On 23 May, Jayne, Sid and I presented our recent work on Shakespeare and sustainability at the Telegraph Hay Festival. Thanks are due to INSPIRE/ASLE-UKI, whose 2013 essay competition on the theme of literature and sustainability this research won. The event, which was great fun, was chaired by Jane Davidson, Director of INSPIRE. Adeline Johns-Putra, Chair of ASLE-UKI, joined in the panel discussion. Here's a link to the video. Thanks to IBERS and BBSRC for Excellence with Impact support. Longer version of video with panel discussion.
Happy Face Spider (Theridion grallator)
Yesterday evening I spoke at Aberystwyth University’s Bioblitz. Over 200 participants spent the day, and much of the night, dashing around collecting as many specimens as they could find. It was an inspiring sight. My co-presenter, John Warren, one of the day's organizers along with Pippa Moore, capped his amazing talk by showing slides of the Happy Face Spider, native to Hawaii. I challenge anyone to gaze on this little surfer dude and not smile.
The theme of our talk was: “What have bugs ever done for us?”. My brief was to look at the cultural dimensions. I found myself thinking about how Romantic science did much to establish modern taxonomies of the natural world, and also about ways in which Romantic poets alerted us to the wonders of what we now term biodiversity.
The history of collecting and curating biodiversity is relatively recent. Early examples are to be found in Renaissance "Cabinets of Curiosity". A foundational volume of work was Thomas Muffet’s Theatre of Insects (1634). Systematic categorization of biodiversity, however, really gathered momentum as a Romantic enthusiasm. The most famous naturalist of the eighteenth century was the Swede Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), known as the father of modern taxonomy and also of modern ecology. Britain had its own celebrities, naturalists William Kirby and William Spence, whose work on insects was groundbreaking. But we shouldn't discount the Romantic poets' own contribution alongside these towering figures of early entomology to describing the natural world.
We’d be forgiven for assuming the Romantics were primarily interested in birds (think Keats’s nightingale and Shelley’s skylark). But the Romantic poets were fascinated by nature in all its forms. Keats’s 1816 sonnet on “The Grasshopper and the Cricket” is especially intriguing in this regard, since it imagines nature silenced of all bird song and invites us to attune our ears instead to what is left – the chirruping of the resilient Omocestus viridulus (common green grasshopper):
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,(Omocestus viridulus)
I’ve always thought there's something wonderfully subversive about Keats’s grasshoppers, who pass their song, their brittle communiqués, around an older network of intelligence – rural hedgerows. When the flashy birds have retreated in the political heat, the grasshoppers continue their conspiracies undaunted. Despite wide surveillance and a repressive political regime that had silenced many radical voices, the insects guarantee that, as Keats puts it in line 1, “The poetry of earth is never dead”.
If he liked grasshoppers, Keats was less impressed by gadflies. During his walking tour of Scotland in 1817, one stung him through his breeches. Keats was spurred to pen some doggerel lines on the insect, imagining it as an instrument of revenge to unleash on those he disapproved of: a local Scottish politician who’d managed to secure the support of Wordsworth, rival poets and ladies who read novels. Here’s a flavour of the bawdy whole:
Horse botfly (Gasterophilus intestinalis)
By gadfly, Keats probably means the horsefly species,Tabanidae. However, the reference to "breeding" a wort is suggestive, and may refer to another family of insects often called gadflies, Oestridae, whose members lay their eggs under the skin of cattle, and in some cases humans, leading to painful skin conditions.
