Talissa J. Ford, Radical Romantics: Prophets, Pirates and the Space beyond Nation, Edinburgh Critical Studies in Romanticism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), 192pp. ISBN 978-1-47442-612-1; £19.99 (pb).
Treading new paths over familiar ground, Talissa J. Ford’s Radical Romantics: Prophets, Pirates and the Space Beyond Nation explores the notion of nation through those who bend and break its ‘literal or figurative boundaries’ (p. 2). Though its title may sound ambitious, Ford traces a clear and concise line between the real pirate of the early eighteenth century, the imagined pirates of Byron’s works and the religious ‘prophets’ of the early nineteenth century (p. 67). Through this lens, the text presents an original and intriguing argument about the concepts of nationality, identity and gender in the Romantic period. Whilst, as Ford identifies in her introduction, there have been a number of critical studies (such as Linda Colley’s 1992 work Britons: Forging the Nation 1707–1837), Radical Romantics is ‘a book about what is beyond the map’, which aims to set its self apart by ‘rethinking the British Romantic period through such non-national concepts: beyond territory, beyond borders, beyond maps’. Ford states that titular pirates and prophets ‘revel the fragility of national identity and irrevocably complicate attempts to territorialise the state’ (p. 8). Able to exist and function outside of, or indeed often in opposition to, Ford argues that these figures presented both a physical and ideological threat to the stability of the nation.
Radical Romantics: Prophets, Pirates and the Space Beyond Nation is certainly an eye-catching title; as its contents suggest, both the pirate and the prophet have a long history of capturing the imagination of British society. The first chapter ‘It is Not Amiss to Speak of his Beard’ (referencing a description of the infamous pirate captain known as Blackbeard in Captain Charles Johnson’s 1724 A General History of Pyrates) explores the way in which real piracy, and those who committed it, were thought of and written about in the first decades of the eighteenth century. During the so called ‘Golden Age of Piracy’, the chapter argues, the pirate ship—‘not only multinational but multi-ethnical’—was often by nature and necessity a radical and subversive space (p. 20). The second chapter, ‘A Pirate or Anything’, moves away from the Golden Age of Piracy to the fictionalised pirates of Lord Byron’s work—in particular, The Bride of Abydos and The Corsair, which Ford states ‘are haunted by the phantom of the Ottoman Empire’ (p. 42). The chapter analyses Byron’s use of the pirate figure in these poems through the context of their post-Napoleonic, imperial Britain. In these narratives, set long after piracy ‘had been ended by Britain’s targeted military campaigns’, Ford argues that ‘the pirate heroes of these poems, in start contrast to historical pirates, are implicated in the imperial power structures that piracy naturally opposes’.
Chapter 3, ‘Coming Up from the Midst of the Sea’, neatly ties together pirates and prophets: ‘like the space of the sea’, Ford suggests, ‘the space of God defies borders’ (p. 67). This chapter examines the way in which the preachings of ‘prophets’ such as Joanna Southcott and Richard Brothers could be read as radical and threatened the ideological space of nation through their imaginings of Jerusalem. As part of the Ottoman Empire, Ford notes, Jerusalem was ‘therefore complicated by the imperial struggles’, discussed in the previous chapters. The fourth chapter, ‘Jerusalem Is Scattered Abroad’, continues this line of enquiry into a reading of William Blake’s Jerusalem. Ford argues that Blake can be considered as a prophet in the vein of Southcott and Brothers: ‘He lived in a prophetically saturated world: a world in which seventeenth-century antinomian tracts were back in circulation, and a world in which Richard Brothers was making plans in earnest for Jerusalem to be rebuilt’ (p. 92). The next chapter meanwhile moves away from Jerusalem, and Jerusalem imagined within Britain, to Africa and Timbuktu. ‘In the late eighteenth century, Timbuktu was a destination still tantalisingly out of reach; maps of the region were a mixture of errors and empty space’ (p. 123). Though more tangentially related than the previous four chapters, Ford’s reading of Timbuktu as a wondrous space at once beyond and warped by imperial desires is an interesting and unique one.
Whilst at times it feels like Radical Romantics could be a series of three texts rather than a singular work, Ford’s constructs a coherent and engaging argument that offers a new insight into an area that has been much discussed in recent years. The author’s critical approach to the ideas of piracy and prophecy highlights an important, perhaps over looked, factor in conversations about eighteenth- and nineteenth-century concepts of nation and national identity.