Angela Esterhammer, “1824: Improvisation, Speculation, and Identity-Construction”


Literature and cultural history of the year 1824 reflect the prominence of improvisation and speculation as ideologies and modes of action. Both these terms suggest hasty action that lacks a solid or profound basis, that responds to contingencies and constructs its own (pseudo-)reality. This article explores modalities of improvisation and speculation by focusing on the interrelated themes of ephemerality, appearance, and identity-construction in texts and performances of the year 1824, including influential works of poetry and fiction, the burgeoning periodical press, and new forms of theatrical entertainment.

Publications, performances, and cultural events of the year 1824 manifest a readiness to experiment with new media and forms of expression within a climate of heightened theatricality and preoccupation with appearances. This historical Zeitgeist finds expression in the terms “improvisation” and “speculation,” both of which are notably prevalent at the time and encompass a wide range of activities. “Improvisation” referred primarily to a mode of stage performance that reached its height of popularity across Europe in 1824, while “speculation” was increasingly used to mean high-risk investment in the booming British stock market; yet both terms take on more general meaning as practices and ideologies that have special relevance at this historical moment. Improvisation and speculation both suggest hasty action that lacks a solid or profound basis, that responds to contingencies and constructs its own (pseudo-)reality. Literature reflects these conditions by thematizing ephemerality, superficiality, and theatricality, and more specifically by relating improvisational action and speculative behaviour to the construction of the self. Diverse literary and theatrical genres reveal a prevailing uneasiness about personal identity; Gothic fiction, for instance, explores ways in which identity may be imitated, counterfeited, or destabilized, while the disjunction between superficial appearances and essential qualities of character simultaneously comes to the fore in the very different genre of silver-fork fiction. This article examines some of the remarkable productions of British writers and performers in the year 1824 with reference to the concepts of speculation, improvisation, and identity-construction, moving from the extempore nature of periodical writing and the improvisation of poetry, to the specularity of visual culture and silver-fork novels, to financial and imaginative speculation, to the notable fascination of speculative fiction with the self and its doubles. The convergence of these diverse phenomena in the year 1824 suggests that exploring them in conjunction with one another can provide insight into the way literature and other media process the psycho-social conditions of this historical moment, generating a concept of subjectivity itself as speculative and improvisational.

The literary field takes on an improvisational aspect during the 1820s thanks to the rapid rise of the periodical press and the style of “writing-to-the-moment” that it demands. Studies of nineteenth-century periodical culture have found 1824 a meaningful endpoint for the analysis of some trends (cf. John O. Hayden’s The Romantic Reviewers, 1802-1824) and a starting point for others (cf. the Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals, which begins with 1824). While weekly, monthly, and quarterly magazines sprang up, changed ownership, merged, and folded throughout this active decade, the number and variety of the periodicals founded in 1824 are telling: they include the Metropolitan Journal, the Literary Magnet, the World of Fashion and Continental Feuilletons, Pierce Egan’s Life in London and Sporting Guide, and, most importantly, the Parisian literary journal Le Globe and London’s Westminster Review. James Mill, writing in the inaugural issue of the Westminster on January 24, comments on the significant role of periodicals in the contemporary literary field but laments that their strong dependence on readers’ opinions and “the applause of the moment” (207) cannot be reconciled with literature’s traditional responsibility to educate the public and correct its taste. Mill’s awareness that magazines and the journalists who write for them are obliged to adapt to a quickly changing market was widely shared by his contemporaries. A few months earlier, William Hazlitt had given a more ironic inflection to this observation in his essay “The Periodical Press” in the Edinburgh Review:

We exist in the bustle of the world, and cannot escape from the notice of our contemporaries. We must please to live, and therefore should live to please. We must look to the public for support. … Therefore, let Reviews flourish – let Magazines increase and multiply – let the Daily and Weekly Newspapers live for ever! (220)

Hazlitt marvels at the sheer speed of journalistic production – “The public read the next day at breakfast-time (perhaps), what would make a hundred octavo pages, every word of which has been spoken, written out, and printed within the last twelve or fourteen hours!” (224) – and remarks that the quality of “extempore writing” compares favourably with “more laboured compositions”: “what is struck off at a blow, is in many respects better than what is produced on reflection, and at several heats” (222). Whether they respond positively or negatively to this new media environment, journalists of the mid-1820s are strikingly aware of the need to write to the moment and adapt nimbly to the demands of their audience.