The leading british naturalists of the Romantic period, the Williamses Kirby and Spence, have this to say about gadflies, classified as Oestrus L. in their two-volume An Introduction to Entomology; Or, Elements of the Natural History of Insects, 2nd ed (1816):
The Gad-fly (Oestrus L.) you have, doubtless, often heard of, and how sorely it annoys our cattle and other quadrupeds; but I suspect have no notion that there is a species appropriated to man: Oestrus Hominis … Even the gad-fly of the ox, leaving its proper food, has been known to ovi-posit in the jaw of a woman, and the bots produced from the eggs finally caused her death. (Vol 1, p. 137)
In their second volume, published the year of Keats's walking tour, Kirby and Spence turned their attention to the music of insects that had so fascinated Keats. Why did flying insects buzz? The pair cited Shelver’s experiments:
Upon cutting off the wings of a fly … he found the sound continued. He next cut off the poisers – the buzzing went on. This experiment was repeated eighteen times with the same result. Lastly, when he took of the winglets, either wholly or partially, the buzzing ceased. (Vol. 2, p. 382)
As for grasshoppers, Kirby’s and Spence’s explanation of that insect’s song was also anatomical rather than poetic:
Applying its posterior shank to the thigh, the animal rubs it briskly against the elytrum, doing this alternately with the right and left legs, which causes the regular breaks in the sound.Insect food stall, Bangkok
Keats loathed Newton for "unweaving the rainbow" with mathematics. He might also have despaired at Kirby's and Spence's dissection of the grasshopper's song as anatomically correct, but somehow prosaically beside the point.
Yesterday evening’s Bioblitz asked us to consider “What good are bugs?” Lots is, of course, the answer. Even Keats’s nemesis the gadfly has its place in the food chain, providing nourishment for house martins, swallows and swifts, which swoop low over the fields picking these slow flying prey out of the air. But beyond that, it's likely we’ll all be eating insects as the earth’s population continues to grow to a projected 9 billion by 2050. It takes 10 kilos of feed to produce 1 kilo of meat from a cow. The conversion factor of insects is much better: a ratio of about 1.5 to 1. The reason for this is that so much feed given to livestock goes towards producing heat; since insects are cold blooded, this doesn't apply. The latest sustainability thinking is that we’ll be gradually replacing meat at our tables with feasts of protein-laden insects.
Kirby and Spence, writing some twenty years after Thomas Malthus published his apocalyptic theory of expodentially increasing population growth in 1798, foresaw this in a chapter entitled “Direct Benefits Derived from Insects”. Spiny, spindly, buzzing, crawling ... insects, they informed their readers, were “endowed with highly nutritive properties”, and anyone who remained squeamish about eating them should consider the following:
Insects used as food, generally speaking, live on vegetable substances, and are consequently much more select and cleanly in their diet than the swine or the duck, which form a favourite part of ours. (Vol. 1, p. 300)
Food for thought, thought for food.
View from my office
Fire engine sirens continue to wail outside my office window above the National Library of Wales. By now, millions around the world will have seen the appalling pictures of the library’s roof on fire.
Fortunately, the flames have been doused, and the smoke that just an hour ago issued in thick billows from the roof has been reduced to spectre-thin coils. Attention is turning to the recovery plan. I’ve added my name to the list of hundreds of volunteers who over the next couple of days will be forming chains to pass a portion of the library’s millions of books – now under threat from the huge volumes of water moving unpredictably around the building – out of harm’s way. First trial by fire, now by water.
The sight of smoke rising in thick palls – now white, now black – from the roof of the iconic building was shocking in a way that’s perhaps difficult to imagine. Shocking, I think, not just because my profession is books, but also because libraries – and especially national ones – are cultural repositories. To judge from the magnificent response of university and NLW staff, students and members of the Aberystwyth public, we feel moved to salvage the tangible records of our thoughts, achievements, and desires.
There is something potent about the very thought of books burning – it conjures anxieties about annals erased, cultures unmade, radical voices silenced, new thoughts fire-censored.
The biggest book burning of the Romantic period was that which took place during the often forgotten transatlantic war of the early nineteenth century. Established in 1800 by an Act of Congress in America’s then new capital city, Washington DC, the Library of Congress and its 3,000 holdings were destroyed by British Regulars and Canadian Militia, who in August 1814 set about burning the capital’s public buildings, including the White House. The Library of Congress was singled out as a symbol. Within months, Jefferson had sold his private library of some 6,000 volumes to restock the de facto national library.
It’s started raining here. But the sirens are still shrieking.
Soldier playing salpinx (bronze trumpet)
There are, says Keats in Endymion, “those who lord it o’er their fellow-men”, and do so to the “fierce intoxicating tones/ Of trumpets … and belabour’d drums”. In each of his 25 poetic references to brass instruments, Keats has in mind military trumpets rather than civilian cornets, euphoniums and basses – and given that he preferred “ditties of no tones” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn”), we perhaps shouldn’t in any case pay too much heed to his sense of that instrument’s “fraught” joys (“Calidore”).
