In The Prime Minister, Sir Alured, the present baronet of “a handsome old family … whose forefathers had been baronets since baronets were first created” (113), solemnly instructs his nephew and heir, Everett Wharton, on protocol for allotting property to tenants: “‘I do like the farms to go from father to son, Everett. It’s the way that everything should go. Of course, there’s no right. … No, nothing of that kind. God in his mercy forbid that a landlord in England should ever be robbed after that fashion.’ Sir Alured, when he was uttering this prayer, was thinking of what he had heard of an Irish land bill, the details of which, however, had been altogether incomprehensible to him” (598).
The more Trollope reveals about Alured, the less coherent the nature of his alarm is. His objection to the First Irish Land Act, to which he refers, cannot rest on his disdain for community tradition, which the act purported to uphold. Alured has already shown himself to be a fierce devotee to tradition. Although his estate had been destined for a profligate nephew whom he abhors, Alured doggedly declines his power to choose a more suitable heir, preferring to leave his estate in the hands of a wastrel rather than violate the time-honored patterns of inheritance. When that heir providentially dies, Alured’s instructions that Everett follow established relations between landlord and tenant reveal that Alured sees his proprietorship of the estate as shaped by a system of established practices he cannot disrupt. His insistence on handing down farms from father to son as “the way everything should go” seems to contradict his equally vehement imperative that “the way everything should go” not be interpreted as “a right.”
Alured’s semantic hairsplitting on the matter is emblematic of a larger tendency in Victorian thinking about property. No matter how often advanced liberals like John Stuart Mill or Matthew Arnold might protest that the state had a perfect right to dictate the distribution and uses of landed property, no matter how thoroughly the establishment of railways in Britain had proven that the state used such power quite extensively, the Victorians still preferred to imagine land as a zone in which the state could not interfere with redefinitions and redistributions of rights. But, as Alured also demonstrates, Victorians also preferred to think of property in land not as a zone of complete liberty for the owner but rather as a source of compulsion. Serious about understanding privileged subjects as constrained by responsibilities, not simply buoyed up by freedom from want, and equally serious in their antistatist sentiments, Victorians tended to think of responsibility and obligation as something endowed upon an owner by his own property rather than imposed by the state.
Alured offers one glimpse of the pleasures that come from being compelled to do something by one’s own property. But as this book shows, writing concerned with Irish land ownership teems with such examples—Edgeworth’s landowners, gleefully unable to leave the property to which they are connected; Mill’s peasant proprietors, energetically animated to cultivate their lands; Young Ireland’s patriots, revolutionarily justified by a tie to the land they can never forswear; Trollope’s wives, obligated to enjoy estates to which they have no title. All of these figures understand themselves as compelled to do something, not by the state that grants them rights, but by property that attaches to them in ways more profound than the state could ever accomplish with mere legislation. The pleasures of being compelled into action by one’s property in land are thrown into unusually sharp relief by the Irish, or those enmeshed in the nineteenth century’s long British-Irish entanglement.
Sir Alured notwithstanding, the pleasures of landed property’s compulsions were not as immediately available in a purely English context. As the nineteenth century wore on, both Martin Weiner and Krishan Kumar have pointed out, England became increasingly identified with the land, seeing its culture as summed up either by the great country estates or by agricultural village communities. But as Elizabeth Helsinger and John Plotz have both made clear, that identification often depended on the representation of land made in portable objects that were paintings, engravings, or novels. Constable’s countryside, Mitford’s village commons, Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, and of course Jane Austen’s estates in the Home Counties came to stand for England, and these representations were of a size to travel easily to the far outposts of empire along with mercantile populations, settlers, imperial administrators, and military personnel. But these objects, in their portability, subjected the English landscape to the problem of how it attached to those who formed an English identity through them. Elaine Freedgood observes that even as Hardy offered his readers an immersion in his fully elaborated fictional English countryside, he also called their attention to “an intensifying alienation between people and their belongings” (154). Such alienation problematizes even readerly identification. In Hardy, Freedgood observes, “the characters within the novel are severed from their own relations to things they own, and the readers of the novel are estranged from the subjects and objects of the novel by this internal alienation” (153). Unable to be entirely sure which objects might make them owning subjects and which objects were to be understood as falling within their ambit in purely accidental ways, owners could hardly be expected to derive a clear sense of duty from their property.
