IRISH LITERATURE IN TRANSITION [VOLUME II], 1780-1830 by Claire Connolly, ed., Reviewed by Patrick R. O'Malley
 


IRISH LITERATURE IN TRANSITION [VOLUME II], 1780-1830
Ed. Claire Connolly
(Cambridge, 2020) xvi + 439 pp.
Reviewed by Patrick R. O'Malley on 2021-04-09.

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Quick: what happened in Irish literary history in 1780? How about 1830? One of the challenges of conceptualizing Irish literature in terms of periods (romantic, for example, or Victorian) is that the customary narratives of cultural and political development don't quite apply: 1798 might have more salience than 1789, 1829 more than 1837. At the same time, recent scholarship on late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Ireland has even more strongly tended to frame our understanding of aesthetic production less around philosophical or artistic coteries than around a series of tent-pole ruptures in historical progression: 1782 (the establishment of the so-called "Grattan's Parliament," which loosened restrictions on Irish parliamentary action); 1798 (the United Irishmen Rebellion); 1800 (the Act of Union, which went into effect in 1801); 1803 (Robert Emmet's rebellion); 1829 (Catholic Emancipation); 1845 (the start of the blight that led to the Famine); and 1848 (the Young Irelander Rebellion). The list goes on.

Though the dates that make up the subtitles of periodized studies are always fictions, they are peculiarly fraught in Irish studies. To the credit of this magnificent and deeply informative volume, it takes up this challenge directly. It is not only a brilliant work of collective scholarship focused on a period of Irish literature but also--across twenty-one impressive chapters and Claire Connolly's insightful introduction--a thoughtful meditation on what it means to periodize literary culture in the first place, particularly when the structures of that periodization are tinged with the violences and disruptions of colonial history. As Connolly writes, "[a]lthough the years between 1780 and 1830 are widely recognised as a period of considerable significance for 'the actual history of literature,' we have tended to conceive of Irish writing in units of time that follow narratives standard in the writing of history" (6; quoting Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution [1961]). The gravitational force of those historical narratives is exemplified by the title of Connolly's own monograph, A Cultural History of the Irish Novel, 1790-1829 (2011), which won the American Council on Irish Studies's Donald Murphy Prize for Distinguished First Books. While 1829 may seem strangely specific, it immediately evokes for Irish studies the transformative effects of the Roman Catholic Relief Act on Irish life and culture.

A number of contributors to the present volume explicitly interrogate the customary primacy of historicism as the key to early nineteenth-century Irish literature, particularly insofar as it has narrowed our understanding of that literature's diversity. Julia M. Wright, for instance, observes that

[t]his historical focus has been generative for recovering and organising literary works from the era, but it has confined literary criticism largely to national nostalgia and political failure . . . and hence a canon centred on Thomas Moore's Irish Melodies, the national tales of Lady Morgan, Maria Edgeworth, and others, and the gothic nightmares of such writers as Charles Robert Maturin. In this romanticism Ireland is built upon the grave of nationalist aspirations, with historiography its dominant mode and ruins its touchstone. (69).

That is, when periodization becomes a kind of spotlight, showcasing some works of literature because they "fit" and obscuring others because they don't, we distort what was actually happening in Irish literature and culture. Wright thus names one symptom of that blinkered vision. Jennifer Orr names another while deeply diving into magazine culture in Ulster, particularly the short-lived periodical The Microscope and Minute Observer (1799-1800). "[T]he role of dissenting popular culture in Irish literature," Orr writes, "has been largely obfuscated by its historical complexities, in particular discomfort with appropriating Protestant nationalism and reformism, including its wider eighteenth-century inheritance in the Scottish Enlightenment and the revolutions of America and France" (149). Part of the accomplishment of this book is an expansion of the canon of romantic-era Irish literature, in multiple ways.