The group with one of the strongest claims to the title of world’s first brass band is the Stalybridge Old Band, formed in Manchester in 1809. Soon renamed the New Band, they rehearsed under the baton of Thomas Avison in a cellar behind the Golden Fleece inn. In 1819, its members became involved in one of the defining political actions of the Romantic period, engaged to play at the event that became known as the “Peterloo Massacre”.
"fierce intoxicating tones/ Of trumpets ..." (John Keats)
Contemporary engraving of Peterloo Massacre
On 16th August 1819, in a huge assembly that marked the culmination of a season of marches across the North of England, workers and political groups gathered on St Peter’s Fields in Manchester, demanding parliamentary reform and the repeal of the corn laws. Notorious radicals such as Richard Carlile, John Cartwright and Henry “Orator” Hunt were engaged to address the crowd, swelled in numbers to between 60,000 and 80,000. Those who turned out that day stood beneath fluttering banners calling for “Universal Suffrage”, “Annual Parliaments”, “No Corn Laws” and “Vote By Ballot”. Many held aloft red liberty caps, an incendiary symbol linked to the French Revolution.
"The cry went up among the Yeomanry ... Have at their flags!" (Peterloo eyewitness account)
The authorities responded by sending in the mounted Manchester Yeomanry, who unleashed indiscriminate violence. Sabres unsheathed, the mounted troops charged into the panicked ranks of men, women and children, killing fifteen and injuring many dozens. Newspapers and pamphlets were filled with eyewitness accounts of the brutality, fuelling national outrage. Poems written soon after the event by Romantic poets Percy Shelley (“Ode to the West Wind”), John Keats (“To Autumn”) and Barry Cornwall (“Autumn”) appear to allude to the chaotic energies of that day.
As for Stalybridge Old Band, there's some uncertainty whether the players made it to St Peter's Fields. It's likely that the authorities, having got wind of their planned involvement, detained them at a nearby pub.
BBC footage: click image for source
My own experience with brass banding began at the age of nine. In 1979, I joined Abergavenny Borough Band, playing cornet (badly) for ten years until I left Wales for the North of England myself to begin a degree in English Literature at Leeds University. My banding career coincided with the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5, one of the most socially divisive periods in recent British history, when Margaret Thatcher’s determination to force pit closures and confront union power sparked almost a year of bitter industrial action. Memories of those years – marked by regular and to a fourteen-year-old boy shocking TV footage of large-scale confrontations between miners and police – are back in the public consciousness this week with the former Prime Minister’s death and funeral.
Over 11,000 arrests made during the Miners' Strike
Click image for source
Many of the striking collieries had brass bands associated with them, each with proud traditions. Abergavenny Borough Band regularly competed against these bands in hotly disputed contests up and down the South Wales valleys. When the strikes finally ended – extreme poverty, intimidation and hardship on families having taken its toll – many of the miners marched back to the pits behind their brass bands in desperately moving “loyalty parades”. One of the most heart-rending, dignified scenes from that period is the sight of the Maerdy miners holding their union banners aloft, being led back to work by the colliery band, its numbers severely depleted, to the strains of “Slaidburn” on the cold morning of 5th March 1985.
I spent this weekend up in Manchester supporting Aberystwyth Youth Band at the National Youth Brass Band Championships. The contest was held at the Royal Northern College of Music, less than a mile away from the site of the Peterloo Massacre.
What an Easter break. Our ASLE-UKI-INSPIRE prize essay (see blog below) on Shakespeare and the food chain was picked up by Jonathan Leake, Science and Environmental Editor of Sunday Times. With the kind of media-savvy you’d expect from, well, a paper whose circulation is pushing 900,000, Sunday Times focused the story as Shakespeare the “tax-dodger” and “grain hoarder” in a time of dearth. We found ourselves on the front page leader column, page 22 and the Editorial on page 28. Then the phones started ringing.
