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Festival of Ideas

The Revolution of Feeling in the 1790s Rachel Hewitt

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The hopes of the revolutionary 1790s turned to a widespread experience of disappointment and failure among British radical movements.

The French revolution took an increasingly bloody course, the British government cracked down on political meetings and publications, and the reform movement collapsed. This failure of hope did not just change how radicals in the 1790s felt, transporting them from hopeful optimism to disappointment to despair. It profoundly altered how they felt about feeling itself.

In exploring this ‘revolution of feeling’, historian and writer Rachel Hewitt shows how, during the 1790s, attitudes to emotion departed from the Enlightenment view, in which ‘passions’ were key to moral, sociable and political behaviour and a crucial driver of political reform. A new culture emerged, in which ‘emotion’ was a subjective, individual experience, often treated as a pathology to be pharmaceutically remedied; laying the groundwork both for Victorian, and for our contemporary, attitudes to feeling.

Bristol was a central location in this cultural shift: the home of Coleridge, whose youthful project to establish a ‘pantisocratic’ community in Pennsylvania was designed to ‘regenerate the whole complexion of society’ by reforming ‘the passions’ and sexual desire. Pantisocracy’s collapse was a landmark in Coleridge’s own political departure from radicalism, and his gravitation – along with many others of his generation – towards a bleaker world-view, characterised by guilt, sin, failure, resignation and repression.

This event was part of the annual Coleridge Series, inspired by Coleridge’s wide-ranging and radical lectures in Bristol in the 1790s.

IMAGE CREDIT: Jay Varner.

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