At Home in the Public Domain
George Moore’s Drama in Muslin, George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways, and the Intellectual Property of Union
By the 1880s, British thinking about property had largely transitioned from an assumption that property was a right that existed prior to the law to an assumption that property rights were created and defined by law. Commentators on a wide range of issues showed an increasing acceptance of the idea that the state might create, reassign, or even entirely extinguish rights to property, in the name of the public good. In keeping with this development, liberals and radicals interested in land reform increasingly made the argument that property rights in land could only be allotted by the state. Because of the precedent of the Irish land acts and agitation for land reform within Britain, this logic also seeped into discussions of copyright protection for intellectual property. Proponents for limited copyright reasoned that just as the state might have the right to reassign ownership of land for the public good, so too might the state have the right to limit individual property in copyright for the sake of a wider public domain.
This idea of the public domain—a space in which the state intervenes in order to suspend the rules of private property—preoccupies the two authors I examine in this chapter. George Moore’s Drama in Muslin (1886) and George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways (1885) both imagine a space of ideas that can belong to no one individual as a space of salvation for their two heroines. But the two also tell their stories against the backdrop of Irish agitation for land rights. In doing so, I argue, both authors respond to proposals of Home Rule made in the same years. Both Meredith and Moore came out explicitly in support of Home Rule, and their preoccupation with the public domain suggests one way they might imagine even that measure as a sacrifice without the threat of a real loss. After all, when an author gives up property in his or her ideas, the sacrifice is one that leads to a fuller community access, one from which even the author is not barred. Both Moore and Meredith imply that giving up Ireland to Home Rule simply will make Britain like an author out of copyright. Ireland will persist as a part of the intellectual ether of Britain, regardless of its immediate political configuration. By seeing Ireland as always in the British public domain, the authors envision Ireland’s connection to Britain as always presided over by the British state, a state that limits individual property rights in order to protect a public domain belonging to everyone.
Land and Copyright
Jordanna Bailkin, in her work on the early-twentieth-century development of the concept of cultural property, notes that the years 1870–1914 marked a radical unsettling of “ideas about the relationship between property and citizenship in Britain” (11). She points out as a symptom of this shake-up the founding of citizens’ groups devoted to redefining or reforming land law—the Liberty and Property Defence League (founded in 1882), the Free Land League (founded in 1885), the Land Law Reform League (founded in 1880), the Metropolitan Public Gardens Association (founded in 1882), the Land Nationalization Society (founded in 1880), the English Land Restoration League (founded in 1883).
For Bailkin’s purpose, the formation of these groups mark a crucial moment in art history. Their activism toward redefining property rights in land, she argues, contributed to an environment in which one could think of a nation claiming property rights in cultural objects originating within its borders. Lobbying for the preservation of commons, the creation of urban public spaces, the abolition of primogeniture, the creation of a central land registry, or the retrenchment of landlord duties, their land-based activism, as Bailkin suggests, created the preconditions for new conceptual approaches to culture as collective property.
The moment Bailkin identifies is one in which the concept of property was pulled in two directions in the United Kingdom. More strictly defined as entirely individual and freely alienable in English law, property in land under Irish law became more susceptible to dual interests and dual ownership. The United Kingdom had witnessed several legislative interventions that insisted on the absolute and individual nature of property rights. The Married Women’s Property Act of 1882 affirmed, even if it did not entirely enforce, the notion that property was at heart an individual, not a family, right. The 1882 Settled Land Act dismantled many of the checks on alienability that had plagued entailed properties in England. Under the terms of the act, the current proprietor, known as the “tenant for life,” had full powers to sell the estate or to work other profitable but permanent changes on the land. But these two legislative assertions of the individualized nature of even landed property were balanced by the Irish Land Act of 1881, the act that had generalized to all of Ireland the principle that a tenant had some form of proprietary right to the land he leased. The Crofters Act of 1886 instituted similar terms for tenants in the Highlands of Scotland and was passed with justifications almost identical to those that surrounded the Irish Land Acts.1
In the end, the effect of this spate of communal property “restored” in the name of historicism was not safely quarantined to the Celtic zones of the British Isles. The property activist groups whose foundings dotted the 1880s drew on the deep history of English property law to argue for state intervention into English land rights, even when their most immediate demands were for the extension of absolute individual rights to property in land.2 Arthur Arnold’s Free Land League, for instance, was founded to advocate for the abolition of primogeniture and the easier sale of land, but the group also maintained that the state nonetheless had a dormant “joint interest” in the land. Arnold argued that “[t]he Land belongs to the nation, to the state, to the people,” a principle proven by the historical fact that English land law recognizes no absolute title to land, all land being held mediately from the crown.3 John George Shaw-Lefevre’s earlier Commons Preservation Society (1865) drew on historicist approaches in their successful bid to keep Epping Forest, 3,000 acres of wooded land near London, from being enclosed by private owners. Ultimately, the society won their case by proving not only that inalienable usage rights had been held immemorially by the commoners living adjacent to the forest but also that, since all forest lands belonged formally to the crown, enclosure of the forest was an infringement on what was really royal property.4
This agitation for redistributed property rights in land had the surprising effect of settling controversies in intellectual property law. Paul Saint-Amour argues that it is in the nineteenth century that “copyright law and its model of individual creation transcended the status of an argument and became consecrated and codified as a dominant discourse” (14). The idea that an author had property in literary work that was absolute, but good only for a limited amount of time, had become simply common sense to a broad swath of the public. In this section, I briefly examine some of the discussions about copyright that Saint-Amour has already mined in his deft analysis of the hegemonic status of authorial property in the last third of the century. I retread this ground to examine how simultaneous legislation in land law affected assumptions about the author as proprietor. What I find is that the author is unquestionably assumed to be owner of literary property but that authors themselves, frequently drawing on what they saw as precedents in land law, are much more willing to concede that such a right, far from being a natural and absolute right prior to all social agreement, is entirely dependent on legislative construction. This willingness to see authorship as constructed by the state leads to a more vivid imagination of what is also constructed by the state as not private property: the public domain of ideas. In an age of agitation for footpath access for the lower classes and commons restoration for the agricultural laborer, the public domain had available conceptual models on which it could be based other than the free marketplace of ideas by which it was characterized during the height of free-trade agitation in the 1840s. In the 1880s, the public domain could also be imagined as a commons, a space immemorially available, preserved from the propertizing regimes of the free market by a state whose mandate was to look after the public good and act as trustee for its communal inheritance.
During the course of the century that Saint-Amour terms the “adolescence” of intellectual property, the idea of copyright underwent two major interrogations. The first proceeded from 1837 to 1842, when, under noisy protest from free-trade advocates, the copyright length was extended to forty-two years, or seven years after the author’s death, whichever was longer. The second occurred from 1876 to 1878, when, prompted by the fact that international copyright law made British-authored books cheaper in the United States, India, and Canada, a parliamentary commission was established to look into whether copyright was even the most appropriate and enforceable form for rewarding authorial labor.5 Both episodes framed the dispute as an argument about the comparative value of two goods: the public good to be derived from cheap and easily reproduced literature versus the expedience and/or moral obligation to reward an author for his or her labor. Both the first and second copyright disputes ended in an affirmation of the author’s right to enjoy property in his (in parliamentary debates the author was, despite all evidence to the contrary, exclusively male) creation, for at least a limited amount of time. Both disputes essentially dismissed the suggestion that to legalize an author’s right to profit from his work was to rob the public of access to ideas. However, the later controversy over copyright differed crucially from the early 1840s debate. First, the later debate more readily integrated the idea that authorial property in literature was entirely a creation of the state. Second, it articulated a more comprehensive picture of the relationship between the author and the public domain.
In the later debates, the notion that an author enjoyed only state-created rights to literary property was more acceptable, especially to those who had already argued, in the debates over landed property, that property in the end is purely an affair of expedience on which the state must deliberate. Commenting on the question of copyright, Matthew Arnold quite freely admits that “there is no question that [an author] can have a right in his productions so far as the law may choose to create one for him,” but he also insists that “an author has no natural right to a property in his production.” In fact, no one, whether author or mere citizen has “a natural right to anything whatever” even to what “he may produce or acquire” (“Copyright” 322). He concedes that humans show an instinct for property, and that society has a tendency to respect this instinct where it is possible and promotes the public good. But he dismisses the arguments of those who want to settle whether literary property is or is not “property in itself.” Arnold admonishes them that “property is the creation of law” only (323).
Arnold’s convictions are not far removed from his verdicts on land, both English and Irish. Arguing for changes in land law in England, he notes, “I cannot … perceive that man is really conscious of any abstract natural rights at all. … All rights are created by law and are based on expediency. … Property is created and maintained by law” (“Equality” 46). He cites both the more abstract John Stuart Mill and the decidedly historicist Maine in asserting that rights of bequest are rather new to modern times and not inalienably a right of any proprietor (47). He follows a similar line of argument in an essay anticipating the Second Irish Land Act. While he disapproves of any proposal that will legalize property arrangements in Ireland not also legalized in Britain, he proves equally hostile to those who oppose changes in Irish land law based on the argument that “property is sacred” (290). Such arguments never seem to apply, he notes, when the English discuss Henry VIII’s expropriation of monastic property. So confident is Arnold in his dismissal of any natural basis to property rights that he recommends the wholesale expropriation of irresponsible landlords in Ireland. Like the monks whose “irregularities and vices … struck at the root of social order” in Henry VIII’s time, the Irish landlords, “with their harshness, vices, and neglect of duties,” must similarly be dispossessed, purely for “reason of state” (291).
