Fears in Solitude, 1848

Alan Vardy

(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 22, Winter 2003, pp32-38)



In the spring of 1848, Sara Coleridge was busy editing her father’s journalism into what would become Essays on His Own Times.  Her intention was two-fold, and somewhat contradictory.  She wanted to ensure that her selection of the journalism took its place in STC’s literary remains (her ongoing project), and she also wanted to vindicate her father’s still tarnished political reputation.  This essay is concerned with a fascinating historical accident; that is, her work coincided with a growing political crisis—the growth in size and frequency of Chartist demonstrations throughout Britain.  I want to examine what role the growing clamor for reform played in her editorial decisions and in the composition of her ninety-page editor’s Introduction to the work, and compare her response to the demonstration to her father’s famous response to another political crisis some fifty years earlier in ‘Fears in Solitude, 1798’.

       On 14 April, she wrote to her friend Aubrey De Vere reporting the near hysteria occasioned by the most recent demonstration which she characterized as: ‘Chartist preparations for insurrection and violence’.  Her response, and that of her Regent’s Park neighbours, had been panic.  She had relied on her neighbour, a Mr Scott, as her most knowledgeable source of information.  He expressed confidence that the ‘middle or shop-keeping class’ would ‘side with the gentry, feeling them to be their natural protectors, and the class with whose interests, in the present state of things, theirs [were] interlinked’[1].  However, he added that he did not think that they ‘could be certain of the army’.  If Mr Scott’s intention had been to reassure, he failed miserably.  On the weekend before the demonstration she reported that ‘people began to feel frightened’.  She kept her nerve and went on in the letter to report that: she was ‘resolved, though the maids were terrified, and we had no man-servant, not to go away’.  The next day, ‘the gentlemen of the neighbourhood—several of them—called on me… to tell me all the arrangements for the defence of the Park, to offer protection, &c.’ Mr Scott’s ominous view of the army intensified her fear when rumours began to circulate that at least two regiments ‘were disaffected’.  She was forced to consider the direst possibility: ‘if the Duke of Wellington was unpopular, as was said, and the troops were discontented, and should refuse to act against the people, there might be a revolution’.  In the end her decision was made for her when she received an urgent message from her son Herbert at Eton ‘pressing [her] to go thither with plate, &c’.  She accepted his offer, in part to prevent Herbert from rashly attempting to come to her on the impending ‘dangerous Tuesday’.




       While it is tempting to play this scene as farce, the fashionable gentry engulfed in a comical hysteria, the public buildup to the demonstration suggests that the danger of civil unrest was very real.  Whether the source of the danger was the Chartist agitation or the Ministry is another question.  Accounts of the events in The Times show that a general sense of panic overtook the country as the date approached of planned simultaneous Chartists demonstrations throughout the country.  It was the organizational strength of the movement, not its demands that alarmed authorities.  According to The Times, the Chartists planned to assemble in Kensington common in a crowd of as many as 200,000 and then cross the bridge picking up more followers as they went.  The Times gloated that on the day the original crowd was ‘not more than seven thousand’ and only grew to only 20,000 (and probably only half of those were active participants) before dispersing.  The editor took a triumphal tone and praised the members of the massive counter demonstration, described in this extraordinary assertion: ‘150,000 special constables spontaneously enrolled against the movement’.[2]  ‘Spontaneously enrolled’ conjures an image of an endless queue of men receiving a shilling in one hand and a truncheon in the other.  That image proves accurate as the story goes on to describe the members of the Ministerial mob as ‘picked and trustworthy men who could procure vouchers to their respectability, who took an oath to defend the QUEEN’S peace and were ready to wield a truncheon in its defence’.  Wielding a truncheon for peace seems counter-intuitive, and the reduced number of demonstrators hardly comes as a surprise in these circumstances.  The most extraordinary thing about the counter demonstration was its utter recklessness.  Unable to rely on the army, the Ministry armed the mob.  Had a confrontation ensued, no one was in control of the ‘special constables’.

       In short, the political atmosphere in which Sara Coleridge worked on her edition of her father’s journalism was every bit as fraught as it had been in April 1798, fifty years earlier ‘during the alarm of an invasion’.  STC famously took that occasion to break with France over her growing militarism, while indicting the Pitt Ministry as the source of instability in the French regime.  Disgust with the prosecution of the Ministerial war, and a vindication of his early dreams for France dominated the poem.  When he recanted, it was on the assumption that he was not betraying the Revolution; France was betraying the Revolution—and the British government bore a heavy responsibility for the political events that had led to the current crisis.  The poem constructed a brooding sense of the possible military invasion as a terrible moral judgement to be visited on the country for its sins.

