The French and American Revolutions taking place in the late 1700s changed life in England politically and socially. The period of revolution was a time when government, in one way or another, touched the lives of nearly every citizen, and through this increased interaction with their government a national political culture was being built. However, this was a paradoxical time with "unprecedented widespread popular political activity coupled with no substantial social or political reform" (Philp 26). This is not to imply that there was no social political agenda among Britons. Revolutionary thinking inspired many reformers; philosophies and ideologies were the subject of many public and private conversations, as well as the fiction and non-fiction works being published. Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution was published in November 1790, and Mary Wollstonecraft's anonymously written response, A Vindication of the Rights of Man, was published by the end of the same year, and A Vindication of the Rights of Women came out in 1792. Wollstonecraft, and others, demanded fundamental rights for women, and, by the 1820s and 30s, women's political representation was an issue brought to the forefront of Britain's political and social systems.
A central component of the British economic system during this time was slavery and the slave trade. According to James Walvin for the Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age, "Black slavery lay at the heart of the late-eighteenth-century British Atlantic empire. It dictated the pace and direction of much of the flow of the people and goods along those complex trading routes which were at once the lifeblood of empire and the sustenance of expanding metropolitan business, trade, and taste" (58). This economic reality, a socioeconomic and politically charged moral issue, was addressed by increasingly vocal women, as well as their male counterparts. Although personal and collective motives for the struggle toward abolition varied among religious, moral, humanitarian and economic, or any combination of these, it became a somewhat fashionable movement, and women played a significant role as key abolitionists. By 1825 women were joining the abolitionist movement in huge numbers and, although they did not have voting rights, their voices were strong and their boycotts were effective. By 1832 the representation was present in Parliament that was necessary for passing the Emancipation Act of 1833.
Slaves were emancipated, and the slave trade in Britain was curtailed, but life in England in continued to reflect the results of slave labor in the habits and additions of the English people (Walvin 65). Sugar and tobacco were just two of the fruits of slave labor that had found their way into their everyday lives. They had become accustomed to the items of luxury, convenience and necessity that had been introduced into their increasingly consumer-driven world.
With the rise of the "consumer society" (Porter 182), England was changing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The middle class saw their incomes rise along with their standard of living, complete with new comforts and pleasures in domestic goods and wares. A few examples include: Art in the form of prints and decorative item for the home; a wider variety of foods; toys and games for children; and more clothing options from the varieties of materials now available. A fast growing commodity was books and other printed items available through purchase, book clubs, and lending and subscription libraries. Brewer and McCalman note that by the late 1700s the publishing industry had become so complex that the first guide to English printing was distributed (in 1785) listing almost 650 businesses in the publishing and connected trades (198).
Books, print and readers were everywhere. Not everyone was a reader, but even those who could not read lived to an unprecedented degree in a culture of print, for the impact of the publishing revolution extended beyond the literate public. People who could not read were encouraged to buy a few books so that their literate guests and friends could read to them. (206).
This increasingly literary culture was looking more and more for books and periodicals offering light and fashionable verse, essays, travelogues, short stories and poetry. As women became more open about their own literary proclivities, they also looked for more appealing published items. This resulted in an increase in publication of "richly bound and lavishly illustrated" literary journals and annual gift books in the 1820s designed as gifts for women at Christmas and for other occasions (Erickson 899).
Annuals and gift books flourished. The first of them, Forget Me Not, was published in 1823, and more followed; they dominated the market from 1825-1835 (Erickson 899). Notable among the many books was The Keepsake which included works from the literary luminaries of the day: William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, Robert Southey, Sir Walter Scott, and even a posthumous piece from Percy Bysshe Shelley. Coleridge also published in The Amulet, The Literary Souvenir, and in the same publication as "Sans Souci" by L.E.L., the 1828 Bijou.
Connections can be drawn between revolution, slavery, and consumerism on the one hand, and the proliferation of published gift book and annuals which gave rise to the fame of L.E.L., on the other. The poet herself was not born until after the turn of the century in 1802, but the forces which would drive the course of her life and work were in full motion and waiting for her entry into the world of Romantic era prose and poetry as it manifests itself in a post-revolutionary, consumer driven time and place.
French Revolutionary painting
Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age, edited by Iain McCalman, Director Humanities Research Centre, Australian National University, Canberra
English tea set c. 1820
Dinnerware c. 1812
A few links to some of the events mentioned on this page:
The Oxford Companion to the Romantic Age (a great resource)
England: 18th Century (includes a great little piece titled A Day in 18th Century London)
Forget Me Not Hypertextual Archive (the web site I WISH I had made!)
The Keepsake gift book LEL's verses and The Keepsake of 1829