Even when they were not so extreme in their enthusiasm for landlord expropriation, plenty of voices had spoken out in the 1860s and 1870s on Irish land reform and made familiar the argument that property, rather than being a natural right, was simply an expedient arrangement enforced by the state. The formulation of this argument at first depended on the exceptional nature of land, which, having been made by no one, could not be owned on the basis of an owner’s right to the fruits of his labor. The Westminster Review review of John Stuart Mill’s “England and Ireland” argued that a government can “act as a passive trustee for the landed property of the whole nation” and that individual property in land was only enjoyable for a limited time, held “through the temporary forbearance of the State” (“Modern Notions” 178). A few years earlier, the economist T. E. Cliffe Leslie, championing the legitimacy of a shared tenant right to the landlord’s property in Ireland, had argued that landlords were mistaken in believing “that the law has conferred on them the same absolute dominion over the land in which they have estates, as traders have over their goods.” Mixing historical with theoretical justifications for his argument against a natural right to property in land, Leslie reminds landlords that “the law of the country has maintained from the Conquest that fundamental distinction between property in land, and all other kinds of property” (221). After running through a brief history of English land law from before the Norman Conquest to the present day, he adds the more abstract argument that “Mr. Mill finds a natural claim on the part of the state for the public to the absolute ownership of land, in the fact that man did not make it” (223). On both these bases he grounds his argument that land “belongs by law to the State” and that “[n]o man is in law the absolute owner of lands. He can only hold an estate in them” (221).
While the arguments themselves were controversial, they had already legitimated one of the central transformations of nineteenth-century Britain: the creation of the rail system. As historian R. W. Kostal notes, the private parliamentary acts necessary to create railway companies necessarily assigned to the company the right to expropriate land that otherwise could not have been transferred or sold by the owner subject to the laws of entail. While owners had to be compensated for the railway’s taking of their land, and more often than not railway companies negotiated more than fair prices with the largest landholders in order to win their goodwill, the parliamentary acts that brought railway companies into being allowed them power to force an unwilling landowner to sell his land at price determined by an outside agency. The mass land transfer that followed upon the railway mania in the 1840s, Kostal argued, had no precedent for its scale or its speed. As early as the 1840s, rail trade publications were noting with satisfaction that “[t]he tenure by which all land is held in Great Britain … is The Public Good. … The proprietors of land in England are only perpetual stewards of the soil for the benefit of the people who dwell there on” (qtd in Kostal 179).
For Kostal, such expressions within the rail trade indicate that in practice, if not in publicly accepted theory, Britain already had in place a state that allotted and took away property rights in the name of the public good. The accumulated experience of rail developers and the rising profile of land reformers combined to make such assumptions familiar enough to be cited by 1876, the year the copyright commission, convened by the House of Commons, began its investigation into the status of copyright. Commentators on the commission found a common ground, in fact, between discussions of authorial property and property in land. J. A. Froude, reviewing the arguments contained in the commission’s reports ventriloquizes “men of letters” who argue that the fact of copyright’s expiration does not prove that copyright is no property at all. He answers for them that “[i]f the State, out of consideration for the public good, has decided that [copyright] shall be [an author’s] only for his lifetime and for a few years beyond, the State has done no more than it has done with the most solid of all properties, land.” He foretells, “A time may come when all land shall be held under the Crown under an expiring lease. … It will not be the less a man’s property as long as the State allows it to him. A limited tenure may be as complete while it lasts as a tenure in perpetuity” (“Report” 298).
The journalist and novelist Grant Allen also invokes arguments about limited rights to land in his discussion of copyright, but he uses these arguments to suggest that, since intellectual property admits of the fullest, most absolute rights of ownership, it is actually the model of all other property. “The ownership of land is a mere convention,” he argues on the grounds that no one can claim a full title to anything they have not made themselves. For that reason, “property is really and naturally property in proportion as it owes little to the raw material and much to the labour bestowed upon it,” with the ultimate model of such property being the “literary and artistic work,” which outstrips all other property for its spare dependence on raw material (355). But even in asserting the absolute, perpetual nature of an author’s property in his work, a right that law neither creates nor destroys but merely recognizes or violates, Allen nonetheless naturalizes the idea that all objects of property are, to some extent, mixed with “raw material,” something the producer has not himself produced. Advocating that only the state has the right to take on the role of landlord, Allen also argues that no one produces anything without taking at least something out of this state-owned zone of commonly held property. Land includes not just soil, he reminds his reader: “Wood, water, coal, iron, metals, beasts, building materials, and all the various objects which we use in every industrial art, are all ultimately derived from ‘land’” (353). Given the list, it is difficult to avoid the implication that books, too, ultimately come from the land, to which Allen says the state has the ultimate right.
It is this notion that the state should be involved in creating, enforcing, and, even if need be, ending, property rights in land, that eased the contradictions of thinking about copyright as property, but property with a limited lifespan. Thomas Farrer, one of the copyright commissioners who suggested that copyright might be more properly treated as a temporary monopoly, on the order of a patent, misjudges how widespread this idea had become when he argues that the understanding of copyright as property required belief in two mutually exclusive ideas. The first is that an author has “an absolute right” not just to the physical object he produces in his literary labor but also to its form, and that “this right is as unqualified in its nature, extent, and duration as that of any owner of any property whatsoever” (837). This first idea coexists with the contradictory second idea, Farrer argues, that “the author has no right over his idea or over the form of his idea after it has left his own mind or his own closet and has been given to the public” (838). But Farrer’s polarization of ideas, in which one either had absolute and total control over an object, and thus could call it property, or only a limited right to it, and thus could claim no property to it at all, was already outdated, ignoring as it did decades of discussion about the limited rights any landowner might claim to his property. Farrer found himself on the losing end of an argument that an author should be rewarded through a royalty system, rather than subjected to the fiction of authorial property.
I do not wish to overstate my argument. The notion of an author who has a natural right to profit from the work, and to control the work’s reproduction by virtue of having created it, was very much in operation during discussions of copyright in 1876 through 1878, as it still is today.6 However, alongside those notions, the 1876–78 copyright debates featured many statements accommodating the idea that copyright amounted to a limited, state-created right in authorial property, rather than a natural right. And these statements more often than not referred to the partial ownership of land, allotted by the state, as the precedent for thinking of such rights as property. “We forbid entails beyond certain limits, we prevent the accumulation of property after death, we take away a man’s land whether he wishes to sell it or not, if the land is required for public purposes,” Edward Dicey says by way of preamble to his more expansive argument that “there is no abstract principle or standard by which you can determine what degree of protection should be granted to property in general.” Thus, the discussion about copyright is simply a question “of degree, not of principle” (127, 130).
This willingness to make intellectual property a question “of degree, not of principle,” also enabled an approach to thinking about the author’s relationship to the public domain that was not simply one of competing interests, in which an author’s work either belonged exclusively to him by virtue of it being entirely his creation or belonged exclusively to the public domain because the nature of the world of ideas admitted of no individual property at all. Instead, there were more moderate versions of authorship that departed from a model of self-generated originality. Froude willingly dispenses with the ideal of the entirely autonomous author: “When all is said, an author’s work is but partially his own. His ideas and sentiments he has in common with his age. His facts are generally collected by the labour of others. How much of any book is the author’s own it is impossible to say” (300). The value of an original piece of literature, he argues, was not in its having been irreducibly original but in articulating the ideas that “lie undefined in all men’s minds.” Froude explains, “The man of genius sees clearly what others half perceive at moments and lose again. He seizes upon it and fixes it in a shape visible to all, and the rest of us ever after are put in practical possession of the treasures of our own minds” (337). In Froude’s vision, the work of the author is pulled from the public domain, “seized” for a moment, and then released again.
When the narrative of authorial property’s release into the public domain was assumed to be a narrative of an absolute and natural right given up, its sacrificial valence was unmistakable. An author gives up his creation for the good of the community, sometimes even at the founding moment of the community. Trevor Ross points out that the late-eighteenth-century decision to limit the time during which copyright could be enforced was also the decision that formalized an idea of a reading public who could claim a national literature as their heritage. The personage of “the common reader,” he notes, first emerges in literature that calls for the defeat of perpetual copyright (16). In the most extreme formulations of the public domain as a nationally available commons, opponents of copyright argued that only literature written for no reward at all would be of a high enough quality to be truly beneficial to the British public. Only a sacrificial disavowal of remuneration on the part of the author could create a worthy national literature.
But by the 1870s, once the notion of the state’s involvement with property had become a familiar, if not entirely uncontroversial, way to think about property in land, the concept of the public domain was less susceptible to sacrificial terms. Instead of the author being called upon to give up everything for the public good, an author under limited copyright might trust the state to weigh his interests in balance with the public’s. In suggestions that the state might take on the role of landlord for the entire United Kingdom, guarding the land from complete susceptibility to free-market alienation, lay a model for the state to act as a trustee that guaranteed communal property’s accessibility and required sacrifice from no one. After all, as the oft-cited argument went, did the state not fairly compensate landed proprietors for the land it commandeered for railways, rather than requiring a full sacrifice? After the passage of both Irish Land Acts, the state had become the entity that could allot rights to both tenant and landlord, and thus the entity that could mediate the competing needs of public domain and individual author. The state imagined to have the right to confiscate land from the (properly compensated) proprietor was the state that could be imagined as doing the same, in the most public-minded way, for the literary author.
The state, more solidly imagined as arbiter of authorial property rights, then, could be the entity that guarded against a too-total sacrifice on the part of any author. That is the logic put forth by both the novels I examine in this chapter. Telling the story of two fictional authors—not insignificantly, women authors—whose literary accomplishments are portrayed not as works of self-generated genius but as straightforward takings from a public domain, both novels narrate the authors as avoiding the life of sacrifice that their situations seem to demand. Both novels, explicitly concerned with the injustice women suffer in a patriarchal society, imagine the public domain of ideas as a safe space for women, one not entirely equivalent to the free-market economy in which a too-public woman might be mistaken as prostituting herself in the form of her literary works. Instead, these books present their two female authors as taking from a common fund of ideas, protected by the state, rather than depleting their own selves in the act of writing.
Both Meredith and Moore freight their plots of antisacrifice with the politics of Ireland in an era of Home Rule agitation and British-sponsored Home Rule bills. Certainly if Moore and Meredith were motivated to imagine women saved from a life of sacrifice, they had even more motive to imagine the Irish as saved from a similar life. The nationalist movement in Ireland took shape under a sacrificial logic in which nationalist martyrs would commit themselves to privation, prison, and even death in order to found an independent Ireland. By crafting plots of antisacrificial logic against an Irish backdrop, Meredith and Moore flatten out a rhetoric of nationalist martyrdom. Instead, they present Ireland as both producer and consumer of a pool of common ideas that Britain and Ireland share, a pool of which Ireland will always remain a part, regardless of Home Rule. Despite the pro–Home Rule stance of both authors, the books imagine the persistence of Union in structuring the public domain. The copyright debates of the decade before the proposal of the first Home Rule bill underscored one thing with clarity: that Ireland was, if nothing else, a sharer in Britain’s copyright regulations and thus part of the British public domain. This was not the case with Canada or India, where cheap editions of British texts from America flooded the market. American disregard for British copyright constituted different publics in Canada and India, whose access to literature differed widely from the reading public in the British Isles. But in Ireland, as in Britain, the same rules of copyright held throughout the nineteenth century, constituting the entire United Kingdom as one public domain. Meredith’s and Moore’s novels might be thought of as imaginatively seeking to keep Ireland there.
