- Writing the Frontier: Anthony Trollope between Britain and Irelandby John McCourt
At the end of Writing the Frontier: Anthony Trollope between Britain and Ireland, John McCourt makes the claim that underwrites his entire book when he characterizes Anthony Trollope as "a quasi-Irish writer who made a deeply significant contribution to the canon of the nineteenth-century Irish novel over a fifty-year period stretching from the 1840s to the 1880s" (276). The admirable work that McCourt has done fully supports this claim and provides an elegant rereading of Trollope as a participant observer whose twenty years of living in Ireland provided him with an experience of Irish culture unequaled by other canonical Victorian writers. Two attributes make McCourt's book particularly effective: first, the amazing extent of the author's research into both Trollope and Ireland and second, the care with which he approaches the difficult political issues surrounding Trollope's presentation of Ireland.
As is generally true of great Trollope scholars, McCourt displays an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject. His references include a wide range of Trollope's novels, short stories, travel writings, essays, and personal letters. McCourt also pays attention to the smallest details, referencing virtually every Irish character that ever appeared in Trollope's writings either fictional or non-fictional. He is even able to identify non-Irish characters and places whose names are derived from Trollope's Irish experience. Aptly, given Writing the Frontier's dual focus, McCourt is as knowledgeable about Irish history and literature as about Trollope's life and writings. McCourt's mine of information, which he presents in particular detail in the introductory chapter, grants readers familiar with Trollope a new sense of the novelist's careful study of the Irish context from which he draws his fictional portraits.
Trollope's depictions of Ireland's relation to England also raise vexed questions about canonical Victorian novelists' representations of Empire that critics have addressed in relation to Trollope, but also to Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, among others. In Trollope's case, there has been a recent move, exemplified perhaps most clearly in the essay collection edited by Deborah Deneholz Morse, Margaret Markwick, and Regenia Gagnier, The Politics of Gender in Anthony Trollope's Novels: New Readings for the Twenty-First Century(2009), to read the novelist as less conservative and more liberal [End Page 345]than he has previously been conceived to be. McCourt's work falls into this camp; it carefully demonstrates Trollope's consistent respect for Ireland and Irish culture. This respect is perhaps most obvious in the short stories, which "dramatize moments in which an English 'stranger' or outsider fails to understand or fit into an Irish situation or, perhaps better, fails to gracefully accept Irish hospitality" (221). McCourt stresses Trollope's desire to create accurate representations of the Irish and his systematic attempts from the beginning to the end of his career to counter various anti-Irish and anti-Catholic stereotypes. McCourt's discussion of Trollope's sympathetic representation of priests is particularly telling.
But McCourt is also faced with the problems of Trollope's own biases and is very careful to explain Trollope's basic belief that "Ireland needed to be made more English, but also that Ireland had much to offer England and the Empire if only it were understood and better treated" (25). Structuring Writing the Frontierchronologically, McCourt begins with Trollope's earliest novels— The Macdermots of Ballycloran(1847) and The Kellys and the O'Kellys(1848), noting their complex relation both to Irish politics and Irish literature. Turning to Castle Richmond(1860), he acknowledges Trollope's willingness to address the difficult topic of the famine but also makes it clear that the novelist was never able to come to terms with the pain of those who experienced the event: "he chose to interpret the Famine as a necessary end that pushed a reluctant country towards modernity" (102). Ending Writing the Frontierwith Trollope's late works, An...