for Victorian models of Englishness (primarily, of course, because of their ideological dependence on imperialism), but, living in a post-Brexit world, I think it’s sobering to consider that the Victorian stance towards Europe was, in some ways, more open and cosmopolitan than current British attitudes.

In 1851, three years after the revolution that created the Second French Republic, the president of the republic and nephew of Napoleon I, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, dissolved the National Assembly and arrested his political opponents (a year later, after the establishment of the Second Empire, he renamed himself Napoleon III). Two Victorian poets who witnessed the coup d’état while staying in Paris in December 1851 strongly disagreed with each other in their assessments of it. Napoleon III was one of two things that Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning argued about (the other was spiritualism): ‘Robert & I’, wrote Elizabeth, ‘have had some domestic émeutes on this question.’ While Robert interpreted the coup as the repressive act of an autocratic executive, Elizabeth, emphasising the support for Bonaparte in Paris, characterised it as an expression of popular sovereignty, another manifestation of the revolutionary tradition of 1789. The speaker of her 1856 verse-novel Aurora Leigh summarised her view of the new imperial regime: ‘This Head has all the people for a heart; / This purple’s lined with the democracy.’

Barrett Browning agreed with Tennyson that the dramatic upheavals of recent Parisian history were at odds with the conventions of English political culture, but her preference (as is clear throughout her poetry) was for a European rather than an English model of literary and political identity. Writing a week after the coup, she dismissed criticisms that the action was illegal: ‘Constitutional forms & essential principles of liberty are so associated in England that they are apt to be confounded & are, in fact, constantly confounded.’ Later, it’s worth noting, Napoleon III’s suppression of the republic and resurrection of the empire were ratified through the ‘constitutional forms’ of two plebiscites, the preferred tools of Bonapartist autocracy throughout the nineteenth century (not that I’m casting any aspersions on the democratic legitimacy of plebiscites and referenda).

Barrett Browning’s confidence that Bonaparte was a champion of liberty enabled her to enjoy his coup as a kind of triumphant parade or tourist spectacle: ‘We have had magnificent advantages of situation here, & I have scarcely left the window these two days, watching the pouring in of the troops, to music, trumpets, & shouting.’ But her letters also register the usual Victorian ambivalence towards Paris. As the army systematically suppressed the limited opposition to the coup throughout the city, she was troubled by the tangible proximity of political violence: ‘one shrank from going quietly to sleep while human beings were dying in heaps, perhaps within ear-shot.’

 

Paris, 1851

Cavalry on the streets of Paris, 2 December 1851

In the 1850s Napoleon III, working with his Prefect of the Seine Georges-Eugène Haussmann, launched a wholesale remodelling of central Paris, demolishing several working-class neighbourhoods and replacing them with wider and less easily barricaded boulevards. As Elisabeth Jay argues, this redesign of the city, intended both to modernise the imperial capital and to hamper any future insurrections, was a source of alienation for British writers, who were often ‘bowled over’ by ‘the French state’s powers to bring about rapid, visible change in Paris.’ The history of the city was being obliterated with dizzying enthusiasm, in a way that contrasted sharply with the slower pace of change in Victorian Britain. Dickens, however, who had started visiting Paris shortly before 1848, was impressed with the changes made by Napoleon III. In 1853 he wrote that the city was ‘wonderfully improving. Thousands of houses must have been pulled down for the construction of an immense street’ which when finished, he thought, ‘will be the finest thing in Europe. The quays are Macademized and as clean as Regent Street.’ For him, Paris in the 1850s was improving because it was starting to resemble Victorian London.

He suggests something similar in A Tale of Two Cities (1859). This novel seems to be structured around an opposition between London and the alien and volatile Paris of the 1780s and 90s, but it attends as much to the similarities as to the differences between the two. It famously ends with Sydney Carton, in the seconds before he is guillotined during the Terror, prophesying a bright future for Paris: ‘I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss.’ Carton’s peroration represents a peculiarly Victorian effort to make sense of Parisian history, to subsume the city’s bewildering cycles of violent transformation within a safely liberal narrative of cumulative progress. Yet the novel’s conclusion is at odds with its considerable imaginative investment in sustained descriptions not just of the ‘wild beasts’ of the revolutionary Parisian mob but of a London mob that is also capable of furious violence. Dickens’s interpretation of Paris hovers nervously between admiration and fear, between a sense of its disconcerting foreignness and a conviction of its worrying similarity to home. For him, as for other Victorian writers, the city is an emblem of the contradictions inherent in Britain’s relation to Europe.