These conditions find an intriguing correlative in a mode of stage performance that reached its height in Western Europe in 1824: the oral extemporization of poetry by male improvvisatori or female improvvisatrici. Poetic improvisers typically performed in theatres, concert halls, or private salons according to a routine whereby audience members were invited to propose topics by calling them out or by writing them on slips of paper that were drawn at random from a vase. After no more than a few minutes’ preparation, the improviser invented a poem or, in some cases, an entire drama on the chosen topic and performed it orally, with or without musical accompaniment. Traditionally, poetic improvisers stemmed from map iconItaly and performed mainly in Italian. By 1824, however, this performance phenomenon had become widely known across Europe thanks to performance tours undertaken by celebrity improvvisatori, imitators who began extemporizing poetry in other languages , and the international diaspora of Italian poets and intellectuals caused by political unrest in Italy. The year 1824 saw the first international tour of Tommaso Sgricci, the most flamboyant improvvisatore of post-Napoleonic Europe, who specialized in extemporizing one-man, multi-act dramas. In March and April, Sgricci displayed his talent before large theatre audiences in map iconParis, improvising tragedies that were enthusiastically, if controversially, reviewed in periodicals across Europe. Sgricci’s success was promptly imitated by the young French poet Eugène de Pradel, who, as London’s New Monthly Magazine reported incredulously, announced his intention to “Improvise French verse, – conquer the difficulties of prosody – of rhyme, extempore, and before a numerous auditory!” (12: 400) by extemporizing “a Tragedy in five acts, and a grand Opera in three acts” (12: 208). Meanwhile, the French Revue Encyclopédique and the German Morgenblatt für gebildete Stände each ran a series of articles in 1824 on the extraordinary improvisational abilities of the Dutch poet and businessman Willem de Clercq. During the harsh winter of 1824-25, the self-styled “first German improviser” Oskar Ludwig Bernhard Wolff began to extemporize poetry in German at soirées in northern map iconGermany, eventually setting off on tour to Berlin and Weimar. London audiences, for their part, were able to attend public lectures on the subject of poetic improvisation by Gabriele Rossetti and a certain Marchese Spinetto, in addition to performances by the expatriate Roman improvvisatore Filippo Pistrucci (Wynn, diary entry for June 1824). The improvvisatore phenomenon also had an impact on visual art. The painting L’improvisateur Napolitain by Swiss artist Louis-Léopold Robert, which depicts a lute-playing improviser as he entertains a mixed audience in the Neapolitan countryside, was one of the highlights of the 1824 exhibition at the map iconLouvre.

engraving of Landon

Figure 1: Engraving of Letitia Elizabeth Landon (L.E.L.) from an original painting by Maclise

All of these events were reported on assiduously in English magazines, some of which display a fascination with poetic improvisers that suggests a sympathetic awareness, on some level, of the extent to which periodicals themselves are operating in an improvisational mode. In 1824, London’s market-leading New Monthly Magazine ran announcements and reviews of Sgricci’s and Pradel’s performances in Paris, a long documentary essay entitled “Italian Improvisatori” (11: 193-202), a report of a French-language book on “Popular Songs of the Modern Greeks” that enthusiastically highlights the Greeks’ “faculty of improvisation, (which they possess even in a more remarkable degree than the Italians)” (11: 139-48), and a favourable review of Letitia Elizabeth Landon’s The Improvisatrice and Other Poems (12: 365-6). This last publication, itself a landmark of 1824, illustrates how writers and publishers seized the moment to produce poetry and novels inspired by the figure of the improviser. The anonymously published collection The Improvisatrice launched the career of Landon, who, semi-veiled under the byline “L.E.L.” (see Fig. 1), would become a dominant voice in literary magazines and poetry annuals through the rest of the 1820s and 1830s. Drawing inspiration primarily from Madame de Staël’s popular novel of 1807, Corinne, or Italy, Landon depicts her “Improvisatrice” in terms and settings that proved highly influential on women writers of the later nineteenth century.

