Daniel Norman Durham University
A Trusted Source article created as part of the University of Oxford Knowledge Transfer Partnership
The French Revolution (1789 – 1799), had a deep and lasting impact upon the whole of Europe, profoundly challenging traditional notions of authority and political power. Many in England were inspired by the movement’s core ideals of social equality and popular sovereignty, believing that a new era of political change had been heralded. Members of the establishment, however, felt a fundamental threat from these new ways of thinking, and the heated debate that followed would provoke a substantial literary and political response from all sections of society.
Immediate political effect
In the early months and years of the revolution, several English observers drew comparisons with the American Revolution which had taken place a decade earlier, seeing both events as popular uprisings against unfair taxation and authoritarian rule.
More conservative critics disagreed, some taking the view – compellingly articulated by the prominent Whig politician Edmund Burke – that the French Revolution was of a wholly different character from its predecessor, and that its sudden and sweeping changes could only result in catastrophe. Burke’s argument not only served to rally critics of the revolution, it also provided a focal point around which politically radical thinkers were able to centre their attacks upon the British establishment.
The execution of Louis XVI in 1793 and the bloody events of The Terror were seen by some to realise Burke’s predictions, but many continued to believe in the ideals on which the revolution had been founded. Britain’s decision to go to war with France, in coalition with other European states, received strong criticism from these individuals, although the increasingly aggressive conduct of the French Republic in later years silenced much opposition.
The French Revolution had demonstrated the real possibility of large-scale political change, and this profoundly influenced the literature subsequently produced in Britain. Notions of personal freedom and the role of the state permeate the novels, poems, and plays of the period, with many of them containing vivid commentaries on the political significance of events over the Channel.
The Romantic movement
The French Revolution is also more broadly associated with the origins of the Romantic movement in Britain, the start of which is commonly dated to 1789, the year of the revolution. Romanticism, with its rejection of established conventions of literary and artistic taste, mirrors the French revolutionaries’ overturning of the ancient political systems and traditions of the monarchy.
This aspect of Romanticism is embodied in William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 collection of poetry, Lyrical Ballads, one of the best-known and most influential works of the movement. The poems of this collection, many of which were composed whilst the two poets were staying in rural Somerset, avoid the often florid and mannered language of their popular contemporaries, aiming instead for a more natural and unaffected tone.
Wordsworth and Coleridge’s approach was subsequently felt by many to have captured the spirit of the age, echoing the scepticism towards inherited customs and prejudices that the French Revolution had championed.
The revolution continued to have a strong influence on British society well into the nineteenth century, fuelling public debate about political reform and the role of government. A large number of political emigrants from France had made their home in Britain in the years after the revolution, markedly changing the character of some of the areas in which they settled.
Art and furniture, which had been taken out of France by the fleeing nobility and bourgeoisie, also found its way into Britain over the following decades. The revolution became a subject that fascinated historians and collectors well into the nineteenth century, some of whom, notably Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, brought together collections which document the period.