The nineteenth century witnessed a revolution in thinking about property that was also a revolution in thinking about the state. The commonsense understanding of property at the opening of the century might be read in Thomas Macaulay’s 1833 argument for a coercive enforcement of order in Ireland: “[Mr. Macaulay] thought there was no situation in the life of a public man more painful than that in which he found himself, under the necessity of supporting the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, and the even temporary abolition of trial by jury. These were sacred portions of our Constitution, older than Parliament itself—their origin was lost in the darkness of ancient times. … [But] what were the Habeas Corpus and Trial by Jury intended for? Why, to be the means, not the ends, of protecting life and property.”1
Macaulay’s reluctance to impose coercive measures on Ireland gives way to his conclusion that all laws exist to protect life and property and thus are simply means to that end. For Macaulay, no law is sacred that does not protect property, which, like life itself, exists prior to any state institution. That this position was one of consensus, not partisanship, is evident from the argument of his opponent on the matter of Irish coercion. John Romilly, while condemning the coercion that Macaulay reluctantly advocated, argued from precisely the same basis as Macaulay, contending that proposed searches of Irish households could never lawful: “Was it not clear that the authorized breaking open of houses was nearly as great a breach of order as unauthorized murder?”2 In both views, the preservation of property was equated with the preservation of life. Property, like life, is assumed to pre-exist the law, not to be constituted by it. Law itself can only be legitimate if it respects that fact.
Yet by the late 1870s a new way of thinking about property and its relation to the institutions of the state had started to take hold, as Matthew Arnold’s claim made clear: “If it is the sound English doctrine that all rights are created by law and are based on expediency, and are alterable as the public advantage may require, certainly that orthodox doctrine is mine. Property is created and maintained by law. … Legal society creates, for the common good, the right of property and for the common good that right is by legal society limitable” (“Equality” 46).
Arnold’s assertion that property exists for the sake of the social order, rather than the social order existing to preserve property, represents a complete reversal of Macaulay’s and Romilly’s assumptions. For Arnold, all property rights originate with the state and end when the state withholds its recognition and enforcement. Arnold’s assertion that his stance is “sound English doctrine” is somewhat ironic—he knew well that his claim was not universally accepted. Still, by this point in the century, Arnold was part of a group of thinkers who revolutionized the way the state was conceived. Instead of a state whose purpose was to preserve and respect property rights that preceded the state, Arnold’s state created the order of property over which it presided.
This book explores this shift in thinking in both fiction and nonfiction. Drawing on the political, economic, and legal theory behind these changes, it explores how journalists, political theorists, and fiction writers imagined the fluctuating relationship between a person’s orientation toward property and a person’s orientation toward the state in the nineteenth century. My purpose in writing it is twofold. First I aim to flesh out what has previously been a rather limited discussion of how Victorians thought about property. Scholars of Victorian literature and culture tend to think of property in terms of its redefinition under the influence of an increasingly pervasive market-driven culture. Jeff Nunokawa tells us of Victorians “alarmed that market values had managed to engross everything under the sun” (4). Andrew Miller observes that for the Victorians, “the penetrating anxiety” was “that their social and moral world was being reduced to a warehouse of goods and commodities, a display window in which people, their actions, and their convictions were exhibited for the economic appetites of others” (6). In these terms, no property was safe for actual keeping. The new world of capitalism was one of endlessly circulating objects, all primed for exchange rather than ownership. All its inhabitants could do was hanker nostalgically for a lost world in which property was inalienable, permanently attached to them in a way that secured and reinforced a stable identity. Often this nostalgia meant longing for a relationship to property that they imagined had once been available to owners of land.3
But the dynamics that made up Victorian concepts of proprietorship far exceed the two poles of alienable and inalienable to which this narrative attends. The idea of Victorian property was split along a number of axes. Victorians disputed whether property was a culturally embedded, historically determined relationship or an abstract relationship whose dynamics were immutable and instantly recognizable. They told stories in which property in land signified communal interconnection and stories in which it signified a zone of absolute, exclusive individual control. They argued about whether property had evolved from a primitive state in which ownership and kinship were practically identical to a modern condition in which property was wholly a matter of free contract. They alternated between thinking of ownership as a relationship between one owner and one owned thing and considering it more as a bundle of variable rights and privileges that might be negotiated among several parties. All these competing ideas about property were crosscurrents through which property passed when Victorians imagined it to modulate their relationship to the state. I take them all into account in telling the story of how Victorians gradually abandoned the idea that property existed prior to the state. In doing so, I suggest that the stories we tell ourselves about market thinking in the nineteenth century—the yearning for permanent attachment to property, the fear of alienating oneself along with one’s labor, the rage for a sense of self-possession—are not always the most accurate narratives concerning Victorians and their property.
