The Races of Women: Gender, Hybridity, and National Identity in Dinah Craik's Olive

By Shields, Juliet | Studies in the Novel, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Races of Women: Gender, Hybridity, and National Identity in Dinah Craik's Olive


Shields, Juliet, Studies in the Novel


The 1840s saw the consolidation of a hitherto emergent concept of race in Britain, largely, I will suggest, in response to famine and rebellion in Ireland. Whereas late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century British writers had understood race in terms of fluid and mutable physical and moral characteristics, by the middle of the nineteenth century, an increasing number of writers began to describe racial characteristics as innate and intransigent. The Irish immigrants who flooded into cities like Glasgow and Liverpool during the 1840s served to remind Britons that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, still a relatively recent formation dating back only to 1800, comprised two races-the Celts of Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, and the Scottish Highlands and the Saxons of England and the Scottish Lowlands. The prejudices with which Irish immigrants were greeted made it clear that fears surrounding interracial contact not only occurred on the imperial outskirts but also resonated at home in Britain. This essay will discuss the contributions of Robert Knox and Dinah Craik to mid-nineteenth-century debates over the meanings of race and of Britishness. Both writers occupied culturally marginal positions in these debates from which they attempted to define the racial boundaries of the British nation. Knox was a Lowland Scot whose renown as an anatomist was marred by his involvement in an 1828 Edinburgh grave-robbing scandal. His emphatic arguments for the innate differences between Celts and Saxons, delivered in a series of lectures throughout England in the 1840s and published as The Races of Men in 1850, suggest that Knox wanted to distinguish Scottish Lowlanders like himself as British in contrast to the nation's peripheral and supposedly unassimilable Celts. Dinah Craik turned to writing to support herself and her siblings after her profligate Irish father abandoned the family. As a woman, she could not participate directly in scientific debates about the anatomical, biological, and ethnological dimensions of race; moreover, her family history may have made her hesitant to overtly address Anglo-Irish tensions. Thus she entered obliquely into discussions of racial difference by writing a novel that featured Highland rather than Irish Celts as characters. Craik refuted Knox's theory that the seemingly innate differences between Celts and Saxons must necessarily prohibit their assimilation by claiming a special role for women as racial mediators in the process of British nation formation.

Knox's The Races of Men: A Fragment and Craik's Olive: A Novel, both published in 1850, question whether England's political unions with Wales, Scotland, and Ireland successfully had melded Celts and Saxons into a cohesive British nation. By drawing attention to the historically disparate peoples comprising the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, The Races of Men and Olive not only examine the meanings of race, but also explore the distinctions between nation and race that, according to Nicholas Hudson, had begun to emerge in the late-eighteenth century (247-48). Whereas Enlightenment thinkers like David Hume (e.g., 113) argued that political institutions shape a nation's character, Knox asserted that such institutions were powerless to alter the innate physical and moral characteristics differentiating one race from another. Knox described the nation as "a mere accidental assemblage of people-a human contrivance based on no assurance of perseverance, on no bond of nature" (198). In contrast to Hume, Knox regarded race as not merely natural but essential and perhaps immutable. It was also the source of all cultural differences, whether manifest in manners and mores or in "literature, science [and] art" (7). Nations could, and in Knox's opinion often did, encompass multiple races that were not necessarily culturally compatible with each other. For instance, he believed that the Celts' love of war and the Saxons' love of liberty rendered the two peoples fundamentally inimical and threatened the stability of Britain's growing empire. …

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