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Novel InstitutionsAnachronism, Irish Novels and Nineteenth-Century Realism$

Mary L. Mullen

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9781474453240

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: May 2020

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474453240.001.0001

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Realism and the Institution of the Nineteenth-Century Novel

Realism and the Institution of the Nineteenth-Century Novel

(p.37) Chapter 1 Realism and the Institution of the Nineteenth-Century Novel
Novel Institutions

Mary L. Mullen

Edinburgh University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter argues that establishing an origin for what we now call ‘British realism’ or ‘the Irish novel’ is both an institutional and an anachronistic endeavour: the stories that we tell about novels are actually stories about the cultural institutions that study novels. Considering the formal and political divisions of Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent alongside its changing critical reception, the chapter demonstrates how ‘British realism’ is an anachronistic formation and offers a new origin story where ‘British realism’ and ‘the Irish novel’ are not separate traditions or forms, but rather dynamically intertwined. Castle Rackrent, long thought to be an exemplary Irish novel precisely because it is not realist, develops realist contradictions that are taken up by later nineteenth-century Irish, Scottish and English novelists like Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Oliphant and Anthony Trollope.

Keywords:   Maria Edgeworth, Form, Realism, Irish novel, Walter Scott, Institution, anachronism

‘It is curious to observe how good and bad are mingled in human institutions.’1

In the nineteenth century, the story goes, realism became an institution. Scholars tell different versions of this story. For some, realism functioned like an institution: seeking to represent everyday reality, it helped establish procedures and prescriptions that mediate social and political life.2 For others, realism acquired institutional authority in the nineteenth century: it attracted critical attention and achieved canonical status.3 For still others, realism participates in a larger process of institutional consolidation by shoring up the British imperial state and embracing the rule of law.4

This story about realism, in its various iterations, contributes to the marginalisation of nineteenth-century Irish realist novels by both Anglo-Irish and Irish writers.5 Irish realist novels, like their English counterparts, work to represent a shared social reality through narratives that describe ordinary, everyday life. But, Irish settings more explicitly demonstrate how realism is a contradictory dynamic rather than a coherent social or literary form. Because representations of everyday life in Ireland often appear strange rather than familiar, extraordinary rather than ordinary, Irish realism did not acquire canonical authority, despite the early critical success of Irish writers like Maria Edgeworth. Instead, Irish novels belatedly enter the literary canon through modernist novels like James Joyce’s Ulysses. Importantly, because of Ireland’s colonial history, Irish realist novels also have a more uneasy relationship with the institutional power of the state and often represent forms of social organisation that actively undermine the rule of law.

Questioning the nation-based literary histories of British realism, this chapter traces an alternative genealogy of both ‘British realism’ (p.38) and ‘the Irish novel’ through an attention to Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800). Castle Rackrent’s critical reception shows that realism is both an institutional and an anachronistic formation. Realism seems stable and coherent because institutions retrospectively produce what they study. But when realism became a coherent genre, belatedly constructed by fields of study and critical practices, peripheral realist novels like Castle Rackrent no longer seemed realist enough. As a result, although early nineteenth-century readers praised Edgeworth for her truthful tales and realistic accounts, later in the century her work seems too didactic, too Irish or not Irish enough to be realist. I turn to Castle Rackrent, then, to unsettle the stories we tell about realism, mobilising anachronism to view ‘British realism’ and ‘the Irish novel’ in relation rather than in opposition to one another.

In the twentieth and twenty-first century, scholars celebrate Castle Rackrent as an original text and an origin text, proclaiming it to be the first Irish novel, the first regional novel, the first historical novel and the first novel written in the voice of the colonised. Each of these ‘firsts’ show how Castle Rackrent institutes new forms: it creates narrative structures in which other writers and critics participate. But each of these ‘firsts’ also separates Castle Rackrent from what scholars now call realism, and Castle Rackrent becomes the foundation for an anti-realist Irish novel tradition or an Anglo-Irish novel tradition that suppresses native Irish forms. For example, Terry Eagleton understands Castle Rackrent in modernist terms, claiming that language in the novel acts but does not represent, while Seamus Deane approaches it as a document ‘in the “civilizing mission” of the English to the Irish’ that disciplines romantic Ireland.6 These two lines of argument are sometimes starkly opposed to one another, but they both celebrate Castle Rackrent’s originality in order to find the Irish novel an institutional home other than that of realism – whether in modernist studies or in the history of Ireland’s colonisation.

While I also emphasise Castle Rackrent’s originality, I argue that the novel’s formal innovations not only establish an Irish novel tradition, they elucidate the formal and political contradictions at work, often more subtly, in more canonical English realist novels. Castle Rackrent’s narrative is starkly divided: Thady Quirk, the illiterate family steward, narrates the tale of the Rackrent family’s decline while the fictional editor adds a preface, footnotes and glossary to his tale. While the events that Thady describes take place before 1782, the editor addresses the impending Act of Union that will take effect in January of 1801. These formal divisions lead to a mixed (p.39) politics as readers choose between the editor’s framing of the tale and Thady’s story, between the narrator’s work to consolidate the future union and Thady’s anachronistic orientation. Moreover, the novel’s contradictory efforts to integrate and exclude difference – to assimilate Irish settings into novelistic forms and integrate Ireland into the British state, on one hand, and to represent Irish peculiarities that cannot be assimilated into these literary and social forms, on the other – illuminates the more subtle ways in which British realist novels oscillate between incorporating social and historical difference and exposing it. Reading Castle Rackrent alongside novels by Walter Scott, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Gaskell, Margaret Oliphant and Anthony Trollope suggests that Irish realist novels differ from English realist novels only insofar as they expose realist conventions rather than seamlessly integrating them into the novel’s narrative form.

While this chapter is not a conventional literary history – it does not track Edgeworth’s influence on Victorian novelists or narrate the development of a single realist novel tradition – it does interrogate our literary histories. I ask why the novels of Walter Scott and Jane Austen are foundational to histories of ‘British realism’ while Edgeworth’s novels are defined in opposition to it. I argue that rethinking the origins of ‘British realism’ allows us to understand realist form as a contradictory dynamic, while also demonstrating how institutions mediate our definitions of realism. Focusing on how Castle Rackrent engages with modern institutionalism through its narrative forms and temporal structures, as well as how disciplinary practices have shaped the novel’s critical reception, this chapter offers a new origin story for Victorian realism by reading realism and Irish novels in relation. Reading realist novels does not need to confirm the literary histories that are already institutionalised; it can instead teach us how to inhabit institutions in ways that open up new political possibilities.

Literary History: Institutions and Anachronisms

The temporality that underlies modern institutionalism – which distinguishes between modern and non-modern in the present and establishes institutions as the horizon of futurity – shapes literary histories of the nineteenth-century realist novel. Contemporary disciplinary practices, fields of study, critical debates and understandings of the canon mediate the novels we read, the literary forms we study (p.40) and the genres we identify. Thus, the stories we tell about novels are actually stories about the cultural institutions that study novels.7 In fact, as Homer Obed Brown explains in his account of the origins of the English novel, many literary histories only confirm ‘anew what is already institutionalised’.8 We narrate the history of the novel as a path-dependent narrative, reinforcing contemporary institutional consensus and reassuring ourselves that the path that leads to the present is the legitimate path. Allowing the novel’s end – its current institutional location in the university – to mediate its origin, these histories confuse ‘the novel’s institution with the institution’s history of the novel’.9

Tracing how the novel’s contemporary institutional location retrospectively shapes histories of the novel, Brown warns that institutions beget anachronisms. Brown suggests that anachronisms belatedly endow particular novels, as well as particular narratives about novels, with institutional authority, and thus construct a shared novelistic tradition out of fiction that was understood to be quite strange and singular in its own historical moment. Of course, literary history can also retrospectively undermine novels’ claims to authority by deeming certain novels that use realist conventions, such as nineteenth-century Irish novels, to be anachronistic vestiges of other generic traditions. I am interested in the contradictory temporality of the practice of literary history. Insofar as literary history mediates how we read in order to affirm institutional consensus in the present, it closes down political possibilities from the past. But because literary history is always an untimely enterprise – shaped by the past as well as the present – it also draws connections between novels that for too long have been thought of as distinct.

