- The Military Memoir and Romantic Literary Culture, 1780–1835
Neil Ramsey’s The Military Memoir and Romantic Literary Culture, 1780–1835 explores ‘the emergence of the military memoir as a distinct and prominent literary genre’ – ‘one which shifted from a relatively marginal to a surprisingly dominant position in British literary culture’. In doing so the book attempts to chart the frictions and cultural contradictions contained in literary texts produced by army veterans in the early nineteenth century, as well as those found in contemporary critical responses to these works.
Scholarship in the field of war experience mediated through writing continues to develop in relation to centuries-old conflicts to present-day battles fought in Iraq and Afghanistan; this work is contextualised by a number of recent studies, and provides another facet to our developing understanding of how soldiers and their readers negotiate the gaps between experience, language, and the realities of modern warfare.
Ramsey is keen to resurrect a forgotten (forgotten by literary critics, that is) body of war literature that has been buried by time and the familiarity of twentieth-century literary artefacts created following the Great War (1914–18). Although these earlier works have been [End Page 191] mined extensively by historians, Ramsey offers the first full-length literary study of the place such memoirs have in the fabric of British Romantic period culture. The texts under consideration represent modes of expression that demonstrate the thinking, feeling, and retrospectively viewed actions of soldiers: writing that reflects upon identity framed by war. The book examines how individuals saw themselves, their country, and the world around them and how the publication of these memoirs began to change the way the country viewed its soldiers, their service, and their sacrifice. It is, Ramsey says, a genre that would come to ‘commemorate the nation’s wars for a middle-class audience’.
The first half of The Military Memoir and Romantic Literary Culture explores the development of the military memoir as a Romantic-period event and its post-war acceptance as a form of commemorative history. The latter half of the book takes this framework and provides analysis of five key texts. In Part I we see how the ‘quotidian details’ of impersonal strategic overviews written by senior officers (or ‘accounts of services rendered’ penned by common soldiers) begin to become records of the ‘experience of ordinary individuals’ and their ‘personal reactions’. As such, these tales ‘established the central role of military adventure in the later Romantic period’s literary response to war’. Indeed, by the 1830s critics were of the belief that such memoirs were ‘required reading for the British nation’. This being part of a shift recognised by the historian Thomas Macaulay, in the 1820s, who ‘argued that the best history was concerned with both documenting political issues and detailing the ordinary experiences of individuals’.
Building on existing forms, the new type of memoir began to take on the traits of sentimental writing, especially the ‘suffering traveller’ motif. This assisted the military memoir in becoming increasingly prevalent following 1815, and particularly during the 1820s. Ramsey emphasises the importance of this form of literary war representation as an example of early nineteenth-century moves towards what would become Victorian national identity and values (in works containing straightforward accounts of stoic suffering in patriotic service). At the same time, the book demonstrates how reminiscences by members of the Other Ranks are an integral part of the rise in nineteenth-century labouring/working-class literature.
Of course, at least initially, as Ramsey points out, the reading public were mostly of a certain class, and sympathy was directed toward gentlemanly officers rather than the Other Ranks who made up ‘an aggregate or abstracted whole’. Therefore, texts by ‘private’ soldiers often focused upon spiritual redemption: transformative tales charting the journey from sinful rogue to humble servant of God. However, with the reading public’s newfound interest in such memoirs, the Other Ranks found that they ‘might legitimately witness for the reader […] an account of...