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Propelled by the unprecedented success of Walter Scott's Waverley novels, Romantic fiction assumed a new, more authoritative position in the literary field. It did so, as the example of Scott suggests, by way of an engagement with the past that answered to the period's widespread interest in questions of national history and national culture. Generic innovations such as Maria Edgeworth's and Sydney Morgan's national tales, along with Scott's more celebrated historical novel, placed the novel in new, more serious relation to scholarly and historical genres canvassing these questions, and moved novels themselves into the foreground of debates over national-cultural formation. Feeding into the innovations of the Romantic novel was the late-eighteenth-century genre of gothic, which itself saw a resurgence in the 1820s but whose relationship to scholarly and historical debates has largely been elided. Gothic novels may have scholarly trappings, but they are not generally read in relation to scholarly discourses and debates. These trappings are mostly seen as musty devices to launch the fiction's move into the more glamorous zone of romance, where the political, psychological and philosophical resonances that have attracted most critical attention achieve their fullest play. But the genre's explicit, if mischievous, positioning of itself on the terrain of learning deserves more serious attention, pointing to an intersection in the Romantic period between gothic fiction and questions of historical practice and publication that bears centrally on key debates in the period.
To witness the reconfiguration of Great Britain into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Joseph Johnson published an anonymous novel titled Castle Rackrent. Morgan represents the way that early nineteenth-century women writers helped to redefine the place of fiction in public discourse and highlighted its active role in the formation of the modern nation. The domestic novels and national tales opened up speculative spaces even as they continued to work inside the political terms of national settlement. Reinventing historical romance as the modern historical novel in Waverley, Walter Scott explicitly built out of the work of female writers from the peripheries, naming Edgeworth, Hamilton and Anne Grant as predecessors in the postscript to his first novel. The Waverley Novels fused romance, theory and scholarship into a potent new narrative synthesis that for the first time articulated a fully historicist vision in fiction.
Near the middle of Charles Robert Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), the uncanny figure of Melmoth suddenly appears on the streets of seventeenth-century Madrid, prompting fearful but curious Spanish observers to wonder not only why he has not been seized by the Inquisition but if he has a known country of origin. “He is said to be a native of Ireland,” reports one, “- (a country that no one knows, and which the natives are particularly reluctant to dwell in from various causes).” In an important sense the Irish novel emerged in the early decades of the nineteenth century as an effort to remedy the strangely persistent situation defined in Maturin's throwaway parenthesis: to make familiar for both strangers and natives an unknown and unhomely land. “It is only with the last thirty years that the Irish have been very successfully represented,” T.H. Lister wrote in 1831 in an essay on “Novels Descriptive of Irish Life” for the Edinburgh Review, going on to explain that earlier representations had concentrated on isolated single figures in primarily English settings. Thus English readers never saw the Irish as a people or Ireland as a native land: “we never saw them grouped - we never trod with them on Irish ground.” Like most of his contemporaries, Lister credits this shift in representation to Maria Edgeworth whose first novel, Castle Rackrent (1800), was widely identified in the period as the inaugural moment of a distinctive Irish line of English-language fiction. It has retained this status ever since. Not that Castle Rackrent was the first novel written either from or on Ireland but that Edgeworth's fictions, along with those of her compatriot Sydney Owenson (better known in the period by her married name of Lady Morgan), mark the emergence in the British literary field of what Terry Eagleton has called “a whole distinctive object known as Ireland,” one that commanded attention in and for itself precisely because of its heightened “problematical” nature.
… time or succession is always broken and divided.
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739)
In a memorable prolepsis in her Letters from France (1790) Helen Maria Williams anticipates “grateful” generations in the future flocking to the Champs de Mars, site of the Festival of the Federation in Paris on July 14, 1790, an event which epitomized for Williams, as for many others, the liberal promise of the Revolution. Elaborating the imagined scene, Williams presents the visitors eagerly pointing to and searching out the spots “where they have heard it recorded” that various participants in the festival took their places, and then stops to comment: “I think of these things, and then repeat to myself with transport, ‘I was a spectator of the Federation!’” The redundancy of this declaration – she and her readers already know she was a spectator – underlines the paradoxical point of the rhetorical maneuver: in anticipating a time when she no longer is, Williams not only assures herself that she has been but does so by transforming a central experience of her own life into a vital memory for those who will come after. Reiterating her presence at the scene, she inscribes herself into a larger narrative of historical continuity that confirms and extends her own present-tense narrative of contemporary witness.