Unlike Brown, who sees the anachronisms that institutions produce as a ‘danger’, or as historical errors, I think of these anachronisms as opportunities. In fact, I take up Brown’s argument not to offer an approach to literary history that minimises anachronisms, but rather to insist that anachronisms are unavoidable in both realist novels and our own narratives about realist novels. Following postcolonial and queer theorists, I suggest that instead of trying to root out anachronisms in the name of historical accuracy, we can study these anachronisms to learn about our institutional practices and their limits.10 As Valerie Rohy explains, ‘Resistance to anachronism is resistance not to the other of historicism but to an abject aspect of its own methodology’.11 Anachronisms do not simply confirm what is already institutionalised, as Brown claims; they push against institutional consensus by showing the mixed temporalities (p.41) of our literary histories and the necessity of comparative practices that bring together traditions that have historically been interrelated but now appear to be separate.

Modernism retrospectively shapes our understanding of realism by separating nineteenth-century English novels from their Irish counterparts. In English literary studies, where realism is defined in opposition to modernism, English realism is understood to be national while modernism is cosmopolitan or international.12 Irish studies scholars, however, understand realism as not only a national form, but also as an English one. They suggest that as nineteenth-century Irish writers sought to represent reality in Ireland, they produced the formal fragmentation and transnational discourse more commonly associated with modernism. For this reason, nineteenth-century Irish novels are seen, not as realist, but as proto-modernist precursors to canonical modernist Irish novels.

Questioning these nation-based literary histories, I suggest instead that nineteenth-century realism is a contradictory transnational formal dynamic. In the nineteenth century, Irish reality often looked different from English reality but the literary forms that Irish writers used to capture this reality not only were similar to but often shaped the forms that their English and Scottish counterparts employed. Nineteenth-century reviewers thus often foreground Irish difference – separating Trollope’s ‘Irish’ novels from his clerical novels, for instance, or noting that novelists are drawn to Ireland because of the ‘points which mainly distinguish it from other nations’ – but nevertheless evaluate Irish novels in terms of how they represent reality.13 The best Irish novels challenge the popular ‘misrepresentations’ of Irish national character14 and are ‘truer than any history’.15 Tellingly, English realists who focused their attention on working-class people were understood to be building on an Irish novel tradition that represented strange, unknown cultural practices for a middle-class, metropolitan audience. As a reviewer of North and South claims, ‘The Author of “Mary Barton” seems bent on doing for Lancashire and the Lancashire dialect what Miss Edgeworth did for Ireland.’16

Significantly, what has come to be known as Victorian realism is itself an anachronistic formation. We understand realism to be the dominant genre of nineteenth-century British writing, but the term realism emerged belatedly in the debates about realism and naturalism at the end of the century. As René Wellek reminds us, ‘In England there was no realist movement of that name before George Moore and George Gissing, late in the eighties.’17 Chapter 5 focuses on this moment in the history of realism as it shows how Moore’s realist (p.42) novels of development refuse modern institutionalism. In this present chapter, I suggest that although finding an origin for realism is always an anachronistic enterprise, the origins that we choose shape the stories that we tell. Thus, I tell a story of realism that begins with Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent not to offer a more historically accurate origin for the realist novel but rather to mobilise an untimely text that challenges our assumptions about both realist form and literary history.

Today, many scholars note Edgeworth’s influence on Scott and Austen, two novelists usually associated with the origins of Victorian realism, but they nevertheless distinguish her fiction from a realist novel tradition and understand her novels to be either didactic fiction or Irish fiction.18 Didacticism was only retrospectively distinguished from realist writing.19 Early reviews thus praise the realistic nature of Edgeworth’s instructive fiction, writing, ‘There is nothing here of romance, either in character or incident; every thing has been reduced within the compass of probability.’20 But later critics suggest Edge-worth could not capture the contradictions of everyday life precisely because she was committed to imparting moral lessons. As one 1895 review suggests, ‘The incidents, like the characters, are forced to serve the cause of morality at the expense of probability.’21 Morality and probability, which were once aligned, become antithetical over time as realism and didacticism come to be thought of as distinct literary modes.

Similarly, when scholars and critics classify Edgeworth as an Irish writer in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, they depict her fiction as a departure from realism, although Irish novels were understood in realist terms in the nineteenth century.22 In the nineteenth century, like today, Castle Rackrent was commonly understood to be the first Irish novel, a subgenre of what was sometimes called ‘the national novel’.23 Understanding Edgeworth as an Irish writer highlights her humour, her engagement with history and her linguistic play rather than her didacticism. But noting the distinct style and setting of Edgeworth’s fiction did not initially distinguish her novels from realism: Irish novels represented Ireland and Irish representative types, cultivated sympathy and engaged with history. Critics only began to make distinctions between Edgeworth’s Irish novels and realism when they began to question whether Edgeworth, an Anglo-Irish writer, was Irish enough. As early as 1838, critics juxtaposed Edgeworth’s writing with more ‘authentic’ – and more romantic – Irish writing by Lady Morgan to claim that Edgeworth’s novels lacked ‘national feeling’24 and by the end of the century, when (p.43) the Irish Revival brought new attention to Irish aesthetics, critics claimed that Edgeworth represented Ireland with ‘the amused but unsympathetic deliberation of an Englishwoman’.25 The rise of Irish studies in the 1980s paradoxically intensified both this reading of Edgeworth as too English and claims that her work exemplifies anti-realist Irish aesthetics.26 Irish studies scholars thus tend to emphasise how Edgeworth’s writing departs from realism – either because of its superficial, ideological representations of Ireland or because her Irishness emerges through its protomodernist experiments with fragmentation and non-referential language.

The slipperiness of Edgeworth’s fiction over time – the fact that it is understood to be plausible and not plausible enough, Irish and not Irish enough, realist and not realist enough – shows that what Brown calls ‘the institution’s history of the novel’ is too narrow and too neat a story. Novels do not easily fit on a single path or tell the story of a linear rise: their meaning changes in distinct historical and institutional contexts and their narrative forms participate in multiple genre traditions.

Necessary and Unnecessary Anachronisms: Scott and Edgeworth

Today, Edgeworth’s importance to Victorian novelists that follow her is often understood to be thematic and political rather than formal or generic – realism rarely comes up.27 When scholars do think about Edgeworth’s formal contributions to realism, the contradictions in her novels are treated as problems to solve rather than as literary innovations.28 For instance, Michael Gamer suggests that we should approach her novels as ‘romances of real life’, so that we can better understand their ‘cohesiveness of construction’.29 Gamer claims that thinking about Edgeworth’s novels in relation to realism leads to too many contradictions.

But why do we assume that genre must be cohesive? How can the contradictions within Edgeworth’s fiction, especially Castle Rack-rent, help us tell a different story about realism? I contend that Castle Rackrent highlights the conflicting impulses within realism: to represent real life and capture history in its specificity and heterogeneity, on the one hand, and to naturalise modern institutionalism and establish institutions as the horizon of futurity, on the other. Realist novels work to transform the dynamism of history into the solidity of institutions. However, their anachronisms ensure that this never (p.44) is realised: representing the world as it is shows how it could be otherwise. I suggest that scholars credit Scott with bringing a historicist dimension to literary realism in part because Scott’s historicism is easily integrated into institutions: it encourages consensus. The historicism in Edgeworth’s realist novels, however, better captures realism’s contradictions because Edgeworth more clearly upholds and questions institutionalism within novels and society.

Scott’s centrality to the history of British realism results in part from the way in which his novels transform the anachronisms of romance into the ‘necessary anachronisms’ that Lukács famously associates with the historical novel, and by extension, with realism.30 For Lukács, Scott’s anachronisms are necessary because they make the temporality of ordinary, everyday life historical – they convey a sense of history that exceeds what any one historical actor could actually know in order to ‘elucidate the given historical relationship’.31 Similarly, for Brown, Scott’s novels use anachronisms to convey history – to express ‘a present experience of the past’s irrecuperable pastness’.32 But as I argue in the introduction, the very idea of ‘necessary’ anachronism participates in the institutionalisation of a particular kind of history and a particular kind of novel by critics. For who decides which anachronisms are necessary and which are unnecessary errors? Are pasts only present as ‘irrecuperable’, or can they also invite us to imagine history and politics otherwise?