Even a more aesthetic category like "romanticism," though, doesn't really capture the complexities of Irish cultural production in the years around the turn of the nineteenth century. "It may be a critical truism that no such thing as romanticism existed," Matthew Campbell observes. "[B]ut," he adds, both astutely and dryly, "it is difficult to find any Irish account of the writing of this period which does not open with a warning about the impossibility of the term in relation to Irish writing" (91). Taking up this question in his illuminating chapter on "Irish Romanticism in European Context," Joep Leerssen acknowledges that "for almost all of the main poetical and philosophical currents and characteristics of romanticism, Ireland seems to be comparatively unaffected: a British backwater rather than a European participant, caught up in post-Union, paracolonial provincialism without much investment in artistic innovation" (348). Importantly, however, Ireland is not alone in that. "If we look at most European countries not in the aggregate but individually," Leerson writes, "it becomes obvious that, in fact, almost nowhere was romanticism all-dominant, fully represented, or universally adopted. Romanticism was everywhere a minority concern." (349).

We imagine romanticism as a pan-European movement that perhaps just never got to Ireland when, instead, we may be mistaking what Leerssen calls "the English and German cases" (348) as more representative than they were. "The well-known fact is worth repeating: that outside Germany the appellation 'romantic' has practically never been used for literary self-identification by anyone now considered a romantic" (349). Even in England, which we might think of as another hotbed of authentic romanticism, Leerssen notes that "[t]he period's foremost English-language novelists between 1800 and 1815 were Maria Edgeworth and Jane Austen, neither a romantic, and among the most representative poets of the period were Thomas Campbell and the underrated Mrs Hemans" (349). Edgeworth was Irish, of course, and Hemans was Irish-descended and died in Dublin. According to the OED, as Connolly delightfully reminds us, the earliest use of the term 'romanticism' to mean "[t]he Romantic movement or style in art, literature, or music'" (qtd. 13) occurs in Italy (1821), by Lady Morgan (born Sydney Owenson), the author of the widely popular novel The Wild Irish Girl (1806). Even in its apparent exclusion from the canons of romanticism, it turns out that early nineteenth-century Ireland is more central to the story of romanticism than we've thought.

The second of six volumes in a series that extends from 1700 to 2020, this collection brilliantly applies the concept of "transition" that unites the titles. The rationale for this term is explained in a Series Preface by Connolly and Marjorie Howes, who--besides editing, respectively, volumes 2 and 4--co-edited the whole series. "Literary transitions," they write, "do not 'reflect' historical change in any simple or straightforward way. Rather, the complex two-way traffic between these realms involves multiple and uneven processes such as distortion, selection, repression, embrace, and critique" (xiii). In that spirit, the contributors to this volume treat the Irish literature of the period as "transitional" in various interlocking senses, signifying not only temporal processes but also movements that are spatial and cultural, sectarian and linguistic. Connolly, for example, reads Irish literature "in terms of the making of new maps, allowing writers to chart routes between and across Enlightenment, antiquarian, and romantic modes" (11). Literalizing that geographic metaphor in a chapter on "Irish Literature and Classical Modes," Norman Vance points out that intellectual movements ranged in multiple directions across the European map. On the one hand, he writes, "at least a few of the most privileged of Ireland's gentlemen might hope to make the long and expensive journey to Italy in order to see something of the remains of classical antiquity first hand," importing that experience into Irish arts (52); on the other hand, "[l]andscape gardeners and architects as well as poets and painters stood to benefit from the embedded classicism of Burke's own early Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), with its invocation of the sublime as theorised by Longinus and its examples from Homer and Virgil, Lucretius and Horace" (55-6). "The diffusion," Vance convincingly argues, "could work in different ways" (55). As Connolly observes, it was in fact the Anglo-Irish Oliver Goldsmith who first "identified the reign of Queen Anne as the 'Augustan Age' of English literature" (13).

