Mary Jean Corbett, Allegories of Union in Irish and English Writing, 1790-1870: Politics, History, and the Family from Edgeworth to Arnold. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. ISBN: 0-521-66132-3 (hbk.). Price: US$65.00 (£40.00).[Record]

  • Julia M. Wright

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  • Julia M. Wright
    Wilfrid Laurier University

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" 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 …