Those contradictions are summed up, aptly, in Queen Victoria’s responses to the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the collapse of Napoleon III’s regime, and the insurrection of the Paris Commune. In April 1871, as troops loyal to the recently formed Third Republic besieged the Commune, the queen wrote to her daughter Vicky, crown princess of Germany, to share her satisfaction: ‘How dreadful the state of Paris is! Surely that Sodom and Gomorrah as Papa called it deserves to be crushed.’ Months earlier, though, when it had been German forces surrounding Paris, she had been more circumspect. She warned Vicky that the feelings of the British public, which had been solidly pro-German at the start of the war, were changing in response to the scale of the French defeat and the danger posed to the capital: ‘The fact is people are so fond of Paris – so accustomed to go there that the threatened ruin of it makes them furious and unreasonable.’ For all her chauvinism, Victoria recognised that the exchange of people and ideas inescapably linked Britain to Paris, and to Europe more generally. It’s worrying, to say the least, that so many people in Britain today don’t agree with her.

English Literature and French Revolutions

As I wrote in my previous post, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the ways in which nineteenth-century writers defined British national identity, and about how Englishness fitted into (and often dominated) those definitions. Elisabeth Jay’s recent book British Writers and Paris 1830-1875 has helped me to realise how often Englishness and Britishness were imagined in opposition to representations of Europe, and especially of the city that was viewed, throughout the nineteenth century, as the epitome of European culture.

For British writers, the changing appearance of nineteenth-century Paris embodied the troubling fluctuations of French and European politics. Even after they had been swept away, though, the city’s streets and buildings, and the events that had taken place in and on them, continued to exert an obstinate pull on the memory and the imagination. British writers frequently tried to construct a historical narrative that might make sense of the city’s successive revolutions, but they also acknowledged the ways in which Paris resisted any comfortingly straightforward interpretation. In his autobiographical poem The Prelude, Wordsworth recalled his brief stay in Paris in October 1792, just after the September massacres:

I crossed (a black and empty area then)

The Square of the Carrousel, few weeks back

Heaped up with dead and dying – upon these

And other sights looking as doth a man

Upon a volume whose contents he knows

Are memorable but from him locked up,

Being written in a tongue he cannot read.

These lines, written in 1805 but not published until after Wordsworth’s death in 1850, encapsulate the difficulties that British writers struggled with when they tried to explain recent Parisian history. Wordsworth presents himself both as a sightseer and as an interpreter or translator, but he is at a loss to make sense of Paris’s uncanny transformation, in the space of a few weeks, from a slaughterhouse to a mundane urban scene. Despite Wordsworth’s best efforts, the city remains intractably foreign and alien, and his sense of alienation intensified as the years and decades passed. Visiting again in 1837, he wrote to a friend:

‘What shall I say of Paris? Many splendid edifices and some fine streets have been added since I first saw it at the close of the year ­-91. But I have had little feeling to spare for novelties, my heart and mind having been awakened everywhere to sad and strange recollections of what was then passing and of subsequent events, which have either occurred in this vast City, or which have flowed from it as their source.’

Although struck by the changes imposed on Paris by successive regimes – the imperial government of Napoleon I, the restored Bourbon monarchy, the July monarchy of Louis Philippe – Wordsworth professes himself to be unmoved by these ‘novelties’. Juxtaposing the city’s physical transformation with his dormant but ineradicable memories of its history, his letter summarises the prevailing British view of Paris as a place that simultaneously enforced the obliteration and the recollection of the past.

Elisabeth Jay points out that the city was a perfect setting for the nostalgic Romanticism of much Victorian writing. British authors took its transformations personally, responding with ‘bouts of reflection on earlier selves from which they now seemed irretrievably estranged by the wholesale destruction of the buildings, streets, and enclaves where they had formerly wandered.’ But there was also an important political dimension to these reflections. When Wordsworth wrote in The Prelude that, after the violence of September 1792, ‘The fear gone by / Pressed on me almost like a fear to come’, he was using his recollection of personal dread to allude to the political Terror that commenced soon after he left Paris. The ‘fear to come’ haunted British writers throughout the nineteenth century, because the city’s political disturbances were at the same time dangerously chaotic and worryingly predictable. There was never too long to wait until the next revolution.