Drama in Muslin: Writing from the Public Domain
While George Moore was not a prominent commenter on copyright, he was, even at the beginning of his career, very savvy about the ambivalent propertization that copyright afforded an author. The exclusive property of copyright, he knew, could be property for more than just the author. Newly returned to the United Kingdom from almost a decade in bohemian Paris, Moore in the early 1880s vowed to be “Zola’s ricochet in England,” a champion both of Émile Zola’s naturalist style and a translator of his actual work.7 The mutual copyright treaties among European nations allowed Moore to claim his own proprietary interest in Zola’s work, as the exclusive translator of it in Britain. Moore insinuated himself into Zola’s life with the proposal to represent his literary interests in England, a proposal that also advanced Moore’s literary interests. Returning from France, where he had discussed business matters with Zola, Moore published “A Visit to M. Zola” in the St James Gazette (82).
But Moore, in his run-ins with Mudie’s Circulating Library, was also on the receiving end of the ways that nonowners could block proprietary rights. His emulation of Zola’s naturalist style in his first novel, A Modern Lover (1883), earned him a reputation for indecency that met with a chilly reception at Mudie’s, the largest purchaser of triple-decker novels in the United Kingdom. Mudie’s often bought out entire first runs of novels for their system of national lending libraries. A sizable purchase of one’s novel by Mudie’s often insured its long-term success. Readers who encountered the original at the lending library were often buyers of later cheap one-volume editions of the novel. Rather than exercising a monopoly on production, Mudie’s exercised a monopoly on consumption (a monopsony, in economic terms). Without Mudie’s patronage, a novel had very few other channels for sales.8
Outraged that Mudie’s had decided to buy only fifty copies of his first novel, because of—according to Moore—complaints about the book they had fielded from “two ladies in the country,” Moore launched an attack against the lending library. He published his second novel A Mummer’s Wife (1884) only in a cheap one-volume edition, hoping to bypass lending library patronage altogether. He let loose an invective against Mudie’s in the form of an article, “A New Censorship of Literature,” in the Pall Mall Gazette. In it he praises recent articles on the reform of English fiction written by Walter Besant and Henry James, but he foretells that such advice can never be taken while Mudie’s controls all literature with their “absolute dictatorship,” a combined practice of censorship and undue influence over publishing practices. The piece simultaneously attacks Mudie’s for impeding Moore’s authorial autonomy and announces Moore’s recuperation of the same—he reports that sales of his newly released novel in one volume has been met with wild success. He then turns upside down the hierarchy Grant Allen suggested, in which the author of imaginative literature is most owner of his own work because he is least indebted to anyone for its raw material. Instead, Moore suggests that the current state of publishing yields the most freedom to authors who take freely from the public domain of ideas. With his commitment to one-volume publishing, Moore predicts, “I shall now, therefore, for the future enjoy the liberty of speech granted to the journalist, the historian, and the biographer, rights unfortunately in the present day denied to the novelist” (2).
The sort of property copyright was for George Moore—susceptible to others’ claims of interest in it, in danger of control by consumers, only controllable if the owner compromises in the amount of profit he will realize from it—was not entirely different from the sort of property that land was for him, as an Anglo-Irish landlord in the middle of the Land War. The Moore estate was in County Mayo, ground zero for Land War agitation, and its tenants combined in a refusal to pay all rent. After a decade as an expatriate in France, Moore returned to Ireland in 1879 when the agent who looked after the estate resigned, announcing that any collection of rent was impossible. In his memoirs Moore records his reaction as one of outrage at having been robbed, layered with an ironic recognition of tenant rights to the resources on which he lived. How dare they, he asked, “refuse to starve that I may not be deprived of my demi-tasse at Totroni’s?” (qtd in Frazier 65).
At the time he was composing his third novel, A Drama in Muslin (1885), land and copyright were not entirely separate in Moore’s mind. The term “nursemaid” is one he uses to condemn both Mudie’s, the infantilizing self-appointed moral guardian of the British reading public, and the Land League, the corrupt instigators of community violence.9 Both organizations exercised a monopolistic pressure that allowed them to fix prices (on novels purchased from publishers, on rent) and attenuate the legal owner’s full access to profit in his own property. But if both Mudie’s and the Land League are in some ways barriers to Moore’s experience of full ownership, the implicit solution he proffers in Drama is not the restoration or enforcement of absolute individual property but rather an engagement with forms of creation that are always somewhat communal, always dependent on a pool of property never properly belonging to any one person. By celebrating such forms of creation against the backdrop of the Land Wars, Moore also offers his readers a vision of government, whether the official government at Westminster or the informal state created by the Land League, as always constituted by its impulse to relieve owners of the unbearable burdens of enforcing individual rights to private property.
The saving powers of the public domain are crucial to his heroine, Alice Barton. A morally serious but iconoclastic young woman, recently returned from convent school to her family home, an Anglo-Irish estate in West Ireland, at the height of the Land War, Alice feels out of place among her female friends who are primarily concerned with clothes, balls, and landing a husband. She can anticipate only a useless life for herself, as a member of an upper class superfluous to its country and as a woman destined only for a marriage market bereft of men. Unsurprisingly for a late Victorian fictional heroine, Alice finds that professional writing offers her a way out of the destiny she anticipates for herself as “a poor plain girl whom no one would ever think of marrying” (203).
What is surprising is that Alice’s vocation succeeds precisely to the extent that it fails to follow the model of author as romantic genius. The book opens with a graduation performance of a play she has written herself. The work takes its cue from its schoolgirl audience, telling the tale of a prince who takes a beggar-woman for his bride; it also takes its plot from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ballad “The Beggar Maid” (1842), which itself was taken from Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient Poetry (1765), a work that gained its reputation by presenting its poetry as part of a literary heritage so long in circulation that it already belonged to its audience, even before they consumed it. This is the sort of promiscuous borrowing from both audience identity and prior literature for which the novel rewards Alice. Instead of being reformed into a more original and mature writerly identity as she begins to write for public consumption, she meets with success by taking her own work from all available sources. Her first attempt at marketable literature, “The Diary of a Plain Girl—Notes and Sensations,” simply records her observations of Dublin during the social season there. The novel’s narrator praises Alice’s literary efforts for their distance from originality: “She saw life from a normal and sensible standpoint, and her merit lay not in the peculiarity or the keenness of her vision, but in the clearness and the common sense she infused into the writing” (233).
The narrator’s praise for Alice’s clear-eyed writing, the fact that “the artistic question troubled her little,” is in no way a contemptuous portrayal of feminine writing as always insufficiently original. To the contrary, her mentor, the English journalist and novelist Mr. Harding, models a writing practice that is far from imaginative creation. He explains to her that he has come to Dublin for the purpose of writing a series of articles on the current state of Ireland. He plans to “take a series of representative characters—the landlord, the grazier, the tenant farmer, the moonlighter, the parson, the priest—and tell their history, their manner of life, and their aims and ambitions” (196). After he has farmed them out in individual sketches to periodicals, he plans to publish them in book form. His model of writing—taken from reality, adapted for the market, and explicitly constructed around “representative” figures—offers very little room for the imaginative exercise of the authorial mind. Indeed, his talents in the novel are portrayed not as an eye for the singular but rather a talent for understanding the general, the type. He first catches Alice’s attention by telling her, rather than asking her, that she is staying at the Dublin hotel in order to attend the Lord Lieutenant’s Drawing Room, an annual event akin to the British presentation at court. When she asks how he knows, he claims a knowledge of generalities. It is, he says, the “the natural course of events: a young lady leaves school, she spends four or five months at home, and then she is taken to the Lord Lieutenant’s drawing room” (147).
So invested is Harding in types and representative figures that he barely seems to exist as an individual. Despite the weeks they spend together in Dublin, Alice realizes that she never knew “the real man,” and the reader is left unsure as to whether there is a real man to be known (188). Instead, he is described as a “literary shopboy” who “flaunted samples of everything he had in stock” for Alice, a man who “paraded his ideas and his sneers as the lay figures [ie, dummies used for modeling] did the mail armour on the castle stairway” (154, 188). For Harding there is no intrinsic connection between internal powers of creation and any of the ideas he purveys, either in writing or in conversation. Taking her cue from him, Alice peddles her own experience not as peculiarly her own but coming merely from a plain girl whose specific identity is irrelevant.
Moore drafts both Alice and Harding into a literary practice that he himself puts into action in his novel, presenting his novel as in no way original. The ripped-from-the-headlines quality of his novel is just one of the many strategies that Moore uses to distance his story from original creation. By the time Moore wrote Drama in Muslin it was quite common practice in the historical novel to peg fictional events to real dates and events in the historical world. Moore, however, did so with a journalistic immediacy, dating his plots to quite recent developments in the four years before his book’s publication. As if to distance any event from authorial creation and associate it more firmly with mere reporting of public events, Moore often positions a copy of the Freeman’s Journal in a character’s lap or on a breakfast table in order to introduce any political discussion of the Irish situation. He is equally meticulous about giving exact dates to events, subordinating his own plotting to the historical plot of the Land Wars in Ireland. Talk of a potential Coercion Act, which would suspend civil rights in Ireland, of the impending Land Act, of the Phoenix Park murders, of the brief lull in the Land War at the end of 1883 all punctuate the marital misadventures of his female characters. At the same time, his descriptions often feature the prefatory tick “you see,” which implies his writing is no more than a repetition of the reader’s own sensory experience: “You see a huge shouldered mother, a lean-faced crone, and a squatting tailor …; you see a couple of girls, maids of all work, who smile and call to the dripping coachmen,” he reports of the scene just outside Dublin Castle on the night of Alice’s debut, adding a couple of pages later, “By your side a weak girl is being driven along by a couple of police officers” (170, 174).
