You are on Érudit's new platform. Enjoy! Switch to classic view


Julia Wright. Ireland, India and Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. ISBN: 978-0521868228. Price: US$106

  • Irene Tucker

…more information

  • Irene Tucker
    University of California, Irvine

Logo for Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net

Article body

If the title of Julia Wright’s Ireland, India and Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century seems curiously inert, evoking a world in which territories and topics do not change and knowledge is straightforwardly cumulative, the argument within is animated by a shadow title—“West Britain.” This shadow-title picks out its argument by way of a kind of referential lightness, an ephemerality in which the pointing to one thing alters the objects in its ambit and analysis takes the form of a tracing of the history of those alterations. For William Drennan, a leader of the United Irishmen movement, a 1790s urban, Protestant nationalist movement that attempted to forge alliances with rural Catholics (as well as the author of the epigraph with which Wright opens her monograph), “West Britain” names both a territory and an anxiety. Writing to William Pitt in 1799, Drennan lodges his political protest in the form of a semantic intervention: “‘I see, not an East-India Bill, but a West-Britain bill preparing for dissolving not only all principles of constitution, but the constituency itself, for removing the seat of government for ever from the soil, and eternalizing the provinciality and servitude of my country [Ireland], under an administration unalterably English’” (1, emphasis in original). Were we to go on to imagine for a moment Drennan as a reader of Wright’s historical account and not merely an actor within it, we might anticipate his resisting the title’s “eternalizings”: “Ireland,” “India,” and “nationalism” do not simply name places or describe topics but present and represent political accomplishments—the transformation of mutually ramifying relations into something “unalterable.”

Happily, both Wright’s field of investigation and her mode of analysis are infused with the spirit of her shadow-title “West-Britain.” Her topic, she informs us early on, is understudied—“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)—but, more to the point, analysis of the ways in which Irish writers represented colonial India (and, to a lesser extent, the British Middle East) matters because it offers a prism through which to view the transformations of British colonial relations over time. As Wright explains, “When the British Empire began to expand rapidly in the eighteenth century, Irish writers could respond to that expansion by drawing on a centuries-old national tradition of cultural responses to colonialism and foreign invasion. They also had unique access to British readers and publishers because of a shared cultural economy facilitated by both geographical proximity and a language shared after centuries of colonial domination” (1-2). Studying the Eastern expansion of the British Empire by way of the responses of Irish writers and political actors reveals the complexity and tenuousness of relations between metropole and colonies. In her account, the sort of transparency and self-evidence signaled by her title’s inventory is colonialism’s accomplishment: a web of cultural, linguistic, institutional and economic intimacies born of relations of political domination and subordination—the threat evoked by the Drennan’s coinage “West Britain.” Even—indeed, especially—when the political relation between colonizer and colonized remains in place over time, the cultural interactions that both subtend and are the consequence of that political link do not remain unaltered. If most postcolonial theory conceives of its project as elaborating the relations between “this” and “the Other,” Wright’s nineteenth-century historicization follows the example of John Barrell by introducing another term to the deixis—a “that” that points to Ireland, and glosses Ireland’s power to trouble colonialism’s dichotomies. Ireland is “European but exotic, Christian but Catholic, literate but culturally impoverished, enfranchised but colonized, white but feminized.” (7) Proximity and immediacy, it turns out, are themselves relational and mediated.

The nineteenth-century Irish thinkers Wright examines made sense of their shifting relations both with the metropole and with the newly colonized Indians by recourse to the discourse of sensibility, particularly as it is theorized in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759). “Offering a framework within which to imagine a fundamental similitude between human beings grounded in sympathy and affect rather than shared culture,” Wright explains, “sensibility provides a philosophical basis for transcending divisions such as ‘race,’ ‘religion’ and ‘nation’ in ways that both trouble imperial hegemony and facilitate cross cultural identifications such as Irish writers pursue in various texts about India” (3). As Wright goes on to detail, sensibility’s valuations most often reverse colonial power relations: its celebration of affect is frequently invoked to condemn the politically powerful agents of British colonialism for their lack of feeling, while the inhabitants of Ireland and India alike are united by their shared capacity for sympathy, an overflowing of affect made possible, in large part, by their shared oppression. (Though, as Wright is careful to acknowledge, these valuations can be—and often are—easily reversed: indigenous peoples, in their investment in having their particular cultural habits recognized and respected, are vulnerable to being figured as immorally self-serving.) Specific valuations aside, what makes sensibility especially useful for Irish writers hoping to forge common cause with colonized Indians is its function as a framework for conceiving of commonness as a state created among individuals imbued with a shared capacity for sympathetic affect, rather than a condition achieved by way of structures of collectivity like “religion, state, technology or military might” (21). In Wright’s reading, the Irish anti-colonial movement ought to be understood as a form of nationalism, not because it attempts to put native-run political institutions in the place of colonial ones, but because it refuses to, insisting instead upon a socius created around shared feeling and the shared capacity for feeling (hence her title).

Because sensibility emphasizes affective rather than institutional bonds, literature is both a crucial instrument deployed in the forging of sympathetic relations, and a useful register for sensibility’s limitations, incoherencies, and failure. Wright divides her study in two parts, roughly separating sensibility’s successes in imagining links among far-flung colonial subjects from its failures. The first section focuses mainly, though not exclusively, on the genre of the romance. Wright begins this section with what is implicitly a contemporary theorization of the usefulness of the sentimental romance. While Charles Teeling’s 1828 description of the 1798 Irish uprising has long been taken as bad history writing, Wright believes that the measure of its textual authority ought to be understood not in terms of the fidelity of his representations of historical events but the force with which it both represents and attempts to generate sympathetic bonds – the way in which it undertakes to produce in its readers sympathy for the efforts of the largely protestant United Irishmen to merge with the predominantly Catholic Defenders. In Wright’s redaction of Teeling, the “people [of Ireland] are united by their sympathetic response to suffering instituted by the government. They are not united by Celticism, an attachment to the land, ideological agendas for re-framing the nation, language, religion or class, but by their virtuous capacity for sympathy and their exposure to the effects of oppression” (45).

