Trying to define Romanticism has always been a typically Romantic activity, especially in France. The word romantisme first appeared in the year of Napoleon’s coronation (1804) and soon began to acquire a large retinue of definitions. Mme de Staël associated it with the misty, melancholy North and declared Romanticism to be primarily an effect of climate. Victor Hugo and his followers allied it to the vanished monarchy, then to the departed Napoleon, and finally to ‘liberalism in art’. Stendhal and Baudelaire produced more durable definitions by linking it to the present. For Stendhal, ‘Romanticism is the art of offering people the literary works which, in the present state of their habits and beliefs, are likely to give them the greatest possible pleasure. Classicism, by contrast, offers them the literature which gave the greatest possible pleasure to their great-grandfathers.’ For Baudelaire, ‘whoever says Romanticism, says modern art.’
In her discreetly original study of Romanticism and Its Discontents, Anita Brookner quotes Alfred de Musset’s satire, Lettres de Dupuis et Cotonet (1836-37). Dupuis and Cotonet are two literal-minded provincials who spend 12 years trying to find out what Romanticism is. At first, it seems to refer to plays which ignore the Classical unities – except in the provinces, where ‘Romantic’ simply means ‘absurd’. But then they discover that there are also Romantic novels, poems, epics and even single lines of verse. In 1827, Hugo’s Préface de Cromwell reveals Romanticism to be a combination of tragedy and comedy. But it also seems to mean the imitation of the Germans, the English and the Spanish. By the mid-1830s, it has something to do with socialism and a refusal to shave or to do one’s National Guard duty. Eventually, they decide that Romanticism is distinguished from Classicism by the use of a lot of vague, colourful adjectives.
If Dupuis and Cotonet had lived for another century and a half, they would have reached previously unsuspected depths of confusion. According to Hans Eichner, it was not until the late 1970s that most scholars finally realised ‘that “Romanticism” is not a technical term like “propanol” or “cosine”, invented to name a precise concept . . . and that any definition capable of encompassing Keats’s sonnet “To Sleep”, Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen and Hugo’s Hernani must be so broad as to be meaningless.’ The desire for unattainable precision and curious universal truths is also a Romantic trait, and it may be that some of the more ambitious forms of modern literary criticism will come to be seen as a late flowering of the Romantic spirit.
When the various definitions are brought together, they tend to suggest that the Romantics were writers and artists who knew that they were doing something radically different from their fathers but were unable to say precisely what it was. Rimbaud, who wrote his only extended piece of literary history at the age of 16, was probably closer to a good general definition than most professional critics when he identified self-ignorance as the crucial Romantic trait: ‘Romanticism has never been properly judged. Who would have judged it? The critics!? The Romantics, who show so clearly that the song is very rarely the work, which is to say the thought of the singer, sung and understood?’
In view of this muddle, it is a relief to be reminded by Brookner that everybody already knows what Romanticism is or, at least, recognises ‘the quality that Romanticism seemed to bring to the fore’: ‘a longing for what is missing, and an attempt to supply it’. Pursuing a policy of judicious simplification, she confines herself to France and concentrates on three painters – Gros, Delacroix and Ingres – and six writers: Musset, Baudelaire, Edmond and Jules Goncourt, Zola and Huysmans. Each chapter is a brief ‘Life and Works’ with Romanticism as the connecting theme. The introduction, ‘Romanticism: A Change of Outlook’, traces the Romantics’ sense of loss to the metaphysical vacuum created by the philosophes and especially to the great chasm in French history: the Revolution, the rise of Napoleon and ‘the huge bewilderment of the period that succeeded the defeat at Waterloo in 1815’.
Unlike most histories of cultural movements, Romanticism and Its Discontents seems to have been written on a severely uncluttered surface. Apart from the ‘Trois Glorieuses’ of July 1830 (a cause of ‘further despair’), none of the other French revolutions is mentioned: the insurrections of 1832 and 1834, the February Revolution and the June Days (1848), the coup d’état of 1851 and the Paris Commune. Charles X appears only as the monarch who made Gros a baron and refused to allow David back from exile. The Siege of Paris in 1870 is merely an aggravation of Edmond Goncourt’s grief at losing his brother.