This presentation of authorship as mere reporting of what is already perceived, simply borrowing from events that are part of the public record, can be traced to Moore’s interest in a naturalist literary style that treats individuals as products of their environment. His Darwin-inflected insistence on types and representative figures drains the characters of particularity and as a consequence implies that no authorial originality went into creating them. Rather than being an unusual heroine, Alice is, the narrator insists, “a representative woman of 1885”; she and her friend Cecelia, despite all appearances of anomaly, are “curiously representative … of this last quarter of the nineteenth century” (228, 196). As a representative woman, the product of no autonomous creation, Alice claims no autonomy even for her own subjectivity. As she sets out to write her first piece for publication, she explains to her friend Cecelia that “conscience is no more than indirect laws—the essence of the laws transmitted by heredity.” Far from claiming originality for her thinking, Alice merely sees it as having been produced by her situation. The narrator chimes in to reinforce Alice’s lack of volition in her own authorship, indeed a lack of volition in all authorship: “The aesthetic and philosophic aspirations of an epoch—ideas which we believe to have been the invention of individuals are but the intellectual atmosphere of that epoch breathed in greater or less quantities by all” (228).
Alice and Harding, then, might be exemplary vessels for “the intellectual atmosphere of the epoch” by virtue of their recognition that they truly cannot call anything their own. Alice is acutely aware of the lack of charms she has to trade on the marriage market. Harding introduces himself as a writer without a claim to anything Irish at all that might give him particular business in Ireland. “As I do not possess a foot of land,” he explains to Alice, “my claim to collect rent would rest on even a slighter basis than that of the landlords.” This dispossession has its advantages since, as Harding reports, the result is that “I really feel safer in Ireland than elsewhere.” He then adds, with knowing provocation, “Besides I am interested in agrarian outrage and the non-payment of rent” (148). Harding’s “interests” allow him to inhabit a position of dispossession similar to that occupied by the impoverished Irish peasants. In Moore’s view of Ireland, journalist, unmarried Anglo-Irish women, and the peasants of the Irish Land War are all joined in a mutual lack of property.
State Intervention and the End of Purity
One of the hallmarks of this novel of the Irish marriage market in the time of the Land War is Moore’s ambivalent allegorizing of his young female characters as both like the oppressed Irish peasants and like the helpless Anglo-Irish. At first his allegory seems to be that the girls he describes are emblematic of the general thoughtlessness and helplessness of the Anglo-Irish. Describing a Sunday on which the Land League holds a mass meeting and the young women plan a ball, the narrator offers a rather damning double picture in which “the peasants tramped away to the meeting where they would lay claim to the land that they tilled; the young ladies would soon return to their fine house to consider the skirts they would wear at the ball” (72). When offering free, indirect discourse on Anglo-Irish reaction to the Land War, the narrator seems to conflate the viewpoint of the women and the entire class: “An entire race, a whole caste, saw themselves driven out of their soft, warm couches of idleness, and forced in to the struggle for life. The prospect appalled them … What could they do with their empty brains? What could they do with their feeble hands?” (95).
But the allegory also swings the other way. In explaining his choice to focus on the story of young women’s search for husbands in the midst of the Land War, the narrator explains, “The history of a nation as often lies hidden in social wrongs and domestic griefs as in the story of revolution, … and who would say which is of the most vital importance—the thunder of the people against the oppression of the Castle, or the unnatural sterility, the cruel idleness of mind and body of the muslin martyrs?”—“muslin martyrs” being the author’s favorite term for his female characters (203). These “martyrs,” like the nationalist martyrs who fight the Land War, seem at times to have extraordinary powers to bring down aristocrats. When the penniless Violet, after a merciless campaign waged by both her and her mother, charms a debt-saddled marquis into a proposal of marriage, he wanders the streets of Dublin for hours afterward, stunned that he has passed up the chance to marry a wealthy woman whose money might help save his family estate. His capitulation to the charms of one of these “muslin martyrs” evokes in him a sense of the impending collapse of Ireland’s current social order. Passing O’Connell’s statue, he reflects that “this was the man who had done the work; it was he who had withdrawn the key-stone of the edifice, soon to fall and crush all beneath its ruins.” Walking by the Bank of Ireland and Trinity College, he muses that “all this would go too. … There was a taint of assassination and doom in the air” (218). Ireland’s aristocratic infrastructure seems equally vulnerable to nationalist agitation and to “the great feminine tide” beneath which, the narrator reports, “there is an under-current of hatred and revolt” (195).
That Moore’s muslin martyrs are both as helpless and useless as the Anglo-Irish, and powerful and rebellious enough to bring down the entire social order, is part of their position in an environment that shapes its inhabitants. They take on characteristics of the groups around them. Moore’s treatment of Ireland during the Land War suggests that this environment in particular generates a pointed awareness of the impossibility of tracing individual origins. The same holds true for individual property. Discouraging her daughter Olive’s penniless suitor, Mrs. Barton explains that she simply cannot come to a financial settlement that would enable the marriage: “Irish money can no longer be counted upon. … We do not know what is or is not our own” (126). The condition is as true intellectually as it is financially. The narrator, surveying Dublin as a provincial outpost of empire, notes its failure to engage in any culture that stands for original creation: “Is there a girl or young man in Dublin who has read a play of Shakespeare, a novel of Balzac, a poem of Shelley?” he asks. “Gossip and waltz tunes are all that they know.” Dublin is the heart of the public domain, subject only to repetition, not origin: “We are in a land of echoes and shadows … shadows and echoes, and nothing more” (158).
Despite this moment that implies the superiority of the romantic author and his readers, the novel is structured in such a way to imply that original action will save no one. Crafting a life out of echoes and shadows becomes the secret to survival. Alice’s friendship with Dr. Reed, a “commonplace man,” offers her a way out of her useless life in the west of Ireland (91). Instead of the journalistic novels of Harding, Dr. Reed has authored a medical textbook, a work based entirely in information and observation, not originality. His confession of having done so is what piques Alice’s interest in him. In a plot development that recapitulates countless plots of the marginalized woman made central by her true heart and her skills in nursing, Alice and Reed’s romance flourishes as they both nurse her sister Olive back to health. The narrator concedes that the end of his novel is no original ending at all. He describes their deepening affection as a literal recapitulation of Victorian novels already written and well read: “in talking of the rights and wrongs of Rochester’s love for Jane, and Maggie Tulliver’s for Stephen, the lovers revealed to each other their present state of soul” (296).
Alice and Dr. Reed’s ability to create a life for themselves out of the public domain bears a resemblance to the shared property arrangements that the Anglo-Irish in the novel hope will save them. Throughout the novel, Anglo-Irish cries for government intervention form a relentless background chorus. Visitors to the Barton house comment on the danger of riding out in public as they leave: “I don’t know what we shall do if the Government don’t put down the land league; we shall all be shot in our beds at night” (29). Dinner parties occasion similar reflections, “I do not think we shall soon have bread, much less flowers, to place on our tables, if the Government do not step in and put down the revolution that is going on in this country” (42). But for the bulk of Moore’s novel, such wishes go disappointed. Despite the very real interventions the British government made during the Land War—civil rights were suspended so that agitators could be jailed without charge; Land League leaders and Irish members of Parliament alike were imprisoned; the army was sent out to harvest crops that peasants refused to bring in—Moore presents the characters’ wish for a government that will protect their private property as one of yearning unmet. Instead, what the novel frames as relieving the Land War is the passage of the Irish Land Act of 1882, the government’s suspension of entirely individual private property. “The landlords cried the Land Act was ruin, but only to conceal their joy,” the narrator reports, “For they knew that if the Government fixed their rents, the Government would have to enforce the payments of those rents” (264). The novel narrates the cessation of the Land War as a sudden freedom from the burdens of enforcing private property rights, an implicit freedom from the burdens of private property altogether, that the Anglo-Irish of the novel see as keeping them safe.
In the Second Irish Land Act, the government enforcement of a space where property rights were not exclusive relied on the same powers the state claimed in creating a public domain—both in land and in ideas. But Moore’s novel takes state powers one step further. Moore frames the British state presence in Ireland as also intervening to make sure that marriageable women are not the exclusive private property of their families. Moore describes the ceremonial presentation of young marriageable women at the drawing room at Dublin Castle to the lord lieutenant as a figurative deflowering, “a lingering survival of the terrible Droit de Seigneur.” Once presented to the lord lieutenant and “having received a kiss on either cheek, the debutants are free to seek their bridal beds in Patrick’s Hall” (175). The implications of a state rape are disturbing, and Moore plays them up for titillating effect. But his description of the women’s presentation at Dublin Castle as sexual is also an indictment of a double standard that requires women to be sexualized—dressed in shoulder-baring gowns, forced to kiss a man they have never met—yet punishes them for their sexuality.
Thus, instead of narrating the drawing room as a loss of volition for the women, Moore suggests that it is the beginning of their own sexual choices. No longer virginally sealed within themselves, the women are freed from a sexual purity the narrator describes as “pale and lonely,” “stainless and sterile,” a sort of “white death” (100). After their presentation at the castle, Violet charms her way into a marriage proposal from a marquis, May pursues an illicit sexual relationship with a neighbor, and Cecelia opts to enter a convent. Preparations for the drawing room also prompt Alice to admit to herself that she, too, experiences sexual desire.
Purity, like traceable origins and exclusive property, winds up having negative connotations, and Moore’s novel imagines ways for even reproduction to be freed from such exclusivity. The public domain Alice engages for her writing winds up funding a sort of public domain in reproduction. Her friend May finds herself unmarried and pregnant by a man who has left for Australia, and Alice discovers that she is able, through what she earns by writing, to help May board in another town and pay for the delivery of the child. The baby, ostensibly deposited in an orphanage, becomes one more product of environment rather than individual creation. Alice’s support of the child in the place of the father also rips it out of any familial context of privacy and exclusivity. Alice’s meditation on the situation punningly connects letting go of strict rules of sexual morality to letting go of ideas that might underwrite exclusive property. At first feeling judgmental of May’s behavior, Alice reminds herself, “There is no absolute right; what is right for one may not be right for all” (263).