It is difficult to judge of the numbers of the rebels, they appear in such crowds and so little order.
Brigadier-General John Moore, Wexford, 23 June 1798
“And when will they grow quiet, Sir?”
“When, indeed, General.”
John Banim The Anglo-Irish of the Nineteenth Century (1828)
Responding to stepped-up Irish political agitation in 1824, an exasperated reviewer in the Literary Chronicle complained that Irish Catholics, led by “that hot-headed lawyer, Daniel O'Connell,” were “perpetually clamouring.” The specific object of the clamor was Catholic Emancipation, but the reviewer is in no doubt that were emancipation to be gained, the Irish would “next day clamour for a separation from England.” Clamor thus marks the endemic mode of Irish political being, an old charge but one that took on a distinctive edge in the 1820s. In this decade Ireland once again became a prominent site of turbulence and anxiety in British discourse, as it suffered severe economic distress and famine; witnessed renewed agrarian militancy under the name of Captain Rock, along with increased sectarian violence; and – most immediately to the point for civic discourse – saw the innovative and formidable campaign for full civil rights spearheaded by O'Connell and the Catholic Association. The Association's barrage of petitions, speeches, pamphlets, motions, and meetings combined with its extraordinary organization of the Catholic masses in the Irish countryside to produce a new Irish politics.
it is the peculiar advantage of woman's interference, that its sphere of action is all-pervading, and that its applicability commences there where all other agencies have no prise or lever to act upon.
Lady Morgan The Princess (1835)
a scene got up is always well worth a case stated.
Lady Morgan The O'Briens and the O'Flahertys (1827)
“Politics can never be a woman's science,” Morgan declared early in her career, “but patriotism must naturally be a woman's sentiment.” What made patriotism “naturally” a sentiment for Morgan, as for her compatriot Edmund Burke, was its roots in the intimate sphere of the local and domestic. Domestic affections expanded into “sentiments of national affection,” establishing a national-cultural whole in which forms of public subjectivity were not only continuous with but grew out of the private sphere of the conjugal family. But even as Morgan continued to authorize her writing in terms of an acceptable “female patriotism” throughout her career (as in the preface to her last Irish tale The O'Briens and the O'Flahertys), her national tales increasingly began to interrogate the smooth flow from private to public implied by this model, troubling rather than consolidating the domestic articulation of women and nation rapidly, if not always straightforwardly, achieving prominence in post-Revolutionary Britain.
“What can possess you to go to Ireland?” exclaimed a friend of mine, “where the hedges are lined with pikes and blunderbusses?”
John Carr The Stranger in Ireland (1806)
The roads in Ireland, even those called post-roads, are often in the very worst line of direction, and not unfrequently go zig-zag and round about, when there is no occasion for it.
The Reverend James Hall Tour Through Ireland (1813)
To travel in Ireland in the early nineteenth century, these British tour-texts suggest, was not to know quite where you were. It was not just the propensity of Irish roads to become parodies of the very idea of a road, as in the Reverend Hall's account, nor the way in which boundary lines threatened to turn into screens for those bent on erasing those very lines, as in John Carr's not entirely serious evocation of the standard English motif of Irish insurgency. The problem was one of specifying the location. Officially, British visitors were simply moving about in another part of the single polity known as the United Kingdom, but Ireland continued to feel (as it long had in English eyes) remote and peculiar. Its incorporation into Great Britain in 1801 thus generated for the English the disconcerting situation nicely summed up by Seamus Deane: “They see Ireland in conventional terms as a foreign place much given to rebellion; whereas in fact it is home.”
