A Revolution of Feeling by Rachel Hewitt review – the anguish of failed utopians
A daring history of Mary Wollstonecraft and other 1790s radicals suggests this was the decade that ‘forged the modern mind’
In 1794 Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey set out to save the human race. By establishing a small political community in which property was held in common and everyone had a vote, they wanted to create a utopia where “wrath, anger, clamour, and evil speaking” were nothing but a bad memory. The 27 hand-picked communitarians would rub along together comfortably, bound by a sort of sunny reasonableness. Coleridge and Southey, who were still undergraduates when they dreamed up the scheme, were typical of their time in believing that political change went hand in hand with “revolutions of feeling”. To have any hope of achieving one you had to fix the other.
Naturally it all went wrong. The original idea had been to set up the community in post-revolutionary America, an appropriate place for radical new beginnings. But when that proved to be expensive – Coleridge was already deep in debt as a result of some distinctly unreasonable expenditure on wine and women – someone suggested they scale the scheme back to a “Welch Farm” instead. Then there was the question of sex. In a community where property would be held in common, did that mean wives would be shared, too? Quite aside from the impropriety of the thing, it sounded so cold and calculating, as if sex were a passionless commodity rather than the affective glue that held two loving individuals together. Then Southey, who was always of a pragmatic turn of mind, suggested that perhaps the new community should include some servants. They would eat at the same table as everyone else, of course, but they would spend their days doing the hard labour while the full members of the community thought and wrote about the joys of social equality. Coleridge was appalled – if Southey wanted “slaves” then the game was clearly over.