By Mary L. Mullen
(Edinburgh, 2019) xi + 252 pp.
Reviewed by Patrick R. O'Malley on 2019-12-31.

Click here for a PDF version.

Click here to buy the book on Amazon.

This book makes a key intervention in both nineteenth-century studies and Irish studies by considering in conjunction with each other British and Irish novels that were written more or less contemporaneously. In many ways this seems an obvious move. We don't think twice about putting Walter Scott in conversation with Jane Austen, or Thomas Carlyle with Charles Dickens, but somehow it seems surprising to place Charles Kickham next to George Eliot. That's especially true if we're thinking of Kickham not as a kind of knock-off Eliot--trying but failing, as Mullen puts it, "to adapt English plots to an Irish setting" (95)--but rather as participating in and contributing to the same discourses of literary form and institutional critique.

This is a novel strategy. Except in rare cases and for idiosyncratic writers (Oscar Wilde, of course, comes to mind), Victorianists have tended to overlook Irish writers while specialists in Irish studies have typically focused on either Romanticism or Modernism. Mid-nineteenth-century Irish novels haven't fit comfortably in either Victorian or Irish studies, and underlying that fact, as Mullen demonstrates, are fundamental--and largely unexamined--assumptions of literary history. "In English literary studies," she points out, "where realism is defined in opposition to modernism, English realism is understood to be national," whereas "Irish studies scholars...understand realism as not only a national form, but also as an English one" (41). Furthermore, she observes, "[a]lthough Victorian studies scholars have recently emphasised realism's cosmopolitanism, transatlanticism and global reach, the importance of Irish realism to English realist novels of the period remains unstudied." And, conversely, "Irish studies scholars compound this problem by emphasising how nineteenth-century Irish novels differ from English realist novels of the period" (13).

Those disciplinary habits are powerful. Even knowing the project this study is engaged in--and having published books on both British and Irish literature of the nineteenth century--I still found myself surprised by Mullen's strikingly insightful analyses not only of George Moore's A Drama in Muslin (1886) but also of Dickens's Bleak House (1852-53) and Hard Times (1854). Still more was I startled, while reading her introduction, by Mullen's compelling mobilization of the whole (or at least a whole) nineteenth-century canon: not only Dickens and Scott, but also Percy Shelley, Wilkie Collins, Lewis Carroll, Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Oliphant, H. Rider Haggard, and George Gissing. Misled to some extent by the subtitle of the book, I had expected the British texts to serve as a kind of cultural backdrop to a group of highlighted Irish exemplars. Mullen's venture, however, is far more disruptive to our own institutional assumptions than that. She treats Irish novels because they are, first and foremost, novels, and as novels, they participate--along with the British works that we tend to think of as properly "Victorian"--in a set of aesthetic, political, and structural innovations that give the nineteenth century its continued relevance to our own. There's something simultaneously provocative and generative to see the name of the Irish nationalist and transportee John Mitchel casually embedded in a list of Victorian theorists that also includes John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Harriet Martineau, and Thomas Carlyle.

By considering the works of English and Irish authors together, Mullen challenges the conceptual assumptions that underlie the putative formal and generic distinctions between British and Irish literary culture. Take, for example, the common understanding that Maria Edgeworth was not a "realist" in the same way as Austen and Scott, even though she might have influenced both of them and, through them, Victorian realism; perhaps she's imagined to be the exemplar of a "minor" literary tradition (in the Deleuzian sense, where "minor" evokes cultural minority and political immediacy rather than unimportance), or perhaps she's a "didactic novelist." But that distinction represents our own disciplinary biases rather than the nineteenth century's. "Didacticism," Mullen points out, "was only retrospectively distinguished from realist writing," and "Irish novels were understood in realist terms in the nineteenth century" (42). Mullen also faults the critical tendency to think of mid-nineteenth-century Irish novels (those by Kickham or William Carleton, for example, or the somewhat later Emily Lawless, who--rather surprisingly--doesn't appear in this study) as "ethnographic" rather than formally "realist." On the contrary, Mullen observes, "the very formal features that critics consider characteristically Irish--ethnographic intrusions, self-interrupting narrative forms--also make Carleton's and Kickham's novels realist" (73).

