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  • The Dispossessed State: Narratives of Ownership in 19th-Century Britain and Ireland by Sara L. Maurer
  • Russell Greer
Maurer, Sara L. The Dispossessed State: Narratives of Ownership in 19th-Century Britain and Ireland. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. 243pp. $60.00.

In The Dispossessed State, Sara Maurer argues that attitudes about property changed in Ireland and Britain during the nineteenth century, creating “a revolution in thinking about the state” (1). Writers and thinkers moved from a belief that property exists prior to the state to a belief that the state comes first, creates the right to property, and then can limit those rights for the common good. In five exhaustively researched chapters, Maurer describes a Manichean struggle between these opposing views in the writings of such figures as Maria Edgeworth, John Stuart Mill, George Campbell, Anthony Trollope, George Moore, George Meredith, John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, the members of the Young Ireland movement, and many others. Although she does not proclaim her study to be [End Page 723] postcolonial or new historicist, it is, in fact, both. For its methodology, it draws heavily upon the techniques of discourse analysis and rhetorical criticism, and lurking behind many of the book’s investigations is the Foucaultian belief that in discourse we can observe and understand the exercise of power.

Her purpose in the book is to redirect the scholarly conversation away from thinking about property purely in terms of capitalism. The discourse surrounding property, she argues, had a role to play in helping to form national identity for both countries during this period. Her assertions about this point are carefully nuanced because she respects its complexity, but as a result the reader must somewhat piece together the consequences of this change in thinking. One clear consequence, however, is that the dialogue cast new light on the relationship between Ireland and Britain. Maurer writes that the “vision of Irish property crafted by Irish nationalists who advocated for an independent Irish nation-state…strongly attracted the British politicians most responsible for crafting a means to keeping Ireland and Britain united” (91). In the Irish conception of property, British writers and thinkers saw an opportunity for uniting the two nations. But unrest in Ireland also exposed tensions between competing English narratives. On one hand England followed the discourse articulated by William Blackstone that property is “that sole and despotic dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in total exclusion of the right of any other individual in the universe” (qtd. on page 90). On the other hand, England also embraced a “communal and eternal” attitude about property, part of the conservative tradition, existing in reaction to the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars. Irish conceptions of property and Irish unrest caused a period of British self-reflection. The Irish Land Acts of 1870 and 1881, in particular, prompted Prime Minister William Gladstone to seek “a solution to the Irish land problem that would allow the state to intervene in Ireland without creating any sort of precedent for state interference with English property” (127). More than anything, however, the Irish Land Acts exposed “the clash of Irish and British viewpoints” (130) despite efforts to find or create a discourse that could support union.

One particularly interesting attempt to create a discourse supporting union appears in the six Palliser novels written by Anthony Trollope. Maurer devotes an entire chapter to explaining how from 1865–1879 the Palliser novels (Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux, The Prime Minister, and The Duke’s Children) offered allegories that mirror “the afflictions of the Anglo-Irish union” (161). Her choice of Trollope’s novels is particularly convincing because contemporary readers respected Trollope. In 1863, one reviewer for the National Review wrote, “Mr. Trollope has become almost a national institution” (qtd. in Anthony Trollope: The Critical Heritage 167 [1969]). Therefore when Maurer sees an allegory that could help British readers reflect upon their own national identity and their relationship with Ireland, the point feels historically grounded. The crux of her argument is that marriages in the Trollope novels, several in particular...


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