Philip Shaw. Waterloo and the Romantic Imagination. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2002. ISBN 0-333-99435-3. Price: US$69.95 (£47.50).[Record]

  • Michael John Kooy

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  • Michael John Kooy
    University of Warwick

Romantic studies has for many years neglected war. The subject was understandably overshadowed by the apparently more exciting rise and fall of political radicalism in the Revolution debates of the 1790s. And yet the neglect was not just occasional but willful, as Philip Shaw rightly points out in this provocative and original book: it arose from a reluctance to engage closely with a wide swathe of Romantic period writing that is often disturbing in its effects and that accordingly could only safely be read in terms of a narrative about Romanticism’s retreat from the radical. That situation has now changed. There are now a number of excellent books on this subject (by Gillian Russell, Simon Bainbridge and J. R. Watson), and more to come, as well as new essays (see Philip Shaw’s collection, Romantic Wars, Ashgate, 2001, as well as a recent issue of the journal Romanticism, which Jackie Labbe and I edited). Shaw’s book is among the best of this recently published work: subtle, wide-ranging, and original, this book’s analysis of the representation of war in the period is fundamental to our re-assessment of the topic. The book’s title refers not to the Battle of Waterloo but the Victory at Waterloo, that is, to the process by which a military event was transformed, by various hands, into a national myth of great power. Romanticism’s role in this act of myth-making remains continuously in Shaw’s sights – both how it performed this work, and why. The book’s agenda is, accordingly, one of de-mythologizing. This is wholly salutary. As historians generally agree, it was the disastrous defeat in Russia in 1812-13 that fundamentally weakened the Napoleonic empire, and newly raised armies and even victories during the 100 Days could not disguise this fact. By the time of Waterloo, Napoleon was a nearly spent force, regardless of the numbers he could put in the field: France was exhausted and politically divided and the Allies, having finally agreed a strategy, simply needed to hold to their resolve. Waterloo was, though it appeared touch-and-go at times, an inevitable victory. But Shaw is not interested in history as such. He has a healthy, one might almost say Romantic, skepticism of the facts. He is careful to avoid the fallacy (frequent enough in the work of some New Historicists, as Shaw argues in his Introduction) that we can know history independent of our representations of it and it is the series of representations of Waterloo as a victory that keep his attention. These are analyzed not in terms of their departure from what really happened (which, in a sense, goes without saying), but as symptoms of a certain cultural and political condition. More specifically, they are symptoms of a deep-seated, even unconscious fear in Regency culture that the British war effort, to all appearances united and powerful, was not based on solid consensus at all, but instead masked deep-seated social and political divisions and, even worse, torpor. So long as the war lasted, the fiction of consensus and purpose could be maintained, but with the advent of peace, after Waterloo, the divisions and insecurity would be undeniable, indeed, they would have to be addressed. In an instinctual (perhaps unconscious?) revulsion at such a prospect, the Romantic imagination sought to perpetuate the fiction of a political consensus and found the ablest means to do so by memorialising Waterloo. This, then, is the reactionary political motivation behind many Romantic representations of Waterloo. It’s not difficult to see how this played into the hands of the state and its guardians, who naturally wished to see consensus rather …