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In Allegories of Union, Mary Jean Corbett examines the representation of relations between England and Ireland in the nineteenth-century novel and non-fiction prose, particularly through the troping of political union as wedded union after the 1800 Act of Union replaced the Irish Parliament with Irish seats in the British Parliament. Specifically, she considers a "'two nations' novelistic discourse" which "may be understood as founded on and reproduced through a series of binary divisions—of class, of race, and of nation—which a marriage plot works to suture or seal" (87). This discourse provides a common space for generative considerations of both Irish national tales of the Romantic period and condition-of-England novels of the Victorian era (Scottish, Welsh, and pan-British literatures are beyond the scope of this study). The complexity of the ties between the two nations is made clearest in Corbett's discussion of migration both in novels and as part of the context for novelistic production. It is in representations of Irish immigrants, for instance, that the emergent racist discourse of the nineteenth century is brought to bear on the problem of defining difference and the limits of political incorporation. Throughout, Corbett attends to the moral imperative, or fantasy, which inexorably recedes along the horizon of imperial rule: to rule by consent rather than force.

Corbett begins in the first chapter with an examination of various texts by Edmund Burke which imagine the nation-state as both analogous to and founded upon the family, and she then traces this model's operation in Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent. As Corbett argues, "Burke represents the nexus among family, property, and civil society as immemorial and indissoluble" (24). She suggests that, "Prescribing assimilation rather than conquest, consensual rule over coercive legislation, the Burkean paradigm for attaching Ireland to England required the development of ideological instruments that would promote these ends," and that the domestic novel is one such instrument (39). Thus, in Castle Rackrent, the plot's focus on failures of inheritance and the production of heirs, as well as the transfer of the Rackrent estate to Jason, engage the "Burkean paradigm" to relegate Irishness, as a failure to function within that paradigm, to the past.

In the next chapter, Corbett continues to trace the operation of the Burkean model in two novels that are overtly framed on the marriage plot: Sydney Owenson's The Wild Irish Girl and Edgeworth's The Absentee. Corbett nicely supplements Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace's discussion of the imperative to "train" women in The Absentee as well as the many analyses of the so-called "Glorvina solution"[1] by addressing not only the inheritance from mothers to daughters and the symbolics of marriage in the national tale, but also the power dynamics within the family unit. Thus, she argues of the ending of The Absentee that "familial and public affections have been reconciled, with a gendered ethos of patriarchal responsibility and feminine submission installed as their mainspring" (79). In her discussion of The Wild Irish Girl, Corbett focuses on Horatio's transformation as one that follows a trajectory from violence and domination to "natural affection" (59) and consent. Her conclusions about the novel, however, sometimes fail to persuade: she writes, for instance, "In depicting the direct descendants of those Irish chieftains wronged by conquest as actively consenting to Burke's 'artificial institutes,' Owenson associates dissent from the Burkean position with error, with the 'lower orders,' and, by implication, with revolutionary violence of the kind that erupted in 1798" (61). That the rational Glorvina echoes Burke may be suggestive (61), but Owenson's depiction of the native aristocracy does not in and of itself make clear suggestions about the "lower orders" or those who do not echo Burke. What troubles this claim is not only the lack of cited textual evidence but also Owenson's representation of Glorvina's relationship to the "lower orders" as harmonious (if not simple) and the prominent participation of the professional classes in the 1798 Uprising.

In Chapter Three, Corbett turns to the representation of  Irish immigrants to Victorian England, particularly in relation to the formation of working-class English identity. While Owenson's English hero is positively affected, even healed, by the Irish, in the texts discussed here Irish immigrants corrupt "the great English towns" (83). Crucially, Corbett examines the ways in which this representation of the Irish arises from emergent racist categories and serves English ideological interests, adding productively to scholarship on the racing of the Irish in the nineteenth century.[2] Gaskell's North and South, in which Irish workers are imported to break a strike, reveals the complex ways in which the Irish are represented as sources of instability in order to foster solidarity between the mill-owners and the workers: "Thornton [the mill owner] and the English workers are linked across their differences of class position in their assessment of the Irish, augmenting the sense that expelling the Irish is necessary to put in place the new cross-class national dispensation, founded on ethnic unity, that the narrative implicitly promotes" (94). Corbett traces a similar mobilization of English solidarity through Kingsley's Alton Locke. Richly contextualizing this line of enquiry, Corbett draws on a wide range of contemporary texts, including Disraeli's Sybil, Carlyle's Chartism, and sociological works about urban conditions and immigration by such key figures as Mayhew, Engels, and Marx.

