Lori Lee Oates Memorial University of Newfoundland
It has long been established by historians such as Christopher Bayly and scholars of post-colonialism such as Leela Gandhi that theosophy was an important nineteenth-century intellectual current. Bayly, for example, credits theosophy with diffusing the Bhavagad Gita throughout India and bringing it to the attention of the wider world. However, what has been less well-established is how those ideas were moving across international lines or the links between theosophy and empire.
My recently published article in The International History Review drew on new primary sources to demonstrate that the Theosophical Society was actively building print networks to expand and move their occult philosophies across the globe. The article paid closer attention to how theosophical texts were moving internationally than previous research. It also demonstrated how Theosophical Society leaders were using expanding imperial networks such as steam ships, telegraphs, and international banking to grow the society across the globe.
Q1. [Toye] You’re currently working on print culture during the French revolutionary era. It’s well known that this was a period that saw an extraordinary explosion in the publication of pamphlets and newspapers. But who was producing them, and why?
[Fairfax-Cholmeley] It is true that the Revolution saw a remarkable rise in the quantity and variety (but not necessarily the quality!) of printed material available to the French population. In the late 1780s, a creaking system of censorship broke up completely in the face of the huge excitement generated by the call for the first Estates-General (the French equivalent of Parliament) since 1614. From 1789 onwards, many Revolutionaries would draw a close association between freedom of the press and the wider political and social liberties the Revolution was supposed to be securing. The printing press therefore always had a certain revolutionary cachet that encouraged its use – especially in Paris.
Who exactly was producing pamphlets, newspapers and other printed material (broadsides, petitions, plays…the list is endless) clearly varies a great deal. The Revolutionary press attracted ambitious members of the political elite, for obvious reasons, but overall production involved a much broader constituency. For example, part of my PhD research focused on the use of print by victims of repression during the Terror of 1793-1794 as a tactic to extricate themselves from any number of sticky situations, and also to restore their revolutionary standing afterwards. Just as the Terror targeted men and women from right across the social spectrum, so the petitions, legal briefs, letters and other material printed in response were not just authored by a narrow elite. My current British Academy postdoctoral fellowship was partly inspired by this research. I am investigating the activities of surviving victims of the Terror in the next phase of the French Revolution (1794-1799), including their use of print to mount public campaigns against those they alleged to have been their former oppressors. You also see those accused of being former Terrorists printing their own defences in return. Continue reading “Centre Interview: Fairfax-Cholmeley on the French Revolution, Print Culture, and the Terror”→
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