My second aim in describing how Victorians thought about property and the state is to make more visible the entity that presided over the multinational United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In the story of how Victorians imagined their property to define their relationship with the state, it is apparent that the British state presided not just over a collective body identified as British but over both British and Irish affairs, even though it treated each in a markedly separate manner. Understanding Ireland to be always a part of British state formation in the nineteenth century allows us not only to comprehend how Ireland was visible to the Victorian British Isles, which we mistakenly tend to think of in exclusively British terms, but also to see how Ireland helped shape what the British thought of themselves. When inhabitants of the British Isles thought in terms of property and the state, they often thought in terms that linked Irish and British culture.
The Anglo-Irish and British writers featured in this book who wrote about Ireland under the Act of Union—Maria Edgeworth, Anthony Trollope, John Stuart Mill, George Moore, and George Meredith—were also always writing about the powers and potentials of the British state; therefore, they were always writing about property. Although the idea of property as a natural right increasingly fell out of favor during the nineteenth century, these writers saw in Ireland a dynamic in which the state could treat property as the end for which the state existed, the boundary the state could not cross. Perhaps most paradoxically, all these writers imagine that the state of dispossession, especially dispossession from the land that they strongly associate with the Irish, has unifying potential. Edgeworth and the journalists who wrote as “Young Ireland” celebrated dispossession as the founding moment of a community forged around persisting possessive feelings directed at the lost property; dispossession was more available as a communal experience than ownership of property ever could be; thus, it might be the experience that allowed an entire community to resist state interference. In contrast, Mill, Trollope, Moore, and Meredith saw a unifying power in the state’s ability to address dispossession. They imagined that the state could redistribute property and its enjoyment in a way that might draw owners into a closer relationship with the state. By examining these Victorians’ preoccupation with dispossession as a starting point for an Irish relationship, this study seeks to add some precision to how we think about colonial possessions and colonizing dispossession.
The British State and Irish Dispossession
While scholarly attention in Victorian studies often fixes on the rising influence of the middle class, it nonetheless remains true that those who owned landed property retained a strong political influence throughout the nineteenth century, even as landed property’s economic power gradually waned. But in the global context of the British empire as well as in the semicolonial case of Ireland, land always reigned supreme. In his influential Cultural and Imperialism, Edward Said argues that landed property remains the bottom line of the British empire. “At some very basic level, imperialism means thinking about, settling on, controlling land that you do not possess, that is distant, that is lived on and owned by others” (7). But even this absolute statement is imprecise in its characterization. Trying to define imperialism at its most fundamental level, he offers a definition of imperialists as controlling and settling land they “do not possess,” that is “owned by others.” The dichotomy would seem a simple one, with imperialists exercising control over distant lands against the claims of an indigenous population who own and live on it. But the dichotomy is not so simple—imperialists “settle” on land, indigenous peoples “live” on it. Imperialists “think about” land that is “distant,” but how that distance is maintained after they make their settlement is not clear. Said implies that indigenous attachment to land is distinguished by its lack of distance, its lack of a conscious cognitive attachment even, whose absence perhaps indicates how fully naturally the connection is. There is no need to think about owning land for those who simply are the owners. What is not clear is how one retains one’s identity as the owner of land that is imperially claimed by someone else from somewhere else. Perhaps that is why, when later in his book Said reasserts that “the actual geographical possession of land is what empire is in the final analysis all about,” it is a possession that—grammatically at least—happens without any identified owner at all (78).
