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M. O. Grenby. The Anti-Jacobin Novel: British Conservatism and the French Revolution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-521-80351-9. Price: US$65.00.

  • Gary Handwerk

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  • Gary Handwerk
    University of Washington, Seattle

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Anti-Jacobin fiction constitutes a fairly narrow slice of literary history—M. O. Grenby’s survey, easily the most comprehensive to date, includes roughly sixty novels and tales—and one that is, as Grenby himself notes (xii), not particularly distinguished by the literary merit of the works that comprise it. So the task that this study undertakes of demonstrating the historical importance of this mode of fiction is by no means an easy one. In its first objective, simply to provide an attentive account of this largely neglected material, The Anti-Jacobin Novel succeeds quite admirably. But it is at its critical best when it looks beyond this narrow frame to explore the role of anti-Jacobin fiction with respect to the history of the novel as a whole.

The argument in The Anti-Jacobin Novel is distinguished by both clarity and coherence, and rests upon four interconnected propositions. Grenby claims first that anti-Jacobin fiction is a distinctive and cohesive literary mode, defined by an identifiable set of narrative strategies as well as by consistent ideological concerns. Second, Grenby contends that although these novels were aligned with anti-Jacobin political discourse, they are distinguishable from it by their use of literary forms; writing politics as fiction, that is, fostered particular rhetorical tendencies and particular inflections of a more general ideological discourse. Grenby’s third point is that anti-Jacobin fiction, although historically specific to the post-Revolutionary era (almost all of the novels here were published between 1794 and 1807), this narrative mode proved popular and successful because it grafted its political purposes on to pre-existing, well-established narrative conventions. And finally, he argues that as anti-Jacobin fiction drew upon the literary past, it also pointed toward the future of the novel in two specific ways. Its politicizing of fiction contributed to widening the scope of the novel’s concerns, and its incorporation of orthodox political opinions into the novel helped to still concerns about the general moral effects of reading fiction, and thus to legitimize the novel as a genre. “Those who had first commandeered the novel for anti-Jacobinism, insisting that the political novel must be a lawful instrument in such a time of danger…had redeemed the novel in the eyes of many of its most inflexible assailants” (208). The impact of anti-Jacobin fiction was thus historically ironic; it strengthened some of the same cultural tendencies that many anti-Jacobin writers themselves deplored.

Grenby tells us at the start that his goal is to use anti-Jacobin fiction to “help clarify the nature of conservatism as a whole in Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries,” and he does make some helpful points in this regard. He stresses, for instance, the belated nature of the anti-Jacobin campaign—that its virulence and visible urgency had little to do with the political reality of radicalism in Britain. Yet most of what he argues about political history is not particularly new (if overlooked, perhaps, by those inclined to make more of British radicalism than was actually there). As he notes, “Radicalism, it is now generally recognized, only ever appealed to a relatively small section of society, and, in its appeal to a mass constituency in mainland Britain, was a transitory phenomenon” (5). So what Grenby has to say about the content of conservative principles or the tenor of conservative arguments is familiar ground, as are the specific narrative strategies around which he organizes his individual chapters—the negative representations of revolutionary events, the caricatures of the new philosophy, and the portrayal of Jacobinism as both hypocritically self-interested and deeply dangerous to established social hierarchies.

The deeper merit of this study, then, lies in its contributions not to intellectual, but literary history. The Anti-Jacobin Novel makes an intriguing case that these aesthetically uneven literary artifacts played a significant role in bridging eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction. In doing this, Grenby does for anti-Jacobin fiction what Gary Kelly, Pamela Clemit and others have accomplished brilliantly for Jacobin fiction—recovering the place of these texts in the history of the novel. Grenby’s success is all the more surprising, since anti-Jacobin fiction made no claims for its own originality. Like conservative education and literature as a whole, this narrative mode was predominantly reactive, borrowing techniques from Jacobin writers in order to turn them against Jacobin ideas (16). Yet anti-Jacobin fiction, Grenby contends, achieved real historical impact from strategies such as representing the appeal of Jacobin philosophy as comparable to the aristocratic seduction plot of eighteenth-century fiction. “The real success of the anti-Jacobin novel was to incorporate the attack on new philosophy within the traditional structures of the novel” (91) and, in so doing, to update and revivify those structures. Thus, for example, the rake or Gothic villain was transformed into the Jacobin vaurien and thereby kept alive. As part of a sustained literary campaign, the anti-Jacobin writers represented the political principles of Jacobinism as mere masks behind which the new philosophers pursued the narrowest forms of self-interest, their political grievances a mere “pretext for the machinations of miscreants desirous only of pursuing their own agenda through the incitement of the crowd” (51).

Yet for all of their evident bias, Grenby argues, the treatment of serious political topics in the mode of fiction by anti-Jacobin novelists contributed both to legitimizing fiction as a mode of serious cultural discourse and expanding the range of its permissible topics; it helped end the long-running debate about the moral status of the novel. This shift occurred despite the fact that these novels offered scarcely a pretense of actual debate about the issues they took up; there was, as Grenby clearly demonstrates, no real war of ideas going on within their pages. The point of this fiction was to silence debate, to reinforce the attitudes of believers rather than to create converts. Indeed, the anti-Jacobin writers could hardly have written serious novels of ideas, for “they felt that debate, questioning and ratiocination, were the very tools of the Jacobins and the hallmarks of their new philosophy” (79). In building this line of argument, Grenby provides a wealth of detailed information and informative analysis about the works that he examines.

The Anti-Jacobin Novel also sets itself a second task that proves harder to accomplish in trying to prove the direct social impact of this fiction. That anti-Jacobin novels were published in large (though not overwhelming) numbers or even that they were regularly reviewed does not, in itself, tell us much about their general cultural reception—as information about press runs or circulation patterns or the views of contemporary readers outside the critical establishment might. It is altogether plausible that there was a reciprocal relation between the authors and audience of these novels (though describing the latter as “co-authors” pushes this argument surprisingly far, 171). But there is little that Grenby (or any contemporary critic) really can tell us about the size or scope of the audience for these works, much less about the impact that individual works might have had. It would be easier to claim that their popularity did “endow these novels with a representativeness which entitles them to be thought of as a vital key to the understanding of British society in an age of crisis and as perhaps the most historically meaningful literary response to the French Revolution and its aftermath” (1-2), if one had more complete evidence for just how popular they actually were. Grenby does provide a highly useful chapter on publishers and reviewers, showing that there was a widespread desire among literary critics to make something of these anti-Jacobin tales. But that evidence, though compelling, still falls a step short of the larger claim about their actual dissemination.

Yet this last link in Grenby’s argument is probably less crucial to his overall case than he seems to think. He has, in fact, demonstrated quite powerfully that the anti-Jacobin novels did reflect (and doubtless help create) the mood of their times—as much in their intellectual superficiality and narrative predictability as in their ideological vehemence. More crucially, he has also made a provocative case that these works contributed in visible ways to the evolution of British fiction, helping prepare their readers for the works of Scott and others that were to follow in the early years of the nineteenth century. On these terms alone, The Anti-Jacobin Novel can be counted a significant contribution to the literary scholarship of what we might, after reading it, feel less inclined to label the Romantic age.