IRISHNESS AND WOMANHOOD IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY BRITISH WRITING by Thomas Tracy, Reviewed by Mary Jean Corbett
 

IRISHNESS AND WOMANHOOD IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY BRITISH WRITING
By Thomas Tracy
(Ashgate, 2009) vii + 196 pp.
Reviewed by Mary Jean Corbett on 2009-09-01.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

         The conjunction of Irishness and womanhood in the title of Thomas Tracy's book will seem redundant to some readers, for as the great Irish novelist Edna O'Brien wrote more than 30 years ago, "Ireland has always been a woman, a womb, a cave, a cow, a Rosaleen, a sow, a bride, a harlot, and, of course, the gaunt Hag of Beare" (Mother Ireland 1). These gendered terms suggest different aspects of the femininity of Ireland and, by extension, of Irish femininity-origin of both life and death; nursing mother of many hungry, even starving offspring; the rose of the world and the whore of its masters. Irishness and Womanhood samples all of these symbolizations, illustrating the ways in which, taken together or separately, they help to produce different versions of Ireland's colonial relation to Great Britain over the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century. Early chapters on the writings of Lady Morgan and Maria Edgeworth, a cluster of related materials on the representation of the immigrant Irish in England, and several final sections on works by William Thackeray and Anthony Trollope go a long way towards tracing Irishness as both a principle of primitive innocence and disorderly contagion, aiming to articulate the full array of discursive positions Irishness may hold in British texts. While Tracy's findings are not particularly original, and the book as a whole would have profited from much more substantial engagement with extant scholarship, it does provide some new perspectives that Romanticists and Victorianists alike will want to take into account on issues central to the continuing conversation regarding the uses of colonial discourse within the so-called British Isles.

         In Tracy's analysis, the fictional figure who best approximates the multiplicity O'Brien attributes to the gendered figure of Ireland is Morgan's Florence McCarthy, heroine of the novel that bears her name, who "represents an entire nation, not merely one narrow and circumscribed social stratum" of it (52). A "shadowy and mobile figure," she is not only mother Ireland but also an elusive seductress, politically savvy and intellectually gifted, a public-spirited noblewoman with an affinity for the poor who sometimes takes the shape of an ancient crone (52). Locating this character in the long tradition by which the nation is figured as female, Tracy takes her many-sidedness as emblematic of the Ireland that Morgan aims to bring into being via novelistic representation: an inclusive nation that incorporates "the Gaelic- and Anglo-Irish, the Catholic and Protestant churches, ... [the] rulers and the ruled," the very antithesis of "the rigidly exclusionary scheme" that, Tracy argues, naturalizes Irish inequality and dispels difference in the marriage plots of Edgeworth's novels (63). In her many contradictory guises, Florence McCarthy contains the multitudes that constitute the heterogeneous make-up of the Irish nation in the years after the Act of Union, with a decided bent, in Tracy's view, toward the progressive elements of democratization, secularization, and economic justice that would enable the imagining of a new national community.

         Rescuing Morgan from the condescension not only of posterity but also of her contemporaries, here represented largely by John Wilson Croker, Tracy's own scholarly narrative depends on the familiar juxtaposition of the romantic Morgan with the realist Edgeworth. For example, the reading of Florence McCarthy (1818) in chapter four follows directly after a chapter on Edgeworth's Ormond (1817); the former is said directly to respond to the latter's more conservative vision, in which the eponymous hero must choose among "the three models for the Irish ruling class" that Ormond offers, inevitably adhering to the "benevolent paternalism" of his future wife's brother and thus taking a direction that the egalitarian Morgan, who sought to incorporate disaffected Catholic natives into her political vision, would eschew (36). In casting Edgeworth as "the avowed opponent of romance," who yet resorts to "the tropes of melodrama" in her plotting, and placing Morgan on the side of "modern Western ideals" of justice and equality, which we would more typically associate with the Enlightenment rationality embraced by Edgeworth and her father, Tracy seeks to complicate the binary that has structured much of the scholarship on these Romantic-era authors by deconstructing the terms on either side: each mode contains within itself the seeds of its own opposing tendency (63).