A world without absolute right is a world without absolute origin, in which case one’s origins are up for grabs. After Harding meets Alice and diagnoses her representative status, he suggests that despite following the identifiable trajectory of every Irish girl newly liberated from school, she is essentially a London suburbanite. He anticipates he will meet her again someday in London because “man’s moral temperament leads him sooner or later back to his connatural home,” which is not the same as a birthplace. “You are a Kensingtonian. I see nothing of the Irish in you,” Harding tells her, predicting that “you will drift to your native place—Kensington. Your tastes will bring you there” (198).
Harding’s prophecy comes true at the end of the novel, as Alice and Dr. Reed come together, funded by their earnings, to live in Kensington. Both still writing, they move to a newly populated suburb defined by being none of its inhabitants’ place of origin. Even the landscape, the narrator comments, looks “as common as if it had been bought—as everything else is in Ashbourne Crescent [their street]—at the Stores” (325). This commonness is in some ways vulgarity—the narrator acknowledges that this suburb, “in its cheapness and vulgarity,” might present itself as just as provincial and unoriginal as Dublin itself. But if this is merely another “land of echoes and shadows,” then its very unoriginality is the source of its stability. It is “more than anything else representative … of the genius of the Empire,” and the narrator concedes that “at present it commands our admiration, for it is, as has been said, more than all else, typical England” (326). The heart of what is unoriginal is also the heart of a global power so secure that the sun never sets on it.
Dr. Reed’s and Alice’s exodus to the suburbs of London is an exodus from the logic of sacrifice, whose effectiveness depends on the gravity of individual—or even group—loss. For Alice, especially, it is an exit from the marriage market painted in such vividly sacrificial language. And her “representative” suburban home is presented as a haven from sacrifice for more than just Alice. As the book ends, Olive, Alice’s younger sister, shows up in tears on Alice’s door step, sick of the marriage market and eager for escape. The welcome she receives from Alice stands for an escape not just from the marriage market but from the morass of Ireland as well. “Ireland is worse than ever,” Olive complains. “We shall all be ruined, and they say Home Rule is certain” (329). In an environment where Home Rule is inevitable—and it is a conclusion Moore’s narrator predicts on many occasions, referring to a spirit of nationalism in Ireland that cannot be put down—the only way to avoid its worst effects is to let go of the idea of individual property, even in oneself, in order to refuse the logic of sacrifice.
Diana of the Crossways: The Geography of the Public Domain
If Drama in Muslin presents the logic of the public domain as one that relieves individuals of the pressures of defending their property, then George Meredith’s 1885 veiled retelling of Caroline Norton’s life story offers similar relief, resurrecting the Edgeworthian logic that one cannot give up what one does not own. The difference is that Moore makes his final model of the public domain purely intellectual in nature. Those who escape the Land Wars are the ones who know how to use the stuff of the public domain for their own profit, without mistaking it for their own property. Meredith, by contrast, makes the literal property of land the model for a public domain that tangles Britishness and Irishness in one enmeshed cultural terrain. Meredith’s heroine, his “woman of two natures,” cycles more rapidly through opinions and guiding principles than she does through her multiple first and last names, yet her identity remains inalienably “of the Crossways”—the house and ten acres in the Sussex Downs she has inherited from her father, the “iridescent Irishman” Dan Merion (161). As the absentee owner of her childhood home, Diana sees the Cross-ways as her native ground, her source of income, and her emotional lodestone. Yet over the course of the novel she makes two unsuccessful attempts to detach herself from it. First, when she is planning to flee to the continent from her husband’s unfounded but very public accusations of adultery, Diana is persuaded at the hearth of the Crossways to remain in England, rather than abandon country, reputation, and property to her husband. Second, long after she believes she has sold the estate for ready cash, she discovers that it has been bought by her long-suffering, faithful friend, the railway baron Thomas Redworth, who outfits the house with belongings she also believes she has sold. Her marriage to Redworth at the close of the novel marks her return to a property that Diana cannot leave behind.
Once again, the structure of being unable to give up what one does not own emerges as a way of imagining Britain’s permanent relationship to Ireland. Vaguely set sometime between 1838 and 1846, Meredith’s plot follows English-born but Irish-identified Diana from her hasty and ill-fated first marriage through two entanglements that, while never strictly adulterous, compromise her reputation after her marriage. Her flirtatious friendship with the worldly prime minister Lord Dannisburgh leads her husband to file a suit for criminal conversation against the man. After the ensuing scandal estranges her from both her husband and Dannisburgh, Diana next becomes entangled with his nephew and heir, the more discreet and disciplined Percy Dacier, a rising young parliamentarian. Separated from her husband and attempting to make her own way as a writer of novels, Diana arranges her household as a political salon of sorts for Dacier, orchestrating gatherings and dinners for his political advantage, even as she declines to consummate their relationship by eloping with him. The arrangement ends abruptly when Diana sells to a newspaper a state secret Dacier has confided in her, precipitating a political scandal. Bankrupt and alone, Diana is nursed back to health by her childhood friend, Emma Dunstane, and subsequently accepts a marriage proposal from Redworth after her first husband’s death. Restored to the Crossways, which Redworth has kept intact for her, Diana prepares at the end of the book to leave for Dublin, where Redworth will assume his new post as Irish secretary, his interest legitimized by his long fidelity to the English-born, Irish heroine.
Yet as much as Lizzie Eustace remains fixed in the minds of critics for what she gives up, not what she keeps, Diana’s actions as alienating property owner attract critical attention over and above her inability to sever herself from the property she alienates.10 Just as The Eustace Diamonds garners critical attention for its engagement with movable property, Diana of the Crossways gets attention for the questions it poses about intellectual property, in the form of Diana’s books, her vivacious wit parlayed into political capital for Dacier, and the political secret she sells for money. Critics treat Diana’s decision to sell Dacier’s state secret as the central point of interest in the novel, one that dramatizes the possibilities of a post–Third Reform Act world, where intellectual property might be seen as superseding the old world of political power grounded in real property. Tim Dolin sees the novel as Meredith’s progressive vision of a world, one that extends political authority to women and colonial subjects based on their possession of the “property of wit” (107). Elaine Hadley sees the explicit liberalism of Meredith’s narrative as undermined by a darker logic of the plot (Melodramatic 202–7). While he hails the day when women’s rights will be recognized, she argues, his plot imagines a world where women never maintain the same control over property, real or mental, that men do. Both Dolin’s and Hadley’s readings proceed from the narrator’s condemnation, in the opening paragraphs of the novel, of a world that has failed to recognize that women possess Wit, “a quality certifying to sound citizenship as authoritatively as acres of land in fee simple, or coffers of bonds, shares, and stocks” (2). Gender equality, Meredith implies, will inevitably follow from the general recognition of the political power of intellectual property.
But the book is somewhat belated if it is supposed to be a plea for women’s political recognition based on their possession of mental property in the absence of claims to material property—or even a manufactured plea that masks a deeper ambivalence about women’s rights, as Diane Elam has argued. After all, the Second Married Women’s Property Act, passed the year before Meredith began the long composition of Diana, ensured that even married women could legally retain control of their own property.11 And it is the possibility of ever holding property in one’s own ideas that the introductory chapter of the book throws into disarray. Opening with the line, “Among the Diaries beginning with the second quarter of our century, there is frequent mention of a lady then becoming famous for her beauty and her wit,” the narrator presents himself as mining a series of published diaries and memoirs to unearth a portrait of Diana’s true character, which might counter the “multitudes of evil reports” that persist about her scandal-riddled life.
The narrator’s methods suggest that wit, when recognized as belonging to someone as clearly as do “acres of land in fee simple, or coffers of bonds, shares, and stocks,” simply does not tell the story in the same way it is able to when it is built from the scrap pile of the public domain. The narrator assembles a “naked body of the fact” concerning Diana through a collage of quotations attributed to her, whose compilation he defends as “veraciously historical, honestly transcriptive” (13). Implicit in this method is an agnosticism about authorial originality. Mining nonfiction, the narrator pieces Diana together out of quotes and anecdotes small enough to be part of the public domain. Acknowledging that she is a published novelist and poet in her own right, the narrator nonetheless can only find the true Diana in those ephemeral pieces of wit belonging to no one. It is in those pieces that he also finds the truest expression of his own authorship, which, as it turns out, is no authorship at all, just mere transcription.
This is an aesthetic credo Meredith reinforces in his story of Diana, whose restoration to virtue is not accomplished by a restoration to privacy after her story is made all too public. Instead, Meredith exposes his heroine to situations in which what is hers is saved by its association with the public domain. What she owns, both real and intellectual property, remains so insistently public that it never achieves the status of private property. But of course, what cannot become private property cannot be alienated like private property either, and this is the safety of the public domain Meredith imagines for his heroine. The real property of the Crossways she is able to keep by giving up is literally saved by the public domain, in this case by the Redworth’s railway fortune, amassed because of the state’s power to expropriate private land for the public good.
The anachronistic control Diana retains over her property spotlights Meredith’s preoccupation with property whose ownership is never straightforward. Given the high profile of married, and separated, women’s property in the Married Women’s Property debates, these anachronisms would have been especially easy to spot in a novel ostensibly set forty or fifty years earlier.12 That the heroine continues to draw rental income from the Crossways after her separation from her first husband, and that she at least goes through the motions of selling the property of her own volition, would have directly contradicted the laws of her time, which gave married women no legal status apart from their husbands, and thus no property of their own.
Meredith’s historical inaccuracies about property seem all the more glaring in a novel clearly modeled on the illustrious career of Caroline Norton.13 A novelist and luminary of London society in her day, Norton would have been well remembered by Meredith’s audience for her dramatic expositions of the legal disabilities under which she suffered as a woman separated from her husband. Norton authored numerous pamphlets arguing for legislative change on questions of maternal infant custody and married women’s right to property, pamphlets influential in changing laws concerning both separated women’s access to their children and their recourse to divorce and married women’s right to claim individual property even after marriage.14 Meredith’s novel baldly contradicts Norton’s historical position as a woman unable to control her own property, a position she did much to publicize. Instead, Diana emerges as a Norton figure oddly assured of both property and marital maintenance, asserting of the Crossways that “[t]he place was hers, she said; her own property. Her husband could not interdict a sale.”15 This assertion, despite its legally shaky grounding, turns out to be true where her first husband, Warwick, is concerned. Diana successfully completes a full transfer of the property for cash while he is alive.
