Consuming Romanticism

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What is the relationship between consumerism and Romanticism? Did people across Europe from the 1780s onwards construct themselves as consumers of what we would now call Romanticism, and if so, through what means, and in what places? Are we still living with and through these modes of consumption today? These are the questions that govern the making of this collection, and to which it offers some partial but instructive answers.

The collection focusses on three habits of mind and associated practices that characterised the Romantic period. The first is the new value accorded to manuscripts, at any rate to those associated with poets. The story of the origin and owners of an autograph manuscript of some 40 verses of Adam Mickiewicz’s Polish national epic, Pan Tadeusz (1834) illustrates the ways in which poets sometimes broke up or replicated their own holograph manuscripts for admirers, and the ways that these fragments subsequently became collectors’ items. But it also opens the question of why poets’ manuscripts came to be fetishized in the first place. This question is illuminated by the discussion of two pages from Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere Journal, evidence of our own ongoing, arguably Romantic, fascination with holograph manuscript. The Grasmere Journal has only relatively recently attained the status of a Romantic document, and it has done so through promising immediate access to ‘the localised, timebound, material and obscure traces of the creative process’, in this instance, to the composition of one of William Wordsworth’s most famous poems, ‘To Daffodils’. The power of the Romantic manuscript turns out to be that it is unique, and uniquely ‘real’.

The second habit of mind is the desire to make and mark places of Romantic inspiration, and to consume these as ambiguously at once local, national and cosmopolitan. The localist desire to display Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal in ‘the very place in which it was written’ is driven by this impulse. So too is the curious fate of Shakespeare’s kitchen chair, which, collected by the Princess Czatoryski on her European travels, made its way to Poland, there to be incorporated into a landscape garden fabrique memorialising the best of European intellect and inspiration but situated a place suffused with wishful Romantic nationalism. The Princess’ collection served also to dramatize her as a Romantic consumer – and one of the characteristics of those who consumed Romanticism was that they were keen to be seen as discriminating consumers. This, at any rate, is one way of reading the celebrity of La Temple de la Nature in the vale of Chamonix in Switzerland, a celebrity that rested on the one hand on its access to one of the most famous views of the period, the Mer de Glace, but on the other on its visitor books, which offered the chance to leaf through an astonishing array of responses and effusions purportedly provided by the great from across Europe, to transcribe those of them that took one’s fancy, and add one’s own Romantic effort.

The last pair of exhibits included here describe two different ways in which Romanticism has been crystallised and consumed through memorialisation. Teresa Guiccioli’s travelling-box began life as a conspicuously consumerist piece of travel equipage, then became a shrine filled with love-letters and other mementoes dedicated to her lover, George Gordon, Lord Byron, which ‘pieced him together, catalogued him, and locked him up’, and is now destined to become an exhibit in the Museo Byron in Ravenna, completing a move from the private to the public. That move from private to public memorialisation is also exemplified by the marble of the dead Shelley, commissioned by a descendant for his grave in the Cimeterio Acattolico per Stranieri in Rome, but commissioned (in the spirit of the late Victorian canonization of Shelley) to mark the centenary of his birth, and ultimately fated to semi-public installation in the college which had expelled him for atheism, University College, Oxford.

See also: exhibits contained in the collections: The Romantic Tourist, Romantic Landscapes