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Penelope J. Corfield and Chris Evans, eds., Youth and Revolution in the 1790s: Letters of William Pattisson, Thomas Amyot and Henry Crabb Robinson. Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1996. ISNB 1 0750911638. Price: £20

  • David Chandler

…plus d’informations

  • David Chandler
    Corpus Christi College, Oxford

Corps de l’article

For anyone interested in the 1790s this ought to be essential reading: it is a positive gem of a book. The great historian E. P. Thompson discovered the Pattisson letters in 1969, but, unable to find time to work on them himself, he transferred responsibility for their publication to the present editors in the late 1980s. Now, at last, their considerable interest can be widely appreciated. The originals are still owned by the Pattisson family; the selection edited by Corfield and Evans is supplemented with a few letters from Dr Williams' Library, London. Fifty-two letters are included in all.

William Pattisson was born in Witham, Essex, in 1775, the son of a locally prominent Dissenter. He was intended for a legal career and articled at Diss, a small market town in Norfolk. In September 1793 Pattisson met and befriended the young Henry Crabb Robinson, also born in 1775, who was studying law at Colchester. The following year he added Thomas Amyot, again born in 1775, to his circle of friends. Amyot was a legal clerk in Norwich, later to be a prominent antiquary. Through Pattison, Crabb Robinson came to know Amyot and 'Soon a three-way ad hoc adult education correspondence course had developed, in which they quizzed each other energetically not only about the law that they were all studying but also about politics, literature, religion, morality and political philosophy' (pp. 11-13). They came to think of themselves as 'the Triumvirate' (p. 149), and while having enough in common to be good friends, they disagreed sufficiently to produce highly readable letters that are both entertaining and of great value to the historian or literary scholar. In religion, Pattisson was an Independent (Congregationalist), Crabb Robinson an Unitarian, Amyot an Anglican. In politics, Pattisson was a moderate reformer, hostile to the spirit of the times, Crabb Robinson an ardent Godwinian, Amyot out of sympathy with the prevailing tendency to reduce political questions to simple either/or terms: 'I am so pestered with Aristocrat & Democrat, Royalist & Jacobin, Pitt & Robespierre ... that I almost sicken at the sight of a newspaper' (p. 56). Like some other young men at this period Amyot turned to poetry - which he both read extensively and wrote himself - in search of a refuge from politics. (Thomas Starling Norgate, a Norwich contemporary of Amyot, felt the same, offering his Essays, Tales, and Poems of 1795 as an 'asylum' for those whose feelings had been 'shattered' by 'the melancholy catalogue of horrors which the contending armies have so repeatedly afforded'.) The bulk of Youth and Revolution is taken up with Amyot's letters to his two friends, principally Pattisson. There are a few of Crabb Robinson's letters to Pattisson, and one of Pattisson's to Crabb Robinson. Some idea of the many letters that have not survived can be gained from those that have. Also included are letters that passed between Pattisson and his parents, and two letters that Pattisson wrote to Hannah Thornthwaite just before he married her in 1800. These last appropriately conclude the book.

In the first half of the introduction Penelope Corfield gives a thorough account of the main personalities. This contains rather more on Pattisson's forbears and descendants than the average reader will wish to know, but the emphasis is excusable given that modern members of the family have made the present book possible. In Chris Evans' part of the introduction, entitled 'From "Citoyen du Monde" to "Citizen of Indifference": William Pattisson and Some Dilemmas of English Radicalism in the 1790s', it is hard not to get a little fed up with the insistent Pattisson emphasis, however. Evans champions the young Pattisson as the exciting supporter of 'a thorough-going radicalism' (p. 21), hinting that this was the proper way to think in the 1790s (at least until Pattisson changed his mind), and briefly contrasting him with Amyot, a witty sceptic, and (Evans would maintain) 'a more conventional, not-to-say jaundiced individual' (p. 32). None of this holds much water, and one supposes that Evans would have written rather differently if it was the Amyot family archive that he had been allowed to publish. The letters in the present volume alone are enough to prove that Pattisson's connection with the Norwich radicals was not nearly as profound as Evans suggests, and Pattisson's comments on the eve of the Treason Trials reveal him a sympathetic liberal but no 'thorough-going' radical:

Can you guess at the fate of Horne Tooke? ... I understand there really are some hanging charges against him.... - He is certainly a Man of very great Learning and Abilities, but even his friends must allow he is Turbulent and unmanageable - I have heard it hinted that He and not Paine was the Author of the Rights of Man ... I do not consider the Rights of Man in the first Rank of Democratic Publications - The Author has but little Logic and less learning...

p. 85

Pattisson was a concerned observer of his times, and in the mid-1790s his sympathies were with the more moderate reformers. At the same time he came from a family where social injustices, if they could not be corrected, could at least be cheerfully endured because of a profound belief in a superintending providence.