Daily Mail, Mirror, Huffington Post, Telegraph, Independent, Yahoo! OMG, Der Tagesspiegel, Spiegel Online, LA Times, MSN News and Forbes followed it up, journalists rang for interviews and syndicated versions of the original research with new mash-ups went global. We made Radio 4’s review of the papers, news bulletins throughout the day and there are even reports (unconfirmed) that Sir Terry Wogan commented on the story. One of the day's highlights was an invitation from Stacy Herbert via Twitter to be interviewed about the “bankster bard” on the Keiser Report. [UPDATE: After the noon news on his Radio 2 show on Easter Sunday, Terry Wogan, remarking on the Shakespeare story in his beautiful, buttery brogue, uttered the enigmatic words: "Probably bacon". We may never know for certain what he had in mind, but he was perhaps referring to the fact that Shakespeare's father, among many things, was a butcher. Either that, or he was remembering J. Dover Wilson's often-quoted remark that the restored Stratford funerary monument makes the bard look like a "self-satisfied pork butcher". Or he was alluding to Francis Bacon.]
Reactions, inevitably, have been mixed, ranging from “this story makes Shakespeare seem more human and accessible” to “Welshski kommies knock England’s national hero”. The comments at the end of Daily Mail’s online coverage provide a good spread of public views in this regard. Huffington Post's online comments section is also heaving (over 500 views expressed so far) – with some excellent engagement with the political angles. Patt Morrison has written a very good opinion piece in LA Times in response to the research, with a great punch-line, ditto Alexander Lee in History Today.
While grain-hoarding certainly provides a popular way into the discussion, our research is concerned with exploring the ways in which an acknowledgement of Shakespeare’s involvement with agrarian trade helps us to read his works with a greater awareness of the tropes and metaphors that may have mattered most to him. As we wrote in Times Literary Supplement in 2010, and in our recently published Shakespeare Quarterly essay, play-goers have become increasingly used to seeing King Lear presented on a bare stage, in a ground-zero, psychologized staging where what’s at stake is a man’s struggle with the human condition itself. Yet key sections of the play are set in a corn field, and Shakespeare carefully references crop weeds such as the bastard wheat relative, psychotoxic cereal mimicker, darnel (lolium temulentum), to address themes of political and familial infiltration – “bastardy”, in the play’s terms.
In addition, the problem that sets the action of King Lear going is Lear’s division of the kingdom. Divisive in more ways than one. As we argue in our published work, by giving the scrubland, mountains and unproductive land to Goneril and Regan, and the valuable grain-growing regions to Cordelia, Lear is guaranteeing the derangement of the kingdom in the form of resource wars. A Shakespeare who knew all about the value of grain at a time of national dearth wasn’t making references to the corruption of the food chain by darnel or to squabbles over the most fertile land lightly. His crop weeds are not “literary” weeds, and the setting of Lear’s madness, his personal derangement, in a wheatfield – emphatically not a bare stage – shouldn't be seen as arbitrary. At any rate, looking beyond the headlines of grain-hoarding and tax-dodging, our work attempts to reconnect the plays with the crisis of food supply, distribution and sustenance in the England of Shakespeare's own day – crisis in which, through his business dealings, the playwright was himself a player.
Jayne, Sid and I will be discussing our ASLE-UKI-INSPIRE paper at the Hay Festival on 23 May, 7pm, along with Adeline Johns-Putra of ASLE-UKI, and Jane Davidson, Director of INSPIRE and former Welsh Minister for Environment and Sustainability.
Jayne's interview on Good Morning Wales with Felicity Evans (timing: 55.37-59.10)
My interview with Julian Marshall on BBC World Service’s Newshour (timing: 18.30-22.49)
Pdfs of Sunday Times coverage (front page, p. 22). Jonathan Leake, science editor of The Sunday Times, published these articles on March 31, 2013. The originals can be seen at www.thesundaytimes.co.uk
Fox News Radio bulletin. Newsy video feature.
Click image for details
Woo-hoo! The Aberystwyth University team (Jayne Archer, Howard "Sid" Thomas and me) that brought you "Keats's Car Park" last year has just won an essay prize with a paper entitled "Reading with the Grain: Sustainability and the Literary Imagination". Lead-authored by Jayne, the paper explores Shakespeare's involvement in the grain business. The competition prize is to deliver the paper as a public lecture followed by panel discussion with former Welsh Minister for Sustainability Jane Davidson at the Hay Festival on 23 May, 7pm. Hope to see you there.