At stake in this distinction between necessary and unnecessary anachronisms is whether realism upholds or questions state institutions and the future they promise. In other words, focusing on the anachronisms in novels leads to assertions about the novel’s relationship with institutional power – here, the British state and its corresponding legal institutions. Waverley’s anachronisms seem ‘necessary’ because they work to secure the path-dependent narrative of modern institutionalism: Fergus Mac-Ivor, the Highland chief who is sentenced to death for his participation in the rebellion, becomes an anachronism by the end of the novel as the British state and its courts of law define both the present and the future. His sister Flora lives but is also doomed to anachronism as she notes that ‘it is vain to talk of the past … or even the future’.33 At odds with the institutions of the British state, Flora appears at odds with historical time altogether and retreats to a convent. Scott relegates Fergus and Flora to an anachronistic past in order to consolidate modern institutionalism as the future.

But shifting the origins of realism from Scott to Edgeworth alters this story. Edgeworth’s fiction, especially Castle Rackrent, highlights (p.45) narrative and temporal divisions in realist forms that suggest a more contradictory politics. Although Edgeworth, like Scott, often promotes modern institutionalism and works to consolidate the rule of law, she also represents necessary and unnecessary anachronisms that refuse to allow institutions to delimit historical time and determine political futures.34 I focus on Edgeworth’s divided time and divided depiction of everyday life in the next two sections, but even a quick glance at the conclusion of Castle Rackrent highlights how anachronisms unsettle institutional futurity in this novel. Unlike Waverley, in which unruly, untimely subjects are denied futurity in the name of a consolidated British state, Castle Rackrent concludes ambivalently. After Thady’s story, which revels in the out-of-date practices of the Rackrent family, the editor reflects on the impending Union, asking, ‘Did the Warwickshire militia, who were chiefly artisans, teach the Irish to drink beer? or did they learn from the Irish to drink whiskey?’ (CR 122). Such a question is temporally confusing, as the editor ponders the future effects of the Act of Union by asking a question about the past. It is also a question that encourages confusion, as the editor uses it to express the difficulty of establishing origins, tracing political effects and understanding historical causality. Indeed, as Daniel Hack argues, anxiety about historical influence and power are embedded in the very form of the question: it uses chiasmus to convey the ‘metonymic reversibility of subject and object’.35 Thus, the novel’s ending destabilises modern institutionalism’s faith in futurity by suggesting that the Union may lead to progress and improvement, but it also may lead to decline for both England and Ireland. Here, the future raises questions and prompts reflective returns to the past rather than pre-emptively deciding characters’ fates.

Recognising Edgeworth’s importance to realism does not simply mean extending histories of realism that currently begin with Scott or Austen back to Edgeworth. Rather, it means thinking about the limits of the institutions that shape our interpretations. For despite our preference for literary histories that follow a linear trajectory where genres are stable and self-contained, the realist novel does not have a single origin or a single trajectory; it is not a progressive story in which the ‘necessary’ anachronisms associated with realism and history replace the ‘unnecessary’ anachronisms of romance, or the institutions of the imperial state root out local customs and regional practices. As Scott Black argues, ‘Novels are less sedimented forms than interactive fields’.36 Novels are ‘interactive fields’, for Black, because of their anachronisms: they encourage the interplay of divergent timescales as they draw on enduring myths and local context, (p.46) historical and transhistorical experience.37 Realism can be distinguished from other novelistic forms, then, because of the particular ways in which it organises and orders this interactive field into two distinct temporalities: the shared time of institutions and the heterogeneous time of anachronisms.

Union and Futurity: Realism’s Divided Temporalities

In 1829, Walter Scott famously asserted that Maria Edgeworth’s fiction had done more ‘towards completing the Union, than perhaps all the legislative enactments by which it has been followed up’.38 Celebrating the political effects of literary representation, this statement shows how Edgeworth’s novels mobilise public affect to support the Union as they work to transform a legislative act into an imagined community.39 But this statement also demonstrates how, from the very beginning, the Union, as an institutional formation, mediates our approach to Edgeworth’s novels. The Union created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and established shared institutions like the Westminster parliament but did not fully integrate Ireland into these institutions. In literary histories, the Union becomes an overdetermined period designator, marking a shift from the eighteenth century to the nineteenth, as well as the beginning of ‘modern’ Irish writing in British forms like the novel.

For this reason, Castle Rackrent is understood to be the first Irish novel – although scholars have long noted the many Irish novels that preceded it – precisely because it coincides with the passage of the Union.40 The editor notes the auspicious timing of the tale, closing his preface by including the date, 1800. He also alludes to the Union as he proleptically looks forward to the moment, ‘When Ireland loses her identity by an union with Great Britain” and thus can look back with “good-humoured complacency’ on the very past that the novel represents (CR 63). The publication date, coupled with this allusion, solidifies Edgeworth’s place in Irish literary history, but sometimes at the cost of reflection on how Castle Rackrent’s significance extends beyond this specific historical context.

I suggest that Scott’s statement about the Union works to conceptualise modern institutionalism writ large even as it points to the Union as a particular historical context for Edgeworth’s fiction. In the quotation with which this section opens, Scott presents the Union as the instantiation of the protracted, future-oriented temporality of institutions rather than as a single historical event or political act. (p.47) Scott portrays the Union as a process that is moving ‘towards’ completion but not yet complete. The act is important because of the legislative changes it enacts as well as the future it works to secure: a completed Union that fully integrates Ireland into the United Kingdom in part by passing Catholic Emancipation.41 Edgeworth works to ‘complete’ the Union in her novels, then, not simply by sympathetically portraying Ireland for an English audience but by adopting a future-oriented temporality where the Union becomes the horizon for futural imagining. In Castle Rackrent, the editor’s proleptic jump to the time after the Union is one instance of this futural imagination. In an example of what Patrick Brantlinger calls ‘proleptic elegy’, the editor notes the loss of Irish identity, though it is not yet lost, in order to suggest that its loss is inevitable.42 This prolepsis heightens the effects of the editor’s frequent periodising gestures which create stark divisions between past and present. He insists that ‘these are “tales of other times”’ (63) and uses the past tense in the footnotes and glossary to describe Irish traditions. The subtitle, moreover, notes that the book is ‘An Hibernian Tale taken from facts and from the manners of the Irish squires before the year 1782’. Working to express the distance between the past the story represents and the present of the reader, the editor’s prolepsis implies that the Union will make the time before the year 1782 feel all the more distant as it works to secure modern institutionalism.

A narrative temporality that establishes institutions as the horizon of futurity is an important feature of Edgeworth’s fiction beyond her direct engagement with the Union. In Ennui (1809), which is set before the Act of Union, Lord Glenthorn learns to think in terms of slow, future-oriented developments instead of immediate gratification as he transforms from a dissipated absentee landlord who suffers bouts of boredom into a dependable professional who thinks long-term.43 The reward for his transformation is integration into institutions: first the law, where he works as an attorney, then marriage, then, finally, as a landlord associated with the institution of the Big House once again. Patronage (1814) similarly encourages an embrace of institutions – the law, professions, education, marriage – even as it dramatises how patronage warps these very institutions. Becoming a lawyer, Alfred Percy learns that moral justice and legal procedures are sometimes at odds. He admits that he ‘had been so shocked at first by the apparent absurdity of the system, that he had almost abandoned the study’ but, because of his continued legal study, ‘he had at last discovered the utility of those rules’.44 The novel thus encourages readers to look beyond ‘the apparent absurdity’ of (p.48) institutions and accept their procedures as necessary even when they are fallible and fragile. The novel concludes by celebrating ‘public virtue’ as opposed to patronage.45

Castle Rackrent also works to consolidate modern institutionalism as the editor’s preface, footnotes and glossary encourage the embrace of the rule of law in contradistinction to the ‘honour’ that Thady prefers (CR 68). The Glossary describes how Irish people mistakenly personalise abstract legal procedures, confusing ‘justice’ with ‘partiality’, while the story narrates how Thady’s son uses these very procedures to acquire Castle Rackrent (CR 133). Unlike Thady, who remains attached to the past and organises his world through personal connections, his son, Jason, thinks in terms of the future and organises his world through impersonal procedures. Over the course of the story, Jason becomes an attorney and steadily acquires the Rackrent family lands. When Sir Condy Rack-rent dies at the end of the story, he has nothing – he lives in the lodge on the estate that Jason owns. Thady marks Jason’s transformation from a personal dependent of the Rackrent family into a professional who embraces modern institutionalism, noting: ‘He had been studying the law, and had made himself attorney Quirk; so he brought down at once a heap of accounts upon my master’s head’ (CR 106). As ‘attorney Quirk’, Jason looks to the future, telling Sir Condy, ‘We’ll not be indulging ourselves in any unpleasant retrospects’ (CR 117). Jason’s professionalism and proceduralism expresses itself as a temporal orientation: unwilling to engage with a past that might question the legitimacy of his actions, Jason looks to the future guaranteed by the law.

