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Fighting With Shadows

Brian Earls

From Castle Rackrent to Castle Dracula: Anglo-Irish Agrarian Fiction from the Nineteenth Century, Paul EH Davis, University of Buckingham Press, 351 pp, £25, ISBN 978-0956071675

Paul Davis has as his subject a body of fiction whose central theme was the contested relationship between a landlord class of predominantly English origin, whose title deeds derived from the great land confiscations of the seventeenth century, and their frequently resentful Irish tenants. At the centre of his work are a group of writers – Thomas Moore, Gerald Griffin, William Carleton, John and Michael Banim, Charles Kickham, Anthony Trollope and (somewhat improbably for, as has been argued in the Spring 2012 issue of the drb, he displayed little interest in the land question) Bram Stoker – who sought to blur the edges of the confrontation and to suggest, in fictional terms, possible accommodations which would be to the advantage of both parties. In doing so, Davis argues, they came to inhabit a world whose outlines had been crafted by Maria Edgeworth and whose governing assumptions combined unionism with a belief in the benevolent potential of the thought of Adam Smith. In Davis’s account the nineteenth century Irish writers were constrained artistically by this inheritance, as they engaged in a series of imitations of, and variations upon, Castle Rackrent and The Absentee, with the result that they found themselves in Edgeworth’s shadow even when they contested her analysis.

Although Davis has a poor ear for the elements of ambiguity, and of bleak subversive laughter, so common among Edgeworth’s successors, this is an interesting account of nineteenth century Irish fiction. Unfortunately the literary analysis is accompanied by a polemic of almost comic monotony against “nationalist” critics, and their “extreme republican” colleagues, accused of an anachronistic foisting of their own concerns upon the writing of earlier generations. What follows has something of the air of a Punch and Judy show, or of a battle with shadows, as the author establishes that Gerald Griffin and the Banim brothers belonged to the 1820s and did not advance the programme of late nineteenth century agrarianism, or speak the language of early twentieth century nationalism. Davis makes particularly heavy weather of his dealings with William Carleton, whose dim and conventional biographer, DJ O’Donoghue, is asked to bear a weight far out of proportion to his significance. In spite of his fondness for verbal cotton wool, O’Donoghue got his facts right. The same cannot be said of Davis, who links The Black Prophet to a non-existent famine of 1804 (Carleton tells us it was based on scenes he witnessed in 1817 and 1822). His tracing of Carleton’s conversion to Protestantism to a dream while on a pilgrimage to Lough Derg is equally questionable. I am aware of no basis for it in Carleton’s writings.

In so far as Paul Davis’s “nationalist critics” are anything more than a rhetorical device, they might be seen as reflecting the responses of the nineteenth and early twentieth century Irish common reader, who made Griffin, the Banims and Carleton their favourites but read them in terms of their own values and sympathies. That community’s understanding of its own situation, and of what it saw as a deformed relationship between land ownership and law, found expression in a bleak jest occurring in the popular culture in both Irish and English. The joke, which assumed multiple forms but whose core element turned upon an inversion of values, tells in one variant of a roguish individual who is asked if he has ever performed a good deed in his life. After some reflection he responds that he has – he killed a tithe proctor, or a process server, or a gauger, or an attorney. The joke, which at its most elaborate implied a counter-legitimacy to that claimed by the special magistrates and other agents of the nineteenth century state, proved highly usable in fictional terms and found multiple echoes in the works of Griffin, Carleton and the Banims. Although the jest does not attract Davis’s attention, it fascinated QD Leavis, who saw it as providing an elegant, if unsettling, perspective on popular morality and regarded its presence as a distinctive feature of the nineteenth century Irish novel.

The joke, which was sharp-edged and disturbing, found its dull counterpart in the comic Victorian neologism “to Tipperary” and variants. This had its basis in a perception of Tipperary, renowned for its robust resistance to landlord exactions, as an emblem of mindlessness, violence and chaos. To point out the obvious, the neologism has long since been forgotten, and Tipperary has become one of the most respectable of Irish counties, because qualities which Victorian commentators asserted were intrinsic to the Irish character were not but had their origin in the landlord-tenant relationship and faded with the waning of landlord power. In characterising his attitude to his subject, Paul Davis describes his position as “enlightened Conservativism”. He does not alas share the ability to cut to the quick of an earlier Conservative, Ian Gilmour, who concluded that, in their confrontation with Irish rural society, the Anglo-Irish landowning class were the authors of the disorders in the nineteenth century countryside, nor does he bring that insight to bear on the fiction. Instead, in his reading “agrarian violence” and “institutional violence” find themselves locked in a repetitive and unenlightening dialectic.

From Castle Rackrent to Castle Dracula is accompanied by a somewhat unusual introduction by John Clarke of the University of Buckingham. This restates Davis’s arguments in even more emphatic terms, as when we are told that the Irish “are wonderful writers but not so good at literary criticism”. This may be the case, but has scarcely been established in the work under review. Clarke tells how, before finishing his introduction, he bought a Remembrance Day poppy and “with Paul’s book in mind recalled the proud names of the Irish Regiments in the British Army and how British and Irish had fought alongside against so many common foes”. Faced with such an unreflective celebration of militarism, the local reader may feel that Irish nationalism, with its disinclination to become involved in England’s wars and suspicion of its motives, was far from being the world’s most malevolent ideology.