Reflection by John Plotz
Anyone looking for classroom editions of Irish works between Maria Edgeworth and James Joyce knows about the Ireland-sized hole in the late 19th century literary canon. Given that lacuna, it was with special delight (I have long admired her previously published work on Edgeworth) that I turned to the two chapters in Mary Mullen’s Novel Institutions that examine unjustly neglected Irish writers: “William Carleton’s and Charles Kickham’s Ethnographic Realism” and “George Moore’s Untimely Bildung.” James Murphy blames “the continuing regrettable dominance of Anglo-Irish literature as a canonical construct” while Terry Eagleton says that the gulf between peasants and landlords makes an Irish realist tradition impossible, since realism hinges on the potential for integration. Mullen takes another tack.
Each chapter illuminates what is provocative about the two concepts Mullen proposes should play a greater role in conversations about Irish fiction, and perhaps 19th century realism generally: anachronism and institutions. Her account of the former is about the experience of temporality—about coevalness, non-coevalness, and the ways in which the “now” can be penetrated by aspects of the past. Her account of the latter is principally governmental and juridical, but with some potential at times for abstraction into a more capacious Weberian (or even Foucauldian) template for all the implicit structures that hold together a “modern” society.
Mullen has an especially insightful discussion of how these temporal and juridical categories shape the work of Carleton and Kickham. The two contemporaries were politically opposed but, by Mullen’s account, congruent in the ways they grapple with the notion that Ireland may be an “anachronistic” land––or a land that is both incorporated within the institutions of governance and somehow discrepant or at odds with them. I liked her account of Ireland’s displacement “backwards.” Yet sometimes I found myself wondering what Mullen makes of C.L.R. James’s argument that far from being “backwards” the sugar-producing Caribbean colonies were actually at the apex of “modernity” in the 19th century, the site where governmental and economic institutions actually operated in their most up-to-date way. Could a similar argument be made that Ireland was not “backward” but “forward” in its most policed, and most en-Famined, decades?
When moving forward to explore George Moore, Mullen expounds only briefly on what I think may be the most crucial aesthetic development as regards both anachronism and institutions in the late 19th century: the rise of literary naturalism. Mullen persuasively links Moore to Zola and naturalism’s turn to (by Lukacs’s famous account) “description” at the expense of the older realist category of “narration.” But I wonder if there may be more to be said about how naturalist texts—not just Moore’s but also Hardy’s, Gissing’s, and a range of other anglophone writers of the day—take on thorny questions of anachronism and of institutions in ways that profoundly challenge realism’s verities. There is, for instance, a persistent naturalist notion––in Richard Jefferies as well as in Moore, and arguably in the Ibsen-loving Synge as well–that to comprehend individuals at all it is necessary to grasp the institutions that encompass and surround them, so that what seems psychological (and hence individual, idiosyncratic) is also legibly shaped by biological or social rules. To Zola, to Moore, to Hardy, institutions are in and of us. Each of us grows up, even when feeling most alone, institutionalized. Accordingly, in those writers there is a willingness—consistent with the scale-shifting between micro and macro that Zola both preached and practiced—to treat temporality as something other than a human-sized problem. This is not precisely anachronism, in fact it might be called “achronicity” at times—the presumption that certain laws cut across the ages and hence are consistent even when individual human experience of them seems mutable.
All of which is to say that one of the most satisfying accomplishments of Mullen’s book was to push me to think harder about how her categories worked in periods (like the 1890’s) of profound aesthetic as well as socio-cultural upheaval. I look forward to continuing to wrestle with anachronism and institutions––in Irish literature classrooms and elsewhere.