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‘Culture’, writes Raymond Williams, ‘is a description of a particular way of life, which expresses certain meanings and values, not only in art and learning but also in institutions and ordinary behaviour’ (The Long Revolution, 1961, p. 57). The word ‘culture’ has a very wide reference; culture and the study of culture, it is clear, span art and learning, but they also include ordinary behaviour. Culture in the Romantic period certainly does so. It was an age of high culture; it was an age of low culture (perhaps the better term for the latter is ‘popular’ culture). But then again, almost all cultures offer the same span, from the urgent challenges of elite art to more common social denominators. But when we look back to the literature of the age, we tend to prioritise high Romantic argument over more commonplace concerns, though, thanks to the contemporary novel, whether in the work of Jane Austen or in the less critically elevated contemporary ‘silver fork’ novel, we do have a sense of both middle-class and high society social shenanigans, of the goings-on at a country dance, a game of cards, or an aristocratic salon, or of a visit to Bath to take the medicinal waters, or to Bond Street shopping. As well as society’s more polite aspects, there was also a cock-fighting, boozing, whoring, animal-baiting, sporting and gambling side of late Georgian culture. Late Georgian culture was often raucous and arguably reflected the culture of war which dominated British life from the early 1790s to the 1810s in its violent sports (boxing a particular favourite) and appetite for fighting and boozing.
Both of these sides of British culture act, to borrow a phrase from George Orwell, as ‘a sort of diary upon which the English people have unconsciously recorded themselves’ (‘England Your England’ (1941), in The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius, ed. Peter Davison (2000), p, 391), and they are an important part of understanding how the Romantic-era poets, essayists and novelists lived, worked, and wrote, for they did not live outside their times. Romantic writers discussed and debated the key socio-political issues of the age, from the abolition of slavery, the impact of the French Revolution, and industrialisation and enclosure to the dangers and pleasures of opium, the impact of the latest dance such as the scandalous German waltz to the abolition of the state lottery in 1827 (as a menace to the moral welfare of the poor). The titles which are included in this the resource range widely in Romantic period culture, addressing fascinating areas drawn from all aspects of that culture, from Daniel O’Quinn’s ‘Preface: Romanticism and Sexual Vice’, Marjean D. Purinton’s ‘Byron’s Disability and the techno-gothic grotesque in the deformed transformed’, and Leila Walker’s ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley and the Ekphrasis of Hair’, though to Isabel Karremann’s ‘Human/Animal Relations in Romantic Poetry: The Creaturely Poetics of Christopher Smart and John Clare’, Joel Faflak’s ‘Romanticism and the Pornography of Talking’, and Anne K. Mellor’s ‘Thoughts on Romanticism and Gender’.
This resource allows us to trace how key aspects of the nation’s life and culture resound through Romantic period writing: the fear of the foreign (exemplified in the Emperor Napoleon), the way in which women were treated, the fate of children in factories or up chimneys, and cruelty to animals. William Blake’s ‘Chimney Sweeper’ poems from the Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794), for instance, highlight the brutal plight of the young boys forced to work in foul, dangerous and carcinogenic conditions:
When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry “‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.
There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved, so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”
(William Blake, Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. David Fuller (London, Longman, 2000), p. 97).
At the same time, more prosaic, though no less socially meaningful, matters also echo through to us from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: the graded social hierarchies of English life, the eating of food and the drinking of wine, the structures of everyday conversation echo through Austen’s work from start to finish, and her novels show how her work is informed by the cultural conventions to do with money, marriage and class, which bound contemporary men and women of a certain social stature, and the opening to her final novel Mansfield Park (1814) is a representative example:
About thirty years ago Miss Maria Ward, of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of a baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an handsome house and large income. All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it. She had two sisters to be benefited by her elevation; and such of their acquaintance as thought Miss Ward and Miss Frances quite as handsome as Miss Maria, did not scruple to predict their marrying with almost equal advantage. But there certainly are not so many men of large fortune in the world as there are pretty women to deserve them.
(Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, (1814), ed. Tony Tanner (Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1966), p. 41).
This resource is an invaluable guide to a rich and diverse culture.