These essays also treat other modes of "transition." Wright points out that two years before Coleridge wrote the "Eolian Harp" in 1795, the Irish lawyer and poet William Preston, first Secretary of the Royal Irish Academy, whom Coleridge was reading, used that image as a metaphor for the interaction between nature and the poetic mind (74-75). In his chapter, Leerssen traces the Aeolian trope back to the Ossian poems, with their own complicated histories of transmission between Irish and Scottish sources (346). As for Irish fiction, Sonja Lawrenson explores its impact on British readers. Like Wright and a number of the other scholars represented here, she broadens the scope of Irish romantic studies beyond Owenson, Edgeworth, and Moore to highlight the rich culture of popular fiction centering on Ireland but published outside it. "[W]ith the extension of British copyright law to Ireland in the wake of the Act of Union," she explains, "Irish authors and booksellers were often precipitated into closer collaboration with British publishers" (361). In a valuable (and enjoyable) look at William Lane and his London-based Minerva Press, Lawrenson explains how he nurtured both "the formation of Irish literary culture" and "the production and dissemination of Irish fiction," including what was "dismissed as 'trashy'" (361). Looking toward Irish interactions with the early American Republic, Orr points out that the Microscope not only produced an original engraving of George Washington but also counted Washington himself among its subscribers (164). Again, as in Vance's essay, the transmission that Orr describes goes both ways.

One of Ireland's most important exports was music, which played a leading role in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Irish literary culture from Goldsmith forward. Accentuating this point, Adrian Paterson explains that because Dublin (along with London, Paris and Vienna) was a key source for the manufacture and distribution of pianos from the 1770s until the 1820s, one nickname for the increasingly popular instrument was "Irish damper" (135). Paterson's point reminds me that in Jane Austen's Emma (1815), Frank Churchill teases Jane Fairfax about the "new set of Irish melodies" that were sent to her along with the mysterious gift of a piano. Aptly enough, Paterson tells us that Moore's extremely popular Irish Melodies were "[p]ublished in ten volumes over a period of twenty-six years (1808-34)," and that "all 125 of the Melodies' songs required the piano" (139). This book is full of generative details like that.

Since Ireland had its own language before the English arrived, a number of contributors consider the transitional status of Gaelic literature in the period. While most of the essays collected here focus on English-language works as central to "Irish literature," the volume also does an excellent job of troubling that centrality. In 1780--and even much later--it's not even clear what "Irish literature" means. As late as the 1820s, Connolly tells us, the Irish writer Thomas Crofton Croker and the Scottish theologian Christopher Anderson both considered "Irish literature" to designate "an older body of writing in the Irish language" (1). But by 1830, according to Campbell, English-language Irish poetry "was emerging as its own thing, separate from the available British models, for all that it appeared to be written in the same language" (86). We are, that is, in the thrilling midst of a transition.

In her exemplary chapter on "Gaelic Literature in Transition, 1780-1830," Lesa Ní Mhunghaile argues that during this period, two complementary developments pushed Irish-language literature toward a necessarily intercultural and interlinguistic transition. First was "a growing realisation by many Gaelic scholars and scribes that they could not salvage Ireland's Gaelic literary heritage from extinction and increase its status on their own without the support and assistance of non-Gaelic patrons" (42); second was "a growing interest in Irish-language literature, manuscripts, and historical sources among non-native scholars drawn from the Anglo-Irish Protestant elite" (46). Ní Mhunghaile compellingly argues that this linguistic transition between groups marked a historical transition in their self-fashioning, contributing to "a growing Anglo-Irish identity that sought to root itself in Ireland [through] the appropriation of Gaelic culture and history" (46). And in an excellent chapter on a lesser known writer, the poet J. J. Callanan, Gregory A. Schirmer considers this development in different terms: the multivalent significance of translation (another mode of transition) in a colonial context. Schirmer writes:

Translation is itself, of course, a double-edged enterprise, like much of Callanan's work . . . From a colonialist point of view, the process affirms the assumed superiority of the English language and its culture, seen as inherently able to absorb any other culture, while at the same time strengthening the language by broadening its reach. On the other hand, to translate an Irish poem into an English one is inevitably to recognise the value of the original poem and its literary tradition, a view with obvious nationalist implications. (249-50)

