Mapping Ireland in Early Fiction

By Ross, Ian Campbell | Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies, Spring-Summer 2011 | Go to article overview

Mapping Ireland in Early Fiction


Ross, Ian Campbell, Irish University Review: a journal of Irish Studies


Mapping Vertue Rewarded (1693) and Sarah Butler's Irish Tales (1716) reveals significant cartographical and narrative distinctions between these and two near-contemporary English fictions, Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688) and Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719). While the latter show the contemporary colonizing movement outwards from England, Vertue Rewarded and Irish Tales reveal trajectories of invasion and incursion, characteristic of historiographical accounts of Ireland, from the eleventh-century Lebor Gabdla Erenn onwards. A broader engagement with pre-Romantic Irish literature, it is argued, may help to address contemporary anxieties about the study of national literature(s), along lines suggested by the current comparatist objectives of the literary cartographer and theorist, Franco Moretti.

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... maps bring to light the internal logic of narrative: the semiotic domain around which a plot coalesces and self-organizes.

(Franco Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900)

For more than a decade, the mapping of prose fiction has been particularly associated with the work of Franco Moretti, beginning with his Atlas of the European Novel (1997), through his edited collection, The Novel (2001-3), Graphs, Maps, and Trees (2005), to his essay 'The Novel: History and Theory', which appeared in New Left Review in August 2008. (1) In comparison to the global ambitions increasingly espoused by Moretti, the aims of the Early Irish Fiction c. 1680-c. 1820 series of critical editions of Irish novels, of which Vertue Rewarded and Irish Tales were the first to be published, are modest but not, I hope, parochial. (2) Though bound up with the study of the Irish novel as part of a national literature, the project is in no way unsympathetic to the expansive uses of cultural geography the comparativist Moretti (re-)articulated in his 2008 essay, where he declared his current aim to be '"to make the literary field longer, larger, and deeper": historically longer, geographically larger, and morphologically deeper than those few classics of nineteenth-century Western European "realism" that have dominated the recent theory of the novel.' (3)

If it is true that modern studies even of eighteenth-century English fiction were, for long, dominated by a concern with realism, especially under the influence of Ian Watt's transformative study, The Rise of the Novel (1957), that situation changed some fifteen to thirty years ago, with the publication of a cluster of works that included Lennard J. Davis's Factual Fictions: the Origin of the English Novel (1983), Michael McKeon's The Origins of the English Novel, 1600-1740 (1987), J. Paul Hunter's Before Novels: the Cultural Contexts of Eighteenth Century English Fiction (1990), and Margaret Anne Doody's The True Story of the Novel (1997) which, individually and collectively, drew attention to the generic variety that informs seventeenth and early-eighteenth century fiction in English. None of these works, however, considered Irish (or for that matter Scottish) fiction of the period as revealing distinctive characteristics. Indeed, it was only a quarter of century ago that the notion could be authoritatively advanced that there was nothing distinctive about any English-language writing from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. (4) Major works of scholarship, including both The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (1991-2002) and The Cambridge History of Irish Literature (2006), make such a view untenable today. Irish fiction of the long-eighteenth century, however, has until recently suffered from comparative neglect, to the extent that more than a decade after the publication of Moretti's Atlas, it still seems worthwhile to consider the extent to which an exploration of the work of writers of prose fiction born, educated or living in Ireland from the late-seventeenth to early-nineteenth centuries might help allow us to make the field of fiction historically longer, geographically deeper, and morphologically longer than it may have hitherto appeared. …

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