Said’s imprecision in describing the difference between imperial possession and native ownership reflects his work’s larger argument that those in possession of land—those whose control of it seems simply part of the natural order of things—may have no moral right to it whatsoever. At the same time, his wording also reflects how difficult it is to identify a principle that explains how one might recognize who does have moral rights to the land. Said and other postcolonial critics have exposed the imperial biases of property’s definition both in western law and in European philosophy. As a result, they often reject abstract theories of property in favor of an ethic of native attachment. Against a Lockean vision of property created by one’s own labor in the earth, a vision they rightly show to be the product of cultural biases, postcolonial scholars tend to join anticolonial nationalists in their assertion of a highly particular, nonpropertized, indigenous attachment to the land that precedes the imposition of an imperial law. Political scientist Uday Singh Mehta, for example, posits that an indigenous sense of “territorial togetherness,” collective in nature and premised on a sense of the “textured realities of a locally imagined and physical landscape,” serves as “a marker of a people’s sense of autonomy” (120, 122, 127). This assertion of an attachment that defies European—and, most pointedly, British—definitions of property avoids appealing to any central body for its legitimation. It exists prior to formal government and abstract theorization. Felt and experienced rather than defined and regulated, this sort of attachment to property appears to lie outside any system that might transfer or reassign ownership. While a community might expand the number of people who feel an attachment to its property, it could never effectively ensure the extinction of such feelings in people who once had them. In Mehta’s formulation, regardless of whether such an attachment is recognized by a governing body, the indigenous connection to the land is inalienable.
This book examines the attractions such a vision of property had, not for anticolonial nationalists, but for the colonizing culture against which they struggled. Attending to the backdrop of debates over the nature of property in Irish and British land, this book reads a group of British and Irish writers drawn toward Irish claims of a native attachment to the land—claims articulated in much the same terms Mehta uses. But their attraction was not exclusively—or in some cases at all—about correcting injustices committed by Britain. For the authors who are the subjects of the following chapters, such Irish nationalist assertions of rights to property, made in an environment of rather rigid and often coercive state control, offered a positive model for imagining Britain’s own continued respect for individual property rights.
It might seem counterintuitive to argue that nineteenth-century writers imagined Ireland as the site of a property that was secure in the face of government interference. After all, the British Victorian stereotype of Ireland was that popular unrest there made it a territory where neither life nor property was safe. This popular unrest, however, was undertaken in the name of a collective Irish attachment to land, a right that resisted all British attempts to redefine it. In 1867, for instance, the group alternately known as the Fenians, the Irish Revolutionary Brotherhood, and the Irish Republican Brotherhood issued a declaration that I offer as representative of numerous declarations that came before and after, justifying rebellion against the British state: “Our rights and liberties have been trampled upon by an alien aristocracy, who treating us as foes, usurped our lands, and drew away from our country all material riches. The real owners of the soil were removed to make room for cattle, and driven across the ocean to seek the means of living, and the political rights denied to them at home. … But we never lost the memory and hope of a national existence. … The soil of Ireland, at present in the possession of an oligarchy, belongs to us, the Irish people, and to us it must be restored” (Provisional Government 76–77).
This particular assertion of rights of property was the opening shot in a campaign of violent resistance designed to drive the British state entirely out of Ireland. It was a manifesto uncompromisingly hostile to British rule, one that advocated violence against the British as legitimized by the need to restore the moral order of property. And yet, as I argue, its vision of the native right to property as perfectly preserved in the hearts of the Irish people had a reassuring aspect. After all, for many Britons at this time, property seemed to be disintegrating into a nothingness of infinite alienability and modular bundles of rights. In Ireland however, property was still imagined as a right to an actual spatial zone, one whose prerogatives could not be extinguished by mere state policy.
The Irish resistance to state interference was a crucial reminder to writers in this study of what property might be. One of the foundational myths of English liberty and English representational governance was the Lockean idea that the state was fashioned out of consenting men whose rights to property preceded its establishment. In Locke’s formulation, a man “puts on the bonds of Civil Society … by agreeing with other Men, to joyn and unite into a Community, for their comfortable, safe, and peacable living one amongst another, in a secure Enjoyment of their Properties” (7:95). Locke imagined property as the protective zone that buffered subjects from the power of the state, as the line that the state could not cross because the whole purpose of the state’s existence was to protect property for individual enjoyment. When Irish activists continually justified their resistance to the British state by invoking the rights of property, they attributed to Irish property unusual powers to resist even the most well-developed state, which the British government in Ireland most definitely was. Victorian Ireland, neither fully colony nor co-nation, was a zone the British state governed with a sophisticated and centralized set of institutions. In contrast to Britain, which prided itself on minimal government and local administration well into the late nineteenth century, Ireland was the space where all British citizens could read the British state’s potential for power over everyday life.4 Thus, fantasies that Irish land might be property that protected its owner from state interference were also fantasies of Irish property as able to resist a state that was both the same as—and yet far more invasive than—that which governed Britain. In such a view, Ireland was the site where a fully developed set of state institutions might nonetheless coexist with property that operated as if the state could act only beyond its boundaries.
