Simon Bainbridge, Napoleon and English Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0 521 47336 5 (hardback). Price: £35.00 (US$49.95)[Notice]

  • Paul Wayne Rodney

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  • Paul Wayne Rodney
    University of Michigan

The main thrust of Simon Bainbridge's book controverts much of the best recent scholarship in Romantic studies. Readings by New Historicists, such as by Liu, Jerome McGann, and Marjorie Levinson, have skillfully interpreted texts by way of historical omissions or elisions. Bainbridge, on the other hand, reads works as unequivocally concerned with history. His thesis is immediately clear: "it is astonishing that so little critical attention has been focused on the ways in which Napoleon was represented during the Romantic period" (p. 17). Bainbridge argues that Napoleon was a "site of cultural contestation, used to legitimize ideological power and institutional practices" (p. 6). This book focuses mostly on ideological power rather than institutional practices, by exploring widely divergent representations of and reactions to Napoleon by British Romantic writers. Bainbridge proceeds in a chronological, surveylike manner, starting around 1797 and proceeding to the years immediately following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo. In Chapter 1, Bainbridge begins his survey of English reaction to Napoleon with an initial consideration of Coleridge (who makes "guest appearances" throughout the book) and Southey, but he lingers mostly on Walter Savage Landor. The material here that seems most fresh is that concerning Landor's historical mock epic of 1798, Gebir . Bainbridge is at his best when bringing somewhat neglected texts to the foreground, as he does with Gebir , a poem unabashedly pro-Revolution in its historical analogy. Departing from readings of the poem by Brian Wilkie and Stuart Curran, Bainbridge relies on his knowledge of Napoleon's life to interpret Landor's observations on the progress of the Revolution, praise of Napoleon (which the poet would later recant), and the vulnerability of Britain's George III to political attack. Chapter 2 begins what is the real heart of this book (and the book's longest, best-sustained chapter), a treatment of Wordsworth's well-documented intellectual relationship with Napoleon. Here Bainbridge lays emphasis on the battleground of the "imagination," where Wordsworth fought against and appropriated Napoleon. We are quite familiar with the way Wordsworth has been characterized as abandoning his early liberalism for an increasingly conservative political outlook; Bainbridge supports such an understanding of the poet by tracking the metamorphosis of his early enthusiasm for the French Revolution into a loathing of France's belligerent imperialism. Bainbridge employs the sonnets to lay out the context of Wordsworth's "obsession" with Napoleon as of 1802 or so (p. 55). Here he most explicitly argues against New Historicist readings of Wordsworth's repression of history; while he credits such readings as provocative, Bainbridge implies they miss the historical references embedded in the poetry. Wordsworth's sonnets prove Napoleon was very much in his mind in 1805, when he was working on The Prelude , according to Bainbridge, so that reading the France books as an elision of history is too hasty. Bainbridge most explicitly combats the vision of Wordsworth in Alan Liu's Wordsworth: The Sense of History (1989). For instance, rather than positing the Simplon Pass episode as a prime moment of historical repression, Bainbridge shifts emphasis to the previous disappointment in Book VI of The Prelude , when Wordsworth first sees Mount Blanc: Bainbridge reads the "military speed" of Wordsworth's march across the Alps into Italy as a specific invocation of Napoleon's military activities of the previous years. "Does it seem reasonable to expect," Bainbridge asks us, "a poet who had spent two years writing numerous sonnets on the specific historical circumstances of his time, and his own position in them, to forget these matters when he resumes work on his autobiography?" (p. 56). The suggestion here is powerful, yet Bainbridge does not address a fundamental question we must return …