The Gothic Family Romance: Heterosexuality, Child Sacrifice, and the Anglo-Irish Colonial Order

The Gothic Family Romance: Heterosexuality, Child Sacrifice, and the Anglo-Irish Colonial Order

by Margot Backus

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Tales of child sacrifice, demon lovers, incestual relations, and returns from the dead are part of English and Irish gothic literature. Such recurring tropes are examined in this pioneering study by Margot Gayle Backus to show how Anglo-Irish gothic works written from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries reflect the destructive effects of imperialism on the children and later descendents of Protestant English settlers in Ireland.
Backus uses contemporary theory, including that of Michel Foucault and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, to analyze texts by authors ranging from Richardson, Swift, Burke, Edgeworth, Stoker, and Wilde to contemporary Irish novelists and playwrights.
By charting the changing relations between the family and the British state, she shows how these authors dramatized a legacy of violence within the family cell and discusses how disturbing themes of child sacrifice and colonial repression are portrayed through irony, satire, “paranoid” fantasy, and gothic romance. In a reconceptualization of the Freudian family romance, Backus argues that the figures of the Anglo-Irish gothic embody the particular residue of childhood experiences within a settler colonial society in which biological reproduction represented an economic and political imperative.
Backus’s bold positioning of the nuclear family at the center of post-Enlightenment class and colonial power relations in England and Ireland will challenge and provoke scholars in the fields of Irish literature and British and postcolonial studies. The book will also interest students and scholars of women’s studies, and it has important implications for understanding contemporary conflicts in Ireland.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822398295
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 06/01/2012
Series: Post-contemporary interventions
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 665 KB

About the Author

Margot Gayle Backus is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Houston.

Read an Excerpt

The Gothic Family Romance

Heterosexuality, Child Sacrifice, and the Anglo-Irish Colonial Order

By Margot Gayle Backus

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9829-5


The Other Half of the Story

English and Irish Social Formations, 1550-1700

There is no such thing as society: there are only individual men and women, and there are families.

– Margaret Thatcher, A Woman's Own Journal

The political and social processes by which Western European societies were put in order are not very apparent, have been forgotten, or have become habitual. They are part of our most familiar landscape, and we don't perceive them anymore. But most of them once scandalized people.

– Michel Foucault

In Modern Ireland: 1600-1972, R. F. Foster characterizes Irish society circa 1600 as it might have appeared to the colonizing English.

Though the Irish practice of fostering out their children had parallels in contemporary England, what struck observers was the exceptional depth of the bond created: foster brothers owed each other a deeper debt than natural siblings. The family could thus be extended in deliberate directions: another mechanism to this end was the custom of "naming" fathers, whereby a woman might claim paternity, often noble, for her child at any stage of his minority, binding him to a father he had not previously known. The convention of tanistry, the election of leaders, might be interpreted in this context, too, with the organization of the family group strengthening itself through redefinition in every generation. This symbolized the flexibility that was so characteristic of Gaelic institutions. Tenancies at will, chiefs living by levies and imposition, mobile pasture farming, were all instanced by the English as conducive to lawlessness. Partible inheritance, even subdividing and reapportioning the family castle from generation to generation, was equally shocking.... [W]here wealth was itself mobile in the form of cattle, rather than stable, in the form of land, such arrangements often benefitted the tenant. But in English eyes the whole system looked like a celebration of anarchy. (26)

Foster's analysis suggests that English colonial efforts in Ireland before 1600 were mitigated by the relational malleability that characterized Irish gender, kinship, and land-use patterns. Given this fluidity, the "stabilization" of the Irish within the Irish landscape logically became a priority for the English beginning in the mid- to late sixteenth century.

When Charles Blount Mountjoy (whom Foster characterizes, curiously, as a "humane man" [34]) was appointed lord deputy from England in 1600, "his plan was to make Ireland 'a razed table' upon which the Elizabethan state could transcribe a neat pattern" (35). The "neat pattern" that England ultimately transcribed onto the "razed table" of Ireland clearly involved not only "stabilized" patterns of land use, measurement, and ownership but also extended deeply into the social realm, permanently and devastatingly realigning patterns of community formation, family formation, conjugality, sexual identity, and subjectivity.