As the following chapters show, when writers turned their attention to property in an Irish context, they turned to property in a situation where the state exercised more power over defining and redistributing property than it ever did in Britain, yet it seemed to have less power for making such definitions and distributions stick. The state’s simultaneously exaggerated and attenuated powers were a result of the anomalous semicolonial situation of Ireland in the nineteenth century. Ireland, as it was incorporated into the United Kingdom, provided the specter of the state’s potential power to simply make the rights of property disappear. This was true for more than just the native Irish Catholic population, whose property rights had been erased by two hundred years of penal laws imposed by the conquering British. The Act of Union with Britain also eliminated the representative rights of two-thirds of the landed members of the former Irish parliament and had been intentionally designed to decrease the social and political power that the Irish Protestant landholding class exercised over the Catholic population. With this decrease in power for the Anglo-Irish landholders came a centralized, state-sponsored police force and state-sponsored education system, long before either were centralized in Britain, where similar tasks were left to the supervision of local landowners.5 Thus Ireland constituted a situation in which a centralized state—the same state that in Great Britain was so well known for its respect for the rights of private property—actively intervened in the life of individual citizens and downplayed the mediating role of a propertied class, which in Britain was imagined as the paternalistic firewall between the state and its citizens.
But Ireland was also most nakedly the site of prolonged resistance, both discursive and physical, against such incursions by the state. During the nineteenth century, the British came to understand Irish national character as possessively attached to the land. Through low-grade guerrilla warfare, mass meetings, parliamentary obstruction, armed uprisings, and even the assassinations of British officials, Irish nationalists justified their resistance by invoking a communal attachment to the land such as Mehta attributes to indigenous populations. But in nineteenth-century Ireland, such attachments were always intertwined with a British interference. Thus, the Irish assertion of property rights centered somewhat paradoxically around a rhetoric of dispossession. Irish nationalists framed the Irish experience as one of having had rights to the land, of having been robbed of them by the British state, and of still experiencing them, nonetheless, as a palpable attachment. The exceptional nature of this attachment, they implied, came about because legal channels of connection had been denied to them. This was a narrative that at least a portion of the British public proved willing to buy. In her wildly popular best-seller The Wild Irish Girl (1806), Sydney Owenson treated the unusually durable sense of Irish attachment to land as a simple part of the Irish landscape. In the tale, the absentee landlord’s son, on his first trip to Ireland, is introduced to a lodge his father has leased not in terms of its present-day status but as having been at one time “the best part of what remained of the patrimony of the Prince … whose great forefathers once owned the half of the barony, from the Red Bog to the Sea Coast” before the family’s dispossession under Cromwell (37).
Both British and Irish audiences during this period accepted the idea of an Ireland where the history of an ancient Irish title and the conquest that disrupted it might be read in every field and allotment. What Owenson romanticized, Irish nationalists advanced as fact: Irish land was teeming with a cultural memory of rights that could not be erased by the mere legalities of British rule. Many suggested that it was precisely the imposition of such legalities that kept alive possessive sentiments. Irish parliamentary member Isaac Butt, for instance, argued that the Irish idea that property had been taken from them was “kept up in the minds of the people by the acts of the present oppression” (48 n 1).
The rhetoric of dispossession, whether a product of authentic group memory or of state provocation, was employed by two very different groups in Ireland: the Anglo-Irish Protestant class, protesting that they had been robbed of an independent Irish parliament that was their right as property owners, and the primarily rural Irish Catholic underclass, who protested that their land had long ago been stolen from them by Protestant invaders. In both cases, state interference with property rights led each party to publicly assert property rights that existed prior to the state and that persisted outside of their legal channels. Having been dispossessed, the Irish framed themselves as connected to their property in a way that mere legal rights never could achieve. At the same time, this cathexis, taking hold as it did outside of legal channels, could never be legitimately defined as the exclusive experience of just one dispossessed group.
