- The Dispossessed State: Narratives of Ownership in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Ireland by Sara L. Maurer
It seems appropriate that Sara L. Maurer’s first book, The Dispossessed State: Narratives of Ownership in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Ireland, would be published in a year when Downton Abbey, a pbs television show whose plot revolves around a dilemma of ownership, has skyrocketed to fame. Downton Abbey is, of course, far from the first popular work to portray the complex ins and outs of British property ownership, a recurring feature of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction, from Jane Austen to Anthony Trollope. More important than its unlikely pop-culture relevance, though, is the model of scholarship Maurer presents in this original, insightful work, which bridges a gap between British and Irish studies. In The Dispossessed State, Maurer traces the revolution in attitudes about property rights in nineteenth-century English and Anglo-Irish narratives of ownership. In her examination of a range of nineteenth-century texts and authors who engage questions of ownership, Maurer brings together the two cultures, each holding radically different views on property and the state.
In addition to examining literature and journalism, Maurer incisively draws on the political, economic, and legal theories that compelled changes in thought about the individual, property, and the state. In her discussion of the formation of Victorian ideas about property, Maurer argues that Ireland wielded a major influence on how the British conceived of their own national identity in terms of property. Though we tend to think of the Victorian British Isles in exclusively British terms, Maurer reminds us that in terms of property, inhabitants of the British Isles understood themselves not separately but as part of a complex relationship, “in terms that linked Irish and British culture” (4). This framing of the English and Irish relationship as deeply intertwined is strongly supported in the various texts Maurer surveys in her study of property, the state, and national identity.
In her analysis of discourses of property and state emergent in literature of the nineteenth century, Maurer draws primarily on the fiction and non-fiction writings of Maria Edgeworth, John Stuart Mill, Anthony Trollope, George Moore, and George Meredith. In her chapter on Maria Edgeworth’s Irish fiction, Maurer begins by discussing Edgeworth’s own lack of ownership over her intellectual property. Her reading of Edgeworth’s novels is especially compelling when she explains Edgeworth’s dispossession of her own work. That Anglo-Irish and Irish right to property takes such a central position in her novels Castle Rackrent (1801), Ennui (1809), and Ormond (1817) is a fascinating connection Maurer mines, finding ultimately that Edgeworth’s literature unifies Anglo-Irish and Irish in a shared sense of dispossession. That is, Edgeworth’s view on property, apparent from her novels, is that those who own the land should rule Ireland. [End Page 211]
Edgeworth’s particular view of property as a right pre-existing the state is almost directly opposed to the views articulated in John Stuart Mill’s journalism on the same question. As Maurer explains in her second chapter, Mill believed the state should create rights in property and exercise that power in Ireland. In chapter 3, Maurer discusses the appeal of indigenous property rights to Irish nationalists and others caught between the two prevailing discourses of property rights and the state in the Victorian years, represented by the previously discussed works of Edgeworth and Mill. Maurer’s succinct overview and explanation of competing narratives of property ownership in this chapter are extremely helpful to readers unfamiliar with Victorian ideas of property. Chapter 4 turns again to fiction, reading Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels in terms of property and the role of a wife, a relationship that, according to Maurer, presents a metaphor for “vicarious ownership” and enjoyment of the state by non-owners. The final chapter argues in favour of reading George Moore’s Drama in Muslin and George Meredith’s Diana of the Crossways as responses to the proposal of the...