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  • “O My Mother Spain!”: The Peninsular War, Family Matters, and the Practice of Romantic Nation-Writing
  • Diego Saglia

“One loves the house that one has built and that one has handed down.”

Ernest Renan, “What is a Nation?” 1

The study of nationalist ideology in Romantic culture is beyond doubt one of the significant themes in the present critical mood, and particularly within current descriptions of British Romanticism as a plural and often contradictory literary period rather than a cohesive movement. Yet Romantic nationalism still has not been investigated in connection with the Regency interest in things Spanish, nor has it been related to the cultural atmosphere of the Peninsular War (1808–1814). Indeed, the anxiety with which Regency Britain followed the events in the Peninsula triggered both the usual demand for war bulletins and chronicles and a remarkable output of novels, poems, and travel narratives evoking the Spanish landscape, people, culture, and history for an eager reading public. But although Spain was an exotic elsewhere for British readers, reading about it was rather different from reading about other distant places such as India or Egypt. During the Peninsular War the other character of Spanish history and civilization seemed annulled by the Spaniards’ rebellion against Napoleon and their alliance with Britain. As the preface to a novel published in 1809 put it:

At a period when the eyes of all Europe are directed to that awful scene of heroic enterprize now displayed in Spain and Portugal; when the heart of every Briton is animated to support the cause of oppressed nations; the most trivial incidents relating to that part of the Continent may be capable of exciting some degree of interest.2

Relatively new for an English public, Spain was narrated in a variety of ways ranging from recreations of its medieval past to adventures set during Wellington’s campaign. The Iberian country might be included [End Page 363] as a descriptive tour with little bearing on the overall structure of the text, as in the novel by Mary Hill from which the above quotation is drawn. But Spanish geography and culture might also condition the whole narrative development as, for instance, in Honoria Scott’s The Fair Andalusian (1810) and Alexander R. C. Dallas’s Felix Alvarez; or, Manners in Spain (1818). 3 In all of these novels, however, the theme of exotic Spain is constantly related to an investment in the discourses of nationalism. The quotation from Mary Hill’s Forest of Comalva insists on the fact that Britons’ hearts are primarily moved by the predicament of a heroic and oppressed nation. By this rhetorical gesture, Hill depicts both Britain and Spain as national communities at one fell swoop, while conversely offering the nationalist theme as a viable justification for Spain’s overwhelming presence in contemporary fiction. British literature deployed the Spanish theme as inseparable from nationalism, and from a Peninsular conflict often construed by the press as a crusade in aid of a fellow nation usurped by France, which in this scenario was no longer the Grande Nation but rather an encroaching, tyrannical (and paradoxically Jacobin) empire.

Images of Spain originated beside and within a wider Romantic discourse on war which displaced violence outside the reader’s horizon of experience, or rewrote the military as a site of nationalism as a way of excluding the immanence of death, defeat, and the collapse of the state.4 In this context, the literature about Spain and the Peninsular War combined the exotic and the military with a national ideology that was still quite unclear, connecting older forms of loyalty to newer ideas about political representation, the state, and the influence of the public sphere on politics. Anticipating the later expressions of Philhellenism or sympathy for the Italian carbonari, the narratives on Spain defined a pattern of images and themes which circulated across poetry, drama (as tragedy, opera and pantomime), and narrative fiction. 5 Furthermore, by charting the relations among nationalism, war, and the exotic, literature on Spain written during the Peninsular War offers a continuous output of texts closely linked by subject and temporal contiguity. Finally, although these works of fiction combine intimations of the literature of sensibility with...

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pp. 363-393
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