The notion that the Irish, especially Irish Catholics, felt an intense connection to the land was brought home by almost constant guerilla warfare carried on throughout the nineteenth century. The Irish Catholic secret societies, composed under various names—Defenders, Rockites, Ribbon Men—violently enforced an Irish moral economy of fair rents, fair practices by the landlords, and exemption from tithing to the Protestant Church of Ireland. While this resistance could be organized on a national level, as it was in the Tithe Wars and the Land War, its most striking feature was its widespread persistence orchestrated at the local level, even when no national framework supported it. Additionally, the second half of the century saw the development of the Irish resistance movement on the international stage. Emigrants who fled Ireland during the famine subsequently joined forces in North America as the Fenian Brotherhood, the overseas counterpart to the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Dublin, with both groups explicitly committed to acts of violence in the name of freeing Ireland from Britain’s rule. Their international campaigns—a plan to attack a Canadian military fort, an attempt to take Chester Castle in northern England and seize its arsenal, and the deadly bomb intended to free men imprisoned after the Chester plot was uncovered—only intensified a British perception of a fundamental and undisruptable Irish attachment to their homeland, one that did not disappear even when the Irish left Ireland.
As a result of this unrest, most Britons viewed Ireland as a place where life and property were singularly unsafe. But in its resistance to British law, Ireland proved a proprietary landscape exempt from many of the contradictions of British property at the time. Irish property rights still seemed to carry with them one of the most important functions of the Lockean ideal of property, an ideal that no longer seemed available in a commercial Britain: the function of marking off a zone into which the authority of the state could not enter. This privacy was all the more attractive because, in the Irish context, it also sidestepped the socially atomizing effects of British private property. The equation of the Irish property rights in land with a deeply felt Irish national character made land the site of a communal identity, not a barrier to it. But perhaps most attractive to the writers I examine was the perverse logic of inalienability they found in the Irish attachment to property. If Irish land could not be estranged from its owner by hundreds of years of British state interference, then surely it could be considered equally immune to the alienating forces of the marketplace. The entanglement of, on the one hand, Irish claims to land and, on the other hand, their experience of dispossession from it suggested to these authors that the colonized Irish land had become the sort of property that could never be given up. Because Irish attachment to land stood outside of legal definition and economic valuation, no legal or economic channels existed to make its loss a possibility. Irish property was property that could only be kept, not lost.
In my first chapter I show that Maria Edgeworth, in her Irish fiction, leaned heavily on this idea that Irish property could not be lost because its title could never be proven. In her Irish national tales Castle Rackrent (1801), Ennui (1809), and Ormond (1817), Edgeworth assigns the role of ruling Ireland not to the state but to those who own land. Rather than establishing a correspondence between land ownership and native attachment, or even land ownership and hard work and deservingness, Edgeworth applies the stereotype of native Irish attachment to the soil to the Anglo-Irish, suggesting that such attachment unites them to the Irish in a shared sense of dispossession. Nonetheless, as her final Irish novel, Ormond, shows, this is a strategy neither the Anglo-Irish nor Edgeworth herself can sustain in the face of increasing British state involvement in Irish lives.
While Edgeworth worked with a vision of property as a right that preexists the state, the journalism of John Stuart Mill championed the idea that the state could create rights in property and in fact should exercise such power in Ireland. Chapter 2 examines Mill’s writings on Ireland, in which he argues that the state can assuage an Irish sense of dispossession by sponsoring the redistribution of land in small lots that would be farmed by their proprietors. But even Mill, opponent of a conception of property as a natural right, imagines the space of such property to be so completely autonomous from state interference that it is animated by an almost supernatural “power of property.” Mill, in his advocacy of a purely expedient and state-defined assignment of property in land, imagines landed property to be a space the state might create but cannot control.
