- These Fissured Isles: Ireland, Scotland and British History, 1798–1848
This collection of thirteen essays, generated from a conference held at the University of Aberdeen in 1999, makes an important and considerable contribution to the discovery and reinterpretation of British national identity after the watershed year of 1798. These Fissured Isles confronts the ‘self-perception of class identity and class struggle’ (p. 258) within the wider context of five specific themes: Ireland, Scotland and the British Questions; The Horizons of Women; Conservatism and Culture in Scotland; Chartism Revisited; and The Past, the Present and the People. As the title suggests, the compilation examines the subtle and obvious causes of national fragmentation along cultural, social, economic, and political lines and seriously questions those pundits who would cast the idea of Britishness as a construct of English history writ large. Although the authors seek to establish separate spheres of Irish and Scottish identity, they do so in a way which does not marginalise England. Rather, they re-evaluate it through new scholastic and historiographical frameworks.
In the first section, an informative and compelling essay by Brotherstone, Clark, and Whelan raise interesting questions regarding the trajectory of British history and those methods used to guide its course. Analysing the works of Pocock, Colley, and Macaulay, the editors consider the sacrosanct status of their ideas of British identity and analyse the feasibility of creating a narrative that embraces Britain and the Atlantic world ‘without being forced into crucial omissions in the attempt to create a false sense of consensus’ (p. 16). In a later essay, Whelan confronts innate religious and national tension present within Scotland and Ireland and the subsequent labours of each nation to reconcile the need to embrace England without repudiating its own sense of individuality. Indeed, as the other two contributions in this section illustrate, unity and empire [End Page 359] ultimately become tropes for forced assimilation and ultimately the rallying-cry for patriotic and radical propaganda.
Section II is composed of two essays that address the roles of women in the wake of the French Revolution in England and the years between the Union and Catholic Emancipation in rural Irish society. Specifically, Anna Clark and Kevin O’Neill look at the rise of feminism within the closely-scrutinised conservative political realm of late eighteenth-century Britain. Faced with the problems of radicalism, lack of political and patriotic consensus, and emasculation in the face of a ‘highly masculine and xenophobic society’ (p. 86), Clark and O’Neill show how feminists such as Hannah More and Mary Leadbeater struggled to find solutions for gender limitations, social and economic reform, and what O’Neill correctly identifies as ‘selective ethnic and sectarian erasure’ (p. 106). Using political conservatism as a natural segue way into the next chapter, the book turns its focus on Scotland and the traditional valediction which severely hindered both its artistic and political development. Concentrating on the Scottish reaction to eighteenth-century radicalism, Emma Vincent Macleod considers the nation’s lukewarm response to the increased revolutionary activity of the United Irishmen and examines the reasons for the failure of such radical groups. As Macleod shows, Scotland’s innate aversion to violent radicalism and its dubious commitment to United activities ultimately undermined the movement.
The final two sections of the edition provide interpretative accounts of the aftermath of the incorporation of Ireland into the Union, the subsequent Chartist movement in both Ireland and Scotland, and the ‘interface between academic history and public historical perception’ (p. 41). Each essay on the Chartist movement successfully establishes the parameters of dissatisfaction, labour radicalism, and the need for an organised national campaign for change. Dorothy Thompson’s provocative essay raises the question of whether Chartism was purely a class movement, emphasising popular culture and its influence on what she defines as the ‘language of class’, as opposed to ‘scientific socialism’ (p. 171). However, it is the final segment of These Fissured Isles which unifies the distinct and arguably disparate themes...