Some Victorians saw the funny side of what Jay describes as the ‘cyclical inevitability’ of Parisian revolution. After the insurrection of June 1848 (the second of that year), the satirical magazine Punch accused a popular newspaper, the Illustrated London News, of fabricating its pictures of the barricades. They had been published so promptly, Punch suggested, that they must have been prepared in advance of the uprising:

‘Any one might have foreseen for weeks previous that there would shortly be another Revolution in Paris. It required no great prophet to guess such a very common event as that. We should not at all wonder if our spirited contemporary has not already on hand half-a-dozen more Revolutions, so as to meet the pressure of the times.’

Horace Vernet Barricade Rue Soufflot

Horace Vernet, On the Barricades on the Rue Soufflot, Paris, 25 June 1848

Other writers were deadly serious about the threat posed by Paris’s habitual volatility. In his 1850 elegy for his friend Arthur Hallam, In Memoriam, Tennyson connected the personal to the political by imagining his coming to terms with grief as one part of a global, teleological progress towards peace and security:

And all is well, though faith and form

Be sundered in the night of fear;

Well roars the storm to those that hear

A deeper voice across the storm,

Proclaiming social truth shall spread,

And justice, ev’n though thrice again

The red fool-fury of the Seine

Should pile her barricades with dead.

In Memoriam is a famously cyclical poem, its abba rhyme scheme embodying the difficulty Tennyson finds in moving on from his grief. The recurring ‘fool-fury of the Seine’ is presented here as emblematic of the kind of pathological stagnation from which Tennyson (and, the poem implies, the whole world) must struggle to break free. When they were drafted prior to the 1848 revolution, these lines warned of the danger of the Parisian people ‘once again’ taking to the barricades; the revision to ‘thrice again’ indicates just how anxious some British writers were about the repetitive pattern of revolutionary activity in 1789, 1830, and 1848. And these stanzas also highlight a problem with the word ‘British’ in relation to Victorian opinions about Paris. In this poem Tennyson contrasts a specifically English ‘love of freedom’ (liberal, measured, reformist) not just with the fury of the Parisian mob but also with ‘The blind hysterics of the Celt’. For some Victorians, the alien political culture represented by Paris was defined in opposition not to an inclusive British national identity, but to an exclusive model of Englishness that linked Scotland, Wales, and especially Ireland to the chaotic irrationality of European politics.

I wanted to resist making any kind of facile comparison between these nineteenth-century examples and the current debate about Brexit. But I don’t think I can. British writers’ interpretations of Paris in the nineteenth century show that, however much they tried to define British national identity in opposition to European culture, the two were inescapably connected through the physical travels of people and through a reciprocal exchange of cultural traditions and political beliefs. And the example of Tennyson’s poem also suggests that a rejection of Europe tends to highlight the internal tensions within (an inherently composite) British national identity, and threatens to undermine the cultural multiplicity that arguably defines Britishness.

Review of Elisabeth Jay, British Writers and Paris 1830-1875

My research focuses primarily on the intersections between literature and science in the nineteenth century. Recently, though, I’ve been getting more and more interested in another aspect of nineteenth-century culture: the relation between definitions of Englishness and Britishness, and the ways in which literary writing might have helped to construct these mismatched but overlapping national identities. I started thinking about this a few years ago when I read and reviewed Robert J. C. Young’s book The Idea of English Ethnicity. Moving to Scotland in 2015, though, without question sharpened my awareness that my understanding of ‘English Literature’ in the nineteenth century was too firmly and parochially English, that I hadn’t thought seriously enough about the ways in which Irish, Scottish, and Welsh cultures were subsumed within or marginalised by the prevailing Englishness of Victorian national identity.

