Gottlieb, Evan and Juliet Shields, (eds.) Representing Place in British Literature and Culture, 1660–1830: From Local to Global (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013) 234 pp. £95.00 Hb, PDF, EPub. ISBN: 978-1-4724-0218-9.
Although dedicated to British literary culture, this stimulating volume participates in a wider critical shift which looks beyond the nation-state towards varieties of local, trans-local, national, and global experience in the long eighteenth century. The editors’ introduction and Dafydd Moore’s closing response-essay usefully situate its individual essays in relation to new approaches such as ‘critical global studies’ that challenge centre-periphery models by examining multiple centres and their relational dynamics (7). In keeping with their desire to ‘explore the formation of community and the construction of place and space in terms largely derived from eighteenth-century writers themselves,’ however, the contributors (all literature scholars) focus on the ‘discourses, practices and genres’ through which these communities and spaces were constituted (2–3). Indeed, the collection’s chief strength lies in its richly detailed readings of diverse texts drawn from outside metropolitan and canonical centres. Although several essays touch upon natural history and environmental degradation, this volume is primarily concerned with cultural and literary history rather than ecocritical approaches to place and landscape.
The collection is organised into three chronologically-ordered parts. The first part concerns relationships between the local and regional and the national. Bridget Orr’s engaging opening essay considers the overlap between the Restoration stage and the dramatic possibilities offered by the liminal locales of spa towns and fairs. Orr argues that these spaces of social and sexual intermingling enhanced the comedic and satirical potential of plays by Thomas Shadwell and others and enabled these playwrights to explore tensions afflicting the nation more broadly. Plural notions of Britishness are also central to Juliet Shields’s examination of the early eighteenth-century novelists Eliza Haywood and Penelope Aubin. Using Daniel Defoe’s Anglo-centrism as a productive contrast, Shield interprets these novelists through a devolutionary approach which acknowledges the importance of Wales (to Aubin) and rural England (to Haywood). Scotland, meanwhile, provides the linguistic context for Janet Sorenson’s fascinating exploration of Scots vernacular poetry. Rather than defining regional borders, Sorenson shows how such ‘local languages’ offered the double pleasures of communal recognition and poetic obscurity to insiders and outsiders alike, since knowledge of Scots terms varied between regions, and Edinburgh readers often received the same glossaries as those in London. The final essay in this section, Paul Westover’s “At Home in the Churchyard,” fits more properly with those in the latter part of the collection since it concerns the localised nostalgia of the late-Romantic ‘prose pastoral.’ Through the work of Caroline Bowles (later the wife of Robert Southey) Westover demonstrates how the village cemetery preserved an idealised version of Englishness in a rapidly-urbanising and politically turbulent period.
In the second part of the volume, essays by Evan Gottlieb and James Mulholland widen their critical perspective to consider global communities. Gottlieb questions the common association between Gothic literature and Englishness by applying an expansion-contraction model drawn from theories of global flows of capital. He sees the expansiveness of ‘first-wave’ British Gothic novels culminating in the cosmopolitanism of Ann Radcliffe, before the later 1790s saw a reactionary movement back towards the local. Mulholland, meanwhile, offers a productive account of the ‘translocal’ literary communities imagined by the Welsh orientalist William Jones and the poet writing as ‘Anna Maria’ (possibly Jones’s wife) in British Calcutta. Translocalism, Mulholland convincingly argues, offers alternative versions of the local more appropriate to an imperial context where identities and relationships were often ‘dispersed, contingent, [and] potentially ever-shifting’ across time and space (136). The third essay in this section, by Scott M. Cleary on English Catholicism, addresses the important question of transnational religious communities but its concerns lie somewhat outside those of the other contributions.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those essays most relevant to eighteenth-century ecology, natural history and literature come in the final section on rethinking romantic localism. Both concern poetry and place, and both feature the Lichfield author Anna Seward. Penny Fielding’s excellent overview of eighteenth-century river poetry highlights the river’s double signification as a feature linking the different locations it passes through, and as a symbol of ‘native’ or original purity. The river’s watery nature only becomes visible when threatened by industrialisation, as in Seward’s “Colebrook Dale,” making it a potent image of the natural world itself. The river therefore enables Fielding to engage the ongoing problem of representing—and thus aestheticising, reifying or commodifying— an environment of which we remain inextricably a part. JoEllen DeLucia’s contribution on Lichfield as a literary locale first examines Needwood Forest as a similar symbol of valued yet exploited nature in the poetry of Francis Mundy, before turning to Anna Seward’s friendship poems. Seward’s Lichfield, DeLucia argues, was one of many vernacular literary centres perceived as integral, rather than peripheral, to British national identity in this period. Returning to the theme of nostalgia, Diedre Lynch closes this section by considering the literary landscape as cultural heritage in the ‘home and haunts’ genre which grew up around Jane Austen and Mary Russell Mitford. Like many representations of place explored in this volume, this genre worked by knitting personal recollection into national memory through shared reading experiences, creating attachments to an idealised locality—in this case, rural England—that by the nineteenth century no longer existed.
Rounding off the collection, Moore’s coda reassesses its contributions from a regional, archipelagic perspective. Moore also cogently warns against the ‘generalization or monolithic assumptions’ so tempting to the critic or reviewer (191). As a whole, these essays do amply fulfil their aim of interrogating narratives of nation such as Linda Colley’s seminal Britons (a work mentioned several times but missing from the bibliography). Yet their value, as Moore suggests, lies in their attention to local specificities. This volume will be of most interest to literary scholars and cultural historians, to whom it should offer new ways to think about these local distinctions within regional, national or global contexts.
Megan Kitching, St. Mary’s University