Book Review: ‘The Romantic,’ by William Boyd

5/5 - (10 votes)

“The Romantic” by William Boyd explores the emergence of the Romantic movement and its impact on society. Prior to the Romantics, art and culture in the West revolved around God, with illuminated breviaries and magnificent cathedrals dedicated to him. However, around 1300, the human face reappeared in the arts, signaling a shift towards acknowledging the individual’s significance beyond their role as servants of king and Christ. This paved the way for the Renaissance, a period of humanism, and eventually the Enlightenment, which brought scientific and rational progress.

The Romantics, with figures like Goethe, challenged the monolithic power of the medieval church and state. They believed in the importance of individual autonomy, passion, and subjective emotions. Goethe famously proclaimed, “Feeling is all.” Cashel Greville Ross, the protagonist of Boyd’s novel, embodies this rebellion against prevailing institutions. Born in 1799, he experiences a wide range of adventures and professions throughout his life, from soldier to writer, jailbird to farmer, and explorer in Africa. He mingles with influential figures such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron, serves as a diplomat in Italy, and embarks on a restless search for his own identity.

Boyd skillfully weaves these adventures together to create a gripping narrative. While history has unmasked the Romantics’ ideals as primarily accessible to wealthy, white men, Boyd, born in Africa to Scottish parents and educated at Gordonstoun, does not fully acknowledge this complexity in his story. Nevertheless, for readers willing to overlook this limitation, “The Romantic” offers a panoramic and captivating journey.

With its rich historical backdrop, the novel transports readers to different corners of the globe. Boyd’s depiction of Ross’s continuous pursuit of identity creates a sense of restlessness and exploration. From Africa to Europe, the story unfolds against a backdrop of cultural and societal shifts. However, it is worth noting that the book does not delve deeply into the nuances of race, gender, or class that the Romantic movement often ignored.

In conclusion, “The Romantic” by William Boyd delves into the rise of Romanticism as a rebellion against church and state power. Through the captivating story of Cashel Greville Ross, Boyd explores the pursuit of individual freedom and identity. While the novel overlooks the limitations and exclusions of the Romantic movement, it offers an engaging and transportive reading experience for those willing to embrace its panoramic storytelling.

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