Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The End of Politics

John Havard

In February 1825, Mary Shelley approached a member of parliament with a modest proposal. “I have often wished to be present at a debate in the House of Commons,” the author of Frankenstein wrote to MP John Cam Hobhouse, adding that the “animated discussions now going on” and “splendid eloquence” on display in recent debates were “beyond words objects of attraction.” Debates in parliament helped to inspire the novel at which Shelley was then at work. The Last Man (1826) imagines a deadly pandemic that destroys the human race. But this futuristic tale also reimagines England as a twenty-first century republic following the abdication of the king (which Shelley optimistically dates to 2073). The end of the world commences with the end of politics as usual. That begins with the silencing of some especially vocal men.

A decade later, parliament burned down. The raging fire damaged much of the Palace of Westminster. St. Stephen’s Chapel, home of the Commons debating chamber, was left a smoking ruin. The timing was uncanny. The 1832 Reform Act had recently overhauled the political system, redrawing the electoral map and extending the franchise to qualified men. Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act the following year. For some, the 1834 fire represented a kind of apotheosis: an “act of triumphant self-immolation,” in the words of Caroline Shenton. At precisely the moment when parliament had begun to modernize, large parts of the archaic buildings that housed its members were reduced to cinders. For others, the conflagration was a judgment from God against a nation that was turning away from time-honored institutions. (“Divine retribution!” the Queen reportedly exclaimed). The destruction also had practical implications. The addition of a hundred Irish MPs at the turn of the century had already put the buildings under strain. The fire forced the issue: parliament needed to be rebuilt.

In the early nineteenth century, I argue in my book Late Romanticism and the End of Politics: Byron, Mary Shelley and the Last Men, demands for political change intersected with thinking about the end of the world: plagues and fires, apocalyptic storms and erupting volcanos, sinking islands and evacuated planets. But these visions of the end, I argue, also raised the prospect of new beginnings—of clearing the ground and starting over. Late Romanticism and the End of Politics focuses on the period between Britain’s victory at Waterloo in 1815 and the Reform Act of 1832. For authors including Mary Shelley and Lord Byron, reflecting on ends and endings was poetically and politically generative. The 1820s was a decade of massive change, from the granting of Catholic emancipation to the emergence of factory regulations and revision to a brutal legal code. The first university for working people was founded, as was the first police force. These years also saw heated discussion about the future of politics in England—and the future of enslaved persons in Britain’s overseas colonies. Debates in this period raised the prospect that existing political dynasties, the English law, slavery, and even the nation itself might simply cease to be. In 1827, Hobhouse wrote a letter to democratic organizer Francis Place cataloguing the ailments that had recently incapacitated, or killed, various members of the Government. While his letter was, in part, a tasteless joke (“more like a hospital return,” he wryly observed, “than a list of cabinet ministers”), Hobhouse also captured the very real sense that existing lines of political men would die out—and that new visions of communal life and collective rule would take their place.

Architecture is not a focus of Late Romanticism and the End of Politics. But the urban environment was also transformed in this period. The 1820s saw the clearing out of some slums and the building of new ones. London underwent a degree of transformation not seen since after the Great Fire of 1666. The book’s cover image depicts the cloisters of St. Stephen’s Chapel following the 1834 fire. Despite the obvious loss, this was also a moment of possibility: the rebuilding of parliament was an opportunity to reimagine politics. “Just as the fire had swept away the old Palace,” Shenton writes, “now there was a chance to throw the old way of doing things onto the bonfire as well.” Radicals wanted the building to be “modern, utilitarian, and shed of its associations with the corrupt politics, religion, and class-ridden traditions of the past.” Some called for parliament to move to another location, for the buildings to be more open to the people. Others wanted the institution to keep its Gothic trappings and remain at its ancient site, “thereby imbuing the new Houses with legitimacy and gravitas,” as Shenton shrewdly observes.

The conservative side won out. The result was the Houses of Parliament as we know them, complete with the clockface tower of “Big Ben.” The new design accentuated original features while subsuming a disorderly, “higgledy-piggledy” complex of buildings within a newly regularized design. The complaints about the dreary profile cast by the edifice—John Ruskin and William Morris expressed special disdain—contained substantive criticism. The bustling area around parliament, which included popular markets and sites of protest, became less accessible to the public. Beyond affirming continuity with the past, the new building made added claims of historicity. The weight of the past became literal in heavy benches and wood-paneled walls. This was all quite deliberate. The effect was not only to preserve but also to create tradition, cultivating a sense of permanence quite at odds with parliament’s factious history, let alone recent reformist advances. That sense of weightiness continues to shape politics to this day, reinforcing a belief that the arcane rituals and mannered speeches of Westminster are at a remove from the day-to-day concerns of regular people. Parliament buildings elsewhere have been redesigned to include curved walls and circular chambers, emphasizing movement and encounter. Politics at Westminster remains confined to a box.

Byron did not live to see politics transformed by the Reform Act. At the time of his death in 1823, debates about how and when slavery should end were just starting to be revived after a shameful period of dormancy. Shelley completed The Last Man before parliament burned down. But she was not, in any case, permitted to watch debates in the main Commons chamber. (Caroline Lamb, Byron’s lover, circumvented the ban on female visitors by attending debates dressed up as a boy). Byron and Shelley nonetheless took special interest in heated political debates where an array of possibilities for the political future were imagined. More important, they wove reflections on the changing ends of politics into their literary practice, where they intersected with reflection on the end of the world.

As the population begins to dwindle in The Last Man, what Shelley aptly terms the “extinction” of political activity returns England to a quasi-rural condition. Vocal male politicians suddenly vanish and new communities take shape in the rubble. Shelley’s novel also sees a country afflicted with plague pull up the drawbridge on the wider world: a kind of early Brexit that sees the nation become an inhospitable, craggy outpost, cut off from trade and succumbing to decline. Byron’s poem “Darkness” imagines an economy in collapse. After the death of the sun, the nation must consume itself (thrones are “burnt for beacons,” forests “set on fire”) in the desperate need for heat. The Island plays out that scenario in reverse. In Byron’s final long poem, Tahiti appears as an unspoiled world of self-renewing wealth, outside exploitative circuits of global trade and far from the ruthless exploitation of West Indian slavery. Byron’s late poetry, I argue, culminating with Don Juan, lets us imagine a world in which England has sunk into the ocean, vanishing without trace, leaving the world to start anew—although he calls for saving the works of Shakespeare and the poetry of Alexander Pope from the shipwreck.

“The only thing that is the end of the world,” Barack Obama stated in the final weeks of 2016, “is the end of the world.” Things have recently felt more terminal than usual. In an age of spiraling climate catastrophe and ongoing political tumult, we are all-too-familiar with the ways that political and planetary end-times can converge. Decline and disaster can reinforce our belief that change, more widely, is not possible, creating an all-encompassing sense of doom. Yet thinking about the end can also be generative, looking ahead to real political change. Calls to burn it down are an extreme response, a last resort. Late Romanticism and the End of Politics teases apart world-ending rhetorics and shows how imagined—as distinct from actual—catastrophes might also be a way of reevaluating politics and its ends. Literature offers a disaster-free space of thinking, I conclude, in which we can imagine other possible worlds than this one.

Image: View of the destruction of St Stephen’s Chapel, Palace of Westminster by John Taylor (1834). Image © London Metropolitan Archives (City of London).

Late Romanticism and the End of Politics by John Havard

About The Author

John Havard

John Owen Havard is Associate Professor of English at Binghamton University. He is the author of Disaffected Parties: Political Estrangement and the Making of English Literature, 1...

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