For Mullen, Irishness matters not because it represents a fundamental difference from the British tradition but because it registers both the unexamined assumptions and the buried ruptures within that tradition itself. "We cannot understand British realism without considering Irish realism," she contends, "not only because Irish novels shaped English realist novels, but also because Irish realist novels insist that institutional time is not neutral or merely disciplinary: it structures empire" (6). The central formal mark of that insistence is, in this account, anachronism.

Anachronism here is not peculiar to the historically disrupted coloniality and post-coloniality of Ireland; it is fundamental as well to Mullen's reading of Eliot's novels, from Adam Bede (1859) through The Mill on the Floss (1860) to Middlemarch (1871-72), wherein "Eliot imagines alternative paths...that restore the full range of historical possibilities and imagine history otherwise" (111). Anachronism is both endemic to institutional form as ideology and the signal of the possibility for radical change. "[A]nachronistic people and places," writes Mullen, "draw attention to the untimely endurance of practices at odds with but embedded in institutions" (22); these anachronisms "are produced by power relations on one hand, and disrupt structures of power on the other" (7). It is the shock of the incongruent that, in Mullen's analysis, disrupts the forms of both genre and institution. Dissenting from Terry Eagleton, she argues that "realism's 'fictional pretence' depends upon the constant disruption of formal integration" (93). And cognate with that formal disruption, anachronism likewise startles by its status as rupture. Pointing to Eliot's own anachronisms, she writes: "it is precisely through these moments of rupture that realist novels encourage readers to imagine politics and history otherwise" (59).

In these messy but rich mutual entanglements, then, Mullen perceives the possibility of a juster mode of being in the world, and she does so with particular engagement with queer and postcolonial critique. She does not promise an escape from institutions; while highlighting imaginative potency, she recognizes that institutions themselves can both accommodate and grow still more powerful through strategic anachronism. Rather, she proposes that we read these works tactically in order to think institutionality differently: "although we cannot escape institutions," she insists, "we can refuse their erasure of history" (3). For Mullen, as for Georg Lukács, the signal of that historical commitment is recognition of anachronism and, building on Lukács's concept of the "necessary anachronism" in The Historical Novel (1937), she highlights what she calls "unnecessary anachronism" (8; italics added). In contrast to Lukács's "necessary" version, though, Mullen's unnecessary type performs a more radical work: even while they misleadingly appear to be "merely errors to avoid" (8), these anachronisms function in fact to undermine smug confidence in progress and the inevitability and righteousness of the present status quo.

Given that generative focus on anachronism, I was somewhat disappointed to find that Mullen rather quickly dismisses the relevance of the gothic to her argument. The relationship of the gothic to realism is, I acknowledge, not particularly obvious. Yet the study keeps raising the question of just where to draw the line between the two. "In many ways," Mullen notes, "focusing on realism in a book about anachronisms is counter-intuitive: critics more frequently associate temporal disjunctions in nineteenth-century narrative with the gothic, romance, sensation fiction, stories of time travel or even ethnography" (12). The distinction is a bit tenuous, however, given that (as Mullen observes) realism itself "is notoriously difficult to define" and that "established accounts of realism include gothic novels like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818); historical romances like Walter Scott's Waverley (1814); sensational novels like Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone (1868); even fantasy novels like Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)" (4).

Like anachronism in the realist novels that Mullen highlights, the gothic continues to arise at the margins of the study. For instance, she notes that Margot Gayle Backus, in The Gothic Family Romance: Heterosexuality, Child Sacrifice, and the Anglo-Irish Colonial Order (1999), has identified in Edgeworth a form of "gothic realism." Similarly, Mullen finds gothic resonances in Our Mutual Friend (1864-65) but reads them as working against the disruptive potential of "unnecessary anachronism"; rather than upending the present, she argues, they reify the power of the past. When Mr. Riah walks "the streets in his ancient dress, like the ghost of a departed Time," she posits that Dickens "unleash[es] the gothic elements of the novel only to map them onto a specific ethnic and religious group, ... equat[ing] Jewishness with ghosts of the past rather than people in the present" (8). In contrast, she argues that while an allusion to a "dead Past" in Kickham's Knocknagow; or the Homes of Tipperary (1873) "might suggest gothic fiction rather than is not a gothic tale" (96).

