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  • War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime
  • Karen Hiles
Mary A. Favret, War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009). Pp. ix, 262. $26.95.

When a country goes to war, how are individual citizens' lives affected? How does war change the way they think, interact with each other, or represent the world around them? What does one wartime citizen have in common with another, across the globe or across the centuries? Although most scholars engaging with these questions have focused on mid-nineteenth-or twentieth-century conflicts, it was the Napoleonic era that witnessed several important developments, including [End Page 548] the first appearances of the terms "non-combatant" and "civilian" in the English language, and the emergence of the idea of "wartime" itself as a distinct category (13). In recognition of the era's significance, Linda Colley called for more attention to British civilians' wartime experience in her 1992 book Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837, observing how little was known of responses to the wars—or "to the innovations, conquests and dangers that accompanied them"—and remarking that, since Britain never suffered an invasion during this period, "the impression has persisted that … [these conflicts] took place largely outside the thought-world of its civilian population" ([repr. Yale University Press, 2008], 3). Mary A. Favret's pathbreaking and sophisticated new book answers Colley's call and more, by offering thoughtful analyses of responses to war across an impressive variety of media from the period. Along the way, she reveals much about the Romantic origins of our own experiences of distant war today.

Though the British citizenry feared an invasion by sea that never came, it was their distance from the fighting that defined their collective wartime experience. Favret explains that, after the 1745 defeat of the loyalists at Culloden, "war on home turf happened back then; it was history. If it occurred now, it occurred beyond the reach of eyes and ears, somewhere else, over there" (10). Favret takes distance—whether geographic or temporal—as a central theme for her study. Thus, instead of letting the "problem" of British distance foreclose critical possibilities (a narrowness that has led to the persistent fallacy mentioned by Colley), she allows distance to guide her toward alternative, unexpected responses among the citizens and artists who populate her study. She argues that, by necessity, writers and artists of the Napoleonic period developed a wartime culture capable of mediating that distant violence and, moreover, that it was in particular the generation of writers from Cowper to Coleridge who through this process helped "construct the first wartime of modernity" (4).

Favret draws upon an array of materials and contexts to support this claim, ranging from the history of meteorology to visual culture (namely the sublime panorama and the picturesque landscape painting) to a host of literary genres: lyric poetry, novels, diaries, newspaper and periodical writing, prophecy writing, dictionaries, and contemporary critical theory. In embracing such a range of sources and expressive modes, Favret's book is truly a cultural history (though one notes that the performing arts, especially music, are almost entirely absent from the discussion). Most importantly, she asserts the productive potential of wartime, declaring that "wartime may establish something that war would otherwise destroy, namely a culture; and that wartime writing and art might be able to make the imperceptible felt" (18).

Favret's search for "the imperceptible" (18) is evident in the book's opening prelude, which shifts among three poets staring into the hearth on a cold winter's night, lost in thought over a war raging somewhere else. The excerpts—from William Cowper's "The Winter Evening" from The Task (1783), Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight" (1798), and C. K. Williams's "The Hearth" (2003)—introduce the book's motifs: "Winter, night, the hearth, the news. Invasions, interruptions and flickering, foreboding strangers. Flights of memory and winged predators. Tumult and quiet; listening and not listening; thinking and not thinking; blaze and frost. Lapse, vacuity, absence, nullity. Uncertainty and prophecy" (4). Here Favret also emphasizes one motivation for her choice of topic: her own curiosity...


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pp. 548-551
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