In his anachronistic treatment of married women’s legal ownership, Meredith crafts a story in which the real-life woman who made her name publicizing her inability to control property turns into a fictional character able to control property effortlessly. And in doing so he also demonstrates the impossibility of any woman’s story being her own property. Drawing the story out of the public domain of gossip, Meredith also reengineers it to correspond recognizably with the life of Katherine O’Shea, the married mistress of Charles Parnell, the leader of Ireland’s Home Rule party, whose political maneuvering on behalf of Parnell (she helped broker the agreement by which Gladstone finally let leaders of the Land League out of jail in 1885) resembles Diana’s own political efforts on behalf of Dacier.16
Reengineering the contours of two well-known lives, Meredith’s tale offers a reassuring logic of permanent connectedness in a book that obliquely gestures toward the Irish upheaval of the 1880s. Meredith began Diana in the years 1883–84 and published the full book in 1885. In that year Gladstone first hinted he was ready to propose a formal Home Rule bill for Ireland, a move Meredith strongly supported and an issue on which he was to style himself an expert in the next decade.17 And just as Meredith’s adaptation of Caroline Norton’s life in the 1840s takes on dimensions of Katherine O’Shea’s life in the 1880s, his fictional retelling of the turbulent politics of the 1840s adopts overtones from the British-Irish tensions of the 1880s. This historically doubled structure allows Meredith to imagine Home Rule as a development that can never be a loss. Projecting this latter-day hypothetical repeal back onto the repeal of the Corn Laws—a political move also couched in the rhetoric of sacrifice for the good of both Britain and Ireland, and even the world—Meredith implies that Home Rule too is a sacrifice that will not end in loss.18
Meredith uses the logic of the intellectual public domain—the domain made up of ideas whose status as private property has been sacrificed for the greater good—to accomplish two things. First, like Moore before him, Meredith sees the public domain as a place that absolves women from the status of property and provides a space where they might be appropriately public without being commodified. Second, whereas Moore imagines that Ireland itself is part of the British public domain, and so, even in being given up, can never be lost, Meredith establishes an association between Ireland and intellectual property rights that extends its analogy to the property most insistently associated with Ireland: real property in the land. The property that can be given up but not lost is Diana’s homestead, the Irish property on English ground that is the Crossways, through which Meredith imagines Ireland’s persistence in the public domain.
Property, Not Commodity
Paying attention to Meredith’s preoccupation with state-enforced zones of nonpropertization changes our interpretation of the novel’s gender politics. While Meredith’s credentials as a sincere and firm supporter of Victorian feminism are impeccable, the ending of Diana at first seems to point to that support’s troubling limits. Having been punished both for her political aspirations and her own cultivation of a relationship outside of a marriage that was wrecked by her husband, Diana seems only ambivalently rewarded by her final engagement to Redworth. Her marriage hardly makes for a happy ending, Diane Elam argues. Diana “is commodified and exchanged in true capitalist fashion. Warwick possesses her first, but Redworth emerges from the transaction as the final owner of the highly valued commodity” (193). I argue that while the ending—and, indeed, the novel as a whole—never allows the reader to imagine Diana as happily settled, with the wounds of patriarchy entirely erased, it also deals in complex forms of property that disrupt any easy equation of Diana with a commodity.
Plentiful evidence exists for a pessimistic interpretation of Diana’s second marriage. When Redworth reveals that he has saved the Crossways and furnished it with all the small possessions she had put up for sale to pay her London debts, Diana reacts more like a woman cornered than a woman rescued. Redworth “appeared to Diana as a fatal power … : one of those good men, strong men, who subdue and do not kindle.” Because of this power to subdue, she reflects, “[t]he Crossways had been turned into a trap” (379). Once she reconciles herself to the idea of marriage to Redworth, her view of the impending nuptials hardly inspires confidence. She tells her friend Emma, “I am going into slavery to make amends for presumption” (402). Redworth’s own reaction to their engagement seems to bear out Diana’s dread of enslavement. Venturing to embrace her for the first time, he exclaims, “now you belong to me!” Diana finds him “violently metamorphized to a stranger, acting on rights she had given him” and herself “bound verily to be thankful for such love” (406, 407).
But in his commitment to the public domain, Meredith mitigates the force of the slavery and entrapment that Diana perceives as lurking in her marriage to Redworth. Since all property in the novel—the Crossways, state secrets, Diana’s writing income, the property across which railroad tracks run—seems to undergo a cycle of existing as private property, being sacrificed, and finally becoming transformed into a more permanent and abiding public property, it would not be out of place to read Diana’s own propertization in marriage to be a move in the same direction. In a novel whose logic always favors the public domain, Redworth’s claim to own Diana cannot last forever.
At the same time, in a novel that favors the logic of the public domain, the line between public and private matters, even if it is a moveable line. Given Meredith’s interest in the public domain, we might read Diana’s narrative not as one in which a woman seeking publicity is turned into a commodity but as one in which a woman suffers when what belongs to the public is treated as purely private property. Her first flirtation with Lord Dannisburgh is especially troubled in this regard. She strikes up a friendship with the minister in the interest of securing a place for her husband in a government office, or perhaps in Parliament. Diana and Dannisburgh are brought together by the informal property sharing of patronage, a relationship in which public and private prerogative are the same. The two engage in a model of female participation in the state that also depends on the blurring of public and private, with Diana acting—at least in her own description of the situation—as political counselor to Dannisburgh. Her problems begin when her husband recognizes a public-private divide where she sees none and tries to push her into the mold of entirely privatized property. “He took what I could get for him and then turned and drubbed me for getting it,” Diana offers as explanation for her husband’s subsequent action against Dannisburgh for adultery (130).
What saves Diana from the disaster of her husband’s privatizing urges is also a form of patronage, an informal inclusion in state structures that keep Diana from being entirely private. After her husband’s legal proceedings begin, Diana wages a campaign to protect her reputation, carefully cultivating patrons and sympathizers through parties and dinners. These connections, in turn, are enabled by the multiple champions she has who are parliamentary members, able to network with the powerful on her behalf. The strategy pays off in the form of several male supporters whose elite whisper campaigns and ties to publishers secure her a book contract, favorable reviews, and even a pseudonymous identity as exiled European royalty.
The novels Diana publishes repeatedly fantasize a woman’s informal attachment to the state. Diana makes a lucrative living telling the story of the not-entirely-private woman. Her first novel, The Princess Egeria, ostensibly tells a tale of a woman engaged as adviser to a head of state, as the name “Egeria” implies.19 Her second novel continues Diana’s strategy of taking her material from the parts of her life dominated by the state. The Young Minister of State appears modeled on Dacier, a rising member of Parliament with whom she has become involved and who thinks of her as his “Egeria” (186). Her next book, The Cantatrice, is based explicitly on a parliamentary member’s obsession with an opera singer. That the opera singer is not Diana seems to be a part of what blocks the author during its long composition. Her mind continues to compose “long dialogues” for The Young Minister instead. When she begins a book based on Redworth, The Man of Two Minds, he is well into his own parliamentary career, the ins and outs of which he has openly shared with Diana.
But far from unambiguously commodifying her own life story, Diana attempts to build a life in which she brings herself and her books into the public domain. Diana’s earnings fund her attempt to act as political patron herself. As her relationship with Dacier becomes more intense, she uses her earnings to throw politically advantageous dinner parties for him, turning her house into a sort of salon to nurture his career. Diana imagines that her commitment to state affairs creates a public domain of sorts in her own household, one where all information and utterances might be separated from their authors and made available for the good of the state. The narrator describes Diana’s social gatherings as an assemblage of information to which no one person could lay claim: “The talk was on high levels and low; … now a story; a question opening new routes; sharp sketches of known personages; a paradox shot by laughter as soon as it was uttered; and all so smoothly; not a shadow of the dominant holder-forth or a momentary prospect of dead flats” (297). Beyond her entertaining duties, Diana spends much of her time visiting and socializing in order to gather information that will help her build facts into policy recommendations; “making abstracts,” as she calls it, to keep Dacier well informed. At its most thriving, their unconsummated romance is the wellspring of a common fund. Dacier credits her with portraying colleagues of his she’s never met with more accuracy than he could. He reports repeating her witticisms to them and getting all the credit. Diana is delighted to be part of this nonpropertized economy, telling him, “I glow with pride to think of speaking anything that you repeat” (280).
But Dacier, like Diana’s husband Warwick before him, disrupts this charade of nonpropertized domain, wanting to claim Diana all for his own. In doing so, he also disrupts an economy in which the goods of the state are his to enjoy, not to own. Where Warwick wanted to deny the patronage of the prime minister behind his position, Dacier also succumbs to the temptation of treating a state secret as his own absolute property, something he might trade for his own advantage. Late at night he visits Diana to announce to her that the administration has abruptly changed position and will pass the repeal of the Corn Laws. Before telling her, he teases her with promises about how large the secret is, asking, “What am I to have for telling it?” (304). After imparting his news, he steals a kiss and continues to beg for “a trifle of recompense” in exchange for the news (306). Even as he leaves, he asks her to promise to consummate their relationship at some future date.
The scene is a moment of intense humiliation for Diana, and not just for its revelation of a sexually coercive side to a man she had previously adored. Having told both herself and others that her relationship with Dacier was one conducted “on public grounds,” she now is forced to admit to herself that she too is guilty of wanting to stake a private claim to Dacier. “I kept up a costly household for the sole purpose of seeing him and having him near me,” she admits to herself in the anguished hours after the encounter (311). She is just as guilty of overprivatizing the affair as he is, who “had brought political news, and treated her as—name the thing!” (311).