But this future-oriented institutional time is constantly thwarted by the anachronisms that proliferate throughout Edgeworth’s novel. Indeed, Thady is not only attached to an anachronistic past, but also functions as an anachronism in his own right. As Thady tells his story, the editor’s footnotes remind readers that Thady’s language represents how people ‘formerly’ spoke in Ireland (CR 72). Against the grain of the editor’s proleptic leaps to the time of the Union and periodising gestures that relegate the Irish manners that the novel chronicles to the past, Thady shows the continued efficacy of the past in the present, and, in the process, the possibility of imagining the future otherwise.46 He expresses his attachment to the Rackrent family by celebrating their past, noting that they were ‘one of the most ancient in the kingdom’ and opening his story by telling of events that predate his service to the family (CR 66). Moreover, by filling Sir Condy’s head with stories of (p.49) his Rackrent ancestors, Thady encourages Sir Condy to imagine a future that reanimates the past. Sir Condy erects a monument to Sir Patrick and then dies as Sir Patrick did before him, of drink. Trying to recreate Sir Patrick’s feat of drinking from his horn, Sir Condy ‘swallows it down, and drops like one shot’ (CR 120). Personal ties and irrational practices persist alongside the future-oriented institutional thinking that the editor embraces, showing that the future does not necessarily emerge from the past but often repeats it. Such moments, however humorous, suggest that traditional forms of sociality – hospitality and honour – endure even in a time otherwise defined by impersonal legal procedures.

Precisely because of the divided narrative structure of Castle Rackrent, scholars have long debated how this ‘tale of other times’ imagines the future, questioning whether the novel celebrates or laments Jason’s successful channelling of institutional power and whether Thady actively contributes to the Rackrent family’s demise or loyally supports them through their struggles. Indeed, although most histories of the Irish novel focus on Castle Rackrent, there is little consensus about how to understand either its politics or its form. While it is clear that the editor seeks to imagine a future that, as Mary Jean Corbett argues, consigns ‘the unsettling differences of Irish culture to a vanished – albeit necessarily representable – past’, the act of representing this past undermines the security of that future.47 Thus, although Edgeworth clearly seeks to imagine the future guaranteed by modern institutionalism, the novel also actively undermines this future by returning to and reactivating the past.

I argue that this divided narrative structure, which encourages readers to choose between the editor’s framework and Thady’s tale, the editor’s emphasis on institutional futurity and Thady’s anachronisms, lays bare the formal contradictions of realism. Similar tensions and contradictions may be less pronounced in more canonical realist texts, but they are nevertheless there. Think of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848), which describes the workers’ misery ‘in all its depths’ in order to integrate masters and men into shared institutions.48 As in Castle Rackrent, this institutional integration requires a proleptic leap. The narrator concludes by moving from the personal ties formed between masters and men in the wake of Henry Carson’s murder within the time of the story to public improvements happening in the time of the discourse: ‘Many of the improvements now in practice in the system of employment in Manchester, owe their origin to short earnest sentences spoken by Mr Carson.’49 And yet, as in Castle Rackrent, the effort to establish institutions as the (p.50) horizon of futurity is often undercut by anachronisms that survive in the present. The novel famously begins in pastoral fields with farm buildings that speak ‘of other times and other occupations than those which now absorb the population of the neighbourhood’ and ends in a Canadian settlement where one of the ‘old primeval trees’ remains, evoking the forest and Indigenous lives that predate colonial settlement while also noting their absence.50 More than simply representing a natural landscape that marks industrial and imperial progress, Gaskell describes these fields, buildings and trees to show the disparate temporal scales and social formations that exceed the limits of institutional time.51 The fields evoke a pastoral past that continues in an industrial era; the trees show how elements of the native landscape endure in an era of colonial settlement. Out of date but nevertheless enduring, these anachronisms point to other political possibilities as they suggest historical temporalities and trajectories that disrupt institutional time.

Later in the century, Margaret Oliphant’s Hester (1883) expresses a similar tension between institutions and anachronisms as it chronicles the personal lives of the Vernon family in the provincial town of Redborough. Like Castle Rackrent, Hester merges familial and public institutions; the Vernon family is inseparable from Vernon’s bank. But instead of modern institutionalism serving as an end of the narrative, it is the story’s starting place. The young Hester arrives in Redborough and slowly integrates herself into the familial institutions, learning that ‘the bank is everybody’s first thought; that it must be kept up whatever fails’.52 The conflict comes when Edward Vernon’s wild financial speculations undermine institutional futurity. He dreams of escaping his role within the family, of ‘Castles in the air more dazzling than ever rose in a fairy tale’.53 Institutional futurity is restored at the end of the novel when Edward’s speculations fail, he leaves the bank and family in disgrace, and Catherine Vernon, the matriarch, works with Hester to reassert the primacy of the bank and the family. To the chagrin of many readers, this novel about a strong, independent women doubles down on institutional futurity and concludes by looking forward to Hester’s marriage. The narrator asserts, ‘All that can be said for her is that there are two men whom she may choose between, and marry either if she please.’54

Although the bank and Vernon family remain the horizons for future imagining at the end of the novel, the novel’s many anachronisms highlight the otherwise possibilities that persist. Throughout the novel, Catherine’s power is both traditional and modern as she appears both monarchical (‘she is more than the Queen’) and (p.51) ministerial.55 In the moment of crisis, the narrator’s analogies describing her calm demeanour reveal Catherine’s dual role as a cultural throwback and a figure of modern institutionalism: ‘She was like an Indian at the stake: or rather like a prime minister in his place in Parliament.’56 The stereotypical image of the stoic Indian represents the people, practices and customs that modern institutions exclude (or, in this case, actively kill off) in order to imagine a future guaranteed through institutions. By representing Catherine simultaneously as an Indian doomed to die and a seasoned head of state who keeps the wheels of government moving, the novel demonstrates that every act to secure institutional futurity also highlights alternative temporalities and alternative political possibilities. Catherine, like Thady before her, reanimates otherwise possibilities from the past even as she works to consolidate modern institutionalism.

Ultimately, Castle Rackrent’s divided temporalities – its consolidation of institutional futurity that creates both unity and union, and its anachronisms that show the persistence of discordant times – draw attention to such temporal divisions within British realism more broadly. Scholars often emphasise what Jameson calls realism’s ‘solidity’ – its representation of a social reality impervious to change.57 But Castle Rackrent suggests that this solidity results from the realist novel’s futural imagining rather than from its present tense. Realist novelists, like Edgeworth, work to ‘complete’ institutions by establishing institutions as the horizon of futurity. But against the grain of this futural ‘solidity’ that evacuates history are anachronisms that restore historicity to institutional time. Whether functioning as remnants of other historical moments or representing people who are excluded from modern institutions, anachronisms show the possibility of alternative political futures and social change. Realist novels do not achieve temporal consensus; they represent the discordant temporalities that comprise the historical present.

Integrating and Exposing Difference: Realism and Daily Life

Temporal and political contradictions also emerge in realist novels as they try, but fail, to integrate social, historical and geographical differences into stable narrative and institutional forms. As Roderick Ferguson suggests, institutions incorporate difference while minimising the ‘ruptural possibilities’ of that difference.58 Realist novels function as institutions insofar as they work to integrate social difference (p.52) into a shared understanding of ordinary, everyday life – a single, consensual time. But in Irish realist novels, such as Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, the ‘ruptural possibilities’ of difference cannot always be minimised and everyday life continues to feel strange to English readers.59 In these moments of rupture, social, temporal and geographical differences function like anachronisms, imagining the future otherwise precisely because they cannot be assimilated into the novel’s shared time.60 Focusing on how the strange features of everyday life are both integrated and exposed in English and Irish realist novels, I argue that realist novels set at a distance from England defamiliarise realist conventions.