This elimination of historical detail corresponds to the idea that Romanticism, once detached from specific causes – the Terror and the fall of the First Empire – could no longer provide the basis of ‘a programme of recovery’. It also creates an unusual sense of security in what might otherwise be a vast, tangled forest. A few key quotations recur like signposts: Mme du Deffand asking Voltaire what he intended to put in place of the ‘errors’ he was eradicating; Baudelaire comparing the endless parade of black frock-coats in the streets of modern Paris to an enormous funeral. The conclusion is barely longer than a page and seems to tidy Romanticism away with a sudden slamming of file-drawers: art became a kind of religion, ‘a new belief system, in which outward observance and inward compulsion could be equally accommodated’. ‘Disenchantment’ was transformed into ‘prophecy, albeit of a fragmentary and tentative kind’. ‘The artists and writers in this study made the heroism of modern life their creed, and thus brought about a recognition of possibilities that had previously lain dormant. Their own heroism should not be in any doubt.’
This is a study of Romanticism in the manner of the Hôtel du Lac. The ‘stolid and dignified building’ of Brookner’s 1984 novel stands on the shores of Romantic Lake Geneva, apparently impervious to scandal and change. Yet the Hôtel du Lac is the scene of a personal upheaval: Edith Hope, romantic novelist, finds her own timid form of romanticism cruelly laid bare by a fellow guest. Mr Neville’s unsolicited analysis coincidentally appears to announce the title of Romanticism and Its Discontents: ‘Oh, your romanticism might keep rueful thoughts at bay for a time, but the thoughts would win out. And then you would discover that you had a lot in common with all the other discontented women.’
For Edith Hope, as for her more glorious and energetic predecessors, Romanticism is both an expression and a source of discontent. Except for the idle poseurs Brookner calls ‘false Romantics’ and the artists who, like William Blake, ‘assume a protective colouring of infantilism’, Romanticism was not a matter of professional choice. It was ‘the only condition which had replaced, obliterated, annihilated all the others’. ‘Personal anxiety, personal investigation, personal refusal became the filter through which all phenomena were to be evaluated.’
Brookner is particularly good on the hapless, pathetic side of the Romantics. Instead of depicting them as fearless subversives who knotted their bed-sheets and escaped from the prison of convention whenever they felt like it, she shows them quailing at the evidence of irreversible change. The mal du siècle was not a raging frustration with the established order; it was the feeling of profound and singular inadequacy that could make a man like Antoine-Jean Gros take time off from commandeering Italian works of art for Napoleon to write to his mother: ‘How many times I say to myself: if only my mother were with me, she would organise my life, something I am incapable of doing for myself. Yes, I feel in the depths of my heart that my misfortune is to be alone.’
The first chapter tells the agonising story of Gros, who committed suicide because he felt that his originality was a betrayal of his master, David. Gros had seen David’s untypically emotional Andromaque at the age of 12 and decided to follow what he thought was the master’s teaching. By the time he painted his magnificent Les Pestiférés de Jaffa (1804), Gros’s dutiful, propagandist intentions were collapsing under ‘the sheer weight of his painterly sensibility’. Napoleon touches a plague victim as if to heal him; but the other hand clutches a glove in a gesture of repugnance while the victim looms over him like the crucified Christ.
Gros was plagued with involuntary ambiguities. He transformed the stilted, iconic history painting of David into ‘an epic of modern life’ and could not forgive himself for doing so. ‘I must accuse myself,’ he declared at the graveside of his friend Girodet, ‘of having been one of the first to set the bad example that others have followed, in not infusing the subjects I painted and their execution with that rigour which our master recommended.’
After pronouncing this peculiar eulogy, Gros collapsed in a dead faint. As Brookner points out in one of her resonant asides, ‘the breaking of rules’ is not always a ‘joyous procedure’. In fact, rules of some kind were more desirable than ever: ‘if the systems that ordained the canons of Augustan or Neoclassical productions were judged to be inadequate, it was not because they were too rigorous, as is sometimes claimed, but precisely because they were not rigorous enough.’
This point is rarely made, but it is spectacularly true of French Romantic literature. Hugo may have helped to rid French poetry of a few pedantic regulations, but, by the last third of the century, poets like Banville and Mallarmé were devising enormous, complicated rule-books for themselves. Baudelaire, who is generally supposed to have become more subversive with age, set up an elaborate aesthetic ‘screen’ between himself and the outside world. His late essay, Le Peintre de la vie moderne, imposes simple forms of order on the chaos of a modern city. It was the world, not the poet, that was becoming more subversive.
