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Sara L. Maurer. The Dispossessed State: Narratives of Ownership in Nineteenth-Century Britain and Ireland. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. ISBN: 9781421403274. Price: US$60.00/£31.50

  • Heather Laird

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  • Heather Laird
    University College Cork

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Underpinning Sara L. Maurer’s The Dispossessed State is the notion that it is possible to trace, over the course of the nineteenth century, a significant shift in British thinking about property rights. While acknowledging that property continued to be a source of heated debate throughout the century, Maurer argues that by the end of the nineteenth century the belief that property pre-existed the law had been largely replaced by the belief that property was constituted by the law. Having established this thesis in her Introduction, Maurer proceeds, in the body of the book, to explore the extent to which, and ways in which, these two ways of thinking about property affected a century of Irish and British fiction, journalism, and political theory. Novelists are well represented in Maurer’s study, which discusses works by Maria Edgeworth, Anthony Trollope, George Moore, and George Meredith. Less space and attention is given to political and economic theorists: one chapter is devoted to John Stuart Mill’s conception of property, as demonstrated in his writings on Ireland, and one section of a chapter, on the Irish Land Acts of 1870 and 1881, to the ideas of Henry Sumner Maine and William Gladstone. As suggested by this brief overview, Ireland is assigned a key role in the property debates featured in The Dispossessed State. Nineteenth-century Irish nationalists, Maurer reminds us, “framed the Irish experience as one of having had rights to the land, of having been robbed of them by the British state, and of still experiencing them, nonetheless, as a palpable attachment” (8-9). At a time when rights of property in Britain were increasingly portrayed as being authorized by the state and its legal apparatus, she goes on to argue, a notion of property rights that could not be erased by mere legalities appealed to many British citizens.

The first chapter of the book is concerned with property rights in Maria Edgeworth’s fictional writings. For Edgeworth, we are told, property was a right that pre-existed law and the state. In Edgeworth’s Irish novels, however, the notion of an attachment to the soil that cannot be severed by legal means is as relevant to the Anglo-Irish as it is to the so-called native Irish. Indeed, this extra-legal attachment is shown to unite these two groupings. In Edgeworth’s final Irish novel, Ormond, this attachment and the unity it facilitates is placed under threat by increasing state involvement in Ireland. In Chapter 2, Maurer provides an overview and analysis of John Stuart Mill’s vision of property, suggesting that Mill not only believed that the state in the abstract had the power to create rights in property, but that, through the redistribution of land, it should begin to exercise such power in Ireland. In chapters 1 and 2, therefore, Maurer offers us two contrasting concepts of property and its relationship to law and the state. Chapter 3 discusses the appeal that Irish assertions of a “native attachment to the land” (122) had for those in Britain who were caught between such opposing visions of property. The chapter concludes with an examination of the aforementioned Irish Land Acts, arguing that, through the supposed restoration of indigenous property practices to the Irish, the Acts established a form of dual ownership that neither set a precedent for state interference with English property nor posed a threat to British rule in Ireland: “The Irish might own the land in their own way, and the British might go on controlling the same land in theirs” (131). The fourth chapter of the book maintains that Anthony Trollope drew on the Irish Land Acts in the distinction that he formed, in his Palliser series of novels, between formal ownership of a property and less defined, though equally significant, rights to the same property. Chapter 5, the final chapter of the book, is concerned with the fiction of George Moore and George Meredith. Drawing connections between British thinking about material and intellectual property, Maurer argues that Moore and Meredith, both supporters of Home Rule, imply in their writings that “giving up Ireland to Home Rule simply will make Britain like an author out of copyright” (168).

The diverse range of genres and authors examined in The Dispossessed State ensures that the book challenges both disciplinary and geographical boundaries. Consequently, Maurer’s book should be of interest to literary scholars, historians, and others whose research is focused on Ireland, Britain, or the relationship between the two. Indeed, by clearly indicating the extent to which debates on property in nineteenth-century Britain, more specifically England, were shaped by Ireland, Maurer reinstates the Atlantic archipelago as a useful geographical framework for both Irish and English studies. In contrast to earlier mainstream usages of this framework, however, Maurer does not present nineteenth-century England as the norm from which Ireland deviates. Maurer’s book attempts, with varying success, to challenge and, on occasions, reverse the long-established tendency to view Ireland and its culture as a strange regional variant of its more conventional neighbor. “British thought about property in land,” she tells us, for example, “was not a coherent, unified whole beside which the more localized practices of traditional Irish society looked fragmentary and irrational” (90-1). Indeed, to those in Britain who were “troubled by their own culture’s proprietary paradoxes” (91), she goes on to state, property issues in Ireland could seem reassuringly straightforward. Maurer’s attempted subversion of the normal/abnormal binary that, up to relatively recently, dominated scholarly analysis of the relationship between England and Ireland is to be welcomed. Not all of the assertions that she makes in support of this subversion are fully substantiated, however, and some, such as the above-mentioned claim regarding the relatively positive perception in Britain of Irish property, stretch plausibility.

Moreover, while Maurer, in The Dispossessed State, amply demonstrates the usefulness of the geographical framework that she employs, she makes little attempt to define the actual nature of the relationship that existed between nineteenth-century Ireland and England. The concept of colonialism is invoked on numerous occasions in the book, for example, but Maurer neither fully endorses a colonial framework in her representation of Irish/English relations nor completely rejects it. Thus, we are told that “members of [Maria Edgeworth’s] class maintained a monopoly on the land and leadership of the nation, which cast them in a colonizing role in Ireland” (20; my emphasis). In keeping with such ambiguous phraseology, the book alludes to the “anomalous semicolonial situation of Ireland in the nineteenth century” (8). In response to Maurer’s depiction of a nineteenth-century Ireland that was “neither fully colony nor co-nation” (7), it could be argued, with reference to Joe Cleary’s “Misplaced Ideas?”, that to define Ireland as an anomalous colony is to mistakenly assume that there is such a thing as a typical colony. In the above-mentioned article, Cleary, an Irish postcolonial critic, convincingly counters such assertions of Ireland’s colonial exceptionalism by clearly situating the country within the varied structures and practices of colonialism (C. Carroll and P. King, ed., Ireland and Postcolonial Theory [University of Notre Dame Press, 2003], 16−45).

In her Introduction, Maurer tells us that her intent “in telling the story about Irish property in the British imagination” has been to “unearth some of the ways that the multinational structure of the United Kingdom shaped what we know as British literature” (13). Maurer’s template for this decentering of Irish/British relations, as she acknowledges, is Katie Trumpener’s Bardic Nationalism (1997). Trumpener’s seminal publication, in its insistence that “English literature, so-called, constitutes itself in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries through the systematic imitation, appropriation and political neutralization of antiquarian and nationalist literary developments in Scotland, Ireland, and Wales” (Bardic Nationalism [Princeton University Press, 1997], xi), demonstrates the bidirectional nature of intellectual and cultural exchange at the time between England and its supposed peripheries. As indicated by Maurer, while the model adopted by Trumpener in Bardic Nationalism has had a visible impact on research into Romantic-era literature and culture, there are only a small number of full-length studies that acknowledge the influence that Ireland had on British culture during the Victorian period (14). By clearly demonstrating that cultural and intellectual traffic within the Atlantic archipelago operated in more than one direction, Maurer’s The Dispossessed State continues the very important work commenced in Trumpener’s Bardic Nationalism and paves the way for further much-needed scholarship on the mutually-influential relationship between nineteenth-century Ireland and Britain.