Leigh Hunt, 1784-1859
Charles Lamb declared “there was no such other room, except in a fairy tale”. He was referring to the chaise longue, bust of Spenser, piano-forte, sky-coloured ceiling and rose-trellised wall paper with which Romantic journalist and poet Leigh Hunt transformed his enforced quarters in Horsemonger Lane Gaol into a site of extravagent protest.
Master of the rhetorical flourish, Hunt was imprisoned in February 1813 after years of assailing repressive British governments in inventively colourful terms from the pages of his political newspaper, The Examiner. Recurring themes in Hunt’s articles – signed with his deictic symbol, the pointed index finger – were government secrecy, cronyism, financial mismanagement, military abuse, widening surveillance and lack of accountability. In Hunt’s own words, his quarrel was with the “servile, the corrupt, the grasping, the wasters of human and natural life”.
Hunt’s sparklingly implacable journalism was aimed at the “dull-headed”, “cold-blooded” and increasingly high-handed administrations whose contours were shaped by the first war on “Terror” – a word that, as David Simpson points out in a new book, Romanticism and the Question of the Stranger, had acquired its first “urgent circulation” in the wake of the French Revolution. Hunt chose dangerous times to practice his art. Habeas Corpus, the legal safeguard that requires those arrested to be tried within a certain number of days, had been suspended in 1794 and would be again in 1817. In addition, the period saw the introduction of draconian legislation aimed at criminalizing political assembly and gagging the press.
Prince Regent & "Romantic Hackers" video lecture link
What finally led to Hunt’s incarceration, though, wasn’t his watchful dispatches on corruption, cover-up and “intolerable tyranny”, but rather a careless “foul and malignant libel” on the Prince Regent. Unable as always to resist an euphonious phrase, Hunt called the profligate, feckless son of George III, future King of England, a “fat Adonis of fifty”. He received two years in prison, and a fine of £50,000 aimed at shutting down his newspapers.
History shows that what Hunt called System tends to be ill-disposed towards those who feel promoted within themselves to lay bare examples of egregious abuse inside it. Certainly, recent events confirm that whistleblowers are more likely to be pursued, and with a vengeance, than those responsible for the misdeeds themselves. In so far as the Hunt who emerged from his fairy-tale cell in 1815 was a quieter man, who dared less, the temptation must be great for those with the means to do so to use prisons to remove inconvenient voices from the debate.
Coldbath Fields, 1819
Leigh Hunt survived the 730 days he spent in disease-ridden Horsemonger Lane Gaol for “showing truth to flatter’d state”, as his admirer Keats put it in a sonnet composed to mark the journalist's release. While conditions were squalid, Hunt was at least allowed to see his family, as well as other visitors to his notorious cell, including Romantic luminaries such as Byron, who dubbed him the “Wit in the Dungeon”. Smuggling in bottles of claret, they held drunken soirees and often submitted to being locked in overnight and let out the following morning by the turnkey. Hunt was also spared the lawless nightmare of torture and solitary confinement (many Romantic political prisoners such as the radical orator John Thelwall, friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge, were not).
On his release on 3 February 1815, Hunt was more or less left to get on with things. Today’s journalistic prisoners, including Bradley Manning – who on Monday will have served his 1000th day in prison without trial – and Julian Assange, whose jailhouse room in the Ecuadorean embassy perhaps most closely resembles Hunt’s fairy-tale cell, are facing more uncertain futures. It behooves us as enthusiasts of Romanticism this weekend to reflect on the principled underpinnings of the Romantic movement. We remember Hunt, who began his prison sentence 200 years ago this month, and we also call to mind his political inheritors.
Horsemonger Lane Gaol
Hunt had no shortage of faults, as letters from exasperated friends testify – but they didn’t disqualify him from criticizing “wasters of human and natural life”, two abuses that still go hand in hand. Hunt accepted the personal cost of protesting against institutional cover-ups, and his stand inspired some of the "great spirits" of his age, notably his similarly fair-minded protégé, that most humane of poets, John Keats. Also, and this might offer today’s "minions of grandeur" food for thought: it was precisely the attempt to avoid further political prosecutions that led Romantic writers like Keats to express discomfort with what they saw as the misdirection of Power in more oblique, but ultimately more resonant ways. The fruits of such slant commentary include Keats’s ode “To Autumn”, a meditation on the social effects of agricultural privatization, and one of the language’s most enduring – and enduringly urgent – works of literature (see earlier blogs).
