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Alan Bewell has written one of the most important and original assessments of Romanticism to have appeared for many a long year. Romanticism and Colonial Disease is new historicism at its best. Packed with detailed and original research, it refocuses the Romantic movement in a completely unexpected way, demanding that we re-think the literature with which we thought we were familiar. But it does more than this—it also changes our understanding of British culture in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century and redefines our understanding of colonialism.
Bewell's subject-matter gives the book an arresting grisliness. Disease, he demonstrates in graphic detail, was a creature of colonialism. Imperialists spread old sicknesses to new places: Indians died in their millions. They brought tropical illnesses back to Britain, and re-exported them to other colonies. They turned small, local, plagues into global epidemics and themselves suffered agonizing deaths in the process. Almost every Briton, including most of the Romantics, lost family or friend to infections contracted in the empire.
In the circumstances, it is not surprising that Britons wrote about disease, not only in newspaper reports and medical treatises, but poetry and fiction too. Bewell reveals the sheer extent to which colonial disease figures in writing of the period. He effectively reveals that we have been missing, in Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, De Quincey and others, a subject that is as powerfully constitutive of Romanticism's aesthetics and politics as the French Revolution and its fall out.
Bewell's argument is multi-layered. Disease, he shows, was a grim physical reality but also a metaphor: 'colonial experience' was 'profoundly structured' by both aspects. As a metaphor, of course, it was a cultural product, its meaning constructed and contested. It rapidly took on the function of symbolizing foreignness, of imaging the cultures of the countries in which sickness was contracted. For Southey, Bewell argues, disease configured the infection of the British body politic by alien belief-systems. The Tory politician, defending the status quo against Jacobinism and 'superstition,' was a doctor expelling 'foreign' infections. Coleridge took a similar view during the panic over cholera in London, a socio-historical episode that Bewell reconstructs in compelling detail.
Bewell's vivid and convincing depictions of British culture, in London and in the West Indies, are fascinating. They go beyond being mere 'context' for the literary texts on which he also focuses, becoming rich cultural history in their own right. Their total effect is quietly to reshape our notion of colonial discourse. After Bewell's chapters on cholera and yellow fever, it is impossible to treat colonialism as a unified, self-consistent intellectual discourse controlling an Othered East. Bewell reveals a conflicting heterogenous chaos of voices which competed for attention. Colonial disease disturbed scientific categories, undermined certainties and, above all, consistently defied the imperialists' knowledge and control. It was this very power to disturb, Bewell demonstrates, that allowed the radical Coleridge and Shelley to make disease symbolise the imperial guilt and the revenge of the colonized. Romantics, briefly, learnt to use the sicknesses of empire to criticise their nation.
If Bewell's cultural history is arresting, some of his literary criticism is startling. He portrays the 'Ancient Mariner' as a dark allegory of colonialism, adding to the reconsideration of the poem in the context of slavery and yellow fever already made by Peter Kitson and by Debbie Lee. Bewell reads 'The Ruined Cottage,' Prometheus Unbound, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, The Last Man in detail, showing in each case an incisive and tactful ability to reveal the figurative impact of disease in the text, without denying its other elements. As literary criticism, as cultural history, as a redefinition of colonial theory, Bewell's is a groundbreaking book. All of us should ponder its significance for our work.