Allegories of Union in Irish and English Writing, 1790-1870: Politics, History, and the Family from Edgeworth and to Arnold

By Mary Jean Corbett | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
England's opportunity, England's character: Arnold,
Mill, and the Union in the 1860s

“We are married to Ireland by the ground-plan of this world – a thick-skinned labouring man to a drunken ill-tongued wife, and dreadful family quarrels have ensued”: so wrote Thomas Carlyle to the Irish nationalist Charles Gavan Duffyin 1847, wrenching the Union-asmarriage metaphor in a manner that Edgeworth and Owenson could neither have anticipated nor approved. 1 Such an understanding of the marital as of the imperial bond – as naturally ordained, but also as violently contested – was itself to become the norm in the ensuing decades, testifying to a shift in the social and ideological pressures exerted on each of these fictions of consent. If marriage naturalized and institutionalized gender inequality, the basis for that inequality was increasingly disputed in some arenas, and every bit as persistently justified in others. As in contemporary debates on the politics of marriage, so, too, did the politics of Union undergo a series of challenges – from Irish liberation movements, but also from English liberal thinkers – that seriously tested the assumptions on which English rule in Ireland had been based.

In Trollope's Phineas Finn (1869), a bad marriage provides the explicit model for the unhappy union of England and Ireland, as it manifests itself in the conflict over tenant-right that ultimately leads the eponymous Irish catholic M. P. to vote against his party and so to lose his seat. Trollope's narrator represents this marriage as a site for the imposition of relations of unequal power, in which the stronger party uses both coercion and conciliation to avert separation:

England and Ireland had been apparently joined together by laws of nature so fixed, that even politicians liberal as was Mr Monk – liberal as was Mr Turnbull – could not trust themselves to think that disunion could be for the good of the Irish. They had taught themselves that it certainly could not be good for the English. But if it was incumbent on England to force upon Ireland the maintenance of the Union for her own sake, and for England's sake, because

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