Treason, Seditious Libel, and Literature in the Romantic Period

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This article looks at the effects of the unprecedented number of prosecutions for political opinion in the 1790s and afterwards on the literature of the romantic period. The chief instrument for these prosecutions was the law on libel, as it had been since the lapsing of the licensing act in 1695. Predicated as it was on word crimes, prosecutions for libel had to wrestle with the uncertainty of language. Throughout the century this condition placed a premium for authors on various forms of metaphor, irony, and allegory that the Crown had to construe as concrete libels in any prosecution. Many of the trials became major public events, a visible part of the period’s print culture, widely reported in newspapers, and eagerly consumed by the public in a variety of media. The courtroom could provide a theatre of radical opinion where defendants could publicize their views and mock the authority of the state. If this could make a mockery of prosecutions, the pressure exerted on writers by the law on libel also conditioned a more general anxiety, and may even have influenced developing ideas of the autonomy of the aesthetic.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Handbooks Online
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherOxford University Press
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2016


  • libel; treason; paranoia
  • blasphemy

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