Chapters 1 and 2 examine two opposing visions of property that shaped discourse on Ireland. One vision imagined property to predate the state; the other imagined the state to create property rights in order to set up a zone from which it then excused itself. Chapter 3 demonstrates the attractions that Irish nationalist assertions of indigenous property rights had for those caught between two such opposing visions. The chapter offers a broad overview of several competing narratives about property in the land that shaped Victorian discourse. Property as a zone of individual freedom, the landed estate as the interconnected fabric from which society is built, and, finally, the notion of property as simply a bundle of rights all clashed at midcentury, making ownership in Britain seem just as unsatisfactory as dispossession. Focusing on the Young Ireland journalists also writing at midcentury, I argue that their imagination of the Irish proprietary landscape posed elegant, but exclusively Irish, solutions to the problems that troubled of British property. The chapter ends by examining the Irish Land Acts of 1871 and 1881, acts that legislators billed as restoring indigenous property practices to the Irish. Showing how advocates of the Irish Land Acts married the ideas of legal theorist Henry Sumner Maine to the nationalist rhetoric of an exceptionalist Ireland, the chapter argues that the idea of indigenous property as an experience available only to indigenous people was actually put to imperialist uses. In the Land Acts’ interpretation of indigenous property practices, Ireland might be owned in its particularly native way by the Irish, while still leaving ample room for its control by the British.
Chapter 4 argues that Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series of novels also imagines the Union of Britain and Ireland to be enabled by a dynamic in which one party has formal ownership while the other claims different, less defined rights to the same property. In Trollope’s fiction legal holders of property cannot be the enjoyers of their own property, and he depicts legal owners as needing to be joined to the dispossessed in order to have someone who might enjoy their property in their place. For Trollope, this dynamic serves as a model of how the state works. Integral to this vision is Trollope’s way of imagining the wife as responsible for enjoying property she can never own, a position he suggests is analogous to Ireland’s relationship to the British state.
Chapter 5 ends the book by considering the state’s definition of what cannot be property at all. Fiction by the Anglo-Irish George Moore and the English George Meredith deals with the state’s ability to keep objects, corporeal and incorporeal, from being private property. This new focus, I argue, was a response to the proposal of the first Home Rule Bill, which threatened that the British state might be dispossessed of Ireland altogether. Both supporters of Home Rule, Moore and Meredith invoke the state-defined zone of the public domain—that is, the legal space in which the state declares an object no longer individual property in order to guarantee its availability to all citizens—as the dominant trope through which to think about Ireland’s possible transition to independence. Public domain is also the device through which Moore and Meredith imagine that Britain’s sacrifice of dominion over Ireland will be made no sacrifice at all.
In choosing which texts would contribute to this narrative about state and property, I have relied on the criteria of subject matter over an author’s national identity. Quite often the authors I include have an unclear identity in relation to Irishness. Perhaps only the writers associated with the Young Ireland movement can unambiguously claim status as “authentically” Irish. The longtime collaboration of the Anglo-Irish landlord class with British rule has made their inclusion in the Irish canon a point of controversy. The extent to which Maria Edgeworth might have identified with British, Anglo-Irish, and Irish interests has been a hotly contested topic over the past two hundred years, with the fact of her subordinate gender position complicating whether or not one understands her as identified with landlords or their dependents.6 Moore’s status as Anglo-Irish landlord is equally problematic. His enthusiastic, although only intermittent participation in the late-century Celtic revival and the early days of the Abbey Theater would seem to identify him solidly with Irish cultural nationalism, but his long-term residence in London and his love and emulation of continental literature associates him with a more cosmopolitan disavowal of nationality altogether.7 Meredith, with no Irish ancestry at all, stubbornly aligned himself with a Celtic frame of mind, insisting that a Welsh lineage endowed him with a Celtic racial sympathy for the Irish; he also considered himself half-Irish because his mother, who had never been to Ireland, had the maiden name of MacNamara.8 It would be difficult to categorize Trollope or Mill as anything other than British, although Mill was asked to stand for parliamentary election for an Irish district after the publication of his journalism on the Irish land question.9 Mill’s possible Irish parliamentary career as the Irish Tenant League’s member suggests what I hope to establish in this book: that the British state enabled a system of identification in which being representative of Britishness or Irishness was not always a matter of being British or Irish. It is unquestionable that the deep divides of irreconcilable religious identities, markedly different cultural heritages, and the brutal unevenness in the distribution of material wealth barred a widespread identification between populations in Britain and Ireland. Nonetheless, the authors I include in this study all show that such an identification, grounded in a shared state rather than a shared nation, was at least cognizable to some in the nineteenth century.
