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Steven Blakemore, Intertextual War: Edmund Burke and the French Revolution in the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft, Thomas Paine, and James Mackintosh. Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1997. ISBN: 0-8386-3751-5. Price: US$39.50 (£30).Steven Blakemore, Crisis in Representation: Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, Helen Maria Williams, and the Rewriting of the French Revolution. Cranbury, New Jersey: Associated University Presses, 1997. ISBN: 0-8386-3714-0. Price: US$39.50 (£30).

  • Mark Philp

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  • Mark Philp
    Oriel College, Oxford

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Professor Blakemore's two books cover different aspects of the English debate on the French Revolution. Intertextual War (IW) examines the way in which Wollstonecraft, Paine and Mackintosh responded to Burke's Reflections, emphasising in particular the underlying resemblances between these works and Burke's, and their shared use of a variety of oppositional idioms and languages of the past. For all the polarisation which is associated with the debate, Blakemore wants to emphasise that the war over the Revolution was simultaneously a war over former ideological conflicts in the British polity. In the case of each writer he also identifies a sub-text within their attacks on Burke: for Wollstonecraft, the language of madness and gender; for Paine, that of drama and the radical tradition; for Mackintosh, dissident histories of the Glorious Revolution. In Crisis in Representation (CIR), Blakemore addresses the way in which Paine, Wollstonecraft and Helen Maria Williams responded to the Terror and thus to the disappointment of the hopes for the French Revolution which each had earlier expressed in their writings. Each is seen as adopting a variety of strategies to come to terms with, and also to explain away, the divergence of the Revolution from its foreseen, proper and providentially ordered course, so as to retain their initial support for the ideals it represented.

Both books provide detailed readings of a core group of texts, together with some background detail on the biographies of the different authors. Both contain useful information and often interesting comment, along with a great deal of interpretative swagger. The former is to be welcomed; the latter will consign them to a readership entirely comprised of scholars of literature and English romanticism, most of whom will find the often convoluted interpretative postures done better by others. The average historian, biographer or historian of ideas is likely to fall at the first fence of Blakemore's literary rhetoric, and will miss the value which does reside in some of the detail in these books. Consider, for example, the following claim: 'In contrast, Paine, from the beginning, is the Ur-father, linguistically incarnating himself into history in 1776, producing the American Revolution, which causes the French Revolution and all the other revolutions potentially present in his original words ... Conceived in a cosmic love affair with himself, his providential existence in print means, for him, that his pure, ubiquitous presence will be forever preserved' (CIR, p. 86). There is a basic difficulty in knowing what to do with such statements—above all in knowing at what level their claims to validity are being pitched. Are they to be taken as an account of Paine's intentions or his unconscious motivation, is it a reading of his texts which references their intelligibility to a single authorial position, or an account of the place of those texts within a larger discourse? Certainly there is something to the idea that Paine's ego had a significant place in his writings, but Blakemore assumes that it is omnipresent from the beginning, and that Paine's references to himself are pure expressions of his ego, rather than often shrewdly contrived rhetorical devices designed to underline the ordinariness or common sense character of his claims and observations. Blakemore also underplays changes in Paine's position, for example, from the exceptionalist account of America's potential for preserving liberty in Common Sense, through the dawning internationalism in Lettre to the Abbé Raynal, to the call for international revolution in the second part of the Rights of Man and his Letter Addressed to the Addressers. He also ignores the extent to which Paine is voicing common readings of the revolution—such as the linking of America to France which is ubiquitous, following its appearance as an apostrophe to Price's Discourse.

For all the imagination and literary sensitivity with which Blakemore engages these texts, there is a surprising lack of interest in the problem of political rhetoric. Is Paine's reference to America a claim to be the Ur-father? Or is it a rhetorical strategy designed to cut the debate on reform in Britain off from events in France and to turn what began as a debate on France into a debate on political principles which cannot be tarnished with the French example? Similarly, in responding to the turn of events in the French Revolution, are these works to be read as data for the authors' various intentions and conflicting emotions and aspirations, or are they rhetorical performances, designed to achieve a certain effect? Intertextual War raises some of these problems most directly. Blakemore reads through the texts to uncover the tensions and contradictions in the author's position—identifying, for example, Wollstonecraft's portrayal of Burke's 'madness', with her own fears for her sanity in 1787. Properly to substantiate and give meaning to such a claim would require a demonstration that the imagery and metaphors used by Wollstonecraft are distinctive to her response to Burke. In fact, the suggestion that Burke had taken leave of his senses was rather commonplace—hence the depiction of him in the character of Don Quixote. If Wollstonecraft is extemporising on a commonplace why raise the fact that four years earlier she had a bit of an emotional crise?

A similar problem arises with the discussion of Paine's accusation that Burke was in receipt of a pension—something which Paine's enemies had levelled against him during the American Revolution. Clearly, there is some irony in this situation, but the crucial issue is surely what Paine was trying to achieve by his claim, and how well-judged this tack was as a way of attacking Burke. And to judge this we need some awareness of how far the story circulated, amongst whom, and with what effect. Similarly, the fact that Paine misrepresents states of affairs needs pressing to assess how far this was intentional, shared with others, and/or designed to vex his targets. These examples are indicative of the fact that neither book is really contextual enough; they press a few texts in detail, but leave the context out. There were over three hundred direct contributions to the debate on France, of which around a third were critical of Burke (and the number of related texts can be multiplied almost indefinitely). These texts, taken together—and taken alongside those who sought to defend Burke (a not wholly uncritical undertaking for most)—provide a context for a reading of Blakemore's chosen texts which inevitably compromises some of the claims which he makes, since what he treats as specific to an author is too often a feature of public discourse. The reaction to Burke was a deeply inter-textual activity and the texts of those two years need to be read in that textual context, even if they are also read in others. Yet, in Intertextual War, the bibliography cites only five texts from the 1790s (other than those by the three core authors). Crisis in Representation is similarly flawed, ignoring the writing of the French revolution undertaken in newspapers and journals, and largely ignoring the fact that everyone's understanding of the Revolution changed with events, and that people responded both to these changes and to the ways in which others interpreted them, once again making the immediate textual context absolutely critical to our understanding of these texts. Of course, this is to demand a great deal—but not unreasonably so. There is certainly space, since Blakemore is proposing to add a third volume to these two. In addition readers might be spared the bizarre wholesale repetition of chapter 2 of CIR as chapter 5 of IW and most of the Appendix on 'Paine's Letters to Burke'. Most crucially, more contextual understanding, at the expense of genuflection to modern literary and post-modern theory, would give his reading of these texts a substance that they too often lack.