A Revolution of Feeling

by Rachel Hewitt, Granta, £25

Authors are not always to be blamed for their subtitles – they may be foisted on them by publishers to make a book more eye-catching. So here we have “The Decade That Forged the Modern Mind”. “Which one was that?” you may reasonably ask, even before wondering whether there is indeed such a thing as “the modern mind”. No matter. Hewitt fixes on the 1790s – certainly, on account of the French Revolution, a momentous decade. “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”, thought Wordsworth, before concluding that it turned into a decidedly less blissful, indeed rather dirty, afternoon.

Hewitt sets out her stall in the first chapter, ambitiously entitled “A History of Emotions”, in which she asserts that “emotional cultures could change”, and that “new repertoires of emotion could be generated and paradigm shifts could occur in medical theories about the origin and operation of the passions in the body. Precisely such a revolution of feeling took place in the last decade of the 18th century.” I like that “precisely”. It reminds me of one of my schoolmasters who used to say that any sentence beginning with the word “surely” should be distrusted.

There is a good deal about how we write and speak about emotions, some of which is interesting, some platitudinous and old hat. Happily, however, Hewitt is concerned not only with this sort of stuff, but also with individuals, in particular with a number of intellectuals – Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey, Thomas Beddoes and Richard Lovell Edgeworth – who were first excited by the Revolution in France and hoped that it would lead to political reform and greater liberty in England, only to suffer disappointment as the British government of William Pitt embarked on a course of repression. Hewitt’s sympathies are with these idealists, and especially with Wollstonecraft and her insistence on the sadly neglected rights of women.

She gives an admirable and enjoyable account of their opinions, experiences and stories, and treats their disappointments and disillusionment with generally intelligent sympathy. They were all striving for what they deemed to be a better world, as idealists have throughout history.

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