The Romance of Italy and the English Political Imagination by Maura O'Connor (review)
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Reviews Maura O'Connor. The Romance of Italy andthe English Political Imagination. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998. 246 pp. + x. $45.00 U.S. At key points in her study, Maura O'Connor invokes the metaphor of "crossing boundaries" to describe both the dynamics of British support for Italian independence and her own interdisciplinary approach as an historian. A tendency to interpret international politics mosdy in terms of trade agreements, military alliances, and other diplomatic manoeuvres, she claims, has distracted attention from the cultural forces that inform a nation's foreign policy in the first place. To correct this imbalance, O'Connor introduces the useful concept of thepoliticalimagination to characterize "the processes by which nations composed their own (and one another's) powerful self-images" (2). The Victorian image of Italy emerged largely out of the vast body of travel writing, poetry, and fiction produced by and for the middle class. Noting Byron's description of the Risorgimento as "the very poetry of politics," O'Connor advises us not to "separate out the fancy involved in this story from the facts, because in the minds of English men and women there was no separating the two" (9). Call it the Shelleyan school of history: poets may indeed have been the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Attempting to unpack the complex signification of "Italy" in the nineteenth-century, O'Connor begins by examining the country's status as a coveted travel destination, both for tourists as well as those who traveled there vicariously through reading. O'Connor pays due attention to the widespread influence of Madame de Staƫl's Corinne (1807) and Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-18), but she also examines largely forgotten texts, such as Samuel Rogers' popular verse-travelogue Italy (1822), plus a diverse body of non-fiction travel writing. O'Connor detects a shift in the first half of the nineteenthcentury from an impression of Italy as a cultural and historical artifact to one of a vital nation in the making, the genesis of a new European civilization. British travelers came to feel "duty-bound to create out of the celebrated cities and regions and disparate parts of the Italian Victorian Review119 Reviews peninsula an Italian nation in their self-image" (54-55). This sense of cultural indebtedness added imperative to a Liberal ideology that placed Britain in the vanguard of a cosmopolitan Europe, one that embraced free trade and the right of national self-determination. O'Connor then explores how the exiled Giuseppe Mazzini energized an already sympathetic British public through writings, speeches, and other publicity. Numerous grassroots organizations, such as the Society of the Friends of Italy and the Emancipation of Italy Fund, emerged to provide support for the cause. Remarkably, some of the most influential and visible members of these organizations were women. O'Connor's fourth chapter, "Trespassing the Boundaries of Separate Spheres: The Gendered Politics of Italian Nationalism," provides, in the person ofJessie White Mario, a singular example of the public role women could adopt. White Mario gained widespread recognition as the organizer of Garibaldi's ambulance corps during his 1 860 campaign, and before that, she had served a four-month sentence in a Genoan jail for her role in one of Mazzini's failed conspiracies. Equally revealing of the public nature of her work is a lecture tour she gave in the spring of 1857 at the behest of Mazzini and the London Italian Committee. White Mario routinely concluded her speeches with a passage from Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Casa Guidi Windows (1851), although she did not identify the poet by name, understanding that her words would be immediately recognizable. O'Connor asks why White Mario's listeners find nothing odd in the fact that a woman would be one of the major spokespersons of an international political cause or that she would invoke the words of another woman to illustrate the cause's importance. The answer, she reveals, was that the Risorgimento had become gendered in a way that provided a unique opportunity for women to speak out on what would otherwise be considered a forbidden subject. Drawing on the insights of recent feminist...


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