A record of the devastation of Ulster that Mountjoy undertook in 1601 is preserved in documents containing "descriptions of starvation and cannibalism" that, as Foster concedes, "made unbearable reading even then" (34). But Foster's history of Ireland does not acknowledge that what happened to landownership as a result of Mountjoy's razing of Ulster only constitutes half the story. The other half of the story of Ireland's conquest is what happened to community and subjectivity in Ireland. Through the process of conquest, both were radically reconstituted: indirectly, through the process of dispossession, which ensured that the community, once broken up, had no material basis on which to reestablish itself; and directly, through murder, dismemberment, torture, internment, and starvation.

Setting the Scene

English Order and Stability in Ireland

Land use, family configuration, inheritance, and religious belief and ritual were regulated by externally imposed legislation such as An Act for the English Order, Habit and Language in 1537 (Jones and Stallybrass 157-58), the imposition of English property law in the early 1600s (Foster, Modern Ireland 65), and the Penal Laws, introduced in 1695 (McVeigh 15). A foreign language, English, was established as the language of law, learning, and trade. British imperialist encroachment and extraction, especially during the Penal Laws and the famines of the 1840 s, also inadvertently established the Roman Catholic Church as the preeminent symbol of a martyred Irish national and spiritual subjectivity. Catholicism, once established as an absolute symbolic alternative to British governance, institutionalized many of the cultural changes that British imperialism was already promoting in Ireland: binarized gender norms, the regimentation and heterosexualization of sexuality, the privatization of property, and the normalization of class divisions.

The subjectivity and social relations of Scots and English settlers in Ireland were also radically reconstituted over the course of colonial conquest. Through the process of resettlement in Ireland, a large number of persons, themselves economically and socially displaced, achieved stable positions within English society. As colonizers in a foreign land, settlers were enabled to establish the nuclear families that signified full citizenship within their own society. The Anglo-Irish settler colonialist family therefore took on specialized meanings in terms of wealth and material security, along with a specialized relationship to national identity and social feelings of belonging. Paradoxically, only by remaining in Ireland could the settler colonialist participate fully in the national economic and political life of England.

While the settlement of Ireland was fueled by the quests of British and Scots Protestants for secure positions within their own national economies, Irish colonial subjectivity was forged through a process of violent physical appropriation explicitly designed to create a zero-sum relationship between the British colonizer and the native Irish. The early chapters of Theodore Allen's The Invention of the White Race, vol. 1, represent an especially detailed and well-theorized account of the process by which the English ruling elite instituted an insuperable breach between settler and native through a strategic program of military dispossession and redistribution. Using abundant evidence drawn from letters and other contemporary sources, Allen demonstrates that the English systematically explored various means of establishing political control in Ireland. These included the establishment of an Anglo-Norman "Middle Nation" (the Old English); the policy of "surrender and regrant," a legal sleight of hand whereby the English offered to instate democratically elected tribal chieftains as permanent, hereditary rulers of their clans, granting them private ownership of the common lands under their stewardship; and plantation. Although Allen characterizes these policies as failures, he acknowledges that each individually yielded limited success, paving the way for the tactics that followed it. The legitimacy many self-interested chieftains granted to the English state under surrender and regrant, for instance, created a precedent that resurfaced in the subsequent establishment of the plantation system.

Nonetheless, until Mountjoy employed the tactic of mass starvation through the systematic destruction of crops in 1601, English ambitions to dominate Ireland were repeatedly undermined by the flexibility of Irish social relations. In the centuries before the Tyrone War (1594-1603), which I discuss in the next section, the heterogeneity and syncretism of Irish society consistently evinced a "'nonracial' symbiosis" between the native Irish and their would-be overseers (Allen 48). The most well-known episode in this losing struggle against "hibernicization" among the Old English occurred in 1367, when an Anglo-Irish parliament at Kilkenny established the ineffectual Statutes of Kilkenny. This little-heeded legislation sought to stanch the flow of Old English settlers into the surrounding Irish population by forbidding English subjects to foster out children to Irish families, intermarry (under penalty of treason), "assume an Irish name, use the Irish language, or adopt the Irish mode of dress or riding, under penalty of forfeiture of all ... lands and tenements" (55).

