Month: June 2016

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.