BRITISH ROMANTICISM AND DENMARK by Cian Duffy, Reviewed by Marie-Louise Svane

By Cian Duffy
(Edinburgh, 2022) 246 pp.
Reviewed by Marie-Louise Svane on 2023-05-23.

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In recent academic publications on European cultural history, questions about nation building, nationalism, and national identity have played a prominent part. Lately, however, the focus has shifted. Theories of nationhood based on difference, borders, and contrast have been superseded by a growing interest in discerning patterns of cultural relationship across national borders, or of cultural exchange developing along regional and historical lines. Cian Duffy, a British Romanticist, has been exploring the regional concept of "the North," a term central to British and Scandinavian literature of the Romantic period. The new salience of this concept reflects a general rise of interest in old Norse folklore stimulated by antiquarian studies from the late eighteenth century onwards. So far, Duffy has edited Romantic Norths: Anglo-Nordic Exchanges, 1770-1848 (2017) and co-edited (with Robert W. Rix) Nordic Romanticism: Translation, Transmission, Transformation (2022). Both editions assemble contributions and viewpoints from a wide range of colleagues in this field of enquiry.

British Romanticism and Denmark sheds fresh light on the figured complex of ideas about a common cultural heritage shared by Britons and Scandinavians. While Duffy's previous books mapped a variety of connections, historical backgrounds, and modes of cultural exchange, this book highlights relations between Britain and just one other country--Denmark. Furthermore, most of the material studied is British writing about Denmark: accounts by English writers-- diplomates and travelers-- who visited Denmark during the Romantic period.

Though most of these writers are now forgotten, they include Mary Wollstonecraft, whose depiction of Denmark in her Letters Written during a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796) are interesting though not flattering to a Danish readership of the time (as well as of today!). As Duffy shows, other Britons writing about Denmark as a state, a geographical entity, and a population express various attitudes of distance, critique, or sympathy. Often, Duffy points out, British writers used the Danish situation to send an indirect message to the British public: to articulate the moral, political, and cultural lessons that could be learned from comparing the two countries.

British opinions of Denmark changed around 1800. In the eighteenth century, Duffy shows, British observers tend to be disappointed by Denmark: they neither find there the glorious spirit of the Vikings nor meet there the descendants of the free old Norse peoples figured in the period's popular fantasies about the North. Instead, they find an oppressed agricultural people held in serfdom by a cultureless nobility under the absolute rule of King Christian VII.

From 1800 onwards, however, British observers begin to discern common cultural features between the two countries--features perceived as deriving from a shared pre-historical time. As an alternative to French neoclassical culture, Duffy writes, British visitors to Denmark in the early nineteenth century discovered a specifically Nordic version of Romanticism sourced from Norse antiquity.

Duffy's thorough research and study in this large archive of now mostly forgotten texts is a task in itself. It presents a range of interesting details, which, brought together in his analysis, shed light on important questions about cultural history, about the forming of national minds, and, not least, of national myths and imaginations. All of this complements the various literary definitions of Romanticism in its regional and national forms.

From a Danish perspective, however, a handful of questions are still waiting to be asked, if not answered. Why, first of all, are nearly all the writers studied here British? With only one Danish author (the now forgotten A.A. Feldborg), who described his travels in England, how does this book show that the "regional identity" of the North springs from "cultural exchange"? In other words, you might say that this volume features just one half of the exchange: British travelers' view of Denmark during a European age of political reform, the French revolution, and Napoleonic wars, along with dissolving and reestablished national borders. While the Britons who visited Denmark were all educated and some of them celebrities, like Wollstonecraft or the travel writer E.D. Clarke, they were not professional geographers or historians steeped in knowledge of the country they described. They were instead worldly observers who could charm their British readers with pleasant accounts of the sites they passed by. As a result, their perceptions of local institutions, societies, or cultural formations in Denmark are often inconsistent or defective.

To be sure, the British travelers studied here chiefly aimed to appeal to a general curiosity and to serve the interests of the London book market. But their outsider accounts of Denmark in the decades before and after 1800 would have been more interesting, I think, if juxtaposed with the political developments inside Denmark over the same decades. These include the continued work of the royal commissions for agricultural reform as well as the debates-- in the public sphere of Copenhagen-- on censorship and the liberty of the press. More attention to such features of Danish history might have led to interesting questions about Mary Wollstonecraft's perspective when, for instance, she contrasted the relative freedom of Norwegian peasantry with the serfdom of the peasants in Zealand. Likewise, we might better understand why she felt more at ease on her visit to Holstein (once part of Denmark) if we had been told about its progressive milieu, which flourished with the enlightened Holstein nobility centered around the Schimmelmann family. Instead, this book finds Wollstonecraft's account of Denmark exemplifying an early type of "the paradigm of the romantic North," which hardly reflects her temperament as an enlightenment radical and a Rousseauist. In short, more detail on the political history of Denmark would have enriched Duffy's weaving of its connections to Britain during the Romantic period.

Nevertheless, Duffy offers ample detail on the military history of Britain's relation to Denmark, specifically on British military attacks on Copenhagen in 1801 and 1807 during the Napoleonic wars. By scrutinizing British poems, journals, and recorded recollections, Duffy tries to show how far the British victories kindled a national patriotism/chauvinism of the moment, and how far this feeling damaged the existent Romantic concept of a "Nordic brotherhood" across borders. Since the British and the Danes shared a common enemy in France, British writers sought to emphasize their cultural alliance. But the British bombardment of Copenhagen left a long aftermath of resentment in Danish public opinion as well as in its economy, politics, and literature. Duffy quotes from recent Danish editions of research on this large topic made by Danish and English historians. They include Det venskabelige bombardement. København 1807 som historisk begivenhed og national myte (The Friendly Bombardment. Copenhagen 1807 as a Historical Event and a National Myth), edited by Rasmus Glenthøj and Jens Rahbek Rasmussen and published in 2007. This volume shows how the British attack of 1807 severely damaged relations between the two countries, leaving a wound that took years to heal after the end of the Napoleonic wars. But this, of course, is a longer story to be explored elsewhere.

By opening access to an archive of partly forgotten texts, this thorough and well-researched book has the power to reframe with new accounts the much-discussed topics of nationhood, history and Romanticism. Duffy's study of the British engagement with Denmark through the late enlightenment and early Romantic periods widens the perspective on a Nordic allegiance in British literary Romanticism. It also prompts further investigation of the British impact and influence on Danish literature of the same period.

Marie-Louise Svane is Associate Professor Emerita in the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at the University of Copenhagen.