In the next chapter, Corbett examines Trollope's Irish novels. While "Irish starvelings" (92) travelled to England in order to scrape a living, Trollope made his fortune in Ireland by securing a well-paid position in a country where it was cheap to live and by finding there "the material for his first two novels" (114)—novels published in the 1840s that were widely read in part because of the keen interest in Ireland during the Great Famine (125). In Trollope's writings, the famine is beneficial, clearing the way for a renewal under the English sign of modernity (130-37), and this view is authorized by "Trollope's doubled claim to 'know' the Irish, derived from his position within Ireland as a colonial functionary and his literary endeavor to represent Ireland in realist fiction" (117). This view is elaborated in Trollope's famine novel, Castle Richmond (1860), a novel that echoes Gaskell's North and South in its aim to form cross-class solidarities (139) and dispense rewards according to proximity to Englishness (140-41).

No study of nineteenth-century English attitudes towards Ireland and "Irishness" would, of course, be complete without some attention to Arnold's notorious work on "Celticism." In the final chapter, Corbett usefully lays this key work alongside J.S. Mill's writings on Ireland and Gladstonian politics. Here, the marriage metaphor for Anglo-Irish union is refracted through Victorian "debates on the politics of marriage" (148), including the divorce question. Divorce, in the Victorian discourse addressed in this last chapter, relies upon defining the point at which union becomes coercion—the point at which a husband becomes ineffectual, unable to rule without force. This allows a refiguring of the problem of securing colonial consent to imperial domination: Corbett argues that Arnold's On the Study of Celtic Literature "identifies England's inability to marry itself to Ireland, and so to produce a united British family, as a sign of that the English lack" (155). She suggests that Arnold works to resolve that lack through a racial analysis which seeks to represent England as heterogeneous; consequently, though the Irish are still represented as inadequate to the demands of modernity or home rule (160), they are not depicted "as an external source of contagion" (159) but "as, for good or ill, internal to and part of what makes up Englishness" (159). Mill, Corbett argues, also saw the strains in the Union as an English failure: in his controversial pamphlet, England and Ireland, he writes, "the difficulty of governing Ireland lies entirely in our own minds; it is an incapability of understanding" (qtd. 174). For both Mill and Arnold, redressing that lack would vindicate English character as well as serve English interests.

While Allegories of Union is one of the few volume-length studies of nineteenth-century Irish literature that pays extensive attention to the context of colonialism, some of the claims made in the Introduction about the paucity of material in this field are overstated. Corbett suggests, for instance, that, "within the broad rethinking of imperial discourse in the nineteenth century, initiated more than two decades ago by the publication of Edward W. Said's Orientalism (1978), the matter of Ireland has been neglected by those in both postcolonial and English studies, even by those who have worked most assiduously to complicate our understandings of empire" (10). The very wealth of references in this study suggests that the picture was much more complicated than this by 1997, the last year represented in Corbett's bibliography—a bibliography that includes such notable volumes as David Lloyd's essential Anomalous States: Irish Writing and the Post-Colonial Moment (1993), Terry Eagleton's Heathcliff and the Great Hunger (1995), and Luke Gibbons' Transformations in Irish Culture (1996).  Moreover, particularly since the 1980s, there has been an intense debate about Ireland's (post)colonial status, especially thought not exclusively among historians.[3]

Such occasional overstatements aside, this study offers a useful overview of a number of key texts on Anglo-Irish relations as well as, more importantly, a sustained analysis of the specific ways in which gender and race were co-opted to serve the interests of English nation-building.