Diana’s reaction to Dacier’s attack seems motivated by revenge, but it also restores publicity to the privacy with which Dacier wanted to treat the state secret. Diana and her maid proceed to newspaper offices that night where Diana sells the secret. The move offers Diana an opportunity for shoring up her own deflated sense of selfhood. She gleefully anticipates the reaction of an editor who had previously told her that her political information was “stale” (310). But her treatment of the secret also demonstrates that Diana has a sharper perception of intellectual property’s relationship to the public domain than does Dacier. Knowing that news of the Corn Law repeal will ultimately be general knowledge, she first responds to the secret less as if it were property than an advance copy of the newspaper. “We two are a month ahead of all England,” she exclaims to Dacier. When he tries to gain sexual favors for the news he imparts, she insists, “no payments!” (305). Her sale of the secret to a newspaper is less the vending of personal property than the release of information whose propertized life was always limited. Diana reasons with herself, as she rushes to the newspaper office in the middle of the night, that in the end, the piece of information belonged only to the public domain: “This news, great though it was, and throbbing like a heart plucked out of a breathing body, throbbed but for a brief term, a day or two; after which great though it was, immense, it relapsed into a common organ, a possession of the multitude, merely historically curious” (310).
In the end, Diana’s reasoning proves right. As far as its effects are felt within the novel, this premature publication of a state secret only matters insofar as it breaks Diana and Dacier apart. While Dacier imagines that the leak will allow a campaign to gather in opposition to repeal, the threat never materializes (322). Public rumors of the ministry’s change of policies never change the course of a history that Meredith’s reader already knows. Even public reaction to the leak is quickly effaced by news of Dacier’s impending marriage to the heiress Constance Asper, which “did away with the political hubbub” (338). Briefly possessed of information she recognizes as tending toward national property, Diana’s handling of it has not so much the effect of a sale but of the short-circuiting of its propertization, making it available to all, and thus unavailable to any one party for the purpose of a trade. Having already cut off the possibility that Dacier could exchange the secret for sexual favors, Diana also ultimately disrupts her own trade of the secret for money, retroactively rendering it a gift. When the editor’s promised compensation arrives, she has legally become a widow and inherited all the property that her first husband had withheld from her during their long separation. No longer needing the money, she burns the editor’s check.
Diana’s participation in the literal public sphere of the news occasions the narrator’s reflections on both the positive and negative effects of the public domain. Dacier abandons Diana almost immediately after realizing what she has done, and he becomes engaged to a crypto-Catholic heiress whose profession that “all secrets are holy, but the secrets of State are under a seal next to divine” renders by contrast Diana’s actions the work of a sturdy English Protestantism free of conspiratorial tendencies (332). Oddly, it is Diana’s maid, Danvers, who registers the most negative implications of Diana’s foray into the public release of information. Waiting for her mistress in the outer offices of the newspaper, Danvers seems to undergo the experience of a piece of news whose propertized qualities are in the process of evaporating with the passing of minutes: “She lost, very strangely to her, the sense of her sex and became an object—a disregarded object. Things of more importance were about. Her feminine self-esteem was troubled; all idea of attractiveness expired. Here was manifestly a spot where women had dropped from the secondary to the cancelled stage of their extraordinary career in a world either blowing them aloft like soap bubbles or quietly shelving them as supernumeraries” (314). “Disregarded,” “expired,” and “cancelled,” Danvers experiences the sensation both of news out of date and a woman grown too old. This, then, is the dangerous underside of Diana’s affinity for the unpropertized world of the public domain: a woman’s person, too, bears analogy to the expired property of copyright, grown too old for usefulness and released into a sphere where it exists entirely unperceived.
Diana’s recuperation from the heartbreak of losing Dacier, then, is also the recuperation of the public domain into a model where property that eludes individual ownership might nonetheless be treated as counting, That model turns out to be the public domain in the land. The narrator’s assessment that Diana’s “fall had brought her renovatingly to earth” resonates in more than one way—returned to “the land,” that metonym for the aristocracy among whom she now makes her home, Diana also nurses her wounds with a literal attention to the earth. Where at the beginning of the book Emma accompanied Diana on her quests through political theory and economy, she now feeds Diana’s “craving … for positive knowledge” with “shells and stones and weeds … botanical and geological books” (364).
Surprisingly, the guiding genius behind this particular course of recovery is Thomas Redworth, her faithful friend the railroad baron. Diana and Emma find that Redworth is actually an accomplished naturalist. They discover that “he knew every bird by its flight and its pipe, habits, tricks, … and his remarks on the sensitive life of trees and herbs were a spell to his thirsty hearers” (365). They even discover that the railway baron “had printed, for private circulation, when at Harrow School, a little book, a record of his observations in nature” (365). Redworth excuses himself on the grounds that his work had been only a compilation of available facts and that he had put nothing of himself into it. He had not fallen into the propertizing mania of romantic authorship: “he had not published opinions” (365).
His very slow courtship of Diana seems to partake of the same character of avoiding his own opinion. Redworth’s success comes to seem more probable as his reflections on the role of the state come to bear the marks of Diana’s ideas rather than his own. Pondering the problem of adulterated beer, he finds himself led on a line of thought not his own: “Capital, whereat Diana Warwick aimed her superbest sneer, has its instant duties. She theorized on the side of poverty, and might do so: he had no right to be theorizing on the side of riches” (385). The man who will clasp Diana in his arms call her “my own” already lives in a condition in which “he thought within her thoughts, or his own were at her disposal” (407, 386). He also deliberately delays the marriage until it can be more than just a private affair. Recalling that Diana once spoke contemptuously of being a mere “Mrs.,” he waits until he has been appointed chief secretary of Ireland to propose to her. He offers her not just a home but a public function, one that unites England and Ireland.
The Property of Blended Spaces
In this section I examine Meredith’s figurative tendencies more closely in order to explore the formal technique by which he undermines the allegory of Union with which his plot flirts even as he creates a plot of land that bears the burdens of this exploded allegory. We might think of Meredith as importing the entire logic of the Irish national tale, with its unifying marriage plot, onto British soil. Rather than setting his novel on a plot of land in Ireland, the property ownership of which requires British and Irish to marry, Meredith imagines Irish land to always already be located at the heart of England.
Meredith’s knots of extended and occasionally unparsable metaphor were seen as a hallmark of his technique, one that made him both admirable and unreadable. In the Atheneum, W. E. Henley offers high praise for the newly published Diana, only to admit a fundamental problem encountering Meredith’s “metaphors in four dimensions (as it were), whose conquest appears to demand the instant and active exercise of all the five senses at once, and which even then emerges from the fight unvanquished” (qtd in Williams 260). Virginia Woolf was less kind to her father’s Victorian friend, commenting several decades later that Meredith “wishes to crush the truth out in a series of metaphors or a string of epigrams with as little resort to dull fact as may be. Then, indeed, the effort is prodigious, and the confusion often chaotic” (qtd in Williams 274). Even twentieth-century critics have similarly condemned Meredith’s stylistics as an unfortunate tendency that hides his real value—see, for instance, Judith Wilt’s comment on his “perpetual, dazzling, in a sense desperate dependence upon metaphor” (77–78).
Elizabeth Bradburn, however, has suggested that these Meredithean moments are worth noting for their modeling of complex cognitive processes. His metaphoric language creates a “blended space” from several “input spaces”—figurative language, plot elements, thematic messages. These elements sit upon one another, creating distortions and new convergences of meaning. This overlay, the conceptual equivalent of the picture produced by an entire stack of transparencies placed at once on an overhead projector, always exceeds easy correspondence among elements; for instance, the metaphoric layer of meaning cannot be easily mapped onto the plot since the clear outlines of the elements become distorted by this association. The process of blending makes it impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends. The effect, Bradburn reports, is the exposure of “latent contradictions and coherences between previously separated elements” (881). Such contradictions and coherences can be partial and impressionistic, creating meanings that blend into a densely overloaded environment in which no one element can be safely distinguished as the figurative illustration for another element’s more fundamental meaning.
Meredith’s prose might described as heightening all the partial and incomplete aspects of metaphoric thinking, constantly exposing the limits of neat analogical readings. Meredith’s is a style bent on exposing the unlimited potential for boundary failure that lurks behind every metaphor, causing different levels of a metaphor to bleed into one another, or causing multiple metaphors that coexist in a text to distort and disrupt one another. The passage Bradburn uses to illustrate Meredith’s creation of blended spaces, a passage in which the heroine, Diana, confronts her deteriorating financial situation, might be seen as exemplary in this regard.
[Diana] examined her accounts. The Debit and Credit sides presented much of the appearance of male and female in our jog-trot civilization. They matched middling well; with rather too marked a tendency to strain the leash and run frolic on the part of friend Debit (the wanton male), which deepened the blush in comparison. Her father had noticed the same funny thing in his effort to balance his tugging accounts: “Now then for a look at Man and Wife,” except that he made Debit stand for the portly frisky female, Credit the decorous and contracted other half, a prim gentleman of a constitutionally lean habit of body, remonstrating with her. “You seem to forget that we are married, my dear, and must walk in step or bundle into the Bench” Dan Merion used to say. (219)
In this example, the passage starts out with a simple metaphor—Debit and Credit are married like male and female. Yet this simplicity is almost immediately complicated by an abrupt shift from a figure of speech that links financial and marital elements to a conceit that focuses on the elements that become linked under the domain of financial (Debit and Credit) and those linked under the domain of the marital (husband and wife). Meredith’s proliferation of metaphorical elements reveals the reversible nature of the metaphor: Is Debit to Credit as husband is to wife? Or as wife is to husband? And of course the growing crowd of elements calls into question the idea of correspondence between parts. Debit and Credit battle one another, rather than cooperating to create the financial domain. Far from being eternally yoked in the marital domain, husband and wife emerge as figures on the verge of divorce.
The wars that complicate his metaphors also unsettle the relationship between the symbolic content of Meredith’s conceits and the mimetic content of the plot. As the passage continues, it invokes the immediate storyline concerning Diana’s attempts to support herself after becoming estranged from her boorish first husband: “Diana had not so much to rebuke in Mr. Debit; or not at the first reckoning. But his ways were curious. She grew distrustful of him … His answer to her reproaches pleaded the necessitousness of his purchases and expenditure: a capital plea; and Mrs. Credit was requested by him, in a courteous manner, to drive her pen the faster, so that she might wax to a corresponding size and satisfy the world’s idea of fitness in couples. She would have costly furniture, because it pleased her taste; and a French cook for a like reason, in justice to her guest; and trained servants” (219).