One of the pleasures of this volume is the impressive editing. Many critical anthologies can appear undirected, filled with chapters that, while strong on their own merits, fail to speak to or build on each other. But Connolly has inspired her contributors to maintain an admirable consistency of both content and tone, even while they engage multiple concepts of transition as well as a wide range of literary forms, including the novel, short fiction, poetry, music, journalism, drama, and philosophy. Following Connolly's introduction, the book comprises four sections: Origins, Transitions, Reputations, and Futures. In the first of these, Ní Mhunghaile and Vance effectively strike the keynotes of the volume by situating the literature of 1780-1830 in the context of earlier works. The next section paints a vivid picture of the social and literary life of the period, with Wright's essay on Irish literary theory, Campbell's on Anglophone Irish poetry, Paterson's on music, and Orr's on Ulster magazines. They are joined by David O'Shaughnessy's rich history of Irish playwrights writing for the London stage.

The third section, Reputations, highlights individual authors. Besides Schirmer's chapter on Callanan, these essays--universally strong and informative--include Harriet Kramer Linkin on Mary Tighe; James Chandler on Edgeworth; Nicola Lloyd on Lady Morgan; Jim Kelly on Charles Robert Maturin; Jane Moore on Thomas Moore; Willa Murphy on John and Michael Bannim; Mark Corcoran on Gerald Griffin; and David E. Latané on William Maginn. Though many contributors argue against over-examining a few totemic authors, this section--as well as the volume as a whole--does pay a lot of attention to Edgeworth, Moore, Morgan, and Maturin. But they have earned this attention through their "reputations," so to speak, and in the course of the book they are joined by figures like Tighe and Charlotte Brooke, who appear almost as frequently and to good effect. (Linkin's consideration of Tighe's "position as a social author negotiating the divide between the public and the private" [184] provides yet another useful expansion of our concept of "transition.") Since Gerald Griffin is too often relegated to a footnote about his influence on Dion Boucicault's play The Colleen Bawn (1860), Corcoran does well to bring his novel The Collegians: A Tale of Garryowen (1829) to wider attention. Several essays in this collection join Vance's in noting the influence of Edmund Burke, but no chapter makes him central, and somewhat surprisingly, no contributor mentions either his 1792 "Letter to Richard Burke," which extensively describes his thoughts about the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland, or his 1797 "Letter on the Affairs of Ireland." As for Edgeworth, Chandler's incisive reconsideration of her literary realism--a topic that has garnered increased attention in nineteenth-century Irish studies recently--is well balanced by Kelly's and Murphy's chapters on Irish gothic.

While the book as a whole resists the tendency to hang readings of literature on the spikes of political history, the analyses here are generally, and compellingly, grounded in literary and social history. There isn't much "theory" here in the sense that, for example, Marxism underwrites Terry Eagleton's Scholars and Rebels in Nineteenth-Century Ireland (1999), or psychoanalytic and Foucauldian frameworks support the arguments of Margot Gayle Backus's The Gothic Family Romance (1999). Neither Jacques Derrida nor Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick appears in the index. Yet by exception, Murphy's chapter adroitly mobilizes the theories of Slavoj Žižek and Hélène Cixous in her psychoanalytic and deconstructive reading of the Banims' fictions. While it differs tonally from much of the rest of the volume, this essay points to a different--and important--approach to Irish literature of this period, and I was glad to see it included, particularly since it astutely analyzes "the soft border between horrific violence and domesticity, between the uncanny and the commonplace" (277) in the weird and gothic work of the Banims.

