Author Q&A: Colin Jager, Unquiet Things

15293Colin Jager is the author of Unquiet Things: Secularism in the Romantic Age. In Great Britain during the Romantic period, governmental and social structures were becoming more secular as religion was privatized and depoliticized. If the discretionary nature of religious practice permitted spiritual freedom and social differentiation, however, secular arrangements produced new anxieties. Unquiet Things investigates the social and political disorders that arise within modern secular cultures and their expression in works by Jane Austen, Horace Walpole, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, and Percy Shelley among others. Emphasizing secularism rather than religion as its primary analytic category, Unquiet Things demonstrates that literary writing possesses a distinctive ability to register the discontent that characterizes the mood of secular modernity. In the twenty-first century, Jager contends, we are still living within the terms of the romantic response to secularism, when literature and philosophy first took account of the consequences of modernity.

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Penn Press: How open was the general populace in England to religious pluralism in the 18th and 19th centuries?

Colin Jager: It all depends whom you ask. By the middle of the 19th century you have religious liberties for most minority groups, and yet certain politicians and other elites remained scandalized by Catholic Emancipation, for example. The 18th century was a different story: tolerance was the official policy, but that extended only to certain groups. And even the Methodists received a fair amount of ridicule, though this often had as much to do with class as with religion per se. The important shift, though, is that dissent or non-conformity becomes a political rather than strictly theological affair. That’s a huge, though very gradual, change. That’s why secularism is a matter of politics as much as it is of religion.

What sort of impact did the translation of texts into the vernacular have on the British people?

On ordinary people, it’s hard to say. With increased literacy, it’s certainly clear that more people could read the Bible for themselves—and indeed some churchmen recommended it. You can’t understand the rise of evangelicalism in the later 18th century without that. In earlier periods, when owning books and being able to read them was more rare, it can be hard to track what effect the vernacular had. What we know for certain is that it made some elites very uncomfortable. At the same time, it’s important to emphasize, as I do in my book, that vernacular texts and home reading could themselves be tools of social control—reading didn’t always mean liberation.

Why was The Famous History of the Life of King Henry VIII such a popular Shakespearean play? Did it appeal to the masses through its writing or other dramatic qualities?

It was very popular in the 18th century because it lent itself to spectacle and entertainment. The pageantry of it appealed to people. Again, I would emphasize that issues of power and authority are central here: the play depicts Henry, the great Renaissance prince, as bewildered and strangely ineffective, despite all the pomp and circumstance. So were does authority go? To the family, among other places. It’s interesting that in the more “serious” and sincere 19th century, the play fell out of favour. And no one now regards it as a great play.

Was Jane Austen known for alluding to historical circumstances in her novels’ narratives? In what novel does Austen weave history most overtly into the lives of her characters?

The question of Austen and history is an interesting one. It used to be common to say she paid no attention to it. Now the pendulum has swung the other way, and there are lots of studies showing that she was fully aware of the big issues of her day. But you don’t find them in obvious places in her novels; you’ve got to be alert. There is a famous non-conversation about the slave trade (and colonialism generally) in Mansfield Park. And issues of gender are of course always on her mind. War, too. I suppose her most “historical” novel in this sense is Persuasion, which is structured by the rhythms of the Napoleonic wars. But I make a claim in my book that Emma is really driven and determined by its very deep historical relationship to the dissolution of the monasteries, which was of course already quite ancient history when Austen was writing.

What was the typical depiction of religious fanatics in poetry and literature (as shown by poets such as Lord Byron)?

The “fanatic” is always a useful figure, in literature and politics. Once you’ve identified a wild-eyed fanatic, then you appear on the side of the reasonable and rational. This is true well beyond religion, by the way. So the point is that reading fanaticism is all about how we read power: who gets to apply labels, and to what ends.

As the Romantic Age progressed, was there a divide between older and younger generations regarding religion and secularism?

Well, the standard thing to say is that the older romantics were more religious, and the younger ones less so. That’s true as far as it goes, but since the older generation also lived longer, we’re not really comparing apples to apples. In any case I’m not that interested in levels of people’s religious commitment or belief. Indeed, my book is really an argument against taking belief all that seriously.

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Colin Jager is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University and author of The Book of God: Secularization and Design in the Romantic Era, also available from the University of Pennsylvania Press. Unquiet Things: Secularism in the Romantic Age is available now.