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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[Notice]

  • David Chandler

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  • David Chandler
    Corpus Christi College, Oxford

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 …

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