The final section of the volume, Futures, collects five essays that explicitly demonstrate the multivalence of the presiding concept of "transition": Leerssen's analysis of Irish romanticism in the European context and Lawrenson's of Irish popular fiction; Murray Pittock's account of the characteristic genres and modes of Irish literature in this period (including the national tale, the gothic, and orientialist discourses) in relationship to that of Britain, especially Scotland; Joseph Rezek's study of trans-Atlantic Irishness; and Fiona Stafford's "The Literary Legacies of Irish Romanticism." This is the one section that I find somewhat misnamed, since the sense of transition explored in these chapters is not only temporal (for which "Futures" makes the most sense), but also geographic. Rezek's exemplary essay, for example, importantly highlights "texts published in Ireland that concern African slavery and the transatlantic slave trade, written by pro-slavery sympathisers, white abolitionists, and writers of African descent" (382). What Rezek calls "the resonance of African slavery" is fundamental to Irish economics, literature, and culture of this period, as Rezek conclusively demonstrates, but since this topic has so far been critically understudied, he does well to examine it for at least the length of a chapter. Assessing Edgeworth's "The Grateful Negro" (1804), Rezek compellingly juxtaposes this ambivalent but ultimately pro-slavery story with the work of abolitionist Irish Quakers, United Irishmen, and--most importantly--Black writers themselves. "Towards the end of the eighteenth century," Rezek points out, "the works of Olaudah Equiano, James Albert Ukawsaw Gronniosaw, Ignatius Sancho, and John Marrant were published in Dublin as part of that city's robust trade in unauthorised reprints--with the exception of Equiano's Narrative, which Equiano published himself" in an Irish edition dedicated to the Archbishop of Dublin (385-6). This is an important intervention in romantic-era Irish studies.

Defying Yeats's famous claim that "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone," Stafford's chapter concludes the collection by following the afterlives of Irish romanticism. She convincingly traces the generic influence of the Irish "Big House" novel on Emily Brontë, Kazuo Ishiguro, and (amusingly but aptly) P. G. Wodehouse, and the influence of the gothic on John Mitchel, Sheridan Le Fanu, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Elizabeth Bowen. Stafford is especially strong on the resonances of Irish romantic poetry and Gaelic poetry in the verse of Seamus Heaney and Paul Muldoon, among many others. Like several of this book's other chapters, Stafford's is beautifully written, its lucid prose framing and highlighting its insights. After more than 420 pages of critical essays, this one managed (to my own surprise) to make me wish there were still more.

Turning back now to the questions with which I opened this review, here are the answers, gleaned from this volume: in 1780, the Irish playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan was elected to the Parliament at Westminster; somewhat relatedly, Frederick Pilon wrote and staged the farce The Humours of an Election as well as another farce, The Siege of Gibralter; and the English writer Arthur Young published his Tour in Ireland. In 1830, Thomas Moore published Legendary Ballads; William Carleton published the first series of Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry; and in an amusing narrative well recalled here by Latané, the Cork writer William Maginn "killed off" his popular journalistic alter-ego "Odoherty" in order to cut his ties with Blackwood's and move--with a "resurrected" Odoherty--to Fraser's. Perhaps, to draw on what Latané identifies as "a signature word for Maginn" (309), one might say n'importe. Specific dates don't matter as much as the sense of vitality and change, of being in motion through time and culture and geography. In fact, even these skeletal details of some literary events of 1780 and 1830 do tell a tale of transition: by 1830, Irish literature has entered the realm of what Leerssen, in Remembrance and Imagination (1996), famously designated its "auto-exoticism," or what Connolly calls "a culture constituted by its status as strange" (12).

As I read this book on "Irish literature in transition," I came to think of a number of other conceptual rhymes that are relevant to these studies: translation, transhistoricism, translocation, transnationalism, transformation. While the volume never understates the significance of Ireland's colonial situation (or what Leerssen terms its "paracolonial provincialism"), romantic-era Ireland emerges from these pages not foremost as colony but as crossroads. The border crossings and literary movements investigated by this collective scholarly project strongly amplify an observation made by Lloyd. "Morgan's claim," she writes, "that she was born aboard ship while her English mother and Irish father crossed the Irish Sea is a notable instance of her preoccupation with cultural hybridity and transition" (206). On the evidence of these essays, she was clearly not alone in that preoccupation. I highly recommend this rich and valuable book to anyone interested in Irish studies, in nineteenth-century literature, in romanticism--or simply in brilliant analysis brilliantly expressed. Then read the next volume in the series, edited by Campbell; one good thing about being "in transition" is that there is always more change ahead.

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


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