And yet why not? Why isn't "Knocknagow's insistence that the dead past lives on" a version of the gothic, even while--unlike the "gothic" representation of Mr. Riah in Our Mutual Friend--it "encourages readers to trust themselves and their memories rather than the dictates of institutional time" (101)? Whereas Dickens's Mr. Riah moves "like the ghost of a departed Time," Kickham's Mick Brien is "'like a spectre' because, although he lives on, he has no hope for the future.... He continues on only by remembering the past" (100). To me anyway, that feels pretty gothic, even if it doesn't, in Mullen's words, "create terror or suggest the supernatural" (96). Mullen argues for the focus on realism, to the exclusion of other literary modes, "because of its centrality within the discipline of literary studies: its importance to histories of the novel, canon formations and postcolonial theory" (12). Any monograph must set some limits, of course, lest the attempt to wrangle one's materials start to resemble Disney's Sorcerer's Apprentice, yet this planting of stakes around the perimeter of her archive seems to me both somewhat circular in its reasoning and even institutionalist in its logic.

Rather than treating the gothic and realism as mutually exclusive, might we not consider the gothic as a mode or phenomenological effect that can appear in even the mainstream of canonical realism? As far back as The Coherence of Gothic Conventions (1986), we were encouraged to do so by Eve Sedgwick, whose Tendencies (1993) provides the epigraph to Mullen's introduction. Mullen does something similar in her virtuosic analysis of opposition and interplay between realism and naturalism (177-183), where she acknowledges her debt to John Plotz, "who argues that understanding naturalism as a set of formal features allows us to recognise the prevalence of naturalist elements in English fiction that is not straight-forwardly naturalist" (205). I'd very much like to see her perform that sort of sharp and compelling disentanglement--and re-entanglement--with realism and the gothic, modes of literary sensibility and affect that might counter-intuitively rhyme in their cognate play with anachronism and institutional critique.

A single book can't do everything, of course, and it's absolutely fair for an author to determine the boundaries of her own academic interventions. Even within this monograph, Mullen keeps raising the stakes and extending the reach of her analysis. What looks at first like a study of nineteenth-century Irish literature comes to encompass Victorian realism, then literary-historical canon formation, and then--especially in the "Coda"--the structure of the modern university itself. Recognizing the power of the humanities to "imagine a future that does not simply extend existing social arrangements" (211)--a project to which this book itself contributes--Mullen simultaneously challenges "defences of the humanities that insist that humanistic study is necessary for democracy, that it produces good citizens, that it fosters the common good without grappling with the question of who has access to universities" (212). That scale of critique might seem quite distant from the focused close readings of, for example, Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent (1800) that illuminate Mullen's first chapter. And yet, we remember--in part because this book has reminded us--that, along with her father, Edgeworth co-authored Practical Education (1798), published just two years prior to Castle Rackrent, and that "Ireland's national system of education, founded forty years before England's, is another English 'modernising experiment' that began in a colony and then travelled to the metropole" (19-20). The challenges of institutional bias and obstacles to access in the twenty-first-century university have at least some significant roots in the situation of nineteenth-century Ireland and its literary imagination.

I recommend this book wholeheartedly. I urge others to read it, learn from it, share it with colleagues and students, and recommend it to university administrators. I have done all of those things, and I certainly expect to continue to do so. It is a pleasure and a privilege to be guided by Mullen through the nineteenth century--and into the twenty-first.

Patrick R. O'Malley is Professor of English at Georgetown University.

Leave a comment on Patrick R. O'Malley's review.