- Radical Orientalism: Rights, Reform, and Romanticism by Gerard Cohen-Vrignaud, and: The Orient and the Young Romantics by Andrew Warren
These two new studies of Romantic Orientalism attempt to render unto Edward Said that which is Said’s. By this, I mean they take for granted Orientalism’s presence as a structuring frame for conceptualising the East, but turn renewed attention to the social and imaginative context of British Romanticism. For Gerard Cohen-Vrignaud, who focuses on Oriental themes in British radical writing, this means ‘teasing out the political and cultural work eastward gestures did for marginalized Britons’. He rejects the view that ‘one cannot liberally critique another nation’s rulers without also calling for “liberal” intervention’. For Andrew Warren, who explores the Young Romantics’ relation to previous generations and each other, the texts and tropes of Orientalism were themselves a species of despotism. Byron, Shelley and Keats, Warren argues, all employed ‘a complex programme of irony and figuration to undermine a series of ideological, aesthetic, and ethical positions’; studies of Romantic Orientalism have missed the lessons of Romantic irony, in other words. For Byronists, there is much of interest in both books.
Cohen-Vrignaud takes as his subject the Orientalisation of the British establishment by political radicals who opposed it. Thomas Wooler, editor of Black Dwarf, described George IV as the ‘Grand Sultan’ of the West and British soldiers as his ‘janissaries’. For William Cobbett, ‘bankers are the bashaws’ holding the people in thrall to paper money. Chiding Catherine Morland for her lurid speculations, Henry in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey urges her to ‘remember the country and the age in which we live. Remember that we are English, that we are Christians’. But Richard Carlile, campaigner for press freedom and universal suffrage and a persistent critic of the government, claimed that the Irish ‘have suffered more under the sway of the English Government than the Greeks have suffered under that of the Turks, and [...] of the two, the Turkish Government has evinced by far more civilization and humanity’. Byron tended to agree. In Don Juan, he claimed that the high-minded republican Milton would have deplored things as they stood in the 1810s: ‘would he adore a sultan? he obey / The intellectual eunuch Castlereagh?’
Cohen-Vrignaud uses such examples to trace different uses of the East for radical purposes. His first three chapters show how Oriental examples were employed to campaign for human [End Page 183] rights, which he sees as stemming from ‘the egalitarian rhetoric of radical reformers’ rather than the Bill of Rights, and cite Conrad’s impalement in The Corsair as an emblem of the physical cruelty sanctioned by despotic government. The fourth and fifth chapters bring a major shift of emphasis from popular radicalism to radical individualism, a very different kettle of fish. ‘Lord Byron, who in his politics is a liberal, in his genius is haughty and aristocratic’, Hazlitt observed in The Spirit of the Age and readers may find a similar tension between the ‘infidel’ Byron’s lofty defiance and the earthier voices of Wooler, Carlile, John Oswald and William Hone, whose aspirations in practical terms were far removed from his lordship’s. What we might call the aristocratic strain of radical Orientalism was concerned with holding aloof from the vulgarity of political economy and the moral impertinence of Christianity. Cohen-Vrignaud could make more of this, but the simple fact is that Orientalism as an exotic fabrication was sexy and fun, which is why readers loved it. The author’s queer readings of The Corsair and Lara serve him well in this respect. Conrad, contemplating his impalement, blushes with the dawn to think how the spectators will judge ‘how well or ill those pangs are borne’ by one accustomed to regard his masculine Western body as physically inviolate. Lara’s unnameable secrets and homoerotic urge towards...