Contrasting Jane Austen’s enduring critical success with Maria Edgeworth’s neglect, Mitzi Myers suggests that Edgeworth is too tied to local particulars. While Austen represents everyday life in ways that can be decontextualised, Edgeworth’s fiction ‘insists on its location, on a real world that it relates to and seeks to change’.61 Myers’s juxtaposition of Edgeworth’s novels with Austen’s implies that realism’s historicity impedes its aesthetic portability: Austen’s domestic realism receives transhistorical and transnational attention precisely because it can be detached from its particular context.62 But is Edgeworth relatively neglected because she insists on a historically specific location, or because the historically specific location that she insists upon is Ireland? Can places like Ireland appear within the rubric of the ordinary, or does representing reality in Ireland always suggest the extraordinary?

I suggest that representing everyday life in Ireland demonstrates how realist novels integrate and expose difference. Local settings, distinct cultural practices and peculiar minor characters are made familiar as they are assimilated into shared institutional and novelistic forms, while forms of social and historical difference that cannot be assimilated remain strange. This contradictory dynamic explains both prevalent critiques of realism as naturalising a national, bourgeois reality and the recent impulse to see realism as a worldly form that, as Lauren Goodlad argues, represents both what ‘everybody knows’ – familiar spaces at the heart of the nation – and ‘what everybody disavows: the imperial space subtending London’s privileged place in the global network’.63 Such claims about ‘everybody’ demonstrate how the nation shapes even transnational theories of realism: ‘everybody’ actually means English readers and thus the familiar means familiar English life. But the peculiarities that Irish novels represent suggest that as realism travels transnationally, it depicts an everyday reality that is (p.53) both shared and very separate. Instead of affirming that different viewpoints and experiences ‘converge upon the “same” world’, as Elizabeth Deeds Ermarth argues, realist novels represent worlds within worlds.64

While many nineteenth-century critics and writers noted how Irish and English representations of reality differed, others bristled against these differences. David Masson’s 1859 book, British Novelists and Their Styles – ‘the first book-length monograph on fiction by a professor of English literature’ and thus an important event in the institutionalisation of the novel – suggests that Irish difference makes Irish novels more successful.65 Masson identifies thirteen distinct novelistic genres, distinguishing between ‘The Novel of Scottish Life and Manners’, ‘The Novel of Irish Life and Manners’ and ‘The Novel of English Life and Manners’. While Masson claims that English novels have difficulty conveying ‘that English system of life which was becoming the normal and conventional one for all’, Irish and Scottish novels succeed because everyday life still contains elements of the ‘barbaresque’.66 In other words, these novels from the periphery work because everyday life in these nations deviates from the normal and conventional – it remains untimely. By contrast, Masson suggests that English novels either scale down to local regions or scale up to London, ‘an epitome of the world’, in order to capture heterogeneity and variety.67 Masson thus implies that novels capture the differences and particularities of lived reality rather than creating an abstract structure of daily life. For him, novels do not represent what has already become conventional – or in the terms of my argument, what has already been institutionalised – but instead depict places where multiple modes of social organisation persist.

Despite Masson’s critical celebration of Irish novels, writers like Anthony Trollope struggled with these genre distinctions because they devalued Irish novels. Trollope’s first novels, set in Ireland, received so little attention that his publisher concluded, ‘It is evident that readers do not like novels on Irish subjects as well as on others.’68 After the success of his novels of English life, Trollope nevertheless turned his attention to Ireland again and wrote Castle Richmond (1860), a story of the Irish Famine. Again, his publisher (this time, George Smith) was suspicious: ‘He wanted an English tale, on English life.’69 In response, Trollope begins Castle Richmond by musing on its strange setting. The novel opens with the narrator writing, ‘I wonder whether the novel-reading world – that part of it, at least, which may honour my pages – will be offended if I lay the plot of this story in Ireland,’ challenging readers to disprove an ‘eminent (p.54) publisher’ who believes that novels must represent ‘daily English life’ in order to sell.70 For the narrator, Ireland does not significantly differ from other novelistic settings. He asserts: ‘The readability of a story should depend, one would say, on its intrinsic merit rather than on the site of its adventures. No one will think that Hampshire is better for such a purpose than Cumberland, or Essex than Leicestershire. What abstract objection can there be to the county Cork?’71 By questioning what ‘abstract objection’ there could be to Cork, the narrator implicitly makes Cork an abstraction – the very kind of abstract structure that, as Jameson suggests in ‘The Realist Floor-Plan’, allows realist narratives to construct daily life.72 For Trollope, stories of ‘daily life’ and Irish settings are compatible, and thus generic distinctions between English and Irish novels mistakenly separate novels that share a form and a purpose.

It seems that readers remained unconvinced; Castle Richmond, like Trollope’s earlier novels set in Ireland, was a failure. Together, Trollope’s refusal of generic distinctions, his publisher’s suspicion of Irish novels and Masson’s celebration of novels of ‘Irish Life and Manners’ suggest a shared form that links English and Irish realist novels on one hand and points to Irish difference on the other. But the question remains – besides depicting a reality that differs from the conventional English one and being difficult to sell (in Trollope’s case, at least) – what comprises this Irish difference? Elaine Freed-good’s work on the Canadian adventure novel, Canadian Crusoes, is helpful here. Noting how the novel’s Canadian setting reveals metaleptic movement between fact and fiction that metropolitan novels obscure, Freedgood suggests that such ‘misplaced’ novels make visible the formal characteristics and political effects of realism writ large.73 Realist novels set at a distance from England are strange not because their representations of reality depart from realist conventions, but because they expose these very conventions. Thus, the opening of Trollope’s Castle Richmond, which tries to distinguish a novel’s ‘intrinsic merit’ from its setting, paradoxically demonstrates how setting actively shapes realist novels. Although the institutional aesthetics of realist novels try to make settings abstract – Hampshire, Cumberland and Cork should function in the same way – representing reality in Ireland is different because it defamiliarises everyday reality in England.

Castle Rackrent demonstrates how both narrative and institutional forms work to assimilate difference but, in the process, reveal social and historical relations that exceed these forms. Edgeworth manages Castle Rackrent’s distance from the reading public it addresses by (p.55) framing the tale through a series of familiar forms: the editor presents the novel as an unmediated oral story, a historical narrative, a biography, a memoir, a tale, a novel.74 In doing so, the editor reflects on what genre does as well as how it is written. Thady’s unmediated account – his ‘plain unvarnished tale’ – does not look like the ‘highly ornamental narrative[s]’ from professional historians or biographers (CR 62). Without ‘literary talents’ to shape the story into a conventional biography or historical narrative, Thady simply relays the facts. But Thady’s ignorance of rhetorical moves and professional expectations actually makes his story more historically accurate, according to the editor. Thady, like other biographers, helps ‘collect the most minute facts relative to the domestic lives, not only of the great and good, but even of the worthless and insignificant’ (CR 61). And precisely because he does not know narrative conventions, he can more accurately convey these facts. After celebrating Thady’s historically accurate account, however, the editor quickly notes that story may not feel that way: ‘the ignorant English reader’ may find the events ‘scarcely intelligible’ or ‘perfectly incredible’ (CR 63). Nineteenth-century reviewers of Irish novels tended to agree with the editor, and praised Irish novels in which Irish characters appear ‘natural, and us comparatively strange and foreign’.75 By thinking about the differences between what a literary form does and how it appears, what it represents and how it feels, the editor of Castle Rackrent suggests that representing reality in Ireland is thus both dynamic and relational – Irish everyday life can be understood through shared genres, but it also unsettles these genres.

Every time the editor tries to frame Thady’s tale through shared narrative and institutional forms, he also draws attention to Irish differences that exceed these forms. After presenting Thady’s tale as history or biography, the editor shifts to suggesting that it is a novel. He indicates that the Rackrents simultaneously function as representative Irish types and novelistic characters: ‘The race of the Rackrents has long since been extinct in Ireland; and the drunken Sir Patrick, the litigious Sir Murtagh, the fighting Sir Kit, and the slovenly Sir Condy, are characters which could no more be met with at present in Ireland, than Squire Western or Parson Trulliber in England’ (CR 3). Although the editor individualises each Rackrent family member with a defining adjective, he also suggests that like Tom Jones’s Squire Western and Joseph Andrews’s Parson Trulliber before them, they are actually only characters in a novel. By shifting from history to fiction, the editor implies that Irish difference can be integrated into shared novelistic forms, even if Irish people cannot yet be fully integrated into Britain.

