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DISTILLING SPIRITS AND REGULATING SUBJECTS: WHISKEY AND BEER IN ROMANTIC BRITAIN HEWITT S. THAYER the narrative section of Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800) concludes by considering the impending eVects of the union of England and Ireland. “The best that can happen,” Edgeworth writes, “is the exchange of the few Irish gentlemen of education for industrious British manufacturers .”1 Edgeworth thus seemingly dismisses questions about Irish identity after the union by asserting the pragmatic values of economic growth, greater employment, and investments in Irish infrastructure. Edgeworth acknowledges that an intellectual and artistic migration to England is a real loss for Irish culture, and that importing rich English manufacturers to Dublin will not necessarily improve the lot of the Irish. This “diYcult solution,”2 as Edgeworth calls it, may be somewhat ameliorated if the union successfully creates Britons rather than an underclass of Irish laborers who could not be assimilated into English or British culture as easily as the Irish gentlemen of education. Even the narrative shape of Castle Rackrent is marked by the pressure of the union. For example, the novel’s narrator places the story within a local Irish context by asserting that the tale itself is recounted by the novel’s main character, Thady, who may or may not be more deceptive than he seems. This emphasis on orality, on communal tale-telling, and on the necessity of a canny listener privileges a speciWc locale which is then ampliWed by the novel’s heavily inXected regional dialogue. Yet, Edgeworth gestures toward her English reading audience by including a “Glossary” to explain the tale’s various “Irishisms.” The Wrst note of the “Glossary,” in WHISKEY AND BEER IN ROMANTIC BRITAIN 7 1 Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent and Ennui, ed. Marilyn Butler (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1992), p. 122. 2 Ibid., p. 122. fact, appears to mock Irish traditions as quaint rusticisms out of step with the modern world, though it later appears that Edgeworth may be parodying the tendency toward mockery itself. These tonal ambiguities and complexities gesture toward the pressure generated by the union on such concepts as identity and tradition—for whom does Edgeworth write and where does her voice originate? Yet, rather than answering these questions, or even posing them directly, Edgeworth chooses the following, curious question with which to conclude her novel: “Did the Warwickshire militia, who were chieXy artisans, teach the Irish to drink beer? or did they learn from the Irish to drink whiskey?”3 The Warwickshire militia, as Marilyn Butler points out, was part of the roughly 80,000 troops diverted from the war with Napoleonic France to police Ireland during the 1790s.4 Inasmuch as the political function of the militia is to establish an order out of which the union can emerge, it mirrors the Glossary’s function as a narratological accommodation of English readers. Teaching the Irish to drink beer repeats, or completes at a lower social level, the easy assimilation of those Irish gentlemen of education into British culture. As Edgeworth suggests, beer-drinking is synonymous with an ordered, patriotic culture, in which systemic social relations occur in anticipated, regulated ways. As such beer-drinking is essentially connected to what Raymond Williams calls the “Morality of Improvement,”5 and improvement is precisely what the incursion of British manufacturers into Ireland promises. Improvement essentially restructures the relationship between an individual and the immediate environment in order to exploit the investment of one’s labor to maximum eVect. By capitalizing on reorganized relations with the land, with others, or with the self, personal proWt contributes to national ethos. The connection between improvement and imperialism becomes clear in the drive toward the well-ordered, stable, class relations, which Tom Nairn argues were essential to Britain’s imperial project.6 WHISKEY AND BEER IN ROMANTIC BRITAIN 8 3 Ibid., p. 122. The spelling of “whiskey” varies widely for a number of reasons. Scottish single malt is spelt “whisky,” but in Ireland the spelling is “whiskey.” For the purposes of this paper, I choose to standardize the spelling as “whiskey,” even when referring to Scottish malt. 4 Ibid., p. 351. 5 See Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973). 6...


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