- Historical Style: Fashion and the New Mode of History, 1740-1830 by Timothy Campbell, and: Rethinking British Romantic History, 1770-1845 by Porscha Fermanis and John Regan
It is widely recognised that the eighteenth century witnessed, in Britain and across Western society more generally, the emergence of a heightened historical consciousness. A key component of 'modernity', this new sensibility brought a sharper perception of temporality and of constant, ongoing processes of societal change. It also generated new philosophical and theoretical reflections on history and its underlying trajectories—including, most influentially, the Scottish Enlightenment's stadial model of social development—and an abundance of historiographical writing, encompassing both traditional forms and newer modes such as conjectural and sentimental histories. In contemporary literary writing similarly, this historicising sensibility is often prominent and conspicuous—most obviously in genres like the historical novel and the 'national tale', more subtly in a form like the Gothic, with its brooding on problematic inheritances and the past's ghostly, nightmarish intrusion on the present. Such fictions did not merely reflect the heightened historicism of the age, they also helped to form it. As many studies have suggested, there was no clear-cut demarcation in this period between what we might now regard as 'factual' or scholarly historical writing and more imaginative, literary engagements with the past: writing in many different forms and modes could constitute a meaningful contribution to historical discourse and debate.
The many intersections and interactions between the genres of history and literature is a key theme in both books under review here. And if this is in itself a fairly well-established understanding of the period, both of these excellent volumes offer new insights into Romantic-era historicism and the period's broad spectrum of historical concerns and historiographical writings. Timothy Campbell's route into these issues is especially original and thought-provoking. Addressing the period's material culture as well as its literary productions and intellectual history, Campbell's persuasively argued starting point is that a major factor in the emergence of a more historicist sensibility was the more rapid changes in clothing and costume generated by an emergent fashion industry. Or more precisely, it was accelerating fashion cycles working in tandem with a burgeoning print culture. Not only were new designs produced with each new fashion 'season', verbal and visual representations of those designs were quickly and widely circulated, in ostensibly ephemeral publications that in fact often had a surprising durability. Increasingly it became possible to pick up a dusty old pocket-book or journal and be confronted with what one might dub 'the shock of the old': the now unfashionable and disconcertingly dated garb of just a few years earlier, that perhaps you yourself had worn at an earlier stage of your life. In this way the quickening pace of commercial modernity, and the historical/cultural specificity of all styles, customs and epochs, were brought powerfully and intimately home to individuals.
From this arresting initial premise, Campbell goes on to weave a rich and sophisticated discussion of the imbrication of fashion and historical consciousness across the long eighteenth century, covering a lot of ground and a great variety of concerns and texts. In places, there are perhaps too many threads (pun intended) being pursued here, and the lines of argument sometimes become a little convoluted. For the most part, however, the book is revelatory in its [End Page 87] ability to show how many different debates and anxieties surrounding historicity and historicism were mediated through, or took shape around, debates about fashion and the depiction of clothing in art and literature. Thus the first chapter maps the period's emergent 'fashion system' and the proliferating forms of print representation—fashion plates, ladies' pocket books and such like—that that system generated, whilst also considering contemporary reflections on these processes of constant...