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Natasha Tessone offers an important intervention into current critical understandings of the novel's reliance on and reimagining of structures of property and inheritance. In this thought-provoking study, she emphasizes the national dimension of the inheritance plot, examining novels by Irish and Scottish authors that feature dispossession, broken families, and restrictive entails; as she explains, "The construction of the British nation as a family estate is … at the heart of Irish and Scottish novels of the Romantic period. And as is with many large families of the [End Page 137] period, this family too had to deal with disputed legacies, illegitimate children, a wrongfully dispossessed heir, and even an occasional 'injured lady'" (3). By aligning property and nation, Tessone demonstrates that plotting inheritance allows Irish and Scottish authors such as Maria Edgeworth and Walter Scott to address British conquest and its shaping of national identity and political alliance. The Irish and Scottish romance novel, as Tessone argues, disrupts both geographical and temporal boundaries, reworking violent pasts of property seizure in order to posit new national futures of economic and political self-determination. Disputed Titles convincingly demonstrates that the early nineteenth-century desire to reorder interconnected forms of inheritance—property, familial, identity, and political—accounts for the popularity of the romance novel.
Romance novels of landownership are inherently political novels of national and not just individual self-determination. In making this argument, Disputed Titles focuses on the motivating desires that underlie the Irish and Scottish inheritance novel: the allure of nationalist and antiquarian myths of a harmonious past that can somehow be preserved through proper inheritance; the allure of the entail inheritance structure, which allows estate owners to predetermine their heirs and thus promises to stabilize national identity; and the allure of the belief that "natural feeling" secures justice and that a passionate defence of property rights will lead to a fair system of national justice. This study is at its best when exploring these attractions and how they reveal the logic of the romance novel and its interest in resolving often-competing desires for continuity and reform.
The attempts of the Irish and Scottish romances to imagine a perfected national future are fraught with difficulties owing to these attractions of the past and the need to connect that past to a vision of a united Britain. As Tessone emphasizes, "Irish and Scottish plots of inheritance tirelessly interrogate such seemingly generic terms as 'law,' 'justice,' and 'property,' and expose how, when examined against the backdrop of coexisting regional, national, or transnational cultures, they generate profoundly different—and often conflicting—meanings"; she continues to explain that these novels work to "resist" the expected "emplotments" of these concepts while negotiating both their "universal import" and "culturally specific implications" (22–23). Ultimately, then, these novels of inheritance "reveal a challenging conundrum facing these regional writers: how to preserve a distinct cultural and national legacy and still remain a part of the larger nation" (23). Tessone examines how novels by Edgeworth, Scott, Sydney Owenson, and John Galt are committed to dramatizing disrupted inheritance structures and positing new [End Page 138] replacement structures that bridge divisions—connecting the individual and communal, familial and political, past and future, and regional and national—but often resort to character and plot devices that complicate and subvert any idealized solution to these divisions.
A real strength of Disputed Titles is its compelling close readings of the novels under consideration. Careful analysis of the romance novel reveals the pressures it is under both to express and to mask the national underpinnings of the inheritance plot. For example, Tessone provides a provocative analysis of Edgeworth's 1817 novel Harrington and Edgeworth's admission that the novel commits an "Irish blunder": its convoluted conclusion relies on a "conventional love-plot ending" (104) that reveals the Jewish Berenice to be an English Protestant, allowing the hero Harrington to regain his sanity, marry her, and retain his inheritance. Although Edgeworth was committed to creating a...