       STC’s complex psychological and political analyses of the crisis of 1798 could not be more different from the naive response to the Chartist agitation of his daughter a half-century later.  Sara followed the lead of The Times which declared that they were not claiming ‘a triumph over Chartism’, even going so




far as conceding that ‘the six points of the Charter [were] honest and allowable doctrines’, but rather claiming a defeat of the dangerous tactics that threatened the Legislature.  The plan had been to use the sheer size of the demonstration as a means to demand that the ‘Charter’ be brought to the floor of the Commons.  While the sense that a legitimate political movement had been betrayed by violent tactics appears to echo STC’s disaffection with France, Sara Coleridge, in concurring with The Times in her letter, offered no real political analysis: ‘Even if their demands were in themselves reasonable, or such changes as they propose could benefit the people at large, the manner of making them is contrary to all government whatsoever, and if yielded to must lead to pure anarchy alternating with despotism’.  Given that the ‘Charter’ had first been introduced in 1837, and had been subject to eleven years of Ministerial obstruction, The Times editorial can be understood as cynically disingenuous. The familiar Burkean line, that ‘a continual rather than a final reform’ was wanted, had gained a new urgency with the emergence of the independent Paris republic, and the general upheaval in Europe as nations found themselves in ‘the vortex of change’, as the Times editor put it.  In this context, Sara Coleridge’s response seems simply naďve and uninformed.  A Chartist could have well argued that ‘pure anarchy alternating with despotism’ might make a nice change from unremitting despotism.  After offering this highly conditional sympathy for the cause of reform, the rest of the letter to De Vere descends into an absurd caricature of a Tory apologist:


Some think that these events will lead to an extension of the franchise.  It does not seem at all clear to me that there would be the slightest use in giving votes to more and poorer men, without bettering their condition or improving their education before-hand.  They say that not more than a fourteenth part of the population is represented.  I do not see the grievance of not being represented per se.  What the poor really want is to be better off; they care not for more representation except as that may favour their pockets.  An extended representation cannot produce more bread and cheese.  As it is, taxation does not affect the very poorest people.


This last point would have come as a shock to rural labourers whose wages were depressed in tandem with any increase in the taxes to landlords.  Her closing tirade reached its nadir with the hateful commonplace, ‘a great proportion of them [the Chartists] are sufferers by their own fault’. 

       In retrospect, naďve may be too generous a term for these views, and they raise the serious question of whether this overcharged political climate allowed Sara Coleridge the objectivity to edit her father’s political journalism.  The goals of the six points of the ‘People’s Charter’ hardly compare in complexity to her father’s opposition to Pitt’s war policies, and the representation of those views was the task at hand.  A second, and more important, question arises: what effect did this political and social upheaval have on her editorial




decisions, and on the content of her long Introduction to the edition?

       The political anxiety of the day found direct expression in her ‘Introduction’.  The pressure to create ‘consistency’ as a positive value in her father’s thought thus originated both in the nature of the her project, the construction of STC’s literary remains, and in present perceived political dangers. She was sensitive to the latter for personal reasons (as a nervous member of a privileged class), and for professional reasons as the custodian of her father’s political reputation.  Sara Coleridge faced a daunting task in editing heterodox materials into a form suggesting a coherent system of belief, and part of her goal in the construction of Essays On His Own Times was the creation of an ideologically closed text out of these materials.  Her version of her father’s ‘opinion’ attempted to evade the messy emotional chaos of his political life.  In Section II of her ‘Introduction’, ‘Consistency of the Author’s Career of Opinion’ she seeks a means to stave off potential damage to Coleridge’s decidedly Tory Victorian reputation as a man of letters, philosopher and theologian.  In essence, Sara Coleridge attempted to employ an extremely pious biographical sketch that described her father’s journalism as a key component of his literary remains. Yet, she had to include among those remains material that most observers (without the benefit of her guidance) would take to be impious in the extreme.  If she could successfully shape his ‘career’ in her edition, then she could reasonably assume that his reputation (so carefully constructed in his lifetime) would be secure.  Her careful editorial decisions about selections from The Watchman, and her construction of the idea of ‘consistency’ in the ‘Introduction’ combined to make a biographical likeness of her father’s career that removed any troubling inconsistencies of belief from the public record while paradoxically giving limited public access to such inconsistencies.