The Brexit debate, too, has made me think about how Englishness and Britishness were defined in relation to Europe in the nineteenth century, and I’ve just finished reading a book which explores that issue. For the Victorians, Paris was a synecdoche not just for France but for Europe more generally, and Elisabeth Jay’s British Writers and Paris 1830-1875 persuasively shows that British authors were consistently ambivalent about the city. Many were happy to meet the demand for cautionary tales of Paris as a hub of scandal and immorality. This sensationalist view has retained its currency in the twenty-first century: in the 2008 film Taken, for instance, a wholesome American teenager travels to the city, is promptly kidnapped, and narrowly escapes being sold into prostitution by evil European gangsters. Mary Clarke Mohl, who hosted a popular salon in Paris, told a nineteenth-century version of the same story, warning that ‘it is a horrible fact that there are people who catch handsome young English girls in London and send them over here for vice.’ Horrible yet titillating, ‘facts’ such as these helped to cement Paris’s status as the epitome of the nineteenth-century city, a more extreme version of the ‘modern Babylon’ that the journalist W.T. Stead described in his writings about Victorian London.

This was also, of course, one of the reasons why the Victorians were so fond of Paris, either as a place to visit or as a more permanent home. Many British writers based themselves there, and perhaps the most impressive feature of Jay’s book is its detailed consideration of the various enticements that brought them to the city. In addition to its attractive reputation for hedonism, there was also its cosmopolitan and international cultural life; a sizeable expatriate community willing to pay for English-language publications; a plethora of European literary genres ready to be adapted or plagiarised; and a thriving print trade which gave to writers, and especially to journalists, a degree of social prestige that was rarely attainable in Britain. As Jay points out, authors ranging from Dickens, Thackeray, and Walter Bagehot to the radical novelist and journalist George Reynolds used stints in Paris, often writing for newspapers and periodicals, as a means of launching or consolidating their literary careers. Nearly as much as London, Manchester, or Edinburgh, the French capital in the mid-nineteenth century was a centre of British intellectual culture.

But the Victorians’ cosmopolitan embrace of Paris was checked by other, more nationalistic and nervous, responses to the city. Effectively closed to the British during the wars with France between 1793 and 1815, it remained an alien and alarming place, and reflections on the upheavals of the 1789 revolution were an omnipresent feature of British writing about the city. After 1815, lingering fears about French anarchy and militarism were assuaged (but also heightened) by a national habit of historical tourism, as British travellers flocked to the Parisian locations connected with the defeated revolution. For the majority of these travellers, Jay suggests, ‘Paris embodied not only France’s history but its quintessence.’ Another, less polite, way of putting this might be to say that Paris was all that many British tourists knew of France, and that descriptions of the city were often used, in the work of British writers, to encapsulate a set of sweeping assumptions and stereotypes about French culture. And especially after the Europe-wide revolutions of 1848 and the internationalist radicalism of the 1871 Commune, Paris was identified as a symbol not just of France but of a general European approach to politics, violent and chaotic, that was inimical to British interests and sensibilities.

Jay’s arguments about British attitudes to the city’s revolutionary history aren’t wholly consistent. On the one hand, she claims that the radicalism of the Commune, and the brutality of its suppression by the French army, fundamentally altered Victorian opinion on the city, bringing about ‘a deep rupture between past and present not only for Paris itself but for the relationship the British maintained with Paris.’ On the other hand, and more convincingly, she suggests that such ruptures shaped British attitudes throughout the nineteenth century. With each successive revolution and restoration (the July Revolution of 1830, the 1848 revolution, Napoleon III’s coup d’état in 1851), the topography of Paris was transformed along with its social and political structures. Streets were renamed, monuments erected or demolished, and these recurring breaks with the past bothered the majority of British writers who shared, however critically, the Victorian commitment to a slow and steady kind of progress, an ideology of political reform dependent on the gradual development of traditions and institutions. Jay comments that the Parisian ‘practice of erasure, of everything from political leaders to buildings and street names, evoked in the British consciousness a fear of the loss of memory’s moral function, and reinforced a commensurately strong commitment to tracing origins and lines of descent.’

This is a tantalising claim, but Jay’s book doesn’t really examine how this conservative reaction to Parisian revolution contributed to nineteenth-century constructions of British national identity, or of the distinctions within that identity between the politics and culture of England, Ireland, and Scotland. I’ll discuss that question in my next post.

