Simon J. White, Romanticism and the Rural Community.
Simon J. White's Romanticism and the Rural Community is an ambitious and engaging account of the diverse ways in which social structures in small rural parishes and villages were represented during the Romantic period. Drawing on a range of sources, some familiar, others notably less so, the book adopts a broadly chronological structure, moving from the polemicists of the 1790s through to Ebenezer Elliott's poetry of the late 1820s and early 1830s. In so doing, it subtly shows how the nature of rural communities (both real and imagined) shifted over a period of some forty years and investigates how writers responded to this phenomenon. During the timeframe covered by the book, White argues that 'the focus of Romantic writing about the countryside' changed 'dramatically' (p. 175) and the various examples selected for discussion largely support his claim. One of the most welcome aspects of this study is its willingness to engage with recent work in the fields of agrarian and social history while also recognising the peculiar qualities that literary texts possess, which can help us understand how 'our ancestors felt about their world' (p. 178). White is also alert to the danger of favouring the general over the local, reminding us that 'we are not dealing with a homogenous rural context as we read Romantic texts' (p. 9).
Drawing on Raymond Williams's influential notion of the 'structure of feeling', White explains that the central question he will be addressing in this study is 'whether everyone in the communities represented in Romantic writing about the countryside shares the same structure of feeling and speaks the same language' (p. 9). This conceptual framework helps structure the book and governs to a large degree the choice of authors and texts selected. As White is quick to acknowledge, the formal aspects of the works discussed are not his chief concern--though they are by no means neglected--and he positions the book as one dealing with the history of ideas, rather than a traditional critical account. As what he terms 'an intervention in the debate about how we consider Romantic poetry in the context of the interaction between the physical and the socio-economic landscape of Britain' (p. 12), his study is a valuable addition to recent work examining the varied spaces and places of British Romanticism.
The book begins by noting that while the 1790s 'shaped the Romantic period in many different ways', there is nonetheless 'one aspect of the so-called revolutionary controversy that has not received very much attention.' 'This', White contends, 'is the fact that the small rural community was the principal battleground for many of the participants' (p. 1). Though radical activity was to a large extent centred in urban areas--and one might therefore have expected conservative critics to have been concerned with those very places where radicalism was most prevalent--the city was, as White puts it, 'chaotic', 'mutable' and 'difficult to describe' and so 'did not offer identifiable models for either a radical new world or a way back into the past' (p. 1). If the city proved too complex to use for such purposes, the countryside by way of contrast did appear to offer 'simple and unambiguous models of community' in the shape of the small rural parish or village (p. 1). At the same time, as White discusses in detail in his first chapter, prominent thinkers of all political stripes saw or at least sensed that rural communities were in the process of being transformed by the changing nature of the agrarian economy. As a result they shared a view that such communities were in crisis.
As indicated above, the examples White examines in the course of this book are generally well chosen and it is especially gratifying to see due attention being paid to unjustly neglected figures such as George Crabbe and Ebenezer Elliott, who might not normally get a chapter to themselves. Nevertheless, there were moments where I felt that other approaches might have been profitably adopted. The brief section on Robert Burns in Chapter Five, for example, though strong, also serves to remind us just how far the rest of the book focuses on rural communities in England (and particularly those in the south). This is not in itself a problem but I do wonder if a more concentrated and deliberately limited focus might not have enabled White to explore certain issues in greater detail. (1) For instance, both Hannah More (discussed in Chapter One) and William Wordsworth (the subject of the second chapter) set works on Salisbury Plain, yet while White does consider how far Wordsworth's representation of this landscape reflected reality, the reason why this particular area might have been chosen by writers with such ostensibly different agendas is not fully addressed.
White's previous book was on Robert Bloomfield and it is therefore not at all surprising to find that he writes particularly well about him in this study. (2) Bloomfield, he suggests, is 'the first champion of the farm labourer in service' (p. 135) and White's discussion, mostly focusing on Bloomfield's The Farmer's Boy (1800), makes a convincing case for his importance. Having said that, it might also have been worth reflecting on the fact that the Suffolk landscapes of this poem were also the product of a ladies' shoemaker--living and working in a London garret--and so derive from an urban, artisanal community too. Somewhat similarly, May-Day with the Muses (1822), the last volume of poetry published in Bloomfield's lifetime, may well have been inspired by nostalgia for his Suffolk boyhood as White implies (pp. 142-3) but plausibly also reflects his ten-year residence in rural Bedfordshire and the very different type of community he found there.
Romanticism and the Rural Community deserves a wide readership and is an important contribution to work on the subject of community in literary studies and the humanities more generally. In his conclusion, White makes a number of thought-provoking observations about the way in which the disintegration of rural communities recorded by the authors covered in his study prefigures 'the crisis of community' that exists in contemporary Britain--suggesting, for instance, that 'with the right kinds of support, work could be the key to new kinds of community in the countryside' (p. 178). These are ideas that White might fruitfully explore further in future work, especially as the increasingly globalised nature of the economy means that the issues he raises are ones that will almost certainly grow in importance in years to come.
University of Nottingham
(1) An alternative option might have been to choose examples drawn from different parts of the United Kingdom, though this would of course have limited the study in other ways.
(2) See Simon J. White, Robert Bloomfield and the Poetry of Community (Aldershot, 2007).
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|Publication:||Literature & History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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