Yasmin Solomonescu, John Thelwall and the Materialist Imagination

Yasmin Solomonescu, John Thelwall and the Materialist Imagination (Basingstoke: Palgrave 2014) xii, 226 pp. Hb, £58.00. ISBN: 978-1-137-42613-0

In July 2014, the John Thelwall Society and the University of Notre Dame in London celebrated Thelwall, the poet, elocutionist, and political agitator, at 250. The event was triumphant in spirit, and the organisers and attendees relished breaking the keynote, papers and questions, wine reception model of similar large academic conferences by attending series of appropriate excursions, all of which held foremost a sense of fun: singing political toasts in an eighteenth-century tavern over a raucous meal; a peripatetic through now-unassuming London streets where Thelwall also once walked, stopping to read his poetry aloud to the mild surprise of current residents; and a guided tour of the Old Operating Theatre Museum at Guy’s Hospital, where Thelwall attended medical lectures and spoke on “Animal Vitality.” Speakers were not limited to researchers, but included venerated human rights lawyers and speech therapists, exhibiting the wide reach of Thelwall’s multiple legacies.

Yasmin Solomonescu’s John Thelwall and the Materialist Imagination continues in the tradition of Thelwall scholarship foregrounded in a sense of recovering these legacies, drawing on previously unstudied archival material to illuminate the intersections of Thelwall’s philosophical materialism and political radicalism. In fact, Solomonescu’s research for this text persuasively positions Thelwall as a forerunner to the “creative triangulation of avant-garde science, radical politics and literary imagination” of the Romantic era (3).

Focusing on the Romantic era briefly, the vitality debate of the 1810s between London surgeons John Abernethy and William Lawrence, and its representation in imaginative literature, particularly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poetry, has been the subject of excellent and extensive research by scholars working in the field of nineteenth-century literature, science, and medicine studies: see, for example, Sharon Ruston, Shelley and Vitality (2005). While Abernethy and Lawrence’s respectively vitalist and materialist views are seemingly irreconcilable, however, Solomonescu argues for a more nuanced understanding of both terms when applied to Thelwall’s 1793 essay on “Animal Vitality” – which was itself part of a conversation with a physician, the pioneer of modern surgery John Hunter – and his later works. To achieve this understanding, the methodology employed here is a combination of close textual analysis, historicist attention to personal and cultural contexts, and what Solomonescu names “literal archaeology,” identifying the materialist lexicon Thelwall used as subtext in his literary writings and political discussion (9). The analysis is applied to Thelwall’s work roughly chronologically, covering poetry, novels, and political writing as well as letters, elocutionary writings, and essays, demonstrating the rich corpus of texts Thelwall provides for scholars of history, politics, literature, and philosophy to draw upon.

Chapter One of this study begins by examining Thelwall’s early engagement with medical science, and introduces a central focus of this book: the body. Bodies feature throughout Thelwall’s work, as Solomonescu reveals, from the human body under the medical gaze, to the body politic in need of galvinising into revolutionary action. The second chapter similarly concentrates on the physiological, first providing eloquent analysis of the materialist language used in Thelwall’s The Peripatetic, before unpacking the effects of sympathy in this text, a concept that has become central to understanding Romantic communication on macro- and micro- levels in recent scholarship: for example, see Mary Fairclough, The Romantic Crowd: Sympathy, Controversy, and Print Culture (2013).

Chapter Three examines Thelwall’s Poems Written in Close Confinement and Chiefly Written in Retirement, identifying the fusion of literary imagination, radical politics, and materialist science used by Thelwall at a moment of personal and political crises. Solomonescu also places Thelwall in the context of the Romantic canon: presenting the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge in  conversation with Thelwall. The following chapter, “Between Hope and Necessity,” discusses Thelwall’s republican romances, drawing links between the action of the texts and the personal and political struggles of Thelwall and the radical cause. Images drawn from contemporary science such as blood transfusion, Leyden jars, and galvanism provide what Solomonescu terms “physiologically informed aesthetics” that “adapt the vitalizing stimulus to the conditions of the body, human and political” (94).

Chapter Five discusses Thelwall’s oratory style and elocutionary pedagogy, analysing natural and democratic communication with a close attention to poetic form, and the final chapter considers  Thelwall’s contribution to Romantic materialist science of the mind as well as Thelwall in dialogue with Edmund Burke’s impressions of the sublime and beautiful. This section places Thelwall alongside Hartleyan associationist psychology and Godwinian philosophies on thoughts, as well as touching on Thelwall’s ideas on vitalist poetry, and the tension between Coleridge and Thelwall’s conceptions of the imagination.

This study continues the recovery of Thelwall as a proto-Romantic poet and political thinker that has taken place in scholarship over the past two decades, while also illuminating the impact of his materialist scientific outlook on his imaginative and political writing. Published in the series of Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the Cultures of Print, this book also delivers a new way of conceiving the complexity of materialist and vitalist points of view circulating in medical and philosophical circles around the turn of the nineteenth century.

Jessica Roberts, University of Salford