Jane Austen’s Experiments

On Radio 4’s In Our Time in November, John Mullan described Jane Austen as ‘one of the great experimental writers of European fiction’. I agree, and I also think that this assessment can be taken more literally than Mullan perhaps intended. In a recent essay in the journal Nineteenth-Century Literature, I argue that Austen’s Sanditon, her final novel which remained unfinished at her death, presents a new style of fictional narrative which borrows from the empirical and observational practices of nineteenth-century science. As I wrote in a previous post on Sanditon, this novel adopts a forensic and objective narrative stance, through which the narrator bestows a sceptical and impartial attention on the fragment’s various characters. In this post, I want to argue that the methods of scientific experimentation also help to inform the literary experiment that Austen conducts in Sanditon.

As Charlotte Heywood, Sanditon’s heroine, promenades along the terrace of the eponymous seaside resort, she meets Sir Edward Denham coming out of the local library. In an effort to impress her, Sir Edward boasts of his credentials as a discerning reader of novels:

‘The mere trash of the common circulating library, I hold in the highest contempt. You will never hear me advocating those puerile emanations which detail nothing but discordant principles incapable of amalgamation, or those vapid tissues of ordinary occurrences from which no useful deductions can be drawn.—In vain may we put them into a literary alembic;—we distil nothing which can add to science.—You understand me I am sure?’

‘I am not quite certain that I do’, replies Charlotte. Her hesitant response isn’t surprising, because Sir Edward’s account of his tastes is bafflingly inconsistent. Despite borrowing several novels from the circulating library, he dismisses such novels as trash, contributing nothing to ‘science’. He uses this word in its traditional sense, meaning general ‘knowledge or understanding acquired by study’, but his identification of the novel as a ‘literary alembic’, an instrument of experimentation, also points to a newer definition of science as a methodology, concerned ‘with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less comprehended by general laws, and incorporating trustworthy methods’ of verification (Oxford English Dictionary, ‘science’, definitions 2 and 4b).

But while Sir Edward implies that the novel should be capable of reaching conclusions through experimental methods, he contradicts himself by casually dismissing the relevance of ‘ordinary occurrences’, the observable and repeatable events on which scientific knowledge depends. Sir Edward is an object of ridicule in Sanditon: here, Austen’s satire is targeted not at his use of the alembic metaphor but at his failure to grasp its significance for the novel as a form. Perhaps even more in this fragment than in Austen’s other novels, everyday occurrences, and the ‘discordant principles’ of the characters involved in them, constitute the raw materials which, distilled and analysed by the impartial narrative voice, form the basis of a kind of literary experimentation.

This method of objective experimentation is directly discussed, at times, by the novel’s characters. For instance, Mr Parker, the financial speculator who befriends the Heywood family, starts to describe to Charlotte his relationship with his business partner Lady Denham, but then pauses: ‘Those who tell their own story you know must be listened to with caution.—When you see us in contact, you will judge for yourself’. Parker’s statement is significant for two reasons: first, because it shows that the importance of evidence-based judgement and knowledge is recognised by Sanditon’s characters; and second, because it suggests that, both for the characters and the readers of fictional narratives, such knowledge must be founded on the observation not of individuals but of characters ‘in contact’ with each other.

James Chandler has argued that characterization in the novels of Austen’s contemporary Maria Edgeworth can be read as a scientific process, structured on the methodological model ‘that forms the basis of all experimental knowledge: the capacity to compare observations across a range of similar scenarios or objects, where the registered difference among isolated variables enables a causal analysis that facilitates discovery’. A similar argument can be made about Sanditon: narrative and characterization depend in this text not just on observation but on a form of active experimentation, which brings characters into contact in order to compare their differing perspectives. In Sanditon Austen aims to establish an impartiality of form: the objective stance of the novel’s narrative voice offers a kind of unbiased knowledge that is based on observation and experimental comparison. Sanditon constitutes evidence for the close connection between the developing definitions of ‘literature’ and ‘science’ in the early nineteenth century, and it suggests that scientific methods played a significant part in Austen’s understanding of the novel as a form.

Five Reasons to Read Jane Austen’s Sanditon

I’ve just published an essay on Jane Austen in the journal Nineteenth-Century Literature. Rather than discussing any of Austen’s (extremely popular) six published novels, though, the essay focuses on Sanditon, the unfinished novel on which she was working during her months of illness before her death in July 1817. Sanditon is nowhere near as widely known as the published novels, and it’s strikingly different from Austen’s other writing. Here are five reasons why this fragment is an important and original part of her body of work, and why it’s more than worthy of readers’ time.

