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  • The Romantic National Tale and the Question of Ireland
  • Sharon Alker (bio)
Ina Ferris. The Romantic National Tale and the Question of Ireland. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. x+205pp. US$85. ISBN 0-521-81460-X.

The national tale, as a genre, emerged as an object of literary study in the 1990s in the work of such critics as Katie Trumpener, Mary Jean Corbett, Miranda Burgess, and Ina Ferris. Despite its relatively recent appearance, its significance in the configuration of cross-border relations has been clearly established. Katie Trumpener, in "National Character, Nationalist Plots: National Tale and Historical Novel in the Age of Waverley, 1806–1830" (ELH 60, no. 3 [1993]: 685–731), introduced the national tale as an "allegorical presentation of the contrast, attraction, and union between disparate cultural worlds" (697) that seeks "not only to reflect but to direct national sentiment" (689). Burgess, in "Violent Translations: Allegory, Gender, and Cultural Nationalism in Ireland, 1796–1806" (MLQ 59, no. 1 [1998]: 33–70), has analysed the manifestations of violence that rupture the move towards resolution in the proto-national tale. Corbett, in Allegories of Union in Irish and English Writing (2000), has demonstrated that allegories of union, such as those present in the national tale, did not merely originate from subordinated nations, noting that "a liberal English discourse [was] dedicated to producing ideological fictions through which Irish disaffection from English rule could be rhetorically minimized, managed, or resolved" (4). Ferris herself has been a vital part of this critical conversation. In "Narrating Cultural Encounter: Lady Morgan and the Irish National Tale" (Nineteenth-Century Literature 51, no. 3 [1996]: 287–303 ), she introduces the "shock of cultural encounter" that she substantially develops in her astute and valuable book, The Romantic National Tale and the Question of Ireland (295).

Ferris's book is the first full-length scholarly work that dissects and examines the early nineteenth-century Anglo-Irish national tale. It offers a rich and deeply historicized analysis of the genre's trajectory, from its origin in forms that include the travel narrative and the romance, through its complication by impulses that disturb its cross-border focus, such as the desire to mediate women's position in the nation, to its final decay under [End Page 227] the pressures of historical forces in the turbulent 1820s. In chapter 1, Ferris delineates the origins of the national tale, paying close attention to the late eighteenth-century travel narrative, in particular the Irish tour, a loose "magpie genre" in which the traveller stands firmly outside his object of study (43). While the national tale certainly emulates the form, she notes, it also satirizes it, and works to complicate and destabilize the representation of the traveller-figure. Chapter 2 explores this disturbance in detail, noting, for example, that in Sydney Owenson's Wild Irish Girl (1806), the derogatory account of the Anglo-Irish traveller Horatio's encounter with a small boy and a pig is ruptured by a footnote that offers a competing reading. This paratextual intervention dislodges colonial hierarchies and impels English readers to reconsider their reading of cross-border relations.

The national tale, in its original form, seems to centre on a quest for cross-border amelioration through the acquisition of sympathy, but Ferris ably demonstrates that we must be cautious in determining precisely how sympathy manifests itself in the genre. The model of sympathy deployed by such authors as Edgeworth and Owenson, she suggests, is not that of Adam Smith, who emphasized concord and the elimination of unquiet emotions. The case of Ireland, with its layers of dissonance, not only between Britain and Ireland, but also between the Anglo-Irish and the Irish, does not allow for such a model. Rather, Ferris reads the national tale through Humean concepts of sympathy that privilege discomfort rather than stability and equilibrium. Indeed, it is the seeds of negativity within the original form, Ferris implies, that enable it to evolve into a novel of insurgency. This notion of sympathy frequently becomes visible in the experience of the encounter between the traveller and the Irish, which is often a jarring one that seeks to disrupt and alter the consciousness of the...


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