Another problem with Evans' part of the introduction, indeed, is that he considers Pattisson as a Dissenter in general rather than an Independent in particular, then makes Dissent sound like an almost entirely political act. 'Their [the Dissenters'] whole identity was derived,' he states, 'from resistance to the crown in the civil wars of the seventeenth century' (p. 24). There is surely a confusion of cause and effect here: Dissent was religious first, political (if at all) second. This was particularly true of the Independents, who tellingly lost many of their members to the Methodists in the latter half of the eighteenth century (the Methodists themselves did not become 'Dissenters' until the 1790s).  [1] In Norwich, the East Anglian capital of radicalism, the Independents appear to have played a very minor part in the reform movement of the 1790s (largely fed by the Unitarian and Baptist congregations). Their minister was the widely-known Samuel Newton (father of the Samuel Newton who preached at the Independent Chapel at Witham and who was a friend of the Pattisson family) whose Syllabus of Christian Doctrines and Duties, in the Catechetical Form (Norwich, 1791) - note the date - contains the following on 'The Duty of Christians as Subjects':

Q. Are they [Christians] to submit themselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake?

A. Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake, whether it be to the king as supreme, or unto governors.... there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist, shall receive to themselves condemnation.

p. 153

Pattisson had grown up in a congregation where this catechesis was probably used, so one might reverse Evans' argument and suggest that rather than being discussed as (broadly) a Dissenter ergo a political liberal (or radical), he should be considered as a member of a sect that had developed an innate apolitical - thus effectively conservative - tendency. It does not seem surprising that at the end of the Treason Trials Pattisson 'rejoiced in secret without any external demonstration of Joy' (p. 99).

On balance I do not believe that many readers will regret that the majority of the letters in Youth and Revolution are in fact by 'conventional' Amyot. For a start, his very tolerant Anglicanism - 'To love god and to fear him, to do as we would be done by, and to love our Neighbours as ourselves is the Sum of Religion; the rest is superfluous' (p. 103) - and very tolerant political views - he pressed Pattisson to write for the radical Norwich periodical The Cabinet : 'you, who do not scruple to confess the democratic turn of your principles ought to assist in it' (p. 121) - surely make him interestingly un conventional in the mid-1790s. Moreover he is a better letter writer than Pattisson, and living in Norwich (then one of the three or four largest cities in England outside the metropolis) he had more of interest to comment on. Surrounded by expressions of both intellectual and popular radicalism, as well as impressive loyalist demonstrations, he remained, as he says, 'a Spectator' (p. 121). On Godwin and Thelwall, both of whom he saw in Norwich, he is particularly quotable:

He [Godwin] is still in a dream of Theory, but he does not snore loud enough to disturb the peace of his neighbours or to provoke any of Pitt's Watchmen to give him a tweak by the nose.

p. 135

He raves like a mad Methodist Parson; the most ranting Actor in the most ranting Character never made so much noise as Citizen Thelwall ... his action seems to have been learned at the School of Mendoza [the foremost pugilist of the period] & Co. If it had not been for the feebleness of his Person, I sho[uld] almost have been led to suspect that he was going to beat his audience out of doors –

p. 138  [2]

What is attractive about these descriptions is that there is no 'anti-Jacobin' tinge to them; indeed in each case Amyot proceeds to praise the latest publication of, respectively, Godwin and Thelwall. Amyot's stance is that of an amused referee at the great debate of his times. The question of whether this was a somewhat less worthy stance than Pattisson's moral support for the reformers is pointless; Amyot's letters are well worth reading. They are also, with their many literary references, a valuable accession to the history of reading. In his first letter to Pattisson (13 May 1794), for example, Amyot notes that he has been reading not only Shakespeare and Gray, but also James Hurdis' Village Curate (1788), Robert Merry's Laurel of Liberty (1791), and John Sargent's The Mine (1785): 'But nothing I have read lately has given me so much pleasure as the Elfrida & Caractacus of Mason' (p. 57). Letters like this can valuably expand our understanding of the literary culture of the period.

The letters in Youth and Revolution are, as the preface notes, 'transcribed as they were written, complete with their sprinkling of minor errors and other idiosyncrasies' (p. v), but passages dealing purely with technical points of law have been excised. These were sensible editorial decisions, and the reader can only benefit. The letters are thoroughly annotated, for the most part in exemplary fashion, though it is occasionally a little obvious that the editors are historians and not literary scholars. Somewhat eccentric is the annotation to Amyot's description of one of his poems as an 'Ode': '"if Ode it may be called that Ode is none"' (p. 97). An echo of Dryden's 'Even by thy shame, if shame it may be called' claim the editors, but Amyot was, of course, parodying Milton's description of Death - 'If shape it may be called that shape had none' - further confirming the classic status of this passage of Paradise Lost in the later eighteenth century, and, by alluding to the idea of shapelessness, amusingly commenting on the problems facing the amateur writer of Pindarics. Perhaps more serious, when Amyot devotes a letter to the question 'What is Poetry?', arguing that 'Poetry is an Imitation of the works of nature either visible and substantial or invisible & ideal' (p. 108), no annotation is offered. It would have been worth noting, at the least, that Amyot was swimming against the tide and that it was William Enfield, dean of the Norwich literati, who in a classic essay in the Monthly Magazine a year later 'gave clear statement to an obvious argument ... never ... so bluntly expressed' against 'the imitation doctrine'.  [3] Small mistakes and omissions of this nature detract little from a book that has as much to offer as Youth and Revolution , however. It can be warmly recommended.

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