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The Romantic Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature 1789-1830.

The Romantic Period: The Intellectual and Cultural Context of English Literature 1789-1830. By Robin Jarvins. Harrow: Pearson Education. 2004. x + 219 pp. 20.99 [pounds sterling]. ISBN 0-582-38239-4.

In the author's preface to this volume, the latest in the Intellectual and Cultural Context wing of the Longman Literature in English series, Robin Jarvis states, 'Throughout the book, it has been my intention to provide as much material as possible that I think will be helpful to students of Romantic literature in the twenty-first century, without pointing up links between context and specific literary texts directly: that task--and the intellectual fun--falls to the students themselves as they make their individual journeys through the literature' (pp. ix-x). For easy access to specific nuggets of contextual information, Jarvis organizes his 'material' into eight chapters, largely based on the broad general categories employed in such surveys: 'the political and economic scene'; 'travel, exploration, and the geographies of mind'; 'the literary marketplace'; 'education and the family'; 'science'; 'religion and ethics'; 'the sense of the past'; and 'aesthetics and the visual arts'. With careful and sustained reading of these chapters, Jarvis's vision of the defining features and preoccupations of British Romanticism begins to emerge; however, in accordance with his policy of non-intervention, he does not include either an introduction or, more importantly, a conclusion to sketch out the lineaments of his argument for his readers.

That said, there is considerable 'intellectual fun' to be had in Jarvis's account, above and beyond his avowed purpose of helping students flesh out their analyses of Romantic literature. By identifying the themes that recur throughout the text--the percolation through society of various interpretations of significant historical events or philosophical movements--the reader acquires a very satisfying sense of familiarity with what Shelley called 'the spirit of the age'. The most pervasive of these themes is clearly revolution: Jarvis's first chapter contains not only a useful condensation of the French Revolution itself, but also a more lengthy description of the cycle of radical and reactionary British responses to it. He also identifies a 'circulation revolution' in the exponential increase and dispersal of printed matter (p. 51); 'a "revolution" in personal relations and family life', following the model advocated by Lawrence Stone (p. 92); and a 'Scientific Revolution' in the 'establishment of modern scientific disciplines, greater institutional support for science, and the beginnings of professionalisation' (p. 100). This impression of a contemporary fascination with social transformation is reinforced further by discussions of 'the increasingly global perspectives of the Romantic reader' through travel literature on North America, Africa, Tahiti, Australia, and India (p. 27); 'the rise of evangelical Christianity' and its sociopolitical implications (p. 142); 'a major shift in historical awareness' that marked the way in which the past was understood (p. 149); and even 'a pronounced movement [...] towards aesthetic relativism' which informed the visual arts (p. 175). Other reiterated themes include the discourse on natural rights, which surfaces in campaigns for political reform and the abolition of slavery, as well as in primitivist accounts contrasting the lives of noble savages with those of 'civilized' man, and the gradual introduction of institutional support for writers, artists, and scientists, who previously had been dependent economically on aristocratic patronage.

In The Romantic Period Jarvis and his editors follow the series style-with useful end matter, including a chronology that contextualizes significant literary works, brief bibliographies of secondary literature for each chapter, and biographies of less well known figures-except in one important respect: the lack of illustrations, which would have enhanced the subsections on landscape gardening, painting, architecture, and prints. However, with his dense and allusive descriptions of modern historiography and contemporary controversies, Jarvis does provide a dexterous summary of critical work on the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; and lecturers of a historicist cast eager to supplement their students' knowledge will no doubt find this volume invaluable.

Megan Hiatt

Queen Mary, University of London
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Author:Hiatt, Megan
Publication:Yearbook of English Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2006
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