Scholarly Review: E. H. Carr’s ‘The Romantic Exiles’
It’s a strange thing to review a historical study that is itself long in the tooth. Though E.H. Carr is a colossus in the history of, well, history itself, a sceptic might argue that his approach is outdated, his research methods unreliable, and his insights already surpassed. Indeed, Carr was writing about Russian/European relations in 1933: pre-World War Two and pre-Cold War. As a consequence, his perspective is perhaps too distant from ours for us to be able to consider The Romantic Exiles—a history of the nomadic 19th century Russian dissident Alexander Herzen—as having any contemporary relevance whatsoever.
Nonetheless, the fact that one can even entertain the possibility of reviewing Carr’s intimate biography as though it was published yesterday, is something of a testament to its longevity. It certainly remains an enjoyable and accessible read for the part-time Russophile, if not a valid and informative one for the more serious student of Russian history. Carr’s writing combines the best stylistic aspects of the psychological thriller with the classical epic. In this way, he paints a nuanced and intriguing picture of 19th-century Europe, as he documents the tragic adventures of an exiled Russian dissident and his family.
Like Nadiya’s mille-feuille on this year’s Great British Bake Off, Carr’s biography is multi-layered and detailed, yet rich, palatable, and light enough to digest easily. It combines three distinct historical strata in relation to Herzen’s life and times: the personal, the political, and the ideological. For the personal, Carr gives a detailed, psychologically acute portrait of Herzen and his family that mirrors psychoanalytic trends of the 1920s and 1930s. He also gives a comprehensive account of the most scandalous tragedies of the Herzen family. The reader emerges with a fondness for these Europe-traversing romantic liberals, whose happiness was repeatedly wrecked by the tides of political and social upheaval.
This intersection between the Herzens and the broader, socio-political context is the second layer of interest. The Herzen family, as part of the European social and intellectual elite, were political agents in their own right. Indeed, Tsar Nicholas I exiled Herzen on account of his notorious political activism. By situating the family’s personal scandals within this socio-political climate, Carr shows the extent to which politics dominated the lives of some of the most enigmatic Russian and European figures. Healthy doses of subterfuge, revolution, political backstabbing, and daring escapes from authority make this stranger-than-fiction slice of 19th-century politics a compelling must-read.
Carr explicitly states in later work that his quasi-sociological style was the influenced by German theorist Karl Mannheim. The Romantic Exiles is, in addition to the above, a history of ideas which outlines the development of, and connections between, central ideologies of the 19th century. Carr’s ability to link these varying philosophies is what makes his ‘outdated’ biography so invaluable. The result is a complex cross section of the personal, the socio-political and the intellectual milieux of the 19th century, delivered in a comprehensible, non-patronizing way. The difficulty of interweaving these different aspects of history is not to be underestimated.
Despite the positive attributes I’ve listed, the estimation of Carr’s biography has suffered over the years. One critique is that Carr prioritized the elites, neglecting what any Marxist historian would term the ‘influence of the proletariat.’ A consequence is that Carr arguably over-emphasised Herzen’s individual importance in shaping the course of 19th-century Russo-European history. Furthermore, Carr wrote his biography before two defining conflicts of the twentieth century, confining his perspective to an unrecoverably distant moment in history. Moreover, scholarly conventions have of course evolved since 1933. Carr’s notable omittance of footnotes and bibliography leaves the historical authority of the text hanging on Carr’s reputation as a meticulous scholar, and little else.
Still, Carr mastered the historical narrative form, and his unique perspective has value for historians today. He positions the minute within the universal; the individual within the crowd; and the concrete within the abstract in such a way that his biography becomes an academic work of art (though perhaps not contemporarily authoritative). To create something both rich and easily digestible is, as Paul Hollywood will tell you, a notable achievement.
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