Evan Gottlieb and Juliet Shields (eds), Representing Place in British Literature and Culture, 1660–1830: From Local to Global (Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013), x + 221pp. ISBN 978-1-4094-1930-3; £60 (hb).
How might it be possible, ask Evan Gottlieb and Juliet Shields in the introduction to Representing Place in British Literature and Culture, to ‘tell the whole story’ of the intersections of local, regional, national and transnational communities in Britain? This collection of essays was published in March 2013. On the twenty-first of the same month, the Scottish Independence Referendum Bill proposed to ask voters a related but somewhat starker question about the nature of British nationhood. The debates which have since been raised by politicians and media provide plenty of evidence that the problems considered by this volume—of national and local identity, tradition, migration, cosmopolitanism, the perceived dominance of the metropolis—not only are still relevant but are still shaped as much by culture and representation as politics and economics.
Gottlieb and Shields aim to resist the well-known ‘rise of the nation’ narrative of much eighteenth-century British cultural history, in which the nation–state opposes and subdues alternative forms of community. Yet, as Dafydd Moore’s responsive coda warns, it is not enough to simply replace the ‘imagined nation’ with another naïvely conceived ‘imagined region’ (p. 189). The contributions to this collection, instead, work from the assumption that a sense of place is not natural but constructed and reshaped by representation in text. Specifically, as might be expected from a new title in the series ‘British Literature in Context in the Long Eighteenth Century’, this book is interested in the workings of place in written text: mostly poetry, prose and novels, with an opening diversion into Restoration drama. Despite the ‘and Culture’ in its title, the collection’s focus remains very closely on the literary throughout—a category which is defined refreshingly broadly, and within which is produced a detailed, nuanced survey of the role of authorial tradition and reading practice. Nevertheless, given the widely understood centrality to ideas of nation, locality and globe of, for example, landscape art (acknowledged briefly by JoEllen DeLucia), topographical drawings and maps, music and song, and especially metropolitan, local and internationally touring theatres, the need for future complementary projects in other disciplines seems clear.
Eighteenth-century Britishness was, of course, continually defined against foreignness, most often against the vanities, vices and sophistication of the French. A sense of the nation also, though, emerged in terms of local mythologies and ideologies which sometimes opposed and very often laid claim to an authentically British, because ‘un-foreign’, character. The first section of Representing Place in British Literature and Culture, ‘From Local to National’, offers a series of textual case studies of this complex relationship, chronologically ordered from the negotiations of local and London characters in seventeenth-century theatre (in Bridget Orr’s chapter) to the construction, in prose pastoral, of a perhaps more familiarly modern sense of national heritage emerging out of dislocation and nostalgia. Countering London-centric and Anglocentric versions of the formation of Britishness, Juliet Shields foregrounds the ‘centrifugal and peripheral’ (p. 37) nature of the national identities promoted by early eighteenth-century novels such as Penelope Aubin’s Madam de Beaumont, in which a stubbornly virtuous and homogeneous Wales resists the influx of exotic people and corruption spreading from London. Shields’ chapter goes on to demonstrate that this was only one of multiple outlines of British identity which could be delineated in early eighteenth-century novels, each linked to political sentiment and moral character, and attributing value to specific geographical regions within Britain: whether Wales, Scotland, London or the countryside between them. Moreover, Janet Sorensen argues, in an analysis of the puzzles of Scots poetry in the period, that such localised national identities may both mimic and resist gestures of cultural dominance which sought to portray them as translatable from confusion into harmony, and from obscurity into ‘the standard English of an improving Anglo-Britain’ (p. 56). The mechanics of text, local geography and loss delineated by Paul Westover in this section are echoed by Deidre Lynch in the last full essay of the book, a meditation on the domesticating ‘homes and haunts’ of English literature in the nineteenth century.
The next three chapters situate these complex ideas of nation and locality within a more explicitly transnational context. While Gottlieb’s use of this frame of reference recontextualises some well-rehearsed arguments about the gothic’s relation to nationalism, cosmopolitanism and patriotic conservatism, it is James Mulholland’s formulation of ‘translocal poetics’—as ‘intimate collaborations that cross vast distances’ (p. 130), connecting traditions and cultures into alternative forms of localism—which may provide the most useful tool for understanding the workings of literary texts in an increasingly globalised society. His chapter on the Orientalist poetry of William and Anna Maria Jones calls for a turn towards ‘the muddy middle ground between globalism and localism’ (p. 136) which is not limited to the national.
The book closes with a ‘Return to the Local’, examining Romantic regionalism as a transformative successor to the earlier forms of identity mapped out in previous chapters. Penny Fielding, for example, traces the poetic image of the river as a device structuring the spatial and temporal relationships between local points, seeing in the history of this tradition a movement from the grand national narrative to the Romantic construction of personal autobiography and genius loci. The most intriguing of the authors she discusses is Anna Seward, whose self-described ‘tender local devotions’ (p. 157) are also central to DeLucia’s rich chapter on Midlands literary culture and the development of a British local poetics. Like Fielding, DeLucia recuperates Seward as a poet of the local as well as the national, reflecting in her poems an emerging, decentralised and fragmented (because highly personal) sense of British identity. As such, she is an appropriate reference point for a book which refuses to offer easy or general answers to the complex questions that it poses.