That the English victory in the Tyrone War in 1603 did not give rise to a system geared to co-opt Old English and Irish leaders into "an Irish buffer control stratum for the English" (47) is attributable to the Protestant Reformation's "recasting anti-Irish racism in a deeper and more enduring mold" (48). Instead, using mass starvation, Mountjoy and a small military force, well armed and unprecedentedly well sustained by an emergent mercantile economy (61), dealt a disabling blow to Irish society's seemingly infinite capacity for self-renewal. Thus did the English, realizing Edmund Spenser's prediction that "until Ireland be famished, it cannot be subdued" (cited in Allen 63), at last hit on the long-sought-for means to interrupt the relentless hibernicization of English agents in Ireland.

In her analysis of the emergence of nationalism in England, Liah Greenfeld situates Thomas More as the epitome of a religious, pre-nationalist epistemology that was superseded in England in the mid-sixteenth century by the post-Reformation, nationalist epistemology that mandated his death. This radical shift from a social identity predicated on a transnational, unitary Christianity to a narrowly construed Protestant national identity acted on the fortunes of the Irish elite (whether of Irish or English derivation) much as it did on the fortunes of More. The "full and final commitment of England to the Reformation" (Allen 47-48) obliterated the potential for a unitary or hybrid Anglo-Irish cultural identity. As Greenfeld's study suggests, a radical modification of an ostensibly religious identity gave rise in England to a national identity that remained dependent on absolute religious justifications for its very existence. Paradoxically, only when the Irish themselves became permanently and absolutely inassimilable into an emergent English national self-definition did the absolute appropriation of Irish lands, labor, and resources by the English become possible. Significantly, it was at precisely the moment when the continued existence of a hybrid Anglo-Irish identity within Ireland became impossible that the military, legal, and social annexation of Ireland as an extension of a newly self-defined English nation became inevitable.

This annexation of Ireland was pursued through the mass resettlement of human beings and an accompanying mass transformation of landownership from the tribal/communal/democratic forms of ownership characteristic of Celtic society to those characteristic of early modern capitalism. In the interest of supplying this newly secured territory with a resident "Protestant English settler militia," land appropriated in the course of the Tyrone War and the 1641-52 rebellion and war was used to repay investors whose funding underwrote Ireland's conquest, as well as the officers and soldiers who enacted it (Allen 67-68). Conversely, the Cromwellian Act of Settlement of 1652 sold defeated Irish soldiers by the tens of thousands to foreign powers as foot soldiers (50), a tactic designed to prevent the regeneration of Irish social forms and practices.

A radical distinction between the first wave of English and Scottish Protestant settlers and the Irish and Old English was, therefore, predicated on the privileged relationship of the settlers themselves to England. Through the violence of colonial onset, itself an extension, as I will show, of the rise of capitalism and Protestantism within England, Irish Catholics were constituted as a demonic and subhuman Other. It was against this demonized Other that a heterogenous collection of displaced English subjects, along with significant infusions of Huguenots, Scots Presbyterians, and converted Irish and Old English subjects, forged themselves over time into a unified British- and Protestant-identified settler colonial order.

In retrospect, however, changes within Irish society in the centuries before Ireland's military conquest were already tending toward hierarchical new social forms. Although Allen neglects to explore this point, a more differentiated, binarized, and "stabilized" social order was already emerging within medieval Irish society through the growth of gender and status distinctions. These distinctions did not originate with but were exacerbated by the Catholic Church. Preplantation divisions are significant in that they provided an initial handhold for English colonizers and influenced the forms taken by colonization after 1600.

Irish Patriarchy before 1600

Symbolic Readings and Historical Repercussions

Through her symbolic readings of several crucial mythical and historical moments in The Serpent and the Goddess, Mary Condren has argued that Ireland became vulnerable to outside interference and manipulation only after patriarchal Christianity had begun to eat away at Irish social cohesion from within. As bonds of gender became synonymous with bonds of power and as both gender and power superseded bonds of community, Irish leaders grew more interested in establishing international alliances. No longer constrained by ties of kinship and mutuality, Condren suggests, Irish kings and religious leaders, like the mythical Cúchulainn, chose, in effect, to sacrifice Ireland's children in exchange for power. In a series of such devil's bargains, leaders within a new Irish patriarchal order bartered away the future of Ireland's people in return for personal influence, wealth, and prestige.

