The Romantics and Us: Simon Schama's documentary brings new life to the movement's figures

In a new BBC Two series, Schama sets out his thesis that we’re all Romantics now.

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If you’re a great one for what the historian Simon Schama calls “ecstatic possibility” (alas, I very much fear that I am), then his new series might be for you. Yes, it’s called, horribly and needlessly, The Romantics and Us with Simon Schama. But don’t let this put you off. Watching the first film (11 September, 9pm) I more than once fell into a kind of waking swoon. The first time this happened, admittedly, I was hardly surprised. Schama was talking, with unstoppable enthusiasm, about my heroine, Mary Wollstonecraft, marooned in Paris during the worst excesses of the Terror. I always feel weepy when I think of her seeing, from her window, the king being taken to his trial (struck by his dignity and its effect on the crowd watching, she bowed to the majesty of the people, in all their propriety). But the second time, I was caught on the hop, the sudden racing in my chest so forceful I really thought I might be about to pass out.

Schama was standing in front of Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19), which depicts a moment following the shipwreck of a French frigate off the coast of Senegal in 1816; only 15 of the 153 men onboard the rudimentary life raft in question survived their days at sea – and then, only because they resorted to cannibalism (their saviours found dried flesh tied to their makeshift mast). It’s a horrifying story, one from which Géricault created a work of art that, thanks to its astonishing scale, forces you to eyeball raging hunger, madness and death; to stare them down as if they were coming for you too. (I once read that his friend, Delacroix, on seeing it, ran all the way back to his own studio.) But even so, Schama’s commentary was brilliant, his eyes all the while scouring the canvas, as if he was also desperately searching the horizon for a rescue ship. If I could have hot-footed it then and there to Paris, where the painting hangs in the Louvre, I would have done – quarantine or no quarantine.

Why is Schama so good at this? Learning apart, I think it’s because he really cares. He’s that unfashionable thing: sincere. His thesis in this series isn’t, to me, 100 per cent convincing – his conviction being that we’re all Romantics now, that we owe our belief in marches and democracy, our obsession with the self, and our love of nature entirely to them. But on screen it really works: the segue from Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (1830) to footage of students on the streets of Paris in 1968; the sequence in which the hip hop artist, Testament, recites William Blake’s “London” in a Lambeth railway tunnel. Time is artfully concertinaed, past and present fizzing away together intoxicatingly until you begin to feel quite high – an opium-eater in Pilates gear and Veja trainers.

Percy Bysshe Shelley, a young man who clearly spent some time carefully teasing his hair in the mirror of a morning, and whose expensive clothes always looked artfully dishevelled, was the original aristo-punk, insisted Schama, before getting stuck into “The Masque of Anarchy”, inspired by the Peterloo Massacre and arguably one of the greatest political poems ever written. I had thought myself somewhat tired of the Romantics – a new biography still comes along every five minutes; I’ve been reading them half my life – but as the programme went on, I seemed somehow to regress, back to my student days, when the name William Godwin actually meant something to me (even if I wasn’t quite sure exactly what).

And it’s good to see Schama giving women their place; Clara Schumann will star in a future episode. Shelley was undoubtedly very sexy, if you like that sort of thing, but to me Wollstonecraft, the woman who would have been his de facto mother-in-law had she lived, knocks him, and all of them, into a cocked hat. To be close to her, as Schama does indeed bring you in this series, is to be more vividly alive; to feel that anything is possible. Beyond any argument about people power and nationalism he might care to make, I think the Romantics’ greatest gift lies in their peculiar bravery. Most of us still live with the inward shackles they threw off with such determination, if not precisely ease. 

The Romantics and Us with Simon Schama
BBC Two

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 11 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Saving Labour

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