Such language at first seems to point toward an allegorical correspondence between symbol and plot. Certainly Diana had grown distrustful of her husband, as the unsuitability of his “ways” grew clearer to her, and these discoveries led her, as the “Mrs.” of the pair, to “drive her pen the faster.” Yet here the resemblance between plot and metaphor falters. No amount of pen-driving can reconcile Diana and Warwick to “the world’s idea of fitness in couples”—indeed, her pen is the tool that allows her to keep herself, in a financial and physical sense, far away from her husband. Still, correspondence between plot and metaphor never entirely disappears. The abrupt resumption of the actual story line (“she would have costly furniture”) is not marked by any clear announcement of a return to mimesis. The uncertain referent of the “she” who “would have costly furniture” in the last sentence (and in the sentence before, the uncertain referent of the “her” to which the pen belongs) leaves Diana and Mrs. Credit linked, acting as the same person, a pair whose connection supplants that of husband and wife altogether.
Meredith leans heavily on these partial references to create a political backdrop in his book that, while ostensibly about the moment of the repeal of the Corn Laws, seems to more explicitly reference the current moment of Irish land agitation. The main event that shapes Diana’s political involvement is the 1846 repeal of the Corn Laws. The permanent removal of tariffs on wheat imported into England would have been remembered in Meredith’s time as significant landmark in the English evolution from the ascendancy of a land-based ruling class to a more broadly conceived political authority. Passed after a long campaign for repeal led by the Anti–Corn Law League, a political action group spearheaded primarily by manufacturing interests in the north of England, the act marked a moment in which England consented to depend on foreign lands for the raw produce of agriculture in order to focus on the manufacturing economy that would make it the “workshop of the world.”20 Seen as the act that ushered a golden age of free trade into Victorian England, the repeal of the Corn Laws was also remembered for the dramatic political conversion that brought it about. Prime Minister Robert Peel, who had taken office promising to uphold the Tory party line committed to keeping the laws in place, eventually changed his position, splintering his party and effectively ending his political career.
In keeping with his preference for half references and partial metaphors, Meredith’s vocabulary for narrating repeal shies away from invoking the event too specifically. Characters talk about “the prospects of the League” and predict that “the country will beat the landlords” (285, 286). Even the moment in which the prime minister’s change of position is revealed, a moment that forms the climax of Meredith’s novel, shies away from specifically naming what it is that so impresses the characters. Dacier tells Diana the news, never mentioning the Corn Laws by name, instead insisting that she guess the news. Diana breathlessly asks, “The proposal is—? No more compromises!” to which he assents “Total!” (305). The actual content of the decision is never explicitly described. This vocabulary of “total repeal” that “the league” demands in opposition to the “landlords” describes the position of the industry leaders who led the Anti–Corn Law League in the 1830s and 1840s. However, it also impressionistically invokes the contemporary Irish land wars and Land League agitation against Irish landlords in the 1880s. Even in the England of anti–Corn Law activism, “total repeal” would have referred both to the demands of the Anti–Corn Law League and to Daniel O’Connell’s high-profile campaign for an end to Union, launched by his declaration of 1843 as the “year of repeal.” Meredith slyly grants O’Connell the possibility of that repeal, too, in failing to name the exact repeal foretold by Dacier’s state secret, and exact year in which it occurs.21 Home Rule becomes, through these partial allusions, an already-canonical event in nineteenth-century British history.
The techniques that allow Meredith to incorporate the Home Rule that has not happened yet into British history are also those that allow him to incorporate Irish land into the heart of England. He does this through the real property central to his book, Diana’s childhood home of the Crossways, a physical plot of land whose figurative work in the novel is never done. Enfolding union and blockage, England and Ireland, alienability and inalienability, the Cross-ways exceeds its mere materiality even within the plot, meaning for Diana, “Dada in his best day and all my youngest dreams” (54). As the place to which she flees “by instinct” when in trouble, the Crossways is Diana’s refuge. But then, as the narrator is careful to point out, where Diana is concerned, “metaphors were her refuge” (109, 231). And no other metaphor receives the star billing or sustained attention devoted to the Crossways, a single spot named not for itself but for the multiple directions it points. To say that the Crossways—the physical territory that is Diana’s own—functions like a crossways—joining opposing routes—is to make a statement fundamentally Meredithean, in which the assertion that a thing functions like itself is only to multiply meanings, not to contain them.
The signifier “crossways” enters Meredith’s text as both proper and common noun. Meredith’s prose alternates between using the Crossways as a proper noun, which signals one irreproducible place, and bringing into play an idiomatic use of “crossways” as a common noun, which signals both the widened scope of movement made possible by the technology of crossroads and the paralysis brought on by the clash of opposing ways. When Redworth remembers his early fatal hesitation in proposing to Diana, the Crossways carries connotations of blockage and movement for him. He remembers her departure for her childhood home as the emblem of his indecision, the last moment he sees Diana unengaged; “Her destiny of the Crossways tied a knot, barred a gate, and pointed to a new direction of the road” (49). In spite of Diana’s affectionate regard for the Crossways, its negative connotations also spill into her vocabulary. The common noun “crossways” becomes for her a signifier of paralysis rather than possibility. Recalling her ill-fated marriage, she remarks, “We walked a dozen steps in stupefied union, and hit upon crossways” (131). Describing her dependence on Redworth long after her marriage to Warwick has disintegrated, she notes, “I am always at crossways, and he rescues me” (259).
By failing to substitute for the estate called by the name “the Crossways,” the signifier “crossways” loudly calls attention to its Meredithean ability to stir up allusions to plot structure without resolving into an easy metaphor for it. Redworth has indeed rescued Diana in a scene set at the Crossways, when he talks her out of fleeing to Europe and convinces her to stay and defend her reputation against her husband’s public accusations of adultery. Yet this rescue from snares she calls “crossways” is hardly a rescue from the Crossways; staying near the property and retaining control over it are her rewards for staying in England. Likewise, Diana’s report of her marriage foundering when the couple “hit upon crossways” works against the literal grain of the story. After all, Diana’s affection for Augustus Warwick, the nephew of her tenants at the Crossways, first springs from his proximity to the home she holds so dear. His promise that the couple can spend part of each year in her childhood home seems part of the terms of her agreement to marry him. And the first hint of their marital trouble comes not from the Crossways but from when Warwick wants to leave the estate for London.
This property of contradictory meanings, the property that also cannot be given up, operates both as figure of union—two roads meeting—and as figure for blockage and opposition—two ways irreducibly opposed. Inevitably, the Union of Great Britain and Ireland adds yet another overlay to this property, making the political union one that simultaneously contains England and Ireland, marriage and divorce. Diana’s identity within the novel as “a woman of two natures” seems a native trait acquired from the English home of the Cross-ways where she came by her Irish identity. Located in the Sussex Downs, the home is invariably named as Diana’s inheritance from her father, the “iridescently Irish” Dan Merion, whose national identity secures Diana’s identity as “honest Irish” even though she is born and raised in his house in southeast England. Diana occupies a double position familiar to almost all of English realism’s Irish characters: “In England she was Irish. … Abroad, … though not less Irish, a daughter of Britain” (139). Yet unlike so many other Irish characters in the fiction of the nineteenth century, Diana’s doubleness is not so much a product of her birthplace in Ireland but rather arises from her attachment to the estate of her father, an estate whose English location seems permeated with an animating Irishness.
Meredith grounds Diana’s Irishness in the physical spaces of the Crossways. The book makes mention of the bloodlines through which Diana claims her Irishness—a half-English mother, and a father whose only distinguishing characteristic seems to be an Irishness of such prominence that his paternity “would make her Irish all over” regardless of the mother (25). Yet Diana views the actual grounds of the estate as the spot from which her Irishness is generated. Taking her first steps out into society as a separated woman, Diana wins a place at dinner parties through her animated delivery of Irish anecdotes, the production of which seems to have happened first on her paternal estate; “The old dinner and supper tables at the Crossways furnished her with an abundant store” (124). While others discuss her Irishness as a portable trait, visible in her body and manner as “proofs of descent from the blood of Dan Merion—a wildish blood” (31), Diana herself relies on the Crossways to connect her to the memory of her father’s Irishness. The house operates as a museum of Dan Merion’s spirit, the place where Diana keeps “souvenirs of her father, his cane, and his writing-desk, and a precious miniature of him hanging above it” (54, 75). Her best friend, Emma Dunstane, describes her attachment to the house as a specifically Irish attachment: “Tony is one of the women who burn to give last kisses to things that they love. And she has her little treasures hoarded there. She was born there. Her father died there. She is three parts Irish—superstitious in affection” (75).
Making a property in England the source of Diana’s quality of Irishness becomes a perverse way for Meredith to ensure both the external, material source of her Irishness and its inalienability. Irish nationalism in the nineteenth century positioned itself as an identity predicated on dispossession of real property. Dan Merion’s property in England implies just such a dispossessed identity; what else would such an assuredly Irish man be doing in England if not fleeing the consequences of dispossession in his own country? Diana, as the female inheritor of his estate, can step into this logic of dispossession, never quite owning the estate and yet never quite being a claimant in the original act of dispossession either. Unable to precisely articulate her relationship to the Irish, Diana is only able to say vaguely of the Irish people that “I have them in my heart, though I have not been among them for long at a time” (204).
Meredith claimed such Irishness for his own. Because his mother’s maiden name had been “McNamara,” Meredith considered himself half-Irish, although no apparent family connections to Ireland remained.22 He considered himself in natural sympathy with the Irish because of his own Welsh descent.23 Yet he does not allow Diana a merely racial connection to the Irish people, a portable identity composed entirely of bloodlines. Instead her Irishness remains about the land. For Meredith this “Irish” estate is a reassuring figure, a space of literal Irish land that England cannot give up, even after Ireland goes its own way. But it is also reassuring for the same reason that so many of the writers in my study found the figurative power of Irish land so attractive in the nineteenth century. The Crossways is a piece of land so animated by an Irish cultural identity that even its location cannot dictate its conformity to state interference. Somewhere in England, Meredith assures us, there is a plot of land that will remain forever Ireland. And it is that plot of land that keeps the English free.