The Romantic Era
The Romantic period was a mainly European artistic and literary movement that celebrated its peak between 1790 and 1860. The movement can be seen as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightment. Whereas the main point of Enlightment was a rationalistic world view, the main idea of Romantisicism is the complete opposite. Romanticists do not trust in the human ratio as a mighty power above all things, but see themselves subordinated to nature. Romanticists perceive a irrational, mysterious and incomprehensive side of reality. Humans, they believe, do rather follow their emotions instead of reason alone, and thus tend to live by their desires rather than their rational thoughts. Typical romantic book characters, like Byrons Manfred or Goethes Werther, lose themselve in their emotions completely - sense cannot keep their feet on the ground.
For a romanticist, two opposite concepts were in constant incongruity with another: analogy and irony. With analogy a mythical way of thinking is depicted: the conviction that all is connected to everything: words and objects, heaven and earth, people and nature. On the other side, irony is the awareness of our own mortality and of the fact that all things come to an end. The analogy therefore can never be infinite. A romantic author is aware of this incongruity and suffers, in addition, from the feeling that he does not fit into the world. He seeks for a way out in poetry, but there finds that words are not enough to describe his feelings. And again, he must admit that he cannot form the world, but that he is a slave of nature's laws.
In short, Romanticism is thus characterized by strong feelings, melancholy and a strong connection to nature. Many of the literary works written during the romantic era contain (page)long descriptions of landscapes and gardens. The often sad, melancholic emotions of the hero or heroine are being emphasized1.
The historical novel
The genre of the historical novel finds its roots in the Romantic era. Typical for a romanticist is his discontent with the world around him. We should keep in mind that the peak of the romantic movement was during the French and Industrial revolutions: science and industry took over the respect for spiritual forces. Romanticists longed for a time and place where nature still enjoyed the grandeur it deserved. Romantic authors therefore often placed their stories in historical or exotic settings. Many English authors wrote stories taking place in mediterrenean countries, for they were under the impressions that people there had not yet lost 'their true nature'2.
Historical novels combine historical facts with fictional stories. An important criterium is that the author was free to fill up history with fiction, as long as this fictional additions were not contradicting the facts. Thanks to historical novels, readers could not only learn about history, but also feel the past while reading.
The Gothic novel
The Gothic novel is another subgenre of Romantic literature. In gothic novels, facts are unimportant. Gothic novels put an accent to the phantastic and supernatural. The stories are typically set in a mysterious surrounding, like deserted mansions, castles or monasteries. Fear is a mean theme in this genre. The main difference to standard Romantic works and gothic novels is that the (super)natural has a positive atmosphere in Romantic, but a negative one in gothic works3.
Romanticism in visual art
The perfect and best known example of Romantic visual art is the picture 'Wanderer Above The Sea of Fog by Caspar David Friedrich. We see a man, his back turned to the audience, watching over a landscape covered by mist. Though you only see the backside of the gentleman in the picture, it is like you can feel his melancholy. Many Romantic paintings display natural settings that often do not even exist for real. This is a breaking point in the Romantic period: before that era, paintings used to be perfect reproductions of the real world; during the Romantic era, pictures more and more were products of the painter's fantasy. Foreign times and countries are, just as in literature, a popular theme in Romantic visual art. Another theme is the irrationality: for example, Füssli was an expert in painting the dark products of human fears and fantasies, resulting in, among others, his famous painting of the Nightmare.
1 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - The Sorrows of Young Werther
Lord Byron - Manfred: A Dramatic Poem
Mary Shelley - Frankenstein
Emily Brontë - Wuthering Heights
2 Ann Radcliffe - The Italian
Ann Radcliffe - The Myseries of Udolpho
Matthew Gregory Lewis - The Monk
Alexandre Dumas - The Three Musketeers / Queen Margot / The Man in the Iron Mask
Victor Hugo - The Hunchback of Notre Dame
3 Edgar Allan Poe - The Fall of the House of Usher
Charles Robert Maturin - Melmoth the Wanderer
E.T.A. Hoffmann - The Devil's Elixers