Both Freedgood and Plotz challenge the standard critical notion that the Victorian era was one of relentless commodification, one in which the threat of a piece of property’s alienation is the primary way Victorians experienced their things. Freedgood and Plotz demonstrate that the objects in Victorian novels carry cultural meanings that are not entirely disrupted, even by the threat of alienation. But in telling the story of what such objects mean, and how they mean in a culture of rising commodification, they necessarily place what it actually means to own on the backburner. In his extensive analysis of Portable Property, Plotz’s emphasis falls decidedly on portability, not on property.
As Irish land makes its way into British and Irish writing, it offers something that representations of English land do not: a thorough contemplation of what it means to be attached to a piece of property. The concern about what made something property and what made somebody an owner was hardly obsolete to Victorians, especially as they questioned both the political meanings that had long attached to the land and as they contemplated the possible expansion of state powers. The English countryside, shrunk into representations of portable proportions and available for a small bit of the middle class’s disposable income, tended to efface such questions. Discussion of the Irish experience of property, by contrast, tended to offer not a vicarious experience of, or identification with, Irish land, but an intricate examination of how law, money, and history had all worked together to create owners and nonowners, as well as those who fell in between the two categories, experiencing proprietary feelings without the benefit of legal title.
The pieces of writing that I have chosen to examine in this book not only offer extended meditations on what it means to be attached to property in land; they also provide oblique commentaries on the positive effects of such contemplation. Read together, they promote the message that sustained contemplation of property—even property not legally one’s own—attaches one to it in a way that consolidates one’s identity. This identity consolidation, they suggest, happens through attachment’s power to cure one of acquisitive urges. Mill’s peasant proprietors, Trollope’s enjoying wives, even Diana, reattached to the Cross-ways, all are imagined as relieved of desire for an unlimited expansion of their powers by a relationship that orients them toward the intimate knowledge of and interaction with one piece of property. Desire for property leads to the sort of industry that fuels the world’s progress, Trollope observes in his travel book, North America, but the verdict of the writing I have examined here is that actually having that property—even in a way not formalized or codified by state power—cures that restlessness.
The Irish context naturalizes such a conclusion. In their protests against the Union, the Irish framed their demands in terms not of expansion but of staying put. What the Irish said they wanted was to be left alone—left alone by the so-called Church of Ireland, left alone by the landlords, and left alone by the Westminster Parliament. By framing the struggle for Irish national independence in terms of a struggle for land, Irish nationalists implied that the desire for land was not a desire for expansion but a desire for self-containment. The international economy that Irish emigrants formed in order both to support the poor in Ireland and to fund the blossoming nationalist movement also suggested that the Irish desire for land was the opposite of imperialism. The Irish went abroad not to conquer the world but simply to obtain the resources they needed to fully claim their homeland.
The reality of the situation was, of course, more complicated than the rhetoric of Irish land hunger admitted. Irish plans for Home Rule foundered because the Irish were reluctant to forego what they saw as their fair share in the British empire, an empire whose military, civil service, and settler population would have been substantially thinner without the Irish. But the rhetoric of a deep Irish attachment to Irish land allowed Ireland to play a role in the British empire that no other nation or zone could play. By maintaining its relationship to Ireland, Britain might recognize itself as a great imperial power, capable of controlling and subordinating a cultural zone that would never be properly assimilated into the dominant British culture. But by maintaining its relationship to Ireland, Britain might also keep to itself a culture it fantasized as entirely anti-imperial. In this British fantasy, the Irish were focused only on those possessions that entirely absorbed their identity, forswearing the acquisitive impulses that had distorted the British identity as its empire spread across the globe. Keeping an Ireland preoccupied with keeping its own land was for Britain the promise that Britain, too, might keep its own identity.