David Howarth. The Invention of Spain: Cultural Relations between Britain and Spain, 1770-1870. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007. xvii + 244 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7190-6562-0.
Reviewed by David Brown (Department of History, University of Strathclyde)
Published on H-Albion (February, 2008)
A British Face in a Spanish Mirror
This is an interesting and genuinely original view of Europe during a period of profound change. David Howarth's study ranges across politics, history, religion, literature, and art to assess the "cultural relations" between Britain and Spain, although the substance of the book is rather more one-sided than the subtitle might suggest. In chronicling the "invention of Spain," Howarth sets out, as he states in the opening to the book, primarily to identify what British perceptions and understandings of Spain reveal about the development of British politico-cultural sensibilities as imperial hegemonies gave way to a new order of international and domestic political relations. For Howarth, Spain is a prism through which to see Britain better: the book aims to reflect "a British face in a Spanish mirror" (p. xii). Howarth argues that despite sincere, if intermittent, interest in Spain, "the British never really understood the Peninsula on its own terms" (pp. ix). Spain could, therefore, be represented simultaneously as "a greenhouse" by the Holland House set where liberal nostrums too advanced for British tastes "could flourish in a hotter environment," and as a society deeply respecting of tradition and thus a bulwark, for the Tories, against Jacobinism and the dangerous legacy of the French Revolution (p. ix). The Invention of Spain, then, is a study underpinned by paradox. Nineteenth-century Spain was seen in Britain, argues Howarth, as both liberal and conservative, and as a welcome counterpoint to Catholic France, yet itself a Catholic country against which British concerns about Catholic emancipation and relations with Rome might be better understood. Spain was somehow both advanced and old-fashioned. In seeking to delineate these competing interpretations of the peninsula, Howarth's study tells us comparatively little about Spain itself, but a good deal about Britain through the study of Spain.
Howarth opens with a chapter considering how British writers came to terms with Spain's political and economic decline. Told principally through an analysis of the works of William Robertson and Adam Smith, this chapter is actually concerned largely with questions of Britishness. It is, as Howarth argues, significant that what he identifies as the most important studies of Spain in the late eighteenth century were products of the Scottish enlightenment. "Scotsmen, no sooner subjugated by English imperialism, became drawn to a study of a still greater 'tyranny'--that of Spain," he writes, alluding to the traditional alignment of Scotland with France and of England with Iberia, and in particular Portugal (p. 3). There are suggestive points here with regard to debates about what might be termed a Francophobic Britishness, explored notably by Linda Colley (Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 ). It might have been interesting had Howarth taken further his analysis of how the "invention of Spain" related to this Anglo-centric idea of Britishness being, in many respects, and to risk oversimplification, "not French." "Benighted and priest-ridden Spain had to be studied if Europe was to be understood in the age of Rationalism," says Howarth in a comment on Robertson (p. 10). So, too, in a slightly different way, did Spain offer, for Smith, "an appropriate cautionary tale to a burgeoning British economy," not least that Britain's empire "must do better than Spain had done" (pp. 23, 25). The corpse of the Spanish empire attracted Robertson and Smith "like Rembrandt's anatomists" seeking a better understanding of politics, economics, and religion (p. 27). Significantly, Howarth maintains, Spain was for these writers a case study and not a country they expected "civilized" Britons actually to visit. Taking this as his foundation, Howarth proceeds to explore questions of politics and religion.
A history of apparently constant Spanish "failure" was fertile ground for competing liberal and conservative historiographies, fought out, for example, through the pages of the Edinburgh Review and the Quarterly Review. Indeed, suggests Howarth, it was due largely to the reporting of Iberian affairs that Spain "vicariously gave birth to the Quarterly" to counter the "pernicious" views of the Whiggish Edinburgh (p. 31). Spain served many purposes: it could be used to reflect what was right or wrong in Britain and what was worse in France, and it served as a convenient distillation of the history of good versus evil. This fascination with Spain, a "Spanish fever," is observed particularly through the works of William Wordsworth, Richard Ford, and Robert Southey, and is seen to have found its first tangible political form in the diplomacy of George Canning (p. 32). Howarth suggests that through Canning's manipulation of public opinion in the 1820s, for example, the New World of Spanish America was seen as liberal, free, and English, something further underpinned by Lord Palmerston's famous Quadruple Alliance of the liberal west European powers in the 1830s. This is interesting and important, yet in laying emphasis on popular perceptions alongside the hitherto unequivocally high cultural portrayal of Spain, Howarth might have explored further the wider reception in Britain of these various constructions of Spain. Canning's populism, for example, is illustrated in purely parliamentary terms while more might have been said of the British public's apparent impression of "the Spaniard" as "primitive and savage" and somehow inferior, in the arts and manners of war, to not only Britain but also France during the wars of the 1830s (pp. 49-50).