In telling the story about Irish property in the British imagination, my intent has been to unearth some of the ways that the multinational structure of the United Kingdom shaped what we know as British literature. This project has been ably carried out on imaginative literature from the Romantic era. Katie Trumpener’s monumental Bardic Nationalism (1997) established the idea of a nineteenth-century trans-Celtic sphere of letters dominated by Irish national tales, Scottish historical novels, and Celtic folk songs and poetry. In the time since Trumpener’s book first appeared, research on Celtic influences in Romantic-era literature and culture has produced some of that field’s most important work. Ina Ferris’s The Romantic National Tale and the Question of Ireland (2002), Evan Gottlieb’s Feeling British: Sympathy and National Identity in Scottish and English Writing, 1707–1832 (2007), and Ian Duncan’s Scott’s Shadow (2007) have all explored the influence of Scottish- and Irish-identified writing on the formation of a large body of British literature. Little of that attention, however, has extended into the Victorian era. To date, Mary Jean Corbett’s exhaustive Allegories of Union in Irish and English Writing, 1790–1870 (2000) and Gordon Bigelow’s Fiction, Famine, and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (2003) remain the only full-length studies to take into account the impact of Ireland on British Victorian literature.10
The field of Irish studies, however, offers rich models for thinking about Ireland in the nineteenth-century British imagination. As Joe Cleary points out, “If colonial cultures are more dependent than metropolitan ones, they may sometimes be compelled for the same reason to be more innovative and experimental, less insular and more receptive to developments elsewhere” (57). Such has clearly been the case for several influential studies of the colonized culture of Ireland to whose innovations in placing Irish culture in a theoretical and global context I am indebted. Seamus Deane’s Strange Country (1997) has provided a masterful account of Enlightenment rationality by focusing on accounts of Irish culture as the Enlightenment’s other. David Lloyd’s essays have demonstrated that the Irish novel challenges some of our basic assumptions about the relationship between the novel and nationalism.11 Julia Wright’s Ireland, India, and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Literature (2007) overturns simple notions of an imperial metropole and colonized periphery through a careful excavation of Irish responses to a colonization of India in which the Irish identified both with colonized and colonizer. Works positioned squarely within Irish studies, such as Margot Backus’s The Gothic Family Romance (1999), Luke Gibbons’s Edmund Burke and Ireland (2003), and Heather Laird’s Subversive Law in Ireland, 1879–1920 (2005), have illuminated reasons why Irish property might matter to British literature.
The pattern my work uncovers—of a British state interested in treating property as something that was off limits to it, even if such property originated with state legislation and enforcement in the first place—accords with recent work done by Anne Frey, Lauren Goodlad, and Pam Morris. All three persuasively argue that the nineteenth-century British state was marked by habits of governmentality, Michel Foucault’s term for a modern strategy of the state in which to govern at all means to identify areas from which the exercise of government must be restrained.12 Frey, Goodlad, and Morris recruit Foucault’s term to challenge earlier Foucault-inspired literary and cultural criticism that tended to play up the pervasiveness and coherence of the powers of the British state. Instead, Goodlad’s and Frey’s work in particular foregrounds the necessary freedom required for governmental power to work, a freedom it paradoxically must work to create in order to exert any power on its subjects. The nineteenth-century writers featured in this book express such presuppositions when they concern themselves with property rights the state must create in order to respect. When Mill imagines the freedom of the peasant proprietor, made free by a property procured for him by the state; when Anthony Trollope imagines a dynamic in which legal owners decline to exercise their rights so that others may enjoy their property for them; even when Moore and Meredith imagine a zone of resources made inalienable through the state’s creation of a public domain, they all might be understood as trying to imagine what Foucault calls “this new art of government,” whose paradoxical task is “introducing additional freedom through additional control and intervention” (Birth of Biopolitics 64).
In focusing on property as the space of freedom created by the state, my study, however, departs from Goodlad’s and Frey’s focus on the pastoral methods involved in modern governmentality. Both Goodlad and Frey emphasize the role that a pastoral ethic plays in creating a state that both devises and commits to its own limits. This pastoral ethic is one that encourages leadership through an intimate knowledge of subjects. The modern “pastor” of the British state may or may not hold an official state position, but like the Christian Good Shepherd who knows each one of his flock individually, he (and it is usually a he) is responsible for acquiring personal knowledge of individuals and applying it for the good of the state. At the same time, this modern pastor must allow individuals to know him well enough so that he might provide them with guidance in the context of an individualized relationship.13
While the writers I examine sometimes draw for evidence on information collected in a pastoral mode, they do not imagine the state’s involvement with property to be pastoral in manner. In their telling, to assign property rights to a citizen of a state is not, for the most part, a way for the state to come to know its subjects; rather, it is a way for the state to become known to those subjects as the power that accords them freedom. The distribution and recognition of property rights become, in an age of governmentality, functions that do not lean heavily on pastoralism’s individuating tactics. The writers I examine do not uniformly treat owning property as an individuating condition, one that inevitably confers an atomizing singularity on its beneficiaries. In fact, they often highlight property’s functions of unification—unifying an owner with the ancestors and heirs to whom he owes the property, unifying an enjoyer of property with the legal owner, or unifying a legal owner with the state whose laws make him such.