(p.56) However, the editor’s glossary works in the opposite direction, showing how peculiarities persist in novelistic forms that otherwise appear to be shared. Take, for instance, the seemingly commonplace beginning of Thady’s story: ‘Monday morning’.76 It seems to be an innocuous temporal marker – the reader can assume that Thady narrates the story on ‘Monday morning’. But the glossary suggests otherwise, and explains that Monday morning has cultural rather than temporal significance. The editor writes, ‘Thady begins his memoirs of the Rackrent Family by dating Monday morning, because no great undertaking can be auspiciously commenced in Ireland on any morning but Monday morning. … All the intermediate days, between making such speeches and the ensuing Monday, are wasted’ (CR 123). The familiar ‘Monday’ becomes strange as Edgeworth suggests that it represents a cultural practice rather than an actual day of the week.

Tellingly, the editor’s glossary connects the strangeness of Thady’s language to his anachronistic position within the narrative. When Thady describes how Lady Murtagh Rackrent expects ‘duty fowls, and duty turkies, and duty geese’ from her tenants, the editor explains in the glossary, ‘In many leases in Ireland, tenants were formerly bound to supply an inordinate quantity of poultry to their landlords’ (CR 69, CR 127, emphasis in the original). The editor repeats this phrase when he defines duty work, suggesting that ‘It was formerly common in Ireland to insert clauses in leases, binding tenants to furnish their landlords with labourers’ (CR 128). The editor’s repeated emphasis on the term ‘formerly’ makes Thady’s story doubly strange: it not only recounts cultural practices that are unfamiliar in England, but also references practices in Ireland that do not continue into the present. Thus, although the glossary’s apparent purpose is to translate Thady’s story and integrate it into English experience, the glossary’s entries in fact expose the cultural and historical strangeness of that story by showing the importance of temporality. In Ireland, what is familiar is in flux and thus translation occurs across time as well as across cultural space.

While this dynamic of simultaneously integrating and exposing difference is explicit in Irish realist novels, it is not unique to Irish novels. The same dynamic, often in more implicit forms, also occurs in British realist novels of the period. My fourth chapter focuses on this dynamic in Charles Dickens’s novels, as I argue that Dickens’s novels reanimate anachronistic pasts to reform institutions but also suggest that minority and colonised subjects are too untimely and thus, for Dickens, remain outside of history and at odds with institutionalism (p.57) altogether. Here, I focus on Trollope’s Phineas Finn (1869), where Ireland appears both familiar and strange and Phineas’s Irishness means both very much and very little over the course of the novel.77 At times, Phineas’s Irishness seems unimportant. Irish and English boroughs appear interchangeable: he begins his parliamentary career representing an Irish borough, Loughshane, but continues it by standing for an English borough, Loughton. He defies stereotypes of the lazy Irishman with the gift of gab, finding success amongst ‘the working men of the party’.78 Although Phineas may be Irish, his Irish difference can be easily assimilated. In fact, he is initially asked to stand because he is ‘a safe man’ rather than ‘a cantankerous, red-hot semi-Fenian, running about to meetings at the Rotunda, and such-like, with views of his own about tenant-right and the Irish Church’.79 Later in the novel, the narrator celebrates Phineas’s social success by noting that few of his intimate friends even know of his origins.80

At other times in the novel, however, Phineas’s Irishness matters very much and prevents him from finding a stable position in the government. Most notably, Phineas develops ‘views of his own’ and resigns his position over the question of tenant-right: ‘His Irish birth and Irish connection had brought this misfortune of his country so closely home to him that he had found the task of extricating himself from it to be impossible.’81 In his autobiography, Trollope laments the ‘blunder’ of making Phineas Irish, declaring: ‘There was nothing to be gained by the peculiarity.’82 Indeed, within the novel, being Irish often is a peculiarity that cannot be integrated into British institutions. Embodying realist division, Phineas thinks that ‘he had two identities, – that he was, as it were, two separate persons’.83 He is both a ‘man of fashion and member of Parliament in England’ and ‘an Irishman of Killaloe’ – he is integrated into institutions and fundamentally at odds with them.84 Jane Elizabeth Dougherty captures this tension at the heart of the novel, understanding it as a Bildungsroman ‘in which the young hero attempts to become assimilated into the domestic sphere of Britain through a career in “the House”, an institution which also represents the apotheosis of the civil, and masculine, sphere into which post-Union Irishmen cannot quite be assimilated’.85 As is the case in Castle Rackrent, the novel actively works to integrate Irish difference into familiar British forms – here ‘the House’ – while delimiting the peculiarities that cannot be assimilated – Finn’s commitment to Ireland.

This dynamic is not limited to representing Ireland or Irishness, or even peripheral locations and minority identity positions, but also occurs whenever realist novels work to assimilate difference into (p.58) the temporal rhythms and routines of everyday life and note that which cannot be assimilated. Often, this difference is historical. Take Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1864). The subtitle declares this novel to be ‘an every-day story’ and the opening page indicates that the everyday, while slightly different for the disparate characters, is a shared, transhistorical structure. The church bells call ‘every one to their daily work, as they had done for hundreds of years’.86 But as the narrator establishes the scene, she also notes the institutions that have changed beyond recognition. Describing the Cumnors’ school, the narrator writes:

She and the ladies, her daughters, had set up a school; not a school after the manner of schools now-a-days, where far better intellectual teaching is given to the boys and girls of labourers and work-people than often falls to the lot of their betters in worldly estate; but a school of the kind we should call ‘industrial’, where girls are taught to sew beautifully, to be capital housemaids, and pretty fair cooks, and, above all, to dress neatly in a kind of charity uniform devised by the ladies of Cumnor Towers.87

The Cumnors’ school shows how institutions structure everyday life in both the past and present. But the narrator also goes to great lengths to indicate that this school from the past has little in common with ‘schools now-a-days’ that readers encounter in their own lives. Thus, the Cumnors’ school is both familiar and strange; it evokes a shared landscape while noting how the institutions that make up this landscape have changed.

Jane Austen excels at describing these small differences that disrupt otherwise shared structures. The novelist of ‘small England’, who, Myers claims, produces a decontextualised representation of everyday life, in fact constantly notes the limits and exclusions to the shared social forms she creates.88 Focusing her narratives on English manor houses and country estates, Austen’s plots often depend on places that are mentioned without being represented: in Emma, events are set in motion because Jane Fairfax does not accompany the newly married Dixons on their trip to Ireland, Pride and Prejudice’s resolution hinges on Elizabeth Bennett travelling to nearby Derbyshire rather than to the Lake District, and in Mansfield Park, Sir Thomas Bertram’s absence in Antigua famously allows the plot to unfold.89 The constant references to places on the margins of the novel – places at odds with everyday routines that are nevertheless necessary to understanding the material realities of everyday (p.59) life – suggest that Austen’s work to delimit the scope of her novel paradoxically points to historical and social relationships that the novel cannot entirely assimilate. In a telling exchange in Emma, Jane Fairfax and Mrs Elton discuss Jane’s future as a governess. When Jane compares this employment to the selling of ‘human flesh’, Mrs Elton exclaims, ‘You quite shock me; if you mean a fling at the slave-trade.’ Jane quickly assures her, ‘I did not mean, I was not thinking of the slave-trade … governess-trade, I assure you, was all that I had in view.’90 The novel evokes the slave-trade in order to exclude it from the world of the novel. But such an explicit statement about what is ‘in view’ and what is not actually creates tension between the novel’s centripetal and centrifugal forces. Mentioning locations and practices that cannot be assimilated into the novel’s form fosters relationships between the novel’s centre – ‘small England’ – and its peripheries – Ireland, Antigua, the transatlantic slave trade and even the romantic Lake District.

As realist novels represent everyday life in England and Ireland, they work to integrate diverse geographical and historical locations while noting the local particulars that cannot be integrated. These local particulars productively push against realism’s drive towards consensus and institutional integration as they represent historical and social differences that exceed the novel’s shared forms. When something as familiar as ‘Monday morning’ can be made strange, when a character’s Irishness can matter both very much and very little, and when the idea of school can dramatically shift over the course of a generation, the very concept of everyday life becomes heterogeneous and discordant. This oscillation between the familiar and the strange, shared forms and that which exceeds them, suggests that realism’s representation of everyday life cannot always minimise the ‘ruptural possibilities’ of difference. And, as I will show in the rest of this book, it is precisely through these moments of rupture that realist novels encourage readers to imagine politics and history otherwise.