I’ll end with Hunt’s remarks from later life on war. Sending “thousands of our fellow-creatures to cut one another to bits, often for what they have no concern in, nor understand”, he suggested optimistically, “would one day be reckoned far more absurd than if people were to settle an argument over the dinner-table with their knives”.
First edition, 1813
Why does Jane Austen remain so enduringly popular? The question was asked across the blogosphere and twitterverse last week, as well as posed in countless newspapers and broadcast studios, to mark the 200th anniversary since the publication of Austen’s novel Pride and Prejudice. I spoke myself to Western Mail journalist James Al-Mudullah about why I thought Austen continued to demand our attention, and it was a welcome opportunity to crystallize my own thoughts on the matter. You won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t subscribe to the opinion PD James offered in her interview with John Humphrys on Radio 4’s Today Programme, which seemed to hinge on a sense that readers of any historical age love a good romantic plot with a happy ending.
So, to expand on some of the topics I discussed with James Al-Mudallah earlier this week, I think that Austen’s appeal rests on three key features, which exist in fascinating tension. Yes, it’s certainly possible to read Austen’s novels as reassuring escapist fantasies, where each book culminates in a marriage that appears to uphold the social order. And yes, we also love the fact that JA was a forensic observer of human failings, and her novels are sharply attuned to the spites, envies and ill-will we harbour for our fellow beings, but imagine we manage to keep hidden from our peers.
Regency courtship woodcut
But there’s a far more interesting third reason why we still read Austen, 200 years on. Although her novels, and perhaps especially Pride and Prejudice, are often considered to be harmless comedies of manners and morality, set in polite society, they actually contain far darker, more subversive subtexts, and it’s these to which we respond. Austen’s novels aren’t fairy tales. Far from it.
Even Pride and Prejudice, which Austen herself thought was “too light and sparkling”, possesses these darker shades. We tend to focus on the famous courtship travails of Mr Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet, helped along by such fantastic adaptations as the BBC’s 1995 costume drama with Colin Firth playing the aristo-in-a-bind. But with the “fairy-tale” marriage of Elizabeth and Mr Darcy, Jane Austen wallpapers over much gloomier social issues – issues she leads readers towards with the subplot of Wickham and Elizabeth’s sister Lydia. The report of the 16-year-old Lydia’s elopement with Wickham takes us into far less salubrious but very real dimensions of the Regency world. Wickham isn’t only a feckless fortune hunter, but a predatory libertine with connections to crime, gambling and prostitution. This fate – and Austen is quite clear on this – is precisely what awaits Elizabeth Bennet’s sister. Only Darcy’s intervention, compelling Wickham to marry her, prevents this from happening.
Even the more upstanding Bennet sisters are only a throw of the dice away from a word of destitution and exploitation, since the inheritance laws of the day meant that only male heirs could inherit property. That’s the injustice on which the novel opens – with the Bennet sisters contemplating homelessness when their father’s house passes along the male line to Mr Collins. Marriage isn’t just a fairy-tale ending for the Bennets. It’s the only thing that will keep them out of the gutter.
There are other reasons, not usually cited, for why we still love Austen. She had a wickedly rude sense of humour, as anyone who’s noticed the sly references in Persuasion to “vices and rears” in the navy – couched in an allusion to different sorts of admirals – will appreciate.
But what attracts me to Austen most of all is her incredibly prescient and in important respects modern grasp of human psychology. At Aberystwyth University, we teach Austen’s novel Persuasion as a book dealing with the issue of what we’d now call post-traumatic stress. In that respect Austen is way ahead of her time. Has it ever struck anyone as a bit odd that Captain Wentworth goes to piece on the Cobb when Louisa Musgrove falls ands hits her head. After all, Wentworth’s a battle-hardened sea captain (actually a ruthless, state-sanctioned pirate). Yet he completely loses it, cries out helplessly for a surgeon, in other words falls to pieces. This episode can be seen as a scene of displaced violence, and trauma. In that instant on the Cobb, Wentworth is suddenly back on his ship, in the middle of battle, surrounded by wounded bodies – real, horrific wounds sustained in war. Whereas on the high seas he has to remain in complete control, back on shore the horror of what he’s seen – and, let’s be clear, done – in battle comes back to haunt him. It’s a story that hasn’t gone away, and in fact is being relived by many soldiers today. Austen’s is a remarkably modern understanding of how war scars, and destroys, human souls, combatants and victims. For me, it’s why Austen remains relevant.