       Driven by these complex personal and professional concerns, the ‘Introduction’ presents a five-part strategy for reading her father for political consistency.  The first three depend on the notion that each individual has a ‘precious essence’ that remains consistent over time.  The ‘essence’ is not quite stable in the first case she presents:  ‘But even because it is thus part of himself, it needs must grow and alter with growth, and will surely exhibit, in its earlier stages, the immaturity of his being.’  This is to say that he is not consistent, and subject to youthful folly (his contempt for Pitt, or opposition to the first Ministerial war with France become examples of his ‘immaturity’), and, yet, simultaneously he is consistent at the abstract level of the foundation of the system; it is a single system subject to superficial alteration over time.  In support of this notion she makes the distinction that Coleridge’s opinions differed only in detail and, ‘that the cast of [her] father’s opinions was ever of one kind—ever reflected his personal character and individuality’.  Again, this idea depends on the claim that each individual has an inner ‘essence’ that is the only true measure of consistency:




… the vast majority of reasoners seek to set forth that which is comfortable with the divine will and reflects the light of the Supreme Reason, differing only as to the medium of outward condition and circumstance, in which the precious essence is exhibited.[3]


Here, historical specificity (‘outward condition and circumstance’) is transcended by an abstract level of ideality where the skilful reader can find comfort in the presence of consistency; coherence is guaranteed by the explanatory force of the divine will as expressed through individual ‘essence’.  The final sentence of the section repeats this claim in the language of religious exegesis, arguing that: ‘The spirit of his teaching was ever the same amid all the variations and corrections of the letter’ (EOT, p. xxv).  Taken at its own terms, this claim is unassailable other than to point out that it relies on the insertion of meaning into the text rather than its extraction, or what Slavoj Žižek would call ‘ideological quilting’.[4]  Her final strategy is less ambitious; she simply forgets to include pertinent facts.  Her long paragraph on the consistency of his religious beliefs goes to great pains to argue that Coleridge was consistently anti-Romanist (something that was not at issue), and uses that as a screen when describing his early opposition to ‘the evils of a rich hierarchy’.  The reader can only assume that this is the earliest example of his anti-Romanist feeling, rather than what it is, a reference to his contempt for the Anglican establishment; and, of course, the word Unitarian does not appear.

       Sara Coleridge’s defense of her father’s opinions, then, constructs itself in such a way that any ‘circumstance’ can be made to conform to an ideologically closed system.  Historical fact, removed from the richness of its complex original context, can be absorbed as evidence of a greater power at work (abstract, or perhaps divine).  She can question her father’s stated views, cautiously, by presenting views more acceptable for her Victorian readers.  For example, on the subject of the first Ministerial war with France, in her section on ‘The Author’s Course of Political Opinion’ (EOT, pp. xxv-xxxi), she leaves open the question of the merits of her father’s views by posing them as a question:


Who can say whether England did not lose more by the poverty and discontent produced by the war, before it appeared clearly necessary to the public at large, than was gained by that of preparedness and that proficiency in warfare, which an early entrance into the great European contest ensured?  (EOT, p. xxxi)


This is a subtle piece of fence-sitting, leaving open the possibility of her father




being right to oppose the war, while carefully siding with the political establishment’s conclusions that the ‘great European contest’ was ‘clearly necessary’, even if some of Britain’s subjects had been slow to recognize this.  Coleridge would not have shared her doubts.  His opposition to the first war was steadfast, and his shift in supporting the war policies beginning in Spring 1798 was defended and explained as the result of the profound changes in the structure and behaviour of the French state.  But, on the subject of the necessity of opposing Pitt in the 1790s, as a patriot[5], he never wavered.

       Sara Coleridge’s editorial selections reflect her anxieties about reputation and political stability.  Her decisions in editing the first number of The Watchman illustrate the point.  She made two selections from that issue: the review of Burke’s Letter to a Noble Lord and the parody, ‘Copy of a Handbill’.  Removed from the heated atmosphere of the war and the context of the rest of the number, Coleridge’s review of Burke serves as an example of rhetorical skill and wit.  The review begins as an appreciation of Burke’s rhetorical power, before settling into an extended diatribe on Burke’s pension.  What becomes unclear after fifty years is the sheer recklessness of mounting a direct attack on Burke—he had risked arrest in doing so.  Without the context of the rest of The Watchman, how could the reader of 1850 be expected to be familiar with the details of the war debate for the week of 1 March 1796?  Similarly, ‘Copy of a Handbill’, becomes an example of Coleridge’s abilities as a satirist.  It consists of a parody of a public handbill offering a reward to any one who can decipher Pitt’s last speech in the House:


