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Critical Review by Alan Ryan
SOURCE: "Effervescence," in London Review of Books, Vol. 11, No. 21, November 9, 1989, pp. 10-11.
In the following excerpt, Ryan examines the main arguments of The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England, emphasizing the ways in which British writers explored the British political character through their preoccupation with the French national character at the turn of the eighteenth century.
The view expressed by Monied Interest in Dickens's story 'The Flight' might have made an epigraph for Seamus Deane's The French Revolution and Enlightenment in England. It was Monied Interest who declared that it was 'quite enough for him that the French are revolutionary—"and always at it".' The eight essays that make up what Froude would have described as 'a short study on a great subject' cover both more and less than the title of Professor Deane's book implies. The Revolution itself looms large and obtrudes less continuously than one might expect, while the Enlightenment looms rather larger. But what really holds the book together is an idea that is at once illuminating and obscure: the idea that in responding to the Revolution and to the Enlightenment which had produced it. British writers were engrossed with its Frenchness.
In tackling this theme, Seamus Deane covers a period of some fifty years, ranging back to Condillac, Helvétius and Holbach, and carrying the story on to the 1820s. 1789 is anything but salient. Burke's Reflections were an early response to the early hopes of the revolutionaries and Deane is mostly concerned with later reactions: Coleridge came to terms with Rousseau between 1799 and 1809, British responses to the politics of the French émigrés were affected by Napoleon's seizure of power in 1799 and by the Peace of Amiens in 1803, while Hazlitt was carrying on his Jacobin campaign against English conservatism and Benthamite radicalism down to the 1820s. The central issue around which everything rotates is the French national character, and whether there was something in it that caused the Revolution, and doomed the Revolution; and if so, what that was.
It was not merely that 1789 had turned out to be something wilder, more violent and altogether less intelligible than the Glorious Revolution of 1688. That was certainly true, but it was only a part of the truth. What was more important to those who thought in these terms was to discover what it was that caused the French to take up ideas that were the common stock of advanced European thought and to make them the pretext for regicide and terror; and whatever that was, it could emerge clearly only in the light of a contrast with the British character. Though Professor Deane has a lot else to say, his distinctive theme is the various ways in which British thinkers explored the British political character in their obsessive exploration of the French.
That this is the way to read a good deal of Burke, we probably take for granted. Burke's Reflections were provoked by Richard Price, an English Dissenting minister, and addressed to an anonymous French gentleman, but when Burke says 'you' he is apostrophising the French nation at large, and when he says 'we' he claims to speak for the whole British people—or at any rate for all those among them who were politically active. What is more surprising is that Burke's categories of analysis and polemic recur in Sir James Mackintosh, permeate Coleridge's ruminations on Rousseau, and provide an unexpected link between Carlyle and Southey. On Hazlitt, Deane puts forward the startling but in the end persuasive hypothesis that Hazlitt thought Jacobinism had been defeated both in England and in Europe less by British Toryism than by the essentially French philosophy of self-love put forward by Condillac and Helvétius and naturalised into England by Adam Smith and Bentham. Hazlitt raged against reaction and tyranny in England, but the intellectual roots of what he raged against were French, not English.
Even the group which welcomed 1789 most warmly, the politically active ministers of the Dissenting Churches, felt the same doubts about French tendencies. French sexual mores were too lax; the Philosophes had gone too far in broadening a justified attack on the superstitions and despotic affinities of Catholicism into a general assault on Christianity as such. Since most Dissenters had only wanted their own legal and political disabilities removed, it took very little to persuade them that 1789 was not 1688, and that the French had, as was to be expected, gone too far.
Professor Deane is properly anxious to point out that not everyone went down the same xenophobic track. Godwin, for one, switched from rationalism to the philosophy of moral sentiment between editions of Political Justice, but retained a lofty cosmopolitan perspective from which one nationality was scarcely distinguishable from another. Bentham and James Mill thought the subject of national character would have a place in a rational science of legislation, but agreed that as things stood appeals to national character were largely an aspect of political abuse—a view spelled out in one of John Stuart Mill's earliest essays in the Westminster Review and defended all his life.
Professor Deane is equally scrupulous about distinguishing one antipathy and its objects from another. In the early stages of the Revolution, émigré priests were made much of, since it was the Revolution's attack on the Church that caught the eye: but it was not to be expected that British political opinion would remain attached to a vengeful and reactionary group that looked forward to the restoration of just the kind of Catholic absolutism the British had rid themselves of a hundred years before. After 1799, a more lasting affection lighted on Mme de Staël and constitutionalists like Mallet de Pan, who admired the constitutional compromises of the British system of government and were sworn enemies of Napoleon. The British propensity to congratulate themselves on the unique perfection of the British constitution was quite consistent with a hunger for congratulation from other sources too.
Seamus Deane begins, as we all begin, with Burke. It has long been fashionable to find in Burke a divided consciousness, less unequivocally anti-revolutionary than he liked to think. His acute consciousness of the fact that his career had been built entirely upon his own merit must often have made him wonder whether the Ancien Régime deserved the devoted service that men like him had given it. His Letter to a Noble Lord, written in 1797 after the death of his only son, gives vent to a deep bitterness at the contrast between his concern for the welfare of aristocratic England and aristocratic flirtation with revolutionary ideas that would bring down the whole edifice. The delicate balance between his sense of his own abilities and his belief in the virtues of aristocratic government must always have taken some preserving, especially when the estate he purchased at Beaconsfield did so much more to wreck his finances than to elevate his social standing.
Many commentators have argued that his Irish background, and his awareness of the grievances of the Catholics in his home country, must have made him more sympathetic to the siren songs of the revolutionaries than his ferocious assaults on them would suggest. Seamus Deane extracts a neater and more persuasive analogy. In his unpublished Tracts Relative to the Laws against Popery in Ireland, written in 1765, Burke took issue with the English historians who depicted the Irish as naturally rebellious. He denied that nature had anything to do with it: it was oppression that made the Irish rebellious, not a flaw in their nature. Burke drew the obvious analogy between Irish Catholics fleeing Ireland and the persecuted Protestants fleeing France: both were an indictment of the policies that drove them from their homeland. Whenever he considered the Protestant Ascendancy, Burke attacked it as a monster of bigotry and injustice, fuelled by no religious feeling and expressing only a passion for persecution. During the 1790s, the full moral lesson could be drawn. The Protestant Ascendancy was an abomination because Irish Protestants formed a plebeian oligarchy, and in Burke's opinion, 'a plebeian oligarchy is a monster.' This was Burke striking at all his enemies—the other two plebeian oligarchies on his mind were Warren Hastings's East India Company, and the Jacobins.
What the English did in Ireland was what the Jacobins did at home by proscribing their enemies in the name of a fictional national interest. The policies of the English in Ireland looked all the more wicked because they were so much at odds with the character of English politics at its best. At its best, English politics relied on a chain of affection and duty, stretching from the humblest to the greatest, and based on the love for place and family celebrated in Burke's emphasis on the 'little platoons'. As Seamus Deane puts it, 'France was a threat, Ireland a dire warning, England the ideal middle term between the two.'
This section contains 1,477 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)