Ultimately, beginning the story of realism with Castle Rackrent allows us rethink the relationship between realism and institutions through an attention to formal divisions in novels. For many Foucauldian critics, divisions within novels – both realist and non-realist – advance a coherent politics. As D. A. Miller famously suggests, novels seem to distinguish between everyday life and institutions only to extend the disciplinary power that undergirds both.91 In turn, Nancy Armstrong argues that novels use stark gender divisions in order to centralise the domestic woman as a (p.60) modern subject and, in the process, create a new mode of social control that applies to both women and men.92 By contrast, I suggest that the realist novel’s politics, as well as its forms, are divided. For this reason, scholars can approach Castle Rackrent as a feminist, anti-colonial text that critiques patriarchy, on one hand, and as a document ‘in the “civilizing mission” of the English to the Irish’, on the other. To use Michel de Certeau’s language, the politics of the realist novel depend as much upon strategies that emerge from institutional locations and seek to convert time into space as they do on tactics, or fragmentary, temporal manoeuvres that never cohere into spatial sites.93 Realist novels imagine a stable, solid reality while also depicting tactical ways to inhabit this reality.

Recognising these contradictory strategies and tactics in the realist novel not only allows us to see realism’s divided politics, but also helps us reimagine the forms of our literary histories. Castle Rack-rent’s critical reception and its divided form suggest that Irish novels’ uneasy relationship with novelistic, critical and political institutions can actually transform the story that we tell about British realism. That story need not be simply a narrative of institutional consolidation or linear rise. Literary history might yet become comparative instead of continuous and transnational rather than national; it might move backwards and sideways as well as forward; and it might use anachronisms to question institutions rather than confirming ‘anew what is already institutionalised’.


(1.) Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent, p. 137. Hereafter cited within the text, abbreviated as CR.

(2.) This approach is especially prevalent within Foucauldian criticism. Nancy Armstrong offers one version of this argument in Desire and Domestic Fiction, where she sees the novels as one of many modern institutions ‘most responsible for domesticating culture’ (p. 205). D. A. Miller offers another version in The Novel and the Police, in his reading of Balzac’s omniscient narration, claiming, ‘We are always situated inside the narrator’s viewpoint, and even to speak of a “narrator” at all is to misunderstand a technique that, never identified with a person, institutes a faceless and multilateral regard’ (p. 24).

(3.) Ina Ferris exemplifies this strand of argumentation in The Achievement of Literary Authority, where she argues that novels ‘can achieve (p.61) “a place” in the canon only through recognition by the institutions granted the powers of inclusion and exclusion’ (p. 15).

(4.) David Lloyd theorises the relationship between realism and the state, arguing that nineteenth-century Irish novels appear strange in relation to English realism because the violence they represent does not always serve the state. Thus, Irish novels challenge the systems of representation at work in ‘the constitution of the political state as in that of the novel’ (Anomalous States, p. 145).

(5.) Joe Cleary tracks how the form of our literary histories contributes to misunderstanding nineteenth-century Irish novels. He argues that Irish studies scholars employ ‘the dominant models of English literary historiography’ – namely, understanding the novel as a linear development and through a nationalist framework – in ways that encourage scholars to understand the nineteenth-century Irish novel as a failure (‘The nineteenth-century Irish novel’, p. 204). Also see W. P. Ryan who traces a tradition of Irish literature – including Irish realism – suggesting that Irish literary production does not follow a single path of development or even result from shared institutions. In his words, ‘We have no straight record of growth, of influences, of development to follow. The chief workers are curiously independent of one another’ (‘The Best Irish Books’, p. 90).

(6.) Deane, Strange Country, p. 31. In Heathcliff and the Great Hunger, Terry Eagleton argues that ‘language is weapon, dissemblance, seduction, apologia – anything, in fact, but representational; it is in a perpetual condition of untruth, and truth can thus only be imported from the outside, by those disinterested enough to represent the people accurately both to others and to themselves’ (p. 171). Sara Maurer aptly describes these contradictory approaches to Edgeworth in The Dispossessed State. Maurer explains that scholars approach Edgeworth both as ‘the modestly dispossessed author’ who does not own her own writing and the ‘jealously possessive colonist’ who encourages the Anglo-Irish monopoly on land (The Dispossessed State, p. 20).

(7.) Nancy Armstrong shows the gendered implications of institutions mediating the stories we tell in Desire and Domestic Fiction as she claims, ‘Of late, it seems particularly apparent that such attempts to explain the history of the novel fail because – to a man – history is represented as the history of male institutions’ (p. 7).

(9.) Ibid. p. 14.

(10.) Here, I’m especially taking up Dipesh Chakrabarty’s work in postcolonial theory in Provincializing Europe, p. 243.

(12.) Joe Cleary makes one version of this argument in ‘Realism after Modernism and the Literary World-System’, suggesting that modernism is (p.62) antithetical to realism and defining the former as ‘the attempt to create a more radically cosmopolitan (whether of the right or of the left variety) idea of literature’ (p. 261).

(13.) ‘The Croppy, a Tale of 1798’, p. 410. As a reviewer suggests in ‘The Novels of Mr Anthony Trollope’, ‘Mr Trollope’s novels may be divided into three classes, the clerical, the domestic, and the Irish’ (p. 405).

(14.) For instance, G. Barnett Smith praises William Carleton for being ‘one of the truest, the most powerful, and the tenderest delineators of Irish life’ who challenged ‘the constant misrepresentations of the character of his countrymen’ (‘A Brilliant Irish Novelist’, p. 113).

(17.) René Wellek, ‘The Concept of Realism in Literary Scholarship’, p. 229. Caroline Levine also traces realism’s untimeliness as she argues that Victorians used the term realism to suggest a ‘skeptical method’ that put ‘mimesis to the test’ although later critics tend to associate realism with mimesis (The Serious Pleasures of Suspense, p. 12).

(18.) Scott himself indicates that he seeks ‘to emulate the admirable Irish portraits drawn by Miss Edgeworth’ (Waverley, p. 341). Jan Fergus argues that few scholars study Edgeworth’s influence on Austen because of a lack of critical interest in Edgeworth’s fiction and goes on to show that Edgeworth’s early experiments with free indirect discourse influenced Austen’s narrative techniques (‘“Pictures of Domestic Life in Country Villages”’, pp. 544–6).

(19.) As early as 1810, Anna Letitia Barbauld celebrated Edgeworth for her virtuous writing, claiming that her novels recommend ‘order, neatness, industry, sobriety’, in ‘On the Origin and Progress of Novel Writing’, p. 47. Classifying Edgeworth’s novels as ‘improvement fiction’ – utilitarian writing that participated in a larger project of ‘agricultural improvement, pedagogy, and estate management’ – Helen O’Connell continues to encourage such an approach to Edgeworth’s novels in Ireland and the Fiction of Improvement, p. 8.

(22.) Katherine O’Donnell exemplifies this approach in ‘Castle Stopgap’, pp. 115–30. Margot Backus offers a different approach, and sees Edge-worth as producing a ‘gothic realism’ that ironises realist conventions in The Gothic Family Romance, p. 98. In The Achievement of Literary Authority, Ina Ferris also sees Edgeworth as a realist, arguing that ‘Both Castle Rackrent and Waverley make the realist claim to nonfiction, more precisely to historical value, and each couches the claim in a narrative frame’ (p. 108). Jacqueline Belanger considers Edgeworth’s relationship with realism as well, suggesting that she questions whether readers can trust representations of Irish reality, even when they are grounded in experience. ‘“Le vrai n’et pas toujours vraisemblable,”’ p. 115.

(p.63) (23.) As a reviewer of Edgeworth’s Tales of Fashionable Life indicates: ‘the national novel – which, embodying, as it does, the characteristics of a people, their manners, their feelings, their faults, and their virtues, may be made the vehicle of conveying the most important truths, and of exciting a strong interest and sympathy in the minds of those to whom the nation in question would otherwise have been a name, and nothing more’ (Tales of Fashionable Life’, p. 496).