1. Manuscript

Thanks to an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project, based at the University of Oxford, it’s possible to view the manuscript of Sanditon onlineSanditon wasn’t published until 1871, 54 years after Austen’s death; there was no published edition seen into print by Austen herself, and so the manuscript constitutes our only evidence of how she viewed and approached her final novel. There are no (known) surviving manuscripts of Austen’s published novels (apart from two chapters of Persuasion), and so the digitised version of the Sanditon manuscript gives readers a unique opportunity to look at Austen’s fiction as work in progress, and to examine how she revised and rethought her writing as she worked. (The website also  includes the manuscripts of the Persuasion chapters and of Austen’s other unpublished writings.)

2. Style

Austen is rightly admired for her use of free indirect discourse or free indirect style, a mode of writing in which the voice and point of view of a character or group of characters is merged with that of a third-person narrator. Austen sometimes deploys free indirect discourse for ironic effect – as in the famous opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – and sometimes to focalise her narratives through, and elicit readers’ sympathy for, her protagonists. As Clara Tuite points out, though, Sanditon‘s narrative style is different; it “dispenses with Austen’s carefully cultivated protocols of free-indirect narrative witnessing in favor of a comparatively deracinated and disembodied third-person narrator”. In other words, Sanditon adopts a forensic and objective narrative stance, through which the narrator bestows a sceptical and impartial attention on the fragment’s various characters. Whether this is a consequence of Sanditon‘s status as an unfinished manuscript, or whether it points to a new approach to fiction on Austen’s part, it makes Sanditon an interesting source of comparison with the published novels.

3. Plot

The plot of Sanditon, of course, is unfinished, but the indications in its surviving chapters suggest that Austen was trying to do something new with the construction of her plot in this novel. Sanditon‘s protagonist is Charlotte Heywood, who, after meeting the financial speculator Mr Parker, travels with him and his family to his home village of Sanditon, which is also his pet project. Trading on the supposed curative properties of sea-bathing and the sea air, Parker plans to turn Sanditon into a destination for tourists and convalescents. In keeping with the impartiality of the narrative voice, however, Charlotte is not really privileged as the heroine of Sanditon‘s plot: she doesn’t suffer any economic or social hardship (as the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility, or Fanny Price in Mansfield Park, do) and, by the end of the fragment, there is only the smallest hint of the beginning of a courtship narrative. Instead, the novel concentrates on presenting detailed descriptions of a diverse cast of characters, of the interactions between them, and, importantly, of the village of Sanditon itself.

4. Setting

By setting her novel in a seaside resort, Austen relocates her fiction, moving away from the “Country Village” with its “3 or 4 Families” which, she claimed in a letter, was “such a spot as is the delight of my life”. The characters in her other novels sometimes leave this country village, and sometimes travel to coastal towns: in Persuasion, Louisa Musgrove injures her head in a fall from the cobb at Lyme Regis. But in Sanditon the seaside is not the site of a temporary excursion; it’s the novel’s primary setting, and it represents a model of economic and social relations that is new to Austen’s fiction. Instead of exploring, with her other novels, the fixed property-based economy and social life of a particular class (the early nineteenth-century British gentry), Sanditon uses its seaside setting to explore the socially disruptive (and self-consciously modern) capitalist practices of land speculation, tourism, and commodity culture.

The cobb at Lyme Regis: Austen liked to be beside the seaside (source: Wikimedia Commons)

5. Satire

Austen, you’ll be pleased to hear, doesn’t simply endorse these new social and economic practices. She holds them up for sharp critique, satirising Parker’s inflated ambitions for Sanditon, the rapacity of other characters who hope to make a profit from tourism, and the groundless and self-involved hypochondria of the valetudinarians who come to Sanditon to be “cured”. Austen is also brilliantly aware of the way in which literature is implicated in the capitalist exchanges that underpin Sanditon’s precarious tourist economy; fiction, like land or health, is a saleable commodity, and Sanditon is full of the overt (and funny) literary satire which is central to the early Northanger Abbey, but which is less prominent in Austen’s other published novels.