Welcome to your latest installment of “The Victorian Era by and for Nonspecialists.” If you find me wrong in any particulars – especially if you are a specialist! – please leave corrections in the comments section.
As we turn to the second half of book 2 next Monday, we are going to return to Dorothea and Casaubon in Rome on their honeymoon. I don’t think it’s going to be too much of a spoiler to tell you that they’re going to bump into Will Ladislaw again. Remember Will? He’s the young man of artistic temperament with no particular goals. But understanding him – and maybe his and Dorothea’s interaction – requires understanding another cultural movement around this time: Romanticism.
Romanticism was, to put it very roughly, the artistic equivalent to Methodist emotionalism, but in literature, painting, even architecture. The movement in general is a conscious rejection of artifice in favor of nature, of cold rationalism (like the Utilitarians) in favor of mystery and the exotic; a belief that the imagination can create something truer than reality, a glimpse behind the veil of sense perception into the world of the transcendent/sublime. The movement had different variants in different parts of Europe. In Germany, for example, it was linked with mythology (think Wagner) as much as it was with nature. English romanticism was less nationalist-mythologizing. Rather, literature, poetry, and painting manifested the movement primarily in three themes: pastoralism (as a rejection of industrial modernity), exoticism/orientalism, and a fascination with the glories of past civilizations -- and, through their ruins, a fixation on the evanescent nature of even the greatest of human achievements. These themes also were reflected in architecture, where the fascinations were with both the gothic and the eastern, as symbols of mystery.
The movement also gave birth to a new type of artist: the "Romantic hero" (perhaps best personified by Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and their circle) is a genius who rejects worldly concerns and defies moral convention for their class in order to pursue higher truths. Like a certain young man we have met…