(26.) Seamus Deane’s Strange Country was influential in encouraging approaches that emphasised Edgeworth’s Anglo-Irish position and pro-English politics.

(27.) Following Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s reading of Edgeworth as one of the many ‘dutiful daughter-writers’ in the nineteenth century, feminist scholars often celebrate Castle Rackrent precisely because Edgeworth wrote it without her father’s guidance, displaying an originality that her father suppresses in her later fiction (The Madwoman in the Attic, p. 148). Clíona Ó Gallchoir traces this criticism and challenges it in Maria Edgeworth: Women, Enlightenment and Nation, pp. 60–1. Edgeworth’s fiction is also taken up by scholars of the British empire; as Suvendrini Perera argues, Castle Rackrent provides a model ‘for representing colonial relations elsewhere in the empire’ (Reaches of Empire, pp. 32–3).

(28.) Yoon Sun Lee is a notable exception, recently arguing that Edgeworth’s ‘bad plots’ ‘represent a crucial step in the development of fictional realism’ because they produce objectivity and facts within fictional space in ‘Bad Plots and Objectivity’, p. 36. Making this argument, Lee first wrestles with Edgeworth’s neglect in genre studies and the fact that her novels have not entered the literary canon.

(30.) Lukács, The Historical Novel, p. 63. Tellingly, when Anna Letitia Barbauld traces the history of the novel in ‘On the Origin and Progress of Novel-Writing’, she laments the anachronisms of romance, noting that ‘it is full of the grossest anachronisms’ (p. 9).

(34.) For this reason, in Scott’s Shadows, Ian Duncan turns to Castle Rackrent to explain the strange temporalities at work in nineteenth-century Scottish fiction – even Waverley. Duncan goes so far as to name Edgeworth ‘a modern founder of the Scottish school’ (p. 72).

(37.) In Black’s words, ‘the claim of the novel to be an index of historicity rests on the genre’s ability to register the irresolvable interplay of (p.64) divergent scales of history (the long time of myth and the local time of realism), or – same thing – the genre’s ability to model and provoke the anachronisms necessarily entailed in reading’ (‘Quixotic Realism and the Romance of the Novel’, p. 243).

(40.) Mullen, ‘Anachronistic Aesthetics’, pp. 238–9. Derek Hand also makes this argument, suggesting that critics return to the novel because of ‘the fortunate timing of its publication in 1800’ (A History of the Irish Novel, p. 60).

(41.) Ina Ferris and Claire Connolly both note how the Union was understood to be incomplete and thus inspired literary and discursive production. See Ferris, The Romantic National Tale and the Question of Ireland, p. 6, and Connolly, A Cultural History of the Irish Novel, 1790, pp. 32–3. In ‘The other within’, Kevin Whelan argues that the Union was the beginning of a larger process of imperial rationalisation (pp. 15–16).

(43.) Lord Glenthorn’s personal transformation suggests a broader historical transformation from violence to law and order. As Patrick O’Malley argues, ‘Ennui invokes historical violence precisely in order to defang it, to transform it into the raw material for a future-oriented liberalism that can safely forget it’ (‘“The length, breadth, and depth, of the wound”’, p. 151).

(45.) Ibid. p. 623.

(47.) Corbett, Allegories of the Union in Irish and English Writing, p. 50. Of course, because the editor so heavily relies on prolepsis to secure modern institutionalism, there is not even scholarly consensus about the editor’s drive towards futurity. As Marilyn Butler argues, ‘There is no sense of the impending future in it – no clash between the Rack-rents’ values and those of the people replacing them’ (p. 357). Butler usefully traces contradictory readings of Castle Rackrent as both the most nationalist of Edgeworth’s tales and not nationalist enough (pp. 391–3). Recently, Patrick O’Malley suggests in Liffey and Lethe that the constant movement between past and future complicates the present of the novel, suggesting that there seems to be ‘a temporality both evacuated of fantasies of past and future and filled with them’ as he argues that the novel moves between ‘historical remembrance’ and ‘strategic forgetting in the interest of an ameliorative move into the future’ (p. 8).

(49.) Ibid. p. 374.

(51.) Thus, the novel does not simply have difficulty achieving narrative simultaneity, as Helena Michie argues, but instead actively represents history occurring through different temporal paces and scales in ways that undermine the forms of temporal consensus that the narrative imagines (‘Hard Times, Global Times’, pp. 605–26).

(53.) Ibid. p. 131.

(54.) Ibid. p. 456.

(55.) Ibid. p. 42.

(56.) Ibid. p. 424.

(59.) Here, I am building on David Lloyd’s argument in Anomalous States that realism works to integrate the individual and the local community ‘into the larger frame of national society’, which he suggests ultimately requires ‘the negation or exclusion of what cannot be drawn into identity’ (p. 152). But unlike Lloyd, I suggest that this dynamic is present in English as well as Irish realism and that the novel’s resolution does not close down the political possibilities that the unassimilable elements within the novel suggest.

(60.) In Novels of Everyday Life, Laurie Langbauer suggests that women novelists used domestic realism’s emphasis on everyday life to play with this dynamic. She argues that women use novelistic conventions to critique the novel’s gendered ideology and to render everyday life a site of contradiction and contestation. In her words, ‘An emphasis on the everyday may provide instead a way of inhabiting those confines [of the everyday], working with them, without simply overlooking them or accepting them as natural’ (p. 58).

(61.) Mitzi Myers, ‘Shot from Canons’, p. 197. Joseph Rezek has made a similar argument more recently, in London and the Making of Provincial Literature, suggesting that Austen’s realism imagines a small England that Edgeworth and other Irish writers were distanced from (p. 63). Also see John Plotz, who considers how Austen’s novels create a ‘known place’ in ‘The Semi-Detached Provincial Novel’, p. 408.

(62.) Many Irish studies scholars similarly claim that the historicity of Irish novels makes them less portable and less successful. Sean Ryder claims that ‘Unlike F. R. Leavis’s “great traditions” of nineteenth-century fiction and poetry, which were canons ostensibly constructed on moral and aesthetic grounds, Irish literary historians have usually based their claims for the value of nineteenth-century texts on their historical or political importance’ in ‘Literature in English’, p. 122. James Murphy makes a similar argument in ‘Canonicity’, pp. 45–54.

(p.66) (65.) Farina, ‘On David Masson’s British Novelists and their Styles (1859) and the Establishment of Novels as an Object of Academic Study’. Nicholas Dames suggests that Masson’s work differs from most literary theory in the Victorian period, which tends to be amateurish and was still in the process of institutionalisation, in ‘Realism and Theories of the Novel’, p. 290.

(67.) Ibid. p. 328.

(68.) Trollope, An Autobiography, p. 78. Of course, it is also important to note that despite the failure of these Irish novels, ‘Ireland did indeed “make” Trollope,’ as Mary Jean Corbett argues (Allegories of the Union in Irish and English Writing, p. 115). Trollope worked for the Post Office in Ireland, and as his autobiography suggests, living in Ireland allowed him to make and save more money than he would have in England.

(71.) Ibid. p. 2.

(72.) In this essay, Jameson argues that realist novels produce a new ‘spatial and temporal configuration itself: what will come to be called “daily life”’ (‘The Realist Floor-Plan’, p. 375). Jameson suggests that this configuration works as a form of programming, creating an abstract structure through which we apprehend specific details.

(74.) As Patrick O’Malley argues in his reading of the novel as simultaneously ‘history, memoir, novel’, each of these forms understand the past differently (Liffey and Lethe, p. 7).

(76.) I discuss how this defamiliarisation of ‘Monday morning’ depends upon metalepsis in Mullen, ‘Anachronistic Aesthetics’, p. 252.

(77.) As Jane Elizabeth Dougherty argues in ‘An Angel in the House’, Phineas’s Irishness ‘is both crucial and incidental to his characterization’ (p. 133).

(80.) Ibid. p. 200.

(84.) Ibid. p. 330.

(87.) Ibid. p. 7.

(p.67) (89.) Edward Said famously argues that ‘Thomas Bertram’s slave plantation in Antigua is mysteriously necessary to the poise and beauty of Mansfield Park’, Culture and Imperialism, p. 59. Joseph Rezek reflects on the fact that Elizabeth Bennett goes to Derbyshire instead of the Lake District (London and the Making of Provincial Literature, pp. 62–3).