The Literature of Fear in Britain
Dr Ildiko Csengei’s article in ‘English Literature’ journal analyses Britain’s fear of invasion by the French at the turn of the 19th century. Her article, ‘The Literature of Fear in Britain’ focusses on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, written following an incident in 1797 when a French force landed at Fishguard.
AT the turn of the nineteenth century, Britain was shaking with fear. The French were poised to invade – indeed they did manage to get ashore at one point – and the popular belief, fuelled by propaganda, was that they were savages who would wreak merciless violence on the civilian population.
Contemporary words and pictures that evoke this mood of despair are being analysed by a University of Huddersfield lecturer who also finds modern parallels with the scaremongering of two centuries ago.
“Look at how anger and emotion spread on social media. It is mostly negative emotions that spiral out of control and as people feel compelled to respond, the panic and hostility spreads and intensifies,” says Dr Ildiko Csengei, a Senior Lecturer in English Literature.
But she is researching a time long before our present-day anxieties, when pamphlets, broadsheets, handbills and caricatures were among the media that shaped the national mood during the wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France that were waged between 1793 and 1815.
Major poets too produced works that explored their response to “the Great Terror”, as it was known, and Dr Csengei’s latest article, The Literature of Fear in Britain, appearing in the journal English Literature, focusses on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem Fears in Solitude. This was written in 1798 “during the alarm of invasion” and followed an incident in 1797 when a French force landed at Fishguard, only to be captured.
Dr Csengei’s article includes an account of this episode, which, she writes, “is usually remembered today as a humorous shambles, with a handful of Welshmen and women triumphantly outsmarting the French”.
It was said that the French mistook local women dressed in traditional hats and red coats as British soldiers and so believed themselves to be outnumbered. This is a myth, but women did play a part in defending Fishguard for a day, writes Dr Csengei, and they did gather on a hill – although not to frighten off the French but to watch them surrender.
The new article analyses a wide range of responses to the Fishguard incident and to persistent fears of French invasion. Dr Csengei includes a lurid broadside titled Horrors upon Horrors that purported to report on the cruelties inflicted by French soldiers. An 1803 Invasion Sketch predicts murderous atrocities in a London that is renamed Buonapart-opolis.
But there were also satirical and humorous responses, and Dr Csengei’s article includes reproductions of cartoons that mock the idea of French invasion, including a giant hot air balloon, complete with guillotine, carrying troops across the Channel.
“There were also images produced during the 1803-05 invasion scare that showed Napoleon as tiny and John Bull as big and strong, so it wasn’t just about generating fear but generating a sense of national bravery,” said Dr Csengei.
Coleridge’s response in Fears in Solitude is much more ambiguous. Since it appeared, there has been debate over whether the poet was subscribing to the alarmism of the period or challenging it.
Dr Csengei argues that the poem “emerges as an artistic discourse designed reflectively to manage his own and the nation’s fears instead of perpetuating the feeling itself”.
It is an intellectual response of the kind that is much needed today, she said.
Her Coleridge article, and an earlier one about Lord Byron’s response to Waterloo, forms part of research that will lead to a book dealing with the emotional and mental health impact of the Napoleonic Wars, a period when the Romantic movement was emerging in English literature.
Today there are recognised conditions such as combat-related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and during World War One there was the concept of shell shock. Dr Csengei is exploring how such experiences were recorded before the development of psychiatry. The poetry of Romantics such as Coleridge, Wordsworth and Byron is a key source, together with many first-hand accounts written by those who participated in the wars during this period.