Ina Ferris examines the way in which the problem of 'incomplete union' generated by the formation of the United Kingdom in 1800 destabilised British public discourse in the early decades of the nineteenth century. Ferris offers the first full-length study of the chief genre to emerge out of the political problem of Union: the national tale, an intercultural and mostly female-authored fictional mode that articulated Irish grievances to English readers. Ferris draws on current theory and archival research to show how the national tale crucially intersected with other public genres such as travel narratives, critical reviews and political discourse. In this fascinating study, Ferris shows how the national tales of Morgan, Edgeworth, Maturin, and the Banim brothers dislodged key British assumptions and foundational narratives of history, family and gender in the period.
In Rome there are many distinguished men concerned only with discovering new relationships between history and the ruins.
Germaine de Stael Corinne (1807)
Ruin, as with earthquake shock, is here.
Anna Laetitia Barbauld England in Eighteen Eleven (1812)
Charles Robert Maturin's little-known The Milesian Chief (1812) moved the national tale plot established by The Wild Irish Girl, along with Stael's performing heroine, into a limit zone, producing itself as a limit text in the process and inaugurating the genre known as Irish Gothic or Protestant Gothic. “If I possess any talent,” Maturin wrote in the Dedication to this novel, “it is that of darkening the gloomy, and of deepening the sad; of painting life in extremes, and representing those struggles of passion when the soul trembles on the verge of the unlawful and the unhallowed.” The significant point of the passage is not so much extremity as negativity: this is a writing that recognizes itself as a form of undoing and that is drawn to the peculiar space of negation signalled by the privative: “unlawful,” “unhallowed.” It is entirely characteristic that Maturin's reading of Corinne – in contrast to that of Morgan – concentrates on the desolate second half of the novel. Morgan was attracted to the first part of Stael's text with its prominent motif of female performance, and she rewrote the notion of performance in pragmaticfeminist terms as a setting of screens behind which potential spaces for action could be cleared, as well as exits secured.
This book came out of thinking about the awkwardness of a particular phrase, the lumbering “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland,” which names the equally awkward new polity that came into being on 1 January 1801. Oddly enough, neither the phrase nor the reconfigured polity has received a great deal of attention in British Romantic studies despite ongoing interest in the construction of a new national consciousness around the turn of the century, when the imperial nation-state was at once expanding and defending itself. Whereas “Great Britain” and “Britishness” feature prominently in recent work, “United Kingdom” rarely surfaces, in part perhaps because the term refers not to a national identity but to a political unit. It names no “imagined community” (in Benedict Anderson's influential formulation) to command affection or allegiance, while its cumbersome articulation testifies to its provenance in the musty and dubious sphere of parliamentary legislation. The United Kingdom thus invokes an outmoded and narrow “politics” rather than the more current and capacious notion of “the political” with its ability to yield witty analogies and surprising intimacies across cultural zones. But both the politics and the awkward phrase are worth taking seriously, for “the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland” defines the new state as less a solution than a problem from the start.
It is pleasant, after ages of bad romance in politics, to find thus, at last, good politics in romance.
Thomas Moore “Irish Novels,” Edinburgh Review (1826)
The politics Thomas Moore specifically had in mind when he made this remark was the support for Catholic Emancipation in the novels under review, and his comment underlines the way in which Irish fiction in the early decades of the nineteenth century was immediately understood by contemporary readers within the matrix of post-Union civic discourse. It is not incidental that the paradigmatic The Wild Irish Girl: A National Tale appeared in 1806, the year following the renewal of Catholic agitation, nor that its publisher, Richard Phillips (earlier imprisoned for selling Tom Paine's Rights of Man), advertised the novel among a list of useful and valuable books, all non-fiction and mostly travels, appended to John Carr's The Stranger in Ireland. Later readers, however, have been rather less sure than was Moore that the line of fiction inaugurated by Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan) and her compatriot Maria Edgeworth does in fact represent “good politics in romance.” Famously dismissed by Daniel Corkery in the 1930s as mere “traveller's tales” exhibiting Ireland to “alien eyes,” early nineteenth-century Irish fictions continue to be regarded with a certain distrust in both Irish and British Romantic studies (Edgeworth is perhaps a partial exception).