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Rousseau and Tacitus: republican inflections in the Shelleys' History of a Six Weeks' Tour

Rousseau and Tacitus: republican inflections in the Shelleys' History of a Six Weeks' Tour

Abstract

This essay examines a relatively unexplored dimension of History of a Six Weeks' Tour (1817) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley - its republican orientation. I argue that the writings of both Tacitus and Rousseau are key to one of the volume's principal functions, which is to serve as a commentary on the Bourbon Restoration and Napoleon's legacy on the continent. Classical, feudal and eighteenth-century struggles between liberty and tyranny are recorded throughout History of a Six Weeks' Tour in its references to ruins, monuments and vistas and in language that resonates with Roman writings. In these ways, different moments of Europe's past are set in dialogue with one another in such a way as to engage the early nineteenth-century reader critically with recent and current instances of monarchy and empire. The essay proposes that Percy Shelley's interest in the Tacitean tradition may extend further than has been acknowledged, for example, to include Justus Lipsius's dialogue On Constancy (1584). Finally the presence of Rousseau, prioritized over Gibbon in this volume, is assessed in respect of his interest in Tacitus and in English republican thought.
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