… and whereas the entire, effectual, and certain meaning of the whole of the said sentences, phrases, denials, promises, retractions, persuasions, explanations, hints, insinuations, and intimations, has escaped and fled, so that what remains is to plain understanding incomprehensible, and to many good men is matter of painful contemplation: now this is to promise, to any person who shall restore the said lost meaning, or shall illustrate, simplify, and explain, the said meaning, the sum of FIVE THOUSAND POUNDS, to be paid on the first day of April next, at the office of John Bull, Esq. PAY-ALL and FIGHT-ALL to the several High contracting powers engaged in the present just and necessary War! [6]


This is uproariously funny, out of context; while the raw emotion of the sarcasm in the phrase, ‘just and necessary War’, the risk run by its author in challenging Pitt, and the fact that the handbill accurately captured Pitt’s technique of stalling parliament through endless obfuscation, recede in time.

       In order to attempt to restore this ‘lost meaning’, to follow Coleridge’s




own theme, we need to consider how the original readers of the ‘Copy of a Handbill’ would have read the satire’s tone in light of the rest of the newspaper. The two sections that preceded the handbill were titled ‘Foreign Intelligence’, and ‘Domestic Intelligence’ (these two sections appeared in all the numbers of the journal).  In particular, under ‘Domestic Intelligence’, Coleridge included an item from Salisbury on the fate of ‘the remnant of the 88th regiment’ that had recently arrived in that city.  Two years earlier, he reported they had ‘embarked for the Continent’, 1,100 strong.  After ‘the severe winter of 1794-95’ they had been reduced to 250 men, and subsequently embarked for the West Indies wherein they were attacked and ‘reduced to about 100 men’.  Coleridge concluded this sad history by ominously noting that they were to march to Portsmouth, ‘probably to drafted into some other corps’.  This report left little doubt about the author’s attitude to this ‘just and necessary War’, juxtaposed as it was with Southey’s lines from ‘Joan of Arc’:


                             Of unrecorded name

Died the mean man, yet did he leave behind,

One who did never say her daily prayers

Of him forgetful; who every tale

Of the distant war lending an eager ear,

Grew pale and trembled. At her cottage door

The wretched one shall sit, and with dim eye

Gaze o’er the plain, where, on his parting steps,

Her last look hung. 

(Watchman, pp. 43-45)


The pathos of considering the widows of each of the lost members of the 88th regiment was overwhelming in its effect.  In relation to this unqualified condemnation of the war, Sara Coleridge’s equivocation in her summary of her father’s ‘course of political opinion’, that ‘[w]ho can say’ if the war was just, appears as the evasion it is.  It amounts to a betrayal of her father’s ‘opinions’ for what she believed to be his own good.  STC’s deliberate muddying of his views in defense of the charge of Jacobinism, and the characterization of his political career in the 1790s as a naďve adolescent folly gave license to Sara Coleridge to continue the project of re-invention, posthumously.  Feeling under pressure from contemporary political unrest, and motivated to vindicate her father’s views my making them palatable to her Regent’s Park neighbours, Sara Coleridge founded the scholarly practice of editing STC by distorting the historical record and evading her task.  She has left it to subsequent scholars and editors to ‘restore the said lost meaning’.


© Contributor 2003-2006


[1]           Memoir and Letters of Sara Coleridge, ed. Her Daughter [Elizabeth Coleridge], 2 vols. (London: Henry S. King & Co., 1873), II, pp. 161-165.

[2]           The Times, 11 April 1848, p. 4.

[3]           Essays on His Own Times, ed. Sara Coleridge (London: William Pickering, 1850), p. xxiii.  Subsequent references will appear in the body of the essay.

[4]           The Sublime Object of Ideology (London: Verso, 1989), pp. 87-89.  Žižek theorizes that ‘ideological space’ is made up of ‘non-tied, non-bound elements, ‘floating signifiers,’’ and that the ‘quilting’ is performed as a means to arrest this free-floating state.  In other words, ideology ‘quilts’ experience and renders it consistent to whatever ideological system it serves. 

[5]           ‘Patriot’ was a fiercely contested term.  Those who opposed the war were, legally speaking, ‘unpatriotic,’ but radicals were quick to invert the term and use it to denote their own ‘true patriotism’ answering to a higher moral authority than the corrupt Pittites.

[6]           The Watchman, ed. Lewis Patton (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1970), p.48, his italics.