Romantic Self-Fashioning: John Thelwall and the Science of Elocution

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JOHN THELWALL CAME TO PUBLIC PROMINENCE IN THE 1790S AS AN ORATOR and political theorist at the center of the British reform movement. His writings on political philosophy and the public lectures he gave as a member of the London Corresponding Society have contributed greatly to our understanding of how the languages of romantic aesthetics and radical politics intersected and of how the cult of sensibility was appropriated and redeployed in the formation of a proletarian public sphere. This phase of Thelwall's career has been discussed elsewhere and is now seen as central to the history of radical political and literary culture in Britain.(1) By the end of the eighteenth century, however, Thelwall was confronted with a climate of official harassment and hindered by legislation that effectively outlawed radical association as treasonous. Disillusioned, he moved away from political life, publishing, in 1801, a collection of poems accompanied by a prefatory memoir that announced his renunciation of radicalism. In 1797 he also spent time with Coleridge and Wordsworth at Nether Stowey, and certainly this brush with what was to become the core of British romanticism is evident in his renunciation of political life and his brief embrace of the pastoral.(2) But Thelwall's move away from politics was by no means the end of his involvement in public life, although, with the exception of a brief renewal of interest in radicalism that ended with the failure of his journal The Champion, his career as an activist was effectively over. While Thelwall's writing from the 1790s is now attracting critical interest, his writings subsequent to 1800 have attracted almost no interest at all, partly because they don't sustain our view of Thelwall as the romantic orator victimized by an oppressive state apparatus. Thelwall's career after 1800 is no less interesting, and no less culturally symptomatic, for that. By 1803 he was again before the public, not as a politician, but as a self-styled teacher of elocution, traveling through Britain delivering lectures on the physiological aspects of pronunciation, on speech impediments, on the anatomy of the vocal organs and on the art of oration. By 1810 he had established an institution in London that claimed to treat speech impediments as well as teach oratory skills, composition and polite literature as part of a scheme to prepare students for what he called "the more liberal departments of active life."(3) His A Letter to Henry Cline, published the same year, is thought to be the first book concerned solely with speech impediments to be published in English,(4) and an important early text in the development of the field we now know as speech pathology.

Elocution was a burgeoning field in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century Britain. As Lynda Mugglestone has pointed out it was very directly related to the codification of class difference in styles of speech, such that "talking proper" became a sign of distinction with much broader social and political implications than it had previously had.(5) Crucial to this production of accent and enunciation as modes of social distinction was what Friedrich Kittler calls the "oralization" of the alphabet in European languages; that is, a new-found interest in the phonetic qualities of speech as a central component of language instruction and liberal education more generally.(6) For Kittler, this shift is integral to an understanding of German romanticism as a "discourse network," a system of discursive production and reception encompassing a range of material practices from the reading and writing of poetry to basic language instruction. This discourse, Kittler argues, thrives on a denial of its own discursivity: it is underwritten by the fantasy of a natural language, a primal orality or inner voice, that locates the origins of speech, and by extension, of the subject, not in material processes or discursive relations, but in a feminized version of nature. …