The popularity of improvisation as a mode of performance and action in 1824 also manifests itself in the public response to the death of Byron on April 19 at map iconMissolonghi, Greece. When Byron’s remains arrived back in England in July, his death was experienced by the public as a visual spectacle that included an opportunity to view his body as it lay in state in London, followed by a funeral procession through the city and north to map iconNottinghamshire, where he was buried near his ancestral estate of Newstead Abbey. For the remainder of the year, the topic of Byron’s death along with his poetry, conversation, personality, and personal life dominated many of Britain’s literary-cultural magazines. London’s La Belle Assemblée, an English-language magazine aimed at a female readership, was one of several that featured Byron-related content in every monthly issue. The coincidence that Byron died in the year that the improvvisatore phenomenon reached its height seemed to crystallize the already widespread notion that Byron habitually extemporized both his conversation and his poetry. The flood of reminiscences that poured from the press latched onto the persona of the poetic improviser to describe Byron’s genius; in Conversations of Lord Byron (1824), for instance, Thomas Medwin claims simply that his talent “is that of an improvisatore” (418). The London Magazine, quoting this passage when reviewing Medwin’s memoir in the November 1824 issue, adds that Byron “wrote as quickly as he spoke, seldom blotted a word, and never altered a line. … He was … such an Improvisatore as an Englishman might and an Italian could not be” (10: 452).

The year 1824 also saw the publication of the last cantos of Byron’s unfinished mock-epic Don Juan, in which the poem’s chatty narrator identifies his “desultory rhyme” with the improvisational mode that “rings what’s uppermost of new or hoary, / Just as I feel the ‘Improvisatore’” (594). The cheap editions of cantos 15 and 16 produced by publisher John Hunt, together with pirated editions of the entire Don Juan that began to appear after Byron’s death, made it possible for the poem to reach a large readership across the class spectrum. Readers would have had a range of responses to the subject matter of cantos 15 and 16, in which Byron continues his mocking but nostalgic depiction of the British aristocracy by bringing his protagonist Don Juan to a house-party at the estate of the politician Lord Henry Amundeville and his beautiful, brilliant, but bored wife Lady Adeline – a setting in which the action consists mainly of match-making, feasting, performing, and flirting.

While they satirize the heroic epic, the novel of manners, and Gothic romance, these last cantos of Don Juan also form a poetic counterpart to the emerging sub-genre of silver-fork fiction that arguably has its origins in 1824. According to William Hazlitt, the fashionable “silver fork” school, as he pejoratively called it (“Dandy School” 146-7), took its lead from Sayings and Doings: A Series of Sketches from Life, a three-volume collection of short fiction by the dramatist and journalist Theodore Hook that appeared in February 1824. Having “formed the chief table-talk of London for considerably more than nine days, and … subsequently enjoyed no trivial share of popularity,” as Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine archly but admiringly put it (17: 221), Sayings and Doings generated multiple editions, a three-volume sequel in 1825, and a third series consisting of another three volumes in 1828. In these tales, Hook draws on the intimate knowledge of theatre and performance that he derived from his experience as a popular playwright and as a semi-professional improviser of songs and verses at upper-class dinners and parties. Many of Hook’s contemporaries, including his one-time schoolfellow Byron, regarded Hook as the only English counterpart to the Italian improvvisatore (Medwin 205). The first-person narrator of Sayings and Doings makes a strong claim to be an accurate observer of societal behaviour. “I have watched the world, and have set down all that I have seen,” he writes in the “Advertisement” prefixed to the first volume (Hook 1: iv); in pseudo-documentary style, he depicts the highly performative behavior of the beau monde and of middle-class aspirants to it. The narrator and the characters in Sayings and Doings are preoccupied with external appearance, dress, furniture, and accessories such as silver forks; based on these external indicators of class and income, they speculate on one another’s character and value. With this hybrid of ironic sociological observation on the part of the narrator and artificial, sometimes melodramatically performative behaviour on the part of the characters, Hook helps to establish a fashion whose stock would remain high for two decades with the silver-fork fiction of (among others) Benjamin Disraeli, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Catherine Gore.

