I am the Watchman
- William Cobbett: Selected Writings edited by Leonora Nattrass
Pickering & Chatto, 2312 pp, £495.00, December 1998, ISBN 1 85196 375 8
- Rural rides by William Cobbett, edited by Ian Dyck
Penguin, 576 pp, £9.99, September 2001, ISBN 0 14 043579 4
It is partly because so much appears to be known about William Cobbett (1763-1835) that he is insufficiently understood. Few political writers anywhere and at any time have been more prolific or had more impact on their contemporaries. His newspaper The Political Register, which appeared at intervals between 1802 and 1835, sold at its peak of popularity up to 70,000 copies an issue and was read by millions on both sides of the Atlantic. His now barely remembered History of the Protestant Reformation, published in cheap monthly parts between 1824 and 1826, sold 700,000 copies over two years, and contributed to the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Act. Rural Rides (1830) was still more successful and has never been out of print. As even the Attorney General prosecuting him in 1831 conceded, Cobbett was ‘one of the greatest masters of the English language that ever composed it’.
Vol. 26 No. 1 · 8 January 2004
Linda Colley isn’t entirely wrong when she says that the William Cobbett memorialised by Raymond Williams was a domestic and insular Little Englander (LRB, 20 November 2003). Her argument becomes more tendentious when it tries to situate Williams as part of ‘a succession of socialist expositors’ who have obscured the international dimension of Cobbett’s life and thought. Writing in the New Reasoner in 1959, Victor Kiernan observed that ‘Cobbett’s “good old days” owed much of their flesh and blood, or corroborative detail, to the living world of equalitarian wellbeing that he found in America’ (a point echoed by Colley in her article). Kiernan’s comment was made as part of a sharp critique of Williams’s Culture and Society, mounted on firmly socialist grounds.
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
Vol. 26 No. 3 · 5 February 2004
I doubt if Linda Colley’s attribution to Raymond Williams of a description of Cobbett as ‘a good brave old chap’ (LRB, 20 November 2003) could have sounded right to anyone at all acquainted with Williams’s work and style. Even a casual reading of the phrase ‘a good brave old chap’ in context – it occurs in Cobbett (1983) – reveals that Williams is deploying the description ironically, as he voices and takes to task a trend in critical opinion in which Cobbett is ‘patted on the head. A good radical, a good democrat, but he did not understand what was happening, in the new industrial England … A good brave old chap, who lived just before modernity.’
It’s equally difficult to see just how the author of The Country and the City – a magisterial deconstruction of the myth of pastoral idyll from Hesiod to Ngugi – could have ‘wonderfully’ (not critically) ‘evoked certain pastoral particulars of Cobbett’s vision’. Colley’s implication here is that Williams joined in the celebration of what she calls Cobbett’s ‘Little Englishness’. But Williams writes: ‘Cobbett can be preserved in amber as the figure of what is called Olde England.’ ‘In one way, not unjustly,’ he adds, because Cobbett ‘offered himself … as its spokesman’. ‘To this specific claim,’ he continues, ‘can be added all the particulars.’ What follows – presented by Colley as Williams’s own view of Cobbett – is largely a paraphrase of a section of Rural Rides. Colley does not appear to grasp the point of this paraphrase: Williams is parodying Cobbett’s own self-presentation, the better to question it. ‘It is only by falsifying selection that he can be enrolled for that now common nostalgia,’ Williams writes, very directly. Similarly, it is only by a falsifying selection that Williams can be enrolled in the ‘succession of socialist expositors’ whose nostalgia Colley takes to task in her review.