- Ireland, India and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Literature
The title meeting for this book must have been tense. Its blurb says that the book "focuses on the way nineteenth-century Irish writers wrote about India." Its opening remarks that "little attention has yet been paid to the ways in which nineteenth-century writers from colonized nations wrote about colonization beyond their own borders" (1). These remarks, along with the book's title, point toward a study of India in the Irish literary imagination, concerned at least in part with whether and how Irish writers imagined in India an analogue for their own experience of British rule. The volume offers instead much more diverse reflections touching on the gothic, the culture of sensibility, the economics of colonization, and nineteenth-century historiography.
The first chapter does not deal with India but rather provides an insightful and dynamic analysis of the way Enlightenment notions of sensibility functioned within Irish nationalist discourse. Chapter 2 continues in this vein, developing a coherent and useful reading of novels by Sidney Owenson (Lady Morgan) and Maria Edgeworth. This reading reveals sensibility as the force that binds otherwise feckless Anglo-Irish settlers to a sense of duty in the tasks of colonial administration. But these novels do not picture India in any way, nor does Wright's reading argue that India has any significance within them. Later chapters work with texts that imagine Indian settings, and in the second of the book's two major sections, "Colonial Gothic and the Circulation of Wealth," Wright shifts her focus away from sensibility in works of the Romantic period and toward questions of history and economics in works that span the long nineteenth century, from "Monk" Lewis to Bram Stoker.
The book has considerable strengths, and foremost among these is the attention it devotes to literary texts that carried weight in their era but that tend to be neglected by contemporary scholars. Wright highlights Thomas Moore's Memoirs of Captain Rock, Charles Robert Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, and Denis Florence McCarthy's "Afghanistan," and in doing so, she effectively enlarges the ongoing conversation within post-colonial studies about the status of an Anglo-Irish literature. More impressive still is Wright's innovative treatment of the way Enlightenment ideas of sensibility threaded their way through often disparate views of nationalism and national identity well into the nineteenth century. The idea of a "romantic" nationalism is often too easily and sketchily evoked in discussions of nineteenth-century Irish culture, and Wright's work does a great deal to amplify and to complicate this formulation. But the argument about sensibility runs through only part of the book, and, since it is not set out as the volume's overarching argument, its stakes and consequences are never explored in a clear way. Representations of India are likewise the subject of many, but not all, of the book's chapters, and thus again the argument about how Irish writers invented and traded their figures of India is not completely [End Page 157] realized. Scholars are increasingly interested in the connections and comparisons between India and Ireland that nineteenth-century observers identified and wrote about. It is an important area of emerging research, engaged with central questions in colonial history and culture, and this book will help to establish and promote this emerging field.
Gordon Bigelow teaches in the Department of English at Rhodes College, in Memphis, Tennessee. He is the author of Fiction, Famine, and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (2003).