Books: A date with history

Terry Eagleton revisits a year of miracles and massacres
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England in 1819

by James Chandler

University of Chicago Press, pounds 27.95

The need for an historical approach to literature has become something of a pious platitude in critical circles, the kind of truth which - like a reformed monarchy or the Big Bang - few outside a dwindling clutch of aesthetes would question. History seems a harder science than criticism, thus promising to put it on a firmer footing. But historicising literary works has proved a paradoxical affair. In the US, "new historicist" critics have been busy bringing to bear on history all their typically literary concern with ambiguity and fictionality, thus turning history into literature and sawing off the very branch they have sat upon.

James Chandler, by contrast, is one of those rare American historicist critics who still believe that historical events are real. is a monumental work of scholarship, well-deserving of all the posh US prizes it is likely to pull in, which cross-sections English history at the year 1819 to lay bare the complex strata stacked beneath that date. It was a year of astonishing literary activity, which witnessed almost all of Keats's greatest poetry, Shelley's Prometheus Unbound, The Cenci and Ode to the West Wind, the first cantos of Byron's Don Juan and two of Walter Scott's best novels. It was also the year of Peterloo, in which the Manchester Yeomanry ran riot among a crowd of protesting workers.

In a 550-page account dripping with erudite footnotes, Chandler ranges over most of the key figures of English Romanticism. But his survey is deftly interwoven with brilliant theoretical speculations about what it means to "historicise" in the first place. What exactly is an "historical situation"? Who decides what constitutes an "historical period"? Did the Romantics know that they were Romantics, unlike, say, beavers and badgers, who seem not to be aware of what they are?

The modernists were conscious of themselves as "modern" but then that might be said of any cultural current from the ancient Greeks onwards. A work of literary art may be written in one period but may "belong" to another. Milton's Paradise Lost was published towards the end of the 17th century, but its real roots lie in the English Civil War. How does a work come to be representative of a period, and why should literature carry so much of this historical burden in early 19th-century England?

For this sophisticated study, placing the Romantics in their historical context is a particularly tricky operation. As Chandler demonstrates, our very notions of "historical context" date precisely from that extraordinarily fertile era. It is, after all, the period in which the historical novel first comes into its own. We are trying to dissect Romanticism with the very intellectual tools it invented.

In Chandler's view, the poets and novelists of 1819 are already newly aware of themselves as "historical", so that we don't need to patronise them with a modern lesson in theory. It is rather as if an anthropologist enters the native village, only to be handed by the tribe an elaborate diagram of their kinship system. Whereas most critics assume that the writings of Wordsworth and Scott need to be "demystified" to expose their true historical meaning, Chandler boldly claims that this truth is already out in the open for those who have eyes to see it.

In a narcissistic move beloved of literary types, this book seeks to historicise its own historicism. It is as much about the US in 1998 as , and all the more honest and compelling for it. The self- consciousness, however, is incomplete: Chandler fails to see that if American critics have taken to history as a '"radical' project, this is partly because of the dire condition of their national politics.

Historicising is a sort of substitute radicalism for US intellectuals. There is, in fact, nothing inherently radical about setting culture in its context. Some of the most powerful historicisms of the modern age stem from the political right. Chandler seems unclear on this point, and the cause of clarity is not helped by his flat-footed style, full of the portentous jargon of US academia and about as sprightly as a drugged rhino. His book, however, survives its own leaden prose. It will surely come to rank among the foremost Romantic studies of our time.

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