National Identity in Great Britain and British North America, 1815-1851: The Role of Nineteenth-Century Periodicals by Linda E. Connors and Mary Lu MacDonald
Connors, Linda E. and Mary Lu MacDonald. National Identity in Great Britain and British North America, 1815-1851: The Role of Nineteenth-Century Periodicals. Surrey: Ashgate, 2011. 234 pp. Print.
National Identity in Great Britain and British North America, 1815-1851: The Role of Nineteenth-Century Periodicals is co-authored by Linda E. Connors and Mary Lu MacDonald, who draw on a wide range of periodical publications in order to explore the complex relationship between colony and “mother country” – in this case, British North America (BNA), (the colonies that became Canada, and Great Britain) – through the lens of national identity. They identify three key elements of national identity – “having a shared, or shareable, past; having a transcendent ideology [that is, a belief in continued national progress]; and having an Other against which to contend” (5) – and demonstrate the presence of these elements in periodical texts relating to political and economic life, faith and religion, women and children, the progress of the nation, and colonialism. Each of these topics receives a full chapter, and the uniformity of their argument allows Connors and MacDonald to make some illuminating comparisons. The reader is easily able to track the shifting content of the position of Other, for example: to see exactly which conditions place BNA in the Other role, and which allow BNA to conceive of itself as united with Great Britain against a common Other. The recurrence of certain Others across chapters allows Connors and MacDonald to explore the complex treatment of groups like the Irish, who figure as political, economic, religious and national others at various points. Each chapter opens and closes with an explicit statement of how the three aforementioned elements of national identity relate to the subject at hand, lending clarity and structure to what would otherwise be a sprawling cluster of topics.
The book’s tight, uniform argumentative structure is especially necessary given the turbulent times covered by the book. The years between 1815 and 1851 were a time of growth and integration for both nations but also a time of major political and economic upheaval, requiring adjustments to conceptions of national identity. The events that set the start and end dates – the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the opening of the Great Exhibition – have more direct salience for the sections discussing Great Britain. Within these triumphant book-ends, a great deal of internal upheaval takes place, including the enfranchisement of the working class through the Reform Bills and the repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws that had artificially inflated the price of bread beyond the reach of the poor. The most challenging blows to nineteenth-century British triumphalism, however, come later: the Crimean War, the Sepoy Mutiny, etc. Connors and MacDonald have selected a fascinating and under-studied period in British political life, in which domestic change co-existed with international ascendency. Their succinct accounts of this period of nation-building are a useful resource for those readers whose understanding of the period begins mid-century. Rather than using the reigns of monarchs to determine the period under study, the authors have chosen a period defined by a pervasive national attitude: one of widespread confidence and belief in the continued progress and ascendency of the British nation. While the years between 1815 and 1851 do not represent as distinct a phase of British-North-American history as neatly, they do cover several major events and shifts, including the implementation of the Durham Report (which called for a united colony under British rule) and the explosion of domestic print production.
Connors and MacDonald provide a thorough overview of the role played by periodicals in both Great Britain and BNA, as well as an appendix of “Descriptive Information on the Periodicals in this Study,” but the historical picture they draw seems, at times, inadequate to support their more wide-ranging claims for the active role of periodicals in shaping national identity. While they argue that “The world of the early nineteenth century was both reflected in and shaped by the periodical press” (204), the content of their chapters provides evidence that periodicals reflected pre-determined party lines much more than they shaped or even altered opinion. Great Britain’s periodicals were staunchly allied with specific political, religious and/or economic positions, providing a regular dose of “the same sort of thought, the same sort of words” (23). While the periodicals in BNA appealed to broader audiences, according to Connors and MacDonald, they were often extremely limited in their circulation or very short-lived: during the period the book examines, none of the periodicals printed in Toronto or Montreal stayed in print for more than two years, and none of the periodicals produced in the Atlantic region lasted longer than three years (28). The argument that these periodicals played an important role in disseminating and consolidating existing forms of national identity seems reasonable, but the stronger claim that they shaped the world of the nineteenth century in addition to reflecting its pre-existing discourses is not fully fleshed out in this book. Even the short sub-section on periodical publishing in the central chapter, “Progress of the nation,” is mostly concerned with the technical excellence of colonial publications as a reflection of existing nationalistic competitiveness. Frequently, periodicals appear as a rich source of evidence for already-familiar ideas and ideals, rather than an active participant in change.
The chapter on women and children is a case in point. Any Victorianist scholar will be instantly familiar with the views on women and children represented by the periodicals cited by Connors and MacDonald: women are expected to be moral exemplars but are susceptible to vanity and the lures of fiction, while children require strong moral and Christian education in order to become proper citizens in the future. While many of the examples cited are intriguing, the findings they provide have been established many times over through the study of other media. The conclusion that periodicals, too, participated in dominant discourses of gender and childhood does not seem sufficiently interesting to merit a chapter. I found myself wondering why the examination of periodicals was necessary to prove several points about national identity, which cannot be a good sign while reading a book predicated on the importance of the periodical press.
National Identity in Great Britain and North America, 1815-1851 provides useful historical information about nationalism and useful historical information about the periodical press but does not make a strong case for the specific impact of the former on the latter. Readers are not left with a sense of how national identity would have developed differently in Great Britain and BNA had the work of identity formation been left solely to newspapers, novels, pamphlets and the other products of nineteenth-century print culture. The specific value of the periodical could have been more strongly stated. However, this is a clear and careful work of archival investigation and will provide a useful source of evidence for scholars seeking information on the historical development of the periodical press or looking for evidence of the popular dissemination of dominant discourses relating to the chapter topics.
Alison Hurlburt is a doctoral candidate in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, where she is writing a dissertation on material culture and middlebrow literature in Edwardian England.