Rachel Hewitt's Revolution of Feeling is a pacy romp through modern historyby Gabriel Byng / November 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
When reflecting on a decade during which regicide and rebellion had traversed European politics, Edmund Burke would nevertheless describe the “revolution in sentiments” as “the most important of all revolutions.” There was stiff competition for the title in the 1790s, the decade Rachel Hewitt examines, but Burke was right that the emotions had taken on an unprecedented political salience. Radicals and reactionaries debated whether to embrace a passionate love of homeland or encourage hot-blooded fury at the conditions of the poor. Were emotions most naturally part of political culture or of personal introspection, they wondered. Should they be released, repressed or tempered by reason?
Hewitt argues that, from a decade in which feelings had been politically mobilised, a new era emerged in which they were turned inwards, depoliticised and often maligned. Disappointments in France produced an age of caution, gloom and individualism, and the emotions, in theory and in practice, fell into line.
Her achievement is in translating an important recent field of historical research into gripping prose but also a work of pacy historical narrative. She does this by expanding the book’s scope to include excursions into her protagonists’ biographies and the most dramatic events of the French Revolution, familiar stories perhaps but which balance the political with the personal, the idea with the individual. Her introduction is a clear-eyed primer to the history of emotions, spanning physiology, anthropology and evolutionary biology, while remaining faultlessly even-handed between academic factions.
There are problematic passages—an occasional strained metaphor (the amygdala “nestles like an ovary,” “coiled” to release “missives”), sometimes incongruous diversions to present-day politics (Brexit makes an appearance), and physical descriptions that veer towards Mills & Boon (“beseeching blue eyes sat atop rugged features”). But the clarity and subtlety of Hewitt’s explication makes for an exemplary piece of popular history writing.
A Revolution of Feeling: The Decade that Forged the Modern World by Rachel Hewitt is published by Granta (£25)