Forming a sharp contrast – yet a strangely appropriate counterpart – to Sayings and Doings, Mary Russell Mitford’s Our Village: Sketches of Rural Life, Character and Scenery also debuted in 1824. This collection of interlinked prose sketches, some of them originally published in The Lady’s Magazine, generated four sequels over the period 1826 to 1832. Superficially, Mitford’s themes appear very different from Hook’s: she depicts a rural village in map iconBerkshire rather than the high society of the metropolis and fashionable resorts; her domestic and feminine viewpoint contrasts with that of Hook’s man-about-town; her tone is predominantly sentimental and conversational while his is alternately ironic and melodramatic. Yet both Mitford and Hook were successful and influential in shaping the genre of short fiction in the series format. They also share a quasi-sociological perspective that provokes reflection on the fine line between documentary truth and self-conscious representation, always leaving some doubt about the extent to which they are “staging” their purportedly accurate observations of urban or rural life.

Mitford’s and Hook’s shared emphasis on accurate observation might also be contextualized within the visual culture of the 1820s and the dominant trope of speculation – a term that, among its diverse connotations, carries a root meaning of “vision.” New meanings of “speculation” emerge against the background of an exuberant visuality or specularity manifested in the multi-media entertainment scene of London and other urban centres in 1824. During that year Londoners could go and see “Ancient and Modern Mexico,” an elaborate exhibit of artifacts on display at the map iconEgyptian Hall in Piccadilly (see Robert David Aguirre, “Mexico, Independence, and Trans-Atlantic Exchange, 1822-24″), or Robert Burford’s panorama painting of map iconPompeii, or one of the most successful panoramas of all, Henry Aston Barker’s canvas of the Battle of Waterloo. Originally produced right after the 1815 battle, this 360º painting was re-exhibited to great acclaim at the same time that the long-running spectacle The Battle of Waterloo premiered at map iconAstley’s Amphitheatre on April 19, 1824. John Arrowsmith of London took out a patent on February 10 for the diorama, a more dramatic variant of the panorama that used light effects to create the illusion of depth and movement; dioramas of map iconBrest and map iconChartres Cathedral were exhibited in London that year. The prominence of visual culture was acknowledged in yet another way by the founding of map iconLondon’s National Gallery, which opened to the public on May 10.

This emphasis on specularity converges with the climate of speculation that reached its peak in 1824. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, during the early nineteenth century “speculation” retained its older meanings of visual “examination or observation” and “abstract or hypothetical reasoning” – although, alongside these definitions that emphasize scrutiny and reason, it can also mean pure or mere “conjecture.” More recently, during the late eighteenth century, “speculation” had additionally come to designate financial activity “of a venturesome or risky nature, but offering the chance of great or unusual gain” (OED). The economic significance of speculation comes to the fore in the mid-1820s, when British culture was profoundly affected by a rapid and severe boom-and-bust cycle. The prosperity that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, the issue of increased amounts of paper money by British banks, and the lowering of interest rates on traditional Bank of England bonds prompted investors to turn to higher-risk investments such as canals, railways, mining companies, and foreign government bonds, especially in South and Central America. The speculative bubble continued to expand during 1824 until, in mid-1825, the over-inflated British stock market began to crash; numerous bank failures followed later that year, and a catastrophic collapse was averted only by extreme intervention by the map iconBank of England in December.