Teeling’s departures from historical truth in the name of producing new affective facts on the ground provide a framework for analyzing the fictional romances Wright examines in the chapter that follows, including Lady (Sydney) Morgan’s The Wild Irish Girl and Maria Edgeworth’s Ennui and “Lame Jervas.” In The Wild Irish Girl, Wright explains, Morgan adopts the familiar trope of marriage as an instrument for the harmonious reconciliation of colonizer and colonized and remakes it within the terms of Enlightenment sensibility. Horatio, the novel’s English protagonist, not only falls in love with the Irish heroine Glorvina, but also is educated and enlightened by her, and in thus coming to sympathize with her, assimilates to Irish culture as well. In Edgeworth’s narratives, by contrast, protagonists are educated into culture, but in place of a young English man coming to adopt the culture of a rational beloved, Edgeworth’s Ennui represents a process by which an Irish man, tutored by an older English mentor, “must learn English practicality in order to marry the Anglo-Irish woman who has legal claim to the land” (79). In the final chapter of her book’s first section, Wright turns her attention to the figure of the convert in the nineteenth-century. Insofar as religious conversion was expected to produce loyalty to the colonial regime, exploration of the relations of religious faith versus religious identity is often used as a metonym that allows authors obliquely to engage the nature of political identity and loyalty. In Morgan’s The Missionary: An Indian Tale (1811) and Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh: An Oriental Tale (1817), religious feeling is so deeply rooted in family ties and cultural practice that any effort to force its alteration is bound to produce inauthentic, conflicted and culturally alienated subjects. By contrast, William Hamilton Drummond’s A Learned Indian in Search of Religion (1833) presents the devastating alienation that follows the Indian colonial subject’s conversion to Christianity as evidence of the difficult but necessary truth of faith in Christ.

Wright shifts analytical gears in the second half of her study, directing us away from the romance’s trade in affect and toward the gothic novel’s engagement with the complexities of the colonial circulation of wealth. The shift is motivated historically: the impeachment trail of Warren Hastings at the end of the eighteenth century made the economic mechanisms of colonialism visible in a newly public way, which had the effect of encouraging impoverished Britons to go to India to achieve the standard of living England’s socioeconomic problems denied them. The gothic novels Wright examines plot variations on this economic narrative. The Irish novelist Elizabeth Lefanu’s 1804 The India Voyage offers the story of a well-born but impoverished Englishwoman whose plans to travel to India to find a suitable husband among the Anglo-Indians are delayed just long enough for her to land a mate without leaving home. In Matthew Lewis’s bizarre gothic tale, “The Anaconda,” the sensitive English protagonist travels to Ceylon, and is so coarsened by his time there that he ends up brutally beating an anaconda to death, an incident that is later misunderstood to involve the beating of an Irish woman named “Anne O’Connor.” For Wright, the lesson of Lewis’s tale is clear, even if the narrative is anything but: “The orient, by its very insensibility, tortures the sensible individual into an excessive feeling that is ultimately numbing” (134). In the chapter that follows, which includes readings of Morgan’s “Absenteeism,” Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer and Denis Florence MacCarthy’s “Afghanistan,” the narrative convolutions of the gothic form are used to illuminate the sort of stasis and repetitiveness of colonial history Antonio Gramsci identified years ago. In Melmoth, Maturin entwines a series of embedded tales and then fails to finish them as a means of evoking the power of various colonial spaces to disrupt and interrupt the linear transmission of property from one generation to the next. In her final chapter, Wright moves to the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth in order to counterpose Bram Stoker’s often-neglected works The Lady of the Shroud (1909) and The Lair of the White Worm (1911) with Oscar Wilde’s much better known The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). Wilde transforms the East End of London into a version of the colonial east, Wright argues, but goes on to identify the quarter’s inhabitants with a pallor, a whiteness, that is sickly rather than beautiful. For Stoker, by contrast, the British empire is the source of hybridity, but it is a hybridity that strengthens metropolitan culture rather than evacuating (or “whitening”) it.

As I hope my description has made apparent, Wright engages an impressively various set of texts. She brings together canonical and obscure texts in ways that not only mark out a specific colonial trajectory, but also thicken and nuance to the postcolonial paradigms she places herself in relation to. (For example, Wright’s efforts to think about the relation between colony and metropole through the mid-way position of Ireland lend Homi Bhabha’s notion of colonial mimicry a new historical weightiness.) I wish that she had spent more time characterizing sensibility as an intellectual system; here, a more sustained reading of Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments might have allowed us to understand sensibility as a set of interlocking claims, rather than a largely disconnected series of characteristics. (One important question Wright doesn’t explore as fully as she might: What is the relation between sensibility’s formal interest in subjects’ shared capacity for feeling and the specific feelings they share?) Because we are never presented with sensibility’s internal logic, the series of texts Wright describes are likely to come off as a series of random and discrete engagements with the categories of colonial sensibility, rather than an attempt to think through the discourse’s problems or logics. But perhaps this is only fitting. In synthesizing a new archive from a set of texts about the power of feeling to galvanize collective cultural goals, she will doubtless inspire her readers to pick up from where she has left off.