The French Revolution – the spring of democracy – was born in the convergence of apparently contradictory currents. One was the age of reason and cult of rationality; the other, the surge of what in the 18th century were called “the passions” unleashed – the embryonic Romantic movement.
The rational and romantic both inspire us, for all their philosophical rivalry, prompting great art, music and poetry as well as social and political momentum. Rachel Hewitt’s singular book examines the wrangle of that apparent dichotomy, not in France but as it affected Britain, with great cogency for our own time, which, she argues, was forged on this anvil of the 1790s.
Until the French Revolution, argues Hewitt, “the passions’ significance was predominantly social, and political reform was thought to proceed hand in hand with emotional reform … Political reform’s purpose, for many, was to renew the passions.”
But as revolution twisted from uprising to terror, “it was the collapse of this view of the passions in the 1790s – due to heightened anxiety about philosophies of liberation and to the detachment of emotion from politics – that would lay the groundwork for our contemporary, solipsistic emotional landscape.” In this way, her book reads like a historical primer for the hopes and rocky ride of our modern notion that “the personal is political” – and vice versa.
Hewitt charts the journeys of a compelling dramatis personae, including Mary Wollstonecraft and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose lives we know from seminal biographies by Claire Tomalin and Richard Holmes, but never thus composited.
Wollstonecraft believed, says Hewitt, that a new world was “being born out of the liberation of natural passion” in France. She “was remarkable for identifying that the French Revolution was, in essence, a debate about the relationship between politics and ‘the passions’”. The “revolutionary citizen” was “not an abstract concept” but the result of “radical alterations to domestic arrangements, as well as in popular political societies”.
Sex and the sexes were essential to the discourse; Robert Southey even called the revolution “an orgasm”. Wollstonecraft opposed marriage and attempted unsuccessfully to turn the union between the painter Henry Fuseli and his wife into a ménage à…