The visual, intellectual, and financial dimensions of speculation might thus be regarded as defining conditions of late Georgian culture, and these conditions take a variety of forms in the literary field of 1824. When Hook introduces his Sayings and Doings as a “curious matter of speculation” (1: v; italics added), he invokes the visual and cognitive connotations of the term by assuming the position of a spectator who observes social behaviour and comments in a pseudo-anthropological mode on the way society negotiates status, rituals, and alliances. In addition, the first story in the first volume of the 1824 series of Sayings and Doings, entitled “Danvers,” takes on the theme of economic speculation directly: it is a tale of a middle-class protagonist who makes high-risk financial and emotional investments in an attempt to gain access to the aristocracy, parliament, and fashionable life, only to suffer a spectacular economic collapse. Elsewhere in Hook’s fictional world, as in other literary texts of 1824 and in the real-world literary marketplace, speculation manifests itself in risk-taking behaviour, in blatant attempts to capitalize on market opportunities, and in a growing awareness that value is ephemeral and vulnerable to volatile forces beyond the control of the individual.

As writers engage directly with the climate of financial speculation, they also extend speculation into intellectual and imaginative contexts by undertaking bold experiments with genre and staging bizarre intersections between real and fictional worlds. Several early examples of “speculative” fiction in the modern sense of fantastic fiction and alternative histories appeared in 1824, including Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet: A Tale of the Eighteenth Century. After the strangely domestic novel St. Ronan’s Well that Scott published in January 1824, Redgauntlet seems to return to the historical-romance themes that readers were used to seeing from the “Author of Waverley” – yet Redgauntlet also holds surprises, thanks to its self-conscious experimentation with genre and ironic approach to its subject-matter. Unusually for a “Waverley Novel,” Redgauntlet begins in epistolary form with an exchange of letters between Darsie Latimer and his friend Alan Fairford that continues throughout the first of the novel’s three volumes. At the beginning of volume two, an omniscient third-person narrator steps in and takes responsibility for continuing Alan’s story, while Darsie’s adventures are recounted through interpolated excerpts from his personal diary. Redgauntlet also incorporates a ghost story (“Wandering Willie’s Tale”), a multitude of autobiographical narratives told by subsidiary characters in their various idiolects, and a partial frame narrative in the form of a postscript letter from the historiographer “Dr. Dryasdust” to the “Author of Waverley,” in which Dryasdust itemizes the documentary sources from which he has pieced the story together.

This innovative and playful handling of genre is not unusual for prose writers of the 1820s, but in the case of Scott, who seemed to have discovered a perennially best-selling formula for fiction a decade earlier, it suggests an ironic reflection on his own success. The ironic perspective is intensified by Redgauntlet’s subject matter, for it belongs to the genre of alternative history: at the centre of the novel is a “historical” event that never took place. Redgauntlet repeats the basic plot made famous by Waverley ten years earlier, in which a young Englishman becomes involved with Scottish rebels supporting Charles Edward Stuart, the “Pretender” to the British throne. But while Waverley involved its hero in the actual Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, Redgauntlet centers on a fictitious visit to England by the aging Pretender to lead another attempt at rebellion in the summer of 1765. Together with the pseudo-authority claimed by the letters, diary extracts, and other documentary sources that make up the novel, this pseudo-historical event blurs the boundary between truth and fiction and provokes ironic reflection on the genre of the historical novel that Scott himself had made popular.

Contemporaneously with Scott’s experiment in alternative history, other writers and publishers were engaging in commercial speculation on the high market value of Scott’s fiction. In 1824, the German writer Georg Wilhelm Heinrich Häring (alias Willibald Alexis) accepted a commission to write a historical novel entitled Walladmor that was fraudulently sold in Germany as a translation of the latest novel by Walter Scott. When Thomas De Quincey was assigned to review the German Walladmor for the London Magazine, he exposed the hoax but also perpetuated it by “re-translating” the novel into an English version that was published in London under the title Walladmor: “Freely Translated into German from the English of Sir Walter Scott”: And Now Freely Translated from the German into English. The plot of Walladmor is an incredible adventure story about aristocratic twins stolen and separated as babies and mistaken for one another as adults, predictably full of coincidences, deceptive appearances, and metafictional play. The “Author of Waverley” (i.e., Walter Scott) appears as a character inside the novel of which he is supposedly the author, so that Walladmor duplicates Scott’s identity multiple times by fraudulently advertising itself as a Scott novel and by including a facsimile of Scott within its fictional world. While the Walladmor hoax illustrates the extent to which the literary market of 1824 is driven by commercial speculation, it also participates thematically in the rampant speculation about the constructedness and instability of personal identity.

