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Folklore in British Literature

Naming and Narrating in Women’s Fiction, 1750-1880


Sarah R. Wakefield

Folklore provides a metaphor for insecurity in British women’s writing published between 1750 and 1880. When characters feel uneasy about separations between races, classes, or sexes, they speak of mermaids and «Cinderella» to make threatening women unreal and thus harmless. Because supernatural creatures change constantly, a name or story from folklore merely reinforces fears about empire, labor, and desire. To illustrate these fascinating rhetorical strategies, this book explores works by Sarah Fielding, Ann Radcliffe, Sydney Owenson, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, Anne Thackeray, and Jean Ingelow, pushing our understanding of allusions to folktales, fairy tales, and myths beyond «happily ever after.»


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Chapter Three. “Syren Lure”: Folklore as National Rhetoric in The Wild Irish Girl 45


C H A P T E R T H R E E “Syren Lure”: Folklore as National Rhetoric in The Wild Irish Girl THE Act of Union in 1800 took the colonial relationship between England and Ireland to a new level, officially unifying the two nations and putting an end to an Irish legislature. The English took a sudden interest in their neigh- bors, including their “savage” culture, customs, and literature. In her 1789 Introduction to Reliques of Irish Poetry, amateur antiquarian Charlotte Brooke envisioned a much different curiosity. “As yet, we are too little known to our noble neighbour of Britain; were we better acquainted, we should be better friends. The British muse is not yet informed that she has an elder sister in this isle; let us then introduce them to each other!” she en- thuses.1 For her, rather than uncivilized, Ireland offers a source of ancient poetic excellence. But several decades prior to the Act of Union, James Macpherson ar- ranged an initial meeting between the ancient bard Ossian and England, Ire- land, and Scotland. He published his first translation of Celtic verse, Fragments of Ancient Poetry, in 1760 and followed with Fingal in 1761 and Temora in 1763. Immediate praise, as well as immediate suspicions about the texts’ authenticity, arose from leading intellectuals from Samuel Johnson to David Hume, and Macpherson’s infamy spread across Europe. Romantic poets like Wordsworth and political leaders like Napoleon read Ossian with admiration. By 1774, Goethe assigned the bard a prominent...

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