         We should, however, extend this deconstructive analysis to include the figuration of womanhood in their works, as Tracy by and large does not. As many critics have established, both Edgeworth and Morgan inscribed an ideal of femininity at the heart of their fiction. They used it, in Gary Kelly's words, to "translate the political and public issues" of the time-e.g., the events of 1798 and the subsequent unsettling passage of the Act of Union in 1801-"into private and domestic equivalents" (Women, Writing and Revolution [1993], qtd. Tracy 25). In their novels, then, the character of the female heroine-be she a "wild" or a "mild Irish girl," as Tracy refers to the creations of Morgan and Edgeworth, respectively-plays a significant part. While Edgeworth's "mild" heroines exemplify Burkean domesticity and class-based norms of female chastity, the "wild" ones, like Florence McCarthy or the earlier and more notorious Glorvina of Inismore, operate beyond the boundaries of the emergent and avowedly English bourgeois ideal. They are avatars of what Tracy calls the Irish "anti-domesticity" that would increasingly trouble England from within its own shores as the nineteenth century wore on. But if we are to pursue the deconstructive analysis, we should question the binary between "mild" and "wild" womanhood every bit as much as that between realism and romance. Only a highly selective reading of The Wild Irish Girl (1806), for instance, could really maintain that Glorvina does not, at least partially, replicate elements of the mild, dutiful, daughterly stance that Tracy attributes to a range of Edgeworthian good girls. Similarly, Tracy's reading of Edgeworth makes almost no mention of the sows and hags that populate her fiction, thus failing to engage the idea, as the scholarship of the late Mitzi Myers persuasively explored, that mildness is always already inflected by the wild: brides are always also harlots, wombs always also caves. If we accept O'Brien's point about the multivalence of femininity in the Irish context, then resting in the familiar polarity of good and bad heroines-even if the "wild" is the good and the "mild" is the bad for a change-doesn't get us very far in dismantling the whole apparatus.

         Here and elsewhere, Tracy's overall argument would profit from closer engagement with extant scholarship in the field and, perhaps, a broader contextualization of the book's contribution to the overlapping and intersecting fields of English and Irish studies. A careful look at the footnotes and the list of works cited reveals that the author has referenced almost no scholarship published after the year 2000. A section of the bibliography entitled "further reading" does include citations of more recent material, including book-length studies by myself, Seamus Deane, Ina Ferris, Luke Gibbons, Joep Leerssen, and David Lloyd, but nowhere in the main text does Tracy deal head-on with our (divergent) arguments. We are left asking, then, how Tracy might differentiate his claims about Morgan from those of Ferris in The Romantic National Tale and the Question of Ireland (2002), which covers some very similar territory; or how his chapters on the troubling presence of Irish immigrants in the metropolis and the writings of James Kay and Friedrich Engels on the Irish in Manchester might relate to my work on this topic in Allegories of Union in English and Irish Writing, 1790-1870 (2000). Would Tracy make his case on the English perception of the Irish propensity for violence or the putative absence of an Irish middle class in the same way if he had directly reckoned with the groundbreaking theoretical and political insights of Lloyd's Anomalous States (1993), a key postcolonial Irish studies reading of some related materials? I doubt it. But the problem here is not only that. Tracy not only misses an opportunity to explain the relation between his work and that of other established scholars; he also neglects to show clearly just how his book as a whole advances an ongoing scholarly conversation. He nowhere cites, for example, a special issue of Victorian Literature and Culture published in 2004 on the Irish-English relationship. Since it contains a number of essays on authors and topics that Tracy treats, including Trollope and Thackeray, examining this new wave of scholarship would have been a perfect launching pad for the Victorian sections of the book. Unfortunately, though, Tracy ignores the most recent scholarship in the field of his book and does not tell us how it builds on a considerable body of earlier work.

         That said, there is still much to commend in what Tracy actually does. The most original chapter examines a series of parliamentary reports published in the 1830s-including blue books on drunkenness, the state of the Irish poor in the UK, and the establishment of the constabulary-that arguably provide another site for tracking the emergent metaphor of the Irish as a permanently diseased body. His close and careful reading of these sources will be of great use to others who seek to explore the discursive strands that compose Irishness in the metropolitan context. Further, his turn to Barry Lyndon (1844) and Pendennis (1848-50) should go some way towards refocusing scholarly attention on Thackeray's position in the mid-Victorian discussion of the Irish and how it shifted over time. And additional chapters on Trollope's The Macdermots of Ballycloran (1847) and An Eye for an Eye (1879)-both fascinating novels that can help us to trace the changes in the author's attitude towards a culture with which, like Thackeray, he had more than a passing acquaintance-raise crucial points about the gendering of Ireland: as a woman in need of protection, an abandoned mistress, or a revengeful mother. Regrettably, the gaunt hag of the Famine era is missing from these pages, as Tracy largely skirts the question of the impact of the Great Hunger even on Trollope, whose Castle Richmond (1860) undoubtedly hinges on that figure of human female suffering. Yet in attending to a set of materials that are still somewhat understudied by scholars of nineteenth-century English literature, Tracy's book does help to show that analyzing the figuration of a feminine Ireland can yield real insights into what is still, even now, a vexed cross-cultural relationship.

 

Mary Jean Corbett is the John W. Steube Professor of English and Affiliate of Women's Studies at Miami University and the author of Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf (Cornell UP, 2008).


Leave a comment on Mary Jean Corbett's review.

Name:
Email:
Comments:

 Subscribe to RSS feed

Search NBOL-19.org
Loading