In the 1790s, Britain underwent what the politician Edmund Burke called ‘the most important of all revolutions…a revolution in sentiments’. Inspired by the French Revolution, British radicals concocted new political worlds to enshrine healthier, more productive, human emotions and relationships. The Enlightenment’s wildest hopes crested in the utopian projects of such optimists – including the young poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the philosophers William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, the physician Thomas Beddoes and the first photographer Thomas Wedgwood – who sought to reform sex, education, commerce, politics and medicine by freeing desire from repressive constraints. But by the middle of the decade, the wind had changed.
The French Revolution descended into bloody Terror and the British government quashed radical political activities. In the space of one decade, feverish optimism gave way to bleak disappointment, and changed the way we think about human need and longing. A Revolution of Feeling is a vivid and absorbing account of the dramatic end of the Enlightenment, the beginning of an emotional landscape preoccupied by guilt, sin, failure, resignation and repression, and the origins of our contemporary approach to feeling and desire. Above all, it is the story of the human cost of political change, of men and women consigned to the ‘wrong side of history’. But although their revolutionary proposals collapsed, that failure resulted in its own cultural revolution – a revolution of feeling – the aftershocks of which are felt to the present day.