The French Revolution as a Romance: Mary Robinson's Hubert De Sevrac

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When Mary Robinson wrote Hubert de Sevrac A Romance, of the Eighteenth Century (published November 1796), public opinion in England had turned against the French Revolution, and freedom of speech was under attack. Charlotte Smith's pro-revolutionary Desmond. A Novel (1792) had "lost [Smith] some friends, and furnished others with an excuse for withholding their interest in favour of her family, and brought a host of literary ladies in array against her" (Scott 27). (1) After a mob attacked the King's carriage in 1795, William Pitt moved aggressively to crush dissent, forcing the Treasonable Practices and Seditious Meetings bills through Parliament and cracking down on the London Corresponding Society. The Gagging Acts silenced many orators and writers who had been agitating for political reform. Charles James Fox, Robinson's former lover and a charismatic leader in the Whig party, was demonized as a Jacobin and traitor for advocating peace with France (Mitchell 131, 141). Given the widespread Francophobia and anti-revolutionary hysteria in England, Robinson's publication of a romance that celebrates the storming of the Bastille as an expression "of the proudest energies which humanity is capable of evincing" risked alienating and even outraging many of her readers (Hubert de Sevrac 3: 97). Contemporary reviewers of Hubert de Sevrae tended to focus, however, on Robinson's debt to Ann Radcliffe, the most famous and successful writer of romances during the 1790s, rather than on the book's politics. In the May 1797 issue of Analytical Review, Mary Wollstonecraft notes that "Mrs Radcliffe appears to be [Robinson's] model; and she deserves to rank as one of her most successful imitators" (523). (2) Another critic dismisses Hubert de Sevrac as "an imitation of Mrs Radcliffe's romances, but without any resemblance that may not be attained by a common pen" (Critical Review 472), and the Monthly Review claims that the book "possesses many of the beauties, and some of the faults, which characterise that species of modern novels called Romances" (91). (3) By classifying Hubert de Sevrac as a Radcliffean romance, which portrays "[t]he mysterious, the horrible, the pathetic, and the melancholy" (Critical Review 472) rather than the "real life and manners" (Monthly Review 91) examined in novels like Desmond, these reviewers suggest that it is too fanciful to be taken seriously as a commentary on the French Revolution. (4)

Both Radcliffe and Robinson were political liberals. (5) In A Journey Made in the Summer of 1794 (1795), Radcliffe boldly praises a monument erected in Kendall in honor of the Glorious Revolution of 1688:

At a time, when the memory of that revolution is reviled, and the praises of liberty itself endeavoured to be suppressed by the artifice of imputing to it the crimes of anarchy, it was impossible to omit any act of veneration to the blessings of this event. [...] [W]e had a view of the country, over which [the obelisk] presides; a scene simple, great and free as the spirit revered amidst it. (389)

However, whereas Radcliffe relegates her liberalism to the subtext of her novels--on the surface, they appear politically conservative--Hubert de Sevrac is overtly radical. (6) The anti-feminist clergyman Richard Polwhele declares in The Unsex'd Females (1798) that Robinson's novels "merit the severest censure" for "containing the doctrines of Philosophism," or the deistic tenets of the French philosophes, but he singles out Radcliffe for praise: "In her Mysteries of Udolpho, we have all that is wild, magnificent and beautiful, combined by the genius of Shakspeare [sic], and the taste of [William] Mason" (17n; 34n). (7) A reviewer for European Magazine writes that Hubert de Sevrac is "of a more sober and probable cast than [Radcliffe's The Italian]," published in 1797, and complains that Robinson employs "the cant of French Democracy" to express her "partiality towards French Philosophy" (35). Evidently, the more "probable" the romance appeared to anti-Jacobin readers, the more politically subversive they deemed it. …