Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740-1820

By Mark Salber Phillips | Go to book overview

Twelve
William Godwin and the Idea of Commemoration

IN HER sympathetic eyewitness history of the French Revolution, Helen Maria Williams conjures up for herself a picture of the unknown pilgrims who at some future time will make their way to the sites where she herself had been privileged to witness the great moments of the Revolution. In a passage briefly cited earlier, she writes that strangers, when they visit France,

will hasten with impatience to the Champs de Mars, filled with that enthusiasm which is awakened by the view of a place where any great scene has been acted. I think I hear them exclaim, “here the Federation was held!…”Isee them pointing out the spot on which the altar of the country stood. I see them eagerly searching for the place where they have heard it recorded, that the National Assembly were seated! I think of these things, and then repeat to myself with transport, “I, was a spectator of the Federation.”1

Williams's sense of historical pilgrimage is rooted in some of the oldest habits of Western culture, but it also points to a perception of history that has been increasingly cultivated since her time. The idea of public commemoration by marking “historic sites” has become a commonplace of modern life. For us, history is not only a story to be narrated; it is also an experience to be evoked, and no form of evocation is more widespread than the practice of erecting commemorative plaques and monuments. History, traditionally regarded as a book to be read, has become a scene to be revisited.2

This intermingling of the associations of past and place has become so pervasive that we take it for granted. But apparently this was not yet so in Britain at the end of the eighteenth century. Nearly twenty years after Williams published the first volume of her history, another English friend of the Revolution, William Godwin, outlined a proposal for evoking England's own past by raising a subscription to mark in the simplest possible manner the burial places of notable men. It is striking, however, that Godwin advanced his Essay on

____________________
1
Williams, Letters from France, 1: 107–8.
2
For a broad discussion of this theme, see David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1985); and Patrick Wright, On Living in an Old Country (London: Verso, 1985). The historical resonance of place has, of course, become a major theme in contemporary historical thought and has been taken as the organizing principle for a new type of historiography, notably in Pierre Nora's Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, trans. Arthur Goldhammer, 3 vols. (New York: Columbia UP, 1996).

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