The Unromantic Lives of Others: The Lost Generation of the 1790s

Article excerpt

I am willing to accept that there could be a genre or sub-genre of biographical writing that could be usefully designated by the term, "Romantic biography." That is, a qualitative definition, rather than a quantitative description of all the biographies ever written about the British Romantic writers. However, I am also prepared to argue that this quantitative description is inadequate. It has coalesced--hardened--around too few "representative men," and left out too many lives of others. My contention is that there are dozens of Romantic biographies that have not been written, or even conceived of, yet. Or, if not Romantic biographies, then "Romantic era" biographies that could have been contenders for Romantic canonization, had they been allowed to live the lives they wanted. By extension, if our sense of the universe of Romantic biography is insufficient, then our theoretical account of its characteristics must also be to that degree inadequate.

What about Amelia Opie, James Montgomery, Joseph Ritson and Thomas Beddoes, Sr.? What about William Roscoe, William Drennan, Mary Robinson and Iolo Morganwg? Or, William Orr, Francis Wrangham, John Thelwall and Robert Merry? Maybe James Parkinson, Richard Warner. Eliza Fenwick and John Tweddell? Not to forget Gilbert Wakefield, Charles Lloyd and Robert Bage. What about X, Y and Z? What about, "Remember him?" and, "Who was she?" My list could go on. I have stopped it at about seventy-five, but if I can easily find seventy-five of these "lost" lives, I am sure I could find more without much trouble. But my listing is not infinite or random; it has definable literary characteristics.

Some of these names will ring a bell, at least to readers of The Wordsworth Circle. All of them were writers of the Romantic era, and some of them have received biographical treatment, though very few in the modern academic sense of the genre. But whether they are, or could have been, "Romantic" writers is a difficult question to answer, because, for most of them, their writing careers, Romantic or otherwise, were cut short by their encounters with the massive domestic state machinery of espionage and repression operated by William Pitt the Younger in the 1790s, especially between 1792 and 1798. This was an institutional state apparatus, in Louis Althusser's terms, directed--successfully--at shutting down the parliamentary reform movement which had sprung up--as it did recurrently throughout the 18th century--in response to the French and American revolutions.

These "lost" lives are hard to find even in this state history, Cobbett and Howells' Complete Collection of State Trials (1809-1826), the closest thing to an official record of Pitt's government snooping into the lives of suspect others. There were more state trials for treason and sedition in Great Britain between 1792-1798 than at any time before or since in its history: over one hundred, in which the government won convictions about two-thirds of the time. (1) But the people I am talking about did not, for the most part, have their budding careers nipped by the kinds of official actions--spying and informing, arrest, trial and imprisonment--used against the usual suspects, political activists like John Thelwall. Rather, these people, whom I call "unusual suspects," were victims of the vastly greater, and vastly more effective, hegemonic or vigilante "overflow," of this system, what many activists then and some historians still refer to, without either irony or hyperbole, as Pitt's "Reign of Terror."

Although almost all of these unusual suspects rate an entry in the old (ca. 1885-1900) or new (2004) Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, very few have been the subject of modern, thoroughly researched biographical study, let alone popular, general audience accounts. Indeed, popular passing references to them tend to repeat and recycle the same old misrepresentations that compromised their reputations in the 1790s. …