In this vein, a cluster of Gothic tales published in the first half of 1824 use the motif of the double or doppelgänger to suggest that identity is at odds with appearances, lacks a reliable foundation, and can all too easily be counterfeited, fractured, or lost. Byron’s fragmentary drama The Deformed Transformed probes the extent to which moral responsibility and social relations correlate with physical appearance. When the ugly hunchback Arnold makes a pact with the devil that allows him to take on the physical body of the hero Achilles, he remains unable to escape the darker aspects of his character; instead, the devil assumes Arnold’s former shape and shadows him as his deformed double. The Devil’s Elixir, an English translation by Robert Pearse Gillies of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816 novel Die Elixiere des Teufels, further explores the psychological resonances of the doppelgänger motif with a protagonist whose identity is radically unstable. Hoffmann’s first-person narrator is raised in a monastery as the monk Medardus but mistaken for the aristocratic Count Victorin when he travels to a prince’s estate, where he further assumes the disguise of a Polish-born scholarly gentleman named Mr. Leonard in order to join its intrigues. Even if the uncanny resemblance between Medardus and Victorin is accounted for by the revelation that they are half-brothers, Medardus is increasingly haunted by his double Victorin (whom he thinks he has killed), and The Devil’s Elixir leaves characters and readers in perplexity about how identity can reliably be recognized, whether one can be certain even of one’s own identity, and whether moral lapses can be explained as devilish possession.

The most haunting doppelgänger narrative of 1824, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by Scottish writer James Hogg, brings psychological and metafictional aspects together in its exploration of fractured and doubled identities. The novel juxtaposes an “Editor’s Narrative” with a first-person narrative of the same events by the “justified sinner” Robert Wringhim. Even though the Editor purports to rely on written documentation and eyewitness reports, and presents the Sinner’s narrative as an accurate transcript of the holograph manuscript that was found in his grave, the Editor’s Narrative ultimately does not prove much more reliable than Wringhim’s tortured autobiographical account of religious fanaticism, mental illness, and hallucination. Wringhim believes himself to be alternately shadowed and possessed by a mysterious figure named Gil-Martin who may or may not be the devil, and who has the uncanny ability to counterfeit the physical likeness of any individual, including Wringhim, by entering into that person’s thoughts. Neither eyewitness testimony nor the Sinner’s recollection can reliably determine who is responsible for murder and other crimes in a world where the devil can take possession of a person’s mind or physically impersonate him – or where the devil and the murders themselves may be mere hallucinations. The destabilization of identity in Private Memoirs is further perpetuated by the Editor when, in an attempt to guarantee the veracity of his tale, he brings the real-world author James Hogg into the text and quotes a genuine article that Hogg had published two years earlier in the real Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner thus capitalizes on the unstable prose forms and print media of the day to speculate in extreme ways on the disjunction between appearance and reality, and on the construction and destruction of identity.

Last but not least, these themes of doubling, delusive appearances, and speculation about personal identity were simultaneously being embodied on the theatrical stage in the idiosyncratic performances of Charles Mathews. The comic actor Mathews became most famous for the shows collectively titled “At Homes” that he performed annually in London and on provincial and international tours from 1817 almost until his death in 1835, attracting full houses and almost invariably positive reviews season after season. The semi-improvised “At Home” performances showcased Mathews’ remarkable talent for impersonating real people as well as clichéd character-types. Dressed in ordinary evening clothes, Mathews would welcome the audience into the theatre as if into his drawing-room, then embark on a three- to four-hour miscellany of impersonations interspersed with songs and enhanced by ventriloquism, ending with his trademark “monopolylogue,” a grand finale in which he reprised all the characters introduced in the course of the evening, brought them into dialogue, and morphed from one into the other in rapid succession. Eyewitness accounts of Mathews’ performances marvel again and again at how not only Mathews’ voice, idiolect, and habits of thought but even his physical features seemed to morph into those of the character he was imitating – eerily reminiscent of the way the devil Gil-Martin takes on the physical resemblance of Wringhim and others in Hogg’s Gothic novel. The most famous of Mathews’ performances was the “At Home” that he offered at the map iconLyceum Theatre in 1824, which was entitled A Trip to America and based on the actual tour he had made in the United States the previous year. A Trip to America received more publicity than any of Mathews’ other shows because it generated intense debate in the press about whether his imitation of American character-types ranging from the shrewd Yankee Jonathan W. Doubikin to the runaway slave Agamemnon was intended as homage to American culture or ridicule of it. More generally, the long-term popularity of Mathews’ “At Home” performances, the immense recognition he garnered for his ability to impersonate character, and the serious debates he generated over the difference between superficial “mimicry” and more profound “imitation” suggest that his performances resonate with a larger discourse about personal identity, appearance, and self-construction.