The writing I examine exhibits at best a vexed relationship to the norm of the self-possessed individual as fully enclosed, fully autonomous, owing nothing, as C. B. Macpherson tells us, to society for the skills and capabilities he or she owns like free-market property. In my analysis such characters do appear, but they are something less than normative. Just as often as I find characters asserting their autonomy and anxiously cordoning off their individual personhood from the determining interference of others, I also find characters troubled by the contradictory metaphors of property. These characters are often alarmed by the experience of official ownership, reluctant to defend themselves as if they were individual property, and routinely glad to cede the enjoyment of their property, even in their own selves, to someone else. For these characters, property in one’s self, just like property in land, works best when it can be shared, sacrificed, returned, and poured into the pool of the public domain. All such proprietary strategies have their advantages.
Tracking the realist novel’s fictional incarnations of these uneasy property-owning individuals through the nineteenth century may also help us understand the sudden nonfictional late-century interest in communal rights to land and shared cultural property. Studies on the politics of liberalism in the late nineteenth century—Joanna Bailkin’s The Culture of Property (2004), Eugenio Biagini’s collection Citizenship and Community (1996), and Paul Readman’s Land and Nation in England (2008)—have begun to unearth a wide divergence between capitalism’s preference for perfectly individual, perfectly alienable, property and late-century British liberal politics, which began to take the side of collective property in land, in labor, and in cultural artifacts. To these studies this work adds a consideration of how ideas about property could not be separated from the multinational condition of the British state. It also adds a longer view in which to contextualize the liberal party’s late-century so-called conversion from the voice of individual property rights to the champion of collective and national property. Examining Britain’s long literary engagement with Ireland since the Union, one can discern a much more vexed liberal relationship to property much earlier in the century. While Victorian home visitors, journalistic investigators, and aspiring members of the clerisy provided a pastoral sense of individuation to the population, property may have been more available than we so far have allowed as a terrain on which one could project one’s desire for more communal experiences. Certainly, my examination of representations of Irish property reveal not a longing for the individualizing power of property but a most definite envy for its status as the stage for communal experiences—even the communal sense of dispossession.
Writing in the aftermath of the Indian mutiny, Lewis Pelly argued in the Westminster Review that the English were prone to feel more guilt than was warranted over their treatment of India, protesting, “We have taken no man’s estate—filched no man’s property—invaded no man’s conscience.” His argument indicates the extent to which a British sense of what constituted a legitimate and illegitimate state action still depended on the idea of respect for property in land—a respect that in his formulation is equal to respect for a man’s own conscience. But coming as it does in the middle of a long history of the assignment and reassignment of land rights undertaken by the East India Company, it also rings more than a bit disingenuous. If one first uses the law to define a tax collector as an owner (as Pelly asserts Cornwallis did in late-eighteenth-century India) and then revokes that law in order to recognize a village community as having a collective attachment to the soil, slightly other than proprietary in nature (as land resettlements in British India did in the mid-nineteenth-century), has no property been taken? If a government can simply reengineer the rights and responsibilities that are grouped under the heading of property, then can any limit exist to the government’s assigning of and revoking rights? And if a government can assign and revoke rights in property, then what was the ultimate end of a state that in Britain, at least, had always defined itself as existing primarily for the protection of property? How could Pelly have made such a claim in anything other than bad faith? My aim in this book is to suggest that Pelly’s claim—and even more importantly, a host of claims about British respect for Irish property rights—clearly served a self-interested function. However, their immediate sense of self-interest might have had less to do with keeping the empire profitable and under control and more to do with trying to stabilize their own sense of how they hoped that property might work at home.