British Romanticism and Europe

The approaching 200th anniversary of the Congress of Verona (Oct. 20–Dec. 14, 1822) seems an excellent moment to reconsider how Britain conceived its relationship with Europe in the Romantic period. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica:

The Congress of Verona was the last of the meetings held by the European powers in accordance with the terms of the Quadruple Alliance, set up in 1815 between RussiaPrussiaAustria, and Great Britain  …. It was held mainly to consider the revolutionary situation in SpainConvened because the French king Louis XVIII wanted his allies’ consent to intervene in Spain to overthrow the constitutional regime established there in 1820, the congress agreed to support France if it should be attacked by Spain and authorized a French expedition into Spain (1823). The British, however, by threatening the use of their sea power, prevented the allies from interfering with the contemporaneous revolts occurring in Spanish America and created enough discord among them to cause a final breakdown in the congress system. (1)

Twenty years or so earlier, Great Britain was engaged in conceiving itself as ‘British’ in relation to the onset of war with France in 1794, the Act of Union with Ireland of 1801, and the Napoleonic invasion scare of 1802. A mock playbill put out in 1803, ‘Harlequin’s Invasion’ [1], expressed the wartime anxieties of the nation in an imagined playlet entitled ‘The Repulse: Or, Britons Triumphant’. This showcased John Bull, Paddy Whack, Sawney McSnaith, and Shone ap-Morgan as ‘Britons’ united against Bonaparte-as-Harlequin and concluded with a tableau of Britannia triumphant.  As this broadside also suggests, contemporary imaginary geographies did not include a political entity that could plausibly be called ‘Europe’.  Europe was more or less closed to the civilian British traveller. It was mapped out as a theatre of war – a volatile mix of allies and enemies, emergent nations, nascent empires, contested borders, and fanaticism of every political and religious tint. That said, throughout the period much was still being imported into Britain from Europe.  Emigrés, exiles, and intellectuals arrived in London, fetching up at the tables of the aristocracy: hence The Holland House dinnerbook [2] records ‘quasi-official gatherings of reforming upper-middle and upper-class minds from across Europe’. There was a lively import-export trade in books, too; as Antony Mandal notes, ‘The Minerva Press, situated in the heart of London, was … a conduit to and from European print culture, as well as being a major influence in the British marketplace.’ The offices of the Minerva Press [3]. Minerva’s Gothic novels, typically set in a Europe infested with remote sinister castles populated by wicked aristocrats, were especially popular in translation on the Continent. [A Neapolitan Pirate 4].

In 1816, in the aftermath of Waterloo, Britain’s imaginary geographies would change dramatically. The expensive and elaborate monument to the Duke of Wellington’s earlier military successes in the Peninsular War, the so-called ‘Cadiz Bomb,’ provoked excoriating satire born of post-war malaise when it was installed in London in 1816 [Cadiz Bomb 5]. Europe was now once again a potential tourist playground. Travellers hitherto restricted to perusing tours and albums in armchairs took ship, hurrying across the Channel to see what was left of war-torn Europe, to pick up what souvenirs and impressions they could, and to rethink and reinscribe Britain’s place as a global power. In Jane Austen’s Emma (1816), Frank Churchill, looking over ‘views of Swisserland’, experiences and expresses the universal post-war itch for continental travel amongst those who could afford it: “I shall go abroad […]. “I shall never be easy till I have seen some of these places. You will have my sketches, some time or other, to look at–or my tour to read–or my poem. I shall do something to expose myself.” (III, vii). The tours to Switzerland and beyond envisaged by Churchill and undertaken by many others for real were facilitated both by the network of aggregated banks set up some fifty years previously by John Herries [Herries and Co Circular Note 6] and Napoleon’s state-of-the-art military road across the Simplon Pass; both the celebrity of Byron’s supposed graffito in the dungeon of the Castle of Chillon and visitor books in the vale of Chamonix bear witness to the self-conscious flow of British visitors in search of romantic sublimities [Byron’s graffito 7, Le Temple de la Nature 8]. The period also saw the development of new mythic destinations in Europe of special interest to the British traveller: they included ‘Juliet’s tomb’ in Verona and Narcissa’s tomb in Montpellier, forerunners of the later nineteenth-century Anglo-American tourist fervour expressed at John Keats’ tomb in Rome [Narcissa’s tomb 9]. Those unable to, in Jane Austen’s words, ‘frisk’ onto the Continent might still have bought into the romance of the post-war European imaginary at their own dinner-tables: it is no coincidence that in 1816 Josiah Spode II launched the wildly successful ‘Spode Blue Italian’ china pattern, a composite of disparate Italian views — a ruin perhaps based on the Great Bath at Tivoli, near Rome, a row of houses along the left bank of the river similar to those north of Rome, and a castle in the distance like those found in Piedmont and Lombardy – populated with pastoral figures and animals. Ten years later, in 1826, a Christmas pantomime playbill advertising a show in London suggests a very different vision of Europe: promising ‘a panoramick aerial voyage’, it whisked its audience in imagination from Constantinople, to St Petersburg, and thence to Amsterdam by moonlight, before peeping down at the British coastal resort of Brighton and eventually rolling down the hill at Greenwich into the heart of London [A Christmas Playbill 10].  Tracing an itinerary from India to Soho, this is a new and explicitly imperial mapping of the British as a global power within Europe, more akin to the fantasies expressed by the architecture and furnishings of the Royal Pavilion at Brighton than those Grand Tour longings lingering on in Spode’s Blue Italian.

The Romantic period as a whole is bookended by two very different dreams of Europe born out of the British context. The first was that of the British-born Polish Princess Izabela Dorota Czartoryska née Flemming (1746-1835).  In the summer of 1790, on a tour through England and Scotland,  she acquired various souvenirs, including ‘Shakespeare’s chair’. This she installed in her English-style landscape garden at Puławy in Poland, one of the most important intellectual and political meeting places of the period. Shakespeare’s chair made up part of the collections of the garden building known as ‘the Gothic House’ devoted to European events and figures of note. Shakespeare’s chair was shown along with branches from the site of Troy, a shard from Stonehenge, bricks from the Bastille, a lock of Napoleon’s hair from St Helena, chairs that had belonged to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, Isaac Newton’s death mask, the supposed relics of Héloïse and Abelard, and Captain Cook’s cutlass. The whole constituted a nostalgic dream-map of the hopes and history of European Enlightenment cosmopolitanism which had been shattered by Napoleonic imperialism; an inscription on the key to the Gothic House identified the Princess with Dido who, fleeing Tyre, saved its treasures. [Shakespeare’s Chair 11] A very different dream of Europe was expressed in a wishful map created in 1854 by the committed Chartist, William James Linton. As Ian Haywood writes, ‘Linton’s vision of a free Europe was inspired by the republican uprisings of 1848, the latest and most spectacular phase of an anti-imperialist, pan-European revolutionary movement which first emerged in the Romantic period and which had seen both significant successes (as in Greek independence) and many setbacks (as in the Bourbon Restoration of 1814, the defeat of the Spanish Liberales in 1823, and the quashing of the insurrections in Italy in 1820-21)’ [A map of Republican Europe 12]. As Europe enters a new period of turbulence, the like of which has not been seen for close on a century, it is salutary to be reminded that the dream-map of Europe has always been contested between nation and empire, wavering between nationalism and cosmopolitanism.


  1. Congress of Verona | European history | Britannica last accessed 9th June 2022