Spain offered a similarly complicated series of lessons in terms of religion. For many Britons, Spain had the great advantage in the early nineteenth century of not being Napoleonic France, but the connection with the Iberian Peninsula was not a neat one, since Spain was also, of course, a major Catholic country. As the British political establishment argued over the rights of the Catholic population at home, Spanish Catholicism was being presented in such works as Blanco White's Letters from Spain (1822) as indivisible from Spanish corruption. Interest in Spain from a political and economic perspective, whether as a model or a warning, was thus qualified by religious priorities. As is brought into sharp relief in this section of the book, it was not always clear whether contemporaries wanted to understand Spain or simply to judge it. Howarth shows just how "the Church of Rome was often observed through the prism of Spain in the contest within Britain for emancipation and the establishment of a new hierarchy" (p. 87). Howarth's book, therefore, offers an interesting complement to recent studies of this question, such as the work of Saho Matsumoto-Best (Britain and the Papacy in the Age of Revolution, 1846-1851 ), placing this particular "British" question in its European context.
Having established the importance of Spain to contemporary self-perception, Howarth proceeds in the remaining chapters to examine the historians, painters, and art collectors who established the parameters of that understanding. In particular, Howarth's analysis of the emergence and growing popularity of the "Spanish School" is illuminating, and his tracing of the growing appreciation of Spanish art, as it emerged as something distinct from Italian, is handled well. Much attention is devoted, in particular, to the (mis)understanding of Diego Velázquez and the importance of such figures as Austen Henry Layard and Sir William Stirling in bringing his and others' work to prominence in Britain. As the final chapter, "Picturing Spain" demonstrates, the "dialogue between British artists and Spain" was just as complex and occasionally ambiguous as that between British politicians and the peninsula, but Howarth offers a careful examination of the visual representation of Spain and the importance of pictorial examinations of the theater of worship, the role of women, and ethnic stereotyping that echo the political, economic, and religious concerns of the earlier chapters in the book (p. 188). It is interesting to see how far art responded to the preformed ideas and prejudices of British audiences, and there are important comparisons pointed out here between the relative forces of literature and of painting in the history of cultural relations. Thus, as Howarth concludes: "Artists came to Spain knowing what they were looking for and they extracted a partial view of its cultural heritage. It was one selected on the basis of what a British public could make sense of. The invention of Spain was a confirmation of prejudice, never a broadening of the mind" (p. 226).
Howarth's study is a stimulating one. His interwoven analysis of politics, religion, and art offers a valuable contribution to the cultural, political, and diplomatic history of the period. In places, the book is perhaps more suggestive than exhaustive--such as in its treatment of the problematic issues of political and religious freedoms--but that is less a criticism of the work and more a reflection of its subject. In places, Howarth's analysis might have been developed further. The book is unapologetically high cultural, yet reference is made in places to public opinion and popular tastes. It would be interesting to know more about the broader reception of this "invented" Spain. More might be said, for example, about the impact of the "Penny pamphlets for and against Catholics [that] fluttered about like gulls in the wind" (p. 71). Howarth is an elegant stylist, and the book is evidently written with one eye to wider audiences. Whether all readers will agree that Lord Acton today would probably not be judged worthy of a senior lectureship in a British university, that Blanco White should be compared with former KGB spy Oleg Gordievsky as a sensationalist, and that Thomas Carlyle "treated Catholic imagery with as much caution as scientists handle bacilli at Porton Down" is perhaps incidental (p. 184). Howarth has produced an unusual and thought-provoking study that deserves a wide readership.
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David Brown. Review of Howarth, David, The Invention of Spain: Cultural Relations between Britain and Spain, 1770-1870.
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