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Progress in the peripheries: improvement and national image in the fictions of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, 1780 - 1830

University of York
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  • Agricultural Science
  • Economics
  • Literature


This thesis examines the relationship between improvement and national image in Irish, Scottish and Welsh novels published between 1780 and 1830. Given the social, economic, and physical impacts of the agricultural and industrial revolutions in this period, the project focuses on texts that illuminate the tension between engaging with popular portrayals of picturesque landscapes, rural tradition and Celtic primitivism, and advocating or accepting the need for economic modernization that may compromise those national images. Exploring the dialogical nature of the ‘national tale’, a genre whose parameters are extended here to include regional focuses within the relevant national settings, this study contextualizes literary representations of landscape and estate management by incorporating analysis of contemporaneous non-fiction accounts found in tours and agricultural surveys. This thesis is presented in four sections. The introduction examines the usefulness of ‘national tale’ as a genre label in current scholarly debate and explores the influence of writers such as Daniel Defoe, William Marshall and Tobias Smollett on textual representations of landscape and tourism. Chapter one focuses on English-language Welsh novels from the 1780s and 1790s, highlighting the potential ideological disconnect between sustaining a public image of Wales as a picturesque idyll and acknowledging the signs of industrialization. Chapter two explores Maria Edgeworth’s approach to antiquarianism, tradition and the travelogue in her post-Union presentations of benevolent improvement in Ireland. Chapter three examines the way writers such as Christian Isobel Johnstone and Alexander Sutherland negotiate the popular image of the Romantic Highlands while exploring the sustainability and consequences of improvement.

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