The symbolic relationship in modern Anglo-Irish culture between representations of child sacrifice and the emergence of both patriarchal alliances and capitalist social relationships will be explored in greater detail throughout this book. The importance of Condren's analysis for the current discussion is that she detaches the symbolic reading of Celtic mythology from an apolitical, mystical, and casually misogynist base, transforming it into a tool that complements my own reading method – that is, allegory.

Condren's strategy of linking the ills of colonial domination to the growth of patriarchal domination within Irish society through symbolic readings of history and myth powerfully counters the popular colonial originary tale that blames the arrival of the Normans in Ireland on the sexual misbehavior of an Irish woman, Devorgilla. In this story, which is best known to readers of Irish literature through Yeats's play The Dreaming of the Bones, Devorgilla, an errant wife, precipitates the arrival of Norman troops in Ireland through an act of sexual abandonment and betrayal that provokes her husband into seeking foreign allies. Condren meticulously traces a countermythology through an analysis of changes in Celtic myth that maps out the growing appropriation of women's and children's bodies within an increasingly patriarchal social order.

The growth of Christianity in medieval Ireland, as Condren's readings suggest, ushered in changes relating to the mother-child relationship and the position of children and women within Irish society. These changes made Ireland especially vulnerable to entanglements with the new forms of hierarchical power and control to which capitalism and the ProtestantReformation gave rise in England. Condren traces the fall of matrilineality in Ireland through a series of shifts, beginning with the pre-Christian subordination of The Goddess Macha. In the preamble to Ireland's epic saga, the Táin, male political leaders in Ulster force Macha to run a race against their fastest horses as she is going into labor. Having been forced to prove her mettle at her moment of greatest vulnerability, Macha is said to have cursed the men of Ulster, ordaining that they would become as weak as women in Childbirth when hard pressed in battle. In this ancient story, Condren finds the initial symbolic transference of the creative capacities of childbirth from the bodies of women and a feminine godhead to the bodies of men, whose fundamental act of creative generativity would henceforward be enacted in battle, which the story literally equates with childbirth (33-34).

The Battle of Moytura, an early Celtic narrative, according to Condren, inscribes "the clash between matrifocal and patrifocal cultures" in ancient Ireland (61). In this narrative, the Goddess Brigit, "appearing as the wife of Bres of the Formorians, the mythical Irish invaders," originated keening in response to the death of her son, Ruadan, owing to conflicts between the maternal and paternal lines that produced him (61). Condren interprets Brigit's new form of lamentation ("the first time crying and shrieking were heard in Ireland" [61]) as emblematic of the unprecedented grief of Irish women at the symbolic ascension of patriarchal domination, symbolized by a new preeminence of patrilineality over and above matrilineal connections.


Excerpted from The Gothic Family Romance by Margot Gayle Backus. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents



1 The Other Half of the Story: English and Irish Social Formations, 1550-1700

2 "Does she not deserve to Pay for All This?" Compulsory Romance in the Constricting Family Cell

3 "Something Valuable of Their Own": Children, Reporduction, and Irony in Swift, Burke, and Edgeworth

4 "A Very Strange Agony": Parables of Sexual Subject Formation in Melmoth the Wanderer, Carmilla, and Dracula

5 Irish Gothic Realism and the Great War: The Devil's bargain and the Demon Lover

6 Somebody Else's Troubles: Post-treaty Retrenchment and the (Burning) Big House Novel

7 "Perhaps I may Come Live": Mother Ireland and the Unfinished Revolution





What People are Saying About This

Declan Kiberd

With extraordinary analytic clarity, Margot Backus sifts the troubling evidence of three centuries and offers valuable commentary on writings from Swift to Jennifer Johnston, from Edmond Burke to Frank McGuinness. This book resonates with grand ideas.
—(Declan Kiberd, University College Dublin)

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