The Romantics’ dilemma is presented here as a question of balance. On the one hand, conventional forms of painting and writing ‘did not utilise the full range of personal investigation and self-questioning which the thinking post-Rousseau man had judged to be of interest and importance’. On the other hand, convention could not simply be ignored: a new set of values had to be evolved. Brookner describes some of the most strenuous attempts to extract a reliable method from Romanticism. Ingres, unlike Delacroix, refused to allow his doubts to affect the finished painting. He might ‘rage and weep until he found the exact place for everything on his canvas, but once that intellectual problem had been solved his anxiety was removed and the picture could easily be finished’. Zola ‘disarmed’ his own ‘helplessness’ by devoting himself to ideological battles, social progress and hard work. The Goncourts were ‘baffled and disappointed by their own times’, but they built a sturdy fortress for themselves and called it ‘Art’ – meaning primarily their bibelot collection and the deterministic novels which they wrote for the few who could decipher their ‘écriture artiste’.
This concentration on Romantic discipline is reflected in the choice of subjects. Brookner has not written about the dishevelled, the deranged or the criminal. All the main subjects of Romanticism and Its Discontents knew, if only briefly, what it meant to be famous and successful. They spent most of their lives in what Rimbaud called ‘un milieu trop artiste’ – the ‘arty’ milieu of bourgeois bohemian Paris. Gros was a baron, Ingres a senator, Delacroix and Musset were Academicians. Baudelaire and Zola stood for election to the Académie Française. Edmond Goncourt founded his own Académie. Huysmans worked for the Sûreté Générale and retired as a ‘chef de bureau’. All were members of the Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur, except Baudelaire, who hoped to be awarded the Croix but had to be content with ministerial grants. The same implicit emphasis is apparent in the secondary figures: Gautier is mentioned, but not Nerval; Mallarmé, but not Rimbaud.
When these diligent Romantics travelled, they did so for professional reasons or because they were forced to by a stepfather (Baudelaire) or a government (Zola). Musset ‘remained in the bosom of his family all his life, thus earning the liberty to be a full-time enfant de Bohème’. ‘That peculiar existential mode’, Romanticism, manifested itself in the privacy of studies and studios. Delacroix had no other life beyond it. ‘After a day’s work in the studio he has no need for entertainment or distraction; a few words with the porter on the corner of the street will suffice.’
The morose and morbid Huysmans brings the story to an end, with the message that (in Brookner’s words) ‘art as a refuge from reality will not satisfy human needs.’ When Huysmans withdraws from the modern world and becomes a connoisseur of the Gothic past, ‘forward thinking has entirely disappeared; even the regret and disenchantment of the earlier enfants du siècle has been replaced by a life of archaic observance.’ ‘His retreat into yet another closed world marks the end of the Romantic endeavour. The way is clear not for the genius of the future, but for the ever more alienated heroes of Sartre and Camus.’
This deliberately unheroic history of Romantic heroes may not immediately be recognised as an original study of a well-worn subject. The absence of showy erudition and ideological servility, and the refusal to agonise over imponderables will not endear it to every academic student of Romanticism. At the same time, the complete lack of references makes it difficult to verify questionable statements. Was Baudelaire’s syphilis really ‘bequeathed’ to him by his father? Mon coeur mis à nu was not a ‘notebook’ and does not date from Baudelaire’s youth. The Salon de 1846 could not have ‘added immeasurably’ to Delacroix’s ‘reputation’ because very few people read it. While Baudelaire might be accused of an ‘error of taste’ in interpreting Delacroix’s Les Femmes d’Alger as an allegory of carnal corruption, it seems odd to be surprised that a man who ‘hardly ever left Paris’ and was ‘entirely self-taught’ should be able to list Ingres’s sources. Baudelaire had been visiting artists’ studios since childhood; he collected paintings, talked to dealers, loitered in museums, was a friend of several painters and a voracious reader of art histories.
The overall picture, however, is memorable and convincing. Brookner’s sweeping phrases create disturbing little eddies which often catch one off balance. There is a stern sympathy in her character sketches which enables her to present these well-known figures in a fresh but familiar light: ‘Baudelaire was excessive, irascible, unrealistic and desperately demanding, though he was for a little while able to put on a show of worldliness for his friends.’ Few writers on Romanticism would be bold and sensible enough to describe the poet of Les Fleurs du mal in such homely terms, or to hail the Brothers Goncourt as the ‘tragic heroes’ of late Romanticism – those snobbish pessimists who sneered at the talented and befriended the mediocre, and who ‘are perhaps the most extreme case of lives lived, or perhaps unlived, for art’.