Together with the performances of poetic improvisers, instantiations of the Gothic doppelgänger, speculative fiction, silver-fork novels, and ventures into the frenetic periodical market, Mathews’ impersonations embody what William Hazlitt – in the title of the book he was composing during the eventful year 1824 – called the Spirit of the Age. This spirit encompasses a readiness to experiment with genres and media under the influence of the contemporary orientation toward specularity and pseudo-documentary observation. The improvisational aspect of literary production manifests itself in the rapid, often ad hoc responses of periodicals, poetry, and fiction to current events and market demand. Its speculative aspect can be seen in the market-conscious yet risk-taking attitude of writers and publishers within the sphere of print culture, as well as in the prevalence of the term “speculation” to denote cognitive and imaginative ventures. From Byron to Landon and from Hook to Hogg, writers meanwhile consider how ad hoc self-construction and modes of action that depend on appearances and contingencies may affect the cohesiveness of identity itself. The interwoven threads of improvisation, speculation, and identity-construction thus fashion what readers were reading and audiences were watching in the year 1824 and connect rapid changes in the social and economic sphere to their reflections in print and performance culture.

Angela Esterhammer holds a Chair in English Literature at the University of Zurich. Her publications include Romanticism and Improvisation, 1750-1850 (2008) and The Romantic Performative: Language and Action in British and German Romanticism (2000). Her current research examines interrelations among improvisational performance, print culture, periodicals, and fiction during the 1820s.


published July 2012

Esterhammer, Angela. “1824: Improvisation, Speculation, and Identity-Construction.” BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. Web. [Here, add your last date of access to BRANCH].


Byron, Lord. Don Juan. Vol. 5 of The Complete Poetical Works. Ed. Jerome J. McGann. Oxford: Clarendon, 1986. Print.

[De Quincey, Thomas.] Walladmor: “Freely Translated into German from the English of Sir Walter Scott”: And Now Freely Translated from the German into English. 2 vols. London: Taylor and Hessey, 1825.  Print.

Hazlitt, William. “The Dandy School.” The Complete Works of William Hazlitt. Ed. P. P. Howe. Vol 20: Miscellaneous Writings. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1934. 143-9. Print.

—. “The Periodical Press.” The Complete Works of William Hazlitt. Ed. P. P. Howe. Vol. 16: Contributions to the Edinburgh Review. London: J. M. Dent and Sons, 1931. 211-39. Print.

Hogg, James. The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Ed. Ian Duncan. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010. Print.

Hook, Theodore. Sayings and Doings: A Series of Sketches from Life. 3 vols. London: Colburn, 1824. Print.

Medwin, Thomas. Conversations of Lord Byron Noted During a Residence with His Lordship at Pisa, in the Years 1821 and 1822. London: Colburn, 1824. Print.

Mill, James. “Periodical Literature.” Westminster Review 1 (1824): 206-49. Print.

Scott, Walter. Redgauntlet. Ed. Kathryn Sutherland. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Wynn, Frances Williams. “Diaries of a Lady of Quality.” 2nd ed. 1864. Ed. A. Haywood. Web. 26 March 2012.