It’s not just Persuasion that addresses topics of this kind. Mansfield Park touches on equally contentious issues such as slavery, and through the awkward silences that ensue when Fanny Price asks the patriarch Sir Thomas Bertram about his business interests, Austen invites astute readers to question the basis of wealth on which polite Regency society rested (sugar plantations, the trade in human lives).
So it’s perfectly possible to read Jane Austen's novels as polite romances, but there are more profound subtexts in her work that Austen challenges, and encourages, us to think about. It’s why we’ll still be reading her in another 200 years.
Data mining centre, Utah; GCHQ; sketch of Panopticon
In view of the scandal that's broken over the last couple of days (6-7 June 2013) on both sides of the Atlantic concerning the shadowy PRISM programme, it seems timely to revisit this blog's previous engagement with issues of privacy and surveillance.
PRISM, whose existence is no longer in doubt, gives government agencies access to personal internet data without users' knowledge.
Such all-seeing "inspective force", to use the phrase coined by Jeremy Bentham, Romantic author of Panopticon (1791), allows swathes of real-time data to be gathered for retroactive analysis, and is unprecedented technologically, though by no means unforeseen. Major tech companies are falling over each other to deny knowledge, and complicity:
"Several senior tech executives insisted they had no knowledge of Prism or of any similar scheme. They said they would never have been involved in such a programme. "If they are doing this, they are doing it without our knowledge," one said. An Apple spokesman said it had "never heard" of Prism. (Nick Hopkins, guardian.co.uk, Friday 7 June 2013 14.27 BST)Speaking at #29c3, 28 December 2012
Over the new year, Anne Marggraf-Turley and I held a talk at the 29th Chaos Computer Congress "Not My Department", entitled "Romantic Hackers: Keats, Wordsworth and Total Surveillance". In it, we traced the beginnings of debates around these issues in the Romantic period that in many ways anticipated, and certainly framed - continue to frame - such discussions now being rehearsed in the world's media.
The 29C3 conference's electrifying keynote was given by Jacob Appelbaum. Jake warned about the reach, both in terms of time and space, of the enormous NSA data-mining facility in Utah - which, along with the UK's own GCHQ, is now at the centre of wide controversy involving senators, parliamentarians and members of various publics.Coleridge (1772-1834)
Part of Jake's talk explored the implications, legality and social effects of total "inspective force". In that respect, his keynote recalled a lecture given in 1795 by a twenty-three-year-old Romantic poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Coleridge lamented that the populace's awareness of wide government inspection in that radical decade - which had its own war on Terror, the terror of France and revolution - encouraged them to adapt and flatten their behaviour to conform to social norms. This was during prime minister William Pitt's Reign of Alarm, when the argument was framed, much as many commentators contend it has been in recent years, as a choice between "national security" or "privacy". Thorns in the side of the State, such as John Thelwall, found themselves imprisoned without charge, or facing show trials on charges of Treason, which carried the death penalty. Under the pressure of such inspective force, Coleridge warned, the "beautiful fabric of love", community, begins to unravel:
"All our happiness and the greater part of our virtues depend on social confidence. This beautiful fabric of Love the system of Spies and Informers has shaken to the very foundation. There have been multiplied among us ‘Men who carry tales to shed blood!’ ... Little low animals with chilly blood and staring eyes, that ‘come up into our houses and our bed-chambers!’ These men are plenteously scattered among us: our very looks are decyphered into disaffection, and we cannot move without treading on some political spring gun." (Lectures, 1795)Henry Fuseli, The Nightmare (1782)
The Romantic internet - rapidly printed pamphlets, hastily communicated reports, distributed around informal networks, poems and essays - discussed spies, whistleblowers and the social effects of surveillance with a feverish sense of the importance of arriving at a consensus on the proper relation between State, public and private spheres. Today's internet is similarly animate with a healthy exchange of information on precisely this topic. Indeed, the parallels between the Romantic age and our own have rarely seemed closer.