Regional Writing in a Time of Nation-Building
Date: 25 September 2023
Thesis or dissertation
University of Exeter
Doctor of Philosophy in English
This thesis examines the complex relation between writing from Britain’s regions and nations and nineteenth-century projects of nation-building. Ideas of the British nation were changing in response to advances in communication and technology; to the rise of nationalism in Europe and the creation of states that, in the case of France ...
This thesis examines the complex relation between writing from Britain’s regions and nations and nineteenth-century projects of nation-building. Ideas of the British nation were changing in response to advances in communication and technology; to the rise of nationalism in Europe and the creation of states that, in the case of France and Norway for example, were at least nominally calibrated around egalitarian, centralised principles; and to imperial and international rivalries. Alongside these, new ideas about the value of the local, from culture and government to environment, were emerging. But some of the most influential figures of the time, from science, politics, lexicography and education, held ideas of the region as either parochial and at odds with change and progress, or peripheral and needing to be held to national standards set at the centre. This project complicates these conventional views by analysing some of the period’s wide-ranging and powerfully inconsistent understandings of the region, and indeed by arguing that these better reflect the complex make-up of Britain in the nineteenth century. Attending to works in a variety of forms and genres (including poems, novels, philological essays, scholarly and political writing), the thesis argues for new ways of appraising regional writing, paying particular regard to the extent to which it informs our understanding of nineteenth-century literature and culture. The thesis gives particular weight to the contributions made by the people in Britain’s peripheries to some of the era’s nation-defining debates and discussions. The work of polymath William Barnes runs through each chapter, demonstrating the different ways in which region and nation were perceived through the century. By allowing regions to speak for themselves in this way, the thesis highlights instances that brought region and nation into tension, and brings to light examples where movements that connected national uniformity or conformity with progress and improvement were questioned or contested. The focus on regional writing also draws attention to the paradox that underlines the place of the region in national myths and narratives: that scenes of rural life and natural resources from multiple regions have long been called upon to substantiate nationhood, even as their use shows how the nation is neither single nor unified. Each of the five chapters addresses ways in which regional writing engaged with different national debates: from the use of non-standard English in poems to educate metropolitan readers about the contribution of dialects and regional variation to national cultures; to the conflicting accounts given in mid-nineteenth-century novels of the role of the regional schoolroom in acts of nation-building; to literary portrayals of roads that highlight the capacity for regional locations to be simultaneously connected to and disconnected from the wider nation.
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