Famine Literature: Remembering and Forgetting

Ayesha MukherjeeMCRf

This panel explores the impact of famine on literature, and the impact of famine literature on culture. Whether through the disastrous famines of India and Ireland, or the more managed extent of the Lancashire Cotton Famine, accounts, narratives, and figurings of dearth reflect and generate profound expressions of human extremity, and often bequeath complex cultural legacies. The extent to which famine history is remembered or forgotten maintains a complex relationship with contemporary literature, as modes of production and publication are subject to subsequent cultural forces, and education and ideology cultivate or lead to neglect of historiographies. We may question the authenticity of memory, or the consciousness of forgetting, but looking back at famine and famine writing remains continually illuminating in its different ways of representing the plight of ordinary people through some of the most extreme periods of human suffering. These papers track these themes through very different histories and geographies.

Remembering and Forgetting the Famine in Irish Literature (Melissa Fegan)

Melissa Fegan is an Associate Professor at the University of Chester. Her publications include Literature and the Irish Famine 1845-1919 (OUP, 2002), and book chapters and journal articles on representations of the Famine in literature from the 1840s to the present day.

The Famine has been identified by Oona Frawley as a ‘memory crux’, a catastrophic event which as the initiator of major cultural change is endlessly returned to, and which raises ‘intensely problematic’ questions about the relationship to the past. This paper will examine the ways in which the Famine functions as a ‘memory crux’ in Irish literature, a primal catastrophe the memory of which is revived at other moments of crisis and change. Historical fiction set during the Famine emerges in response to the Land War, the campaign for women’s rights, the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, the Civil War, the foundation of the Republic, the Troubles, the rise and fall of the Celtic Tiger, or new waves of immigration and emigration. New ways of thinking about the Famine also provoke a return, as in the literary responses inspired by histories such as Woodham-Smith’s The Great Hunger, Edwards and Williams’s The Great Famine, and the explosion of new scholarship that coincided with the 150th anniversary in the 1990s. For Emily Lawless in 1888, the Famine was ‘a black stream, all but entirely blotting out and effacing the past’; for William Barry in 1901, it meant that ‘[t]he past […] had no future’. The new future born from the wreckage of the Famine is endlessly changing yet uncannily familiar: ‘The past comes back transformed only to startle us with its steadfastness’, muses the protagonist of Banville’s Birchwood (1973), ‘It is our fractured vision which has transformed it’. The memory of the Famine, refracted through literature, transforms not only our vision of the past, but of the present and future also.

A Forgotten Literature: Lancashire Cotton Famine Poetry and the Canon (Simon Rennie)

Simon Rennie is Senior Lecturer in Victorian Poetry at the University of Exeter. His publications include The Poetry of Ernest Jones: Myth, Song, and the ‘Mighty Mind’ (Routledge 2015), and journal articles on the subject of Chartist and working-class poetry of the nineteenth century. He is currently Principal Investigator on the AHRC-funded Poetry of the Lancashire Cotton Famine 1861-65 project.

This paper investigates the reasons for a century-and-a-half of neglect of a body of work which provides a significant perspective on a major historical event. During the Lancashire Cotton Famine of 1861-65 hundreds of poems written often by ordinary Lancastrians were printed in local newspapers in the region in response to the economic crisis largely caused by the Union blockade of Southern cotton exports during the American Civil War. These poems have only just been recovered by an AHRC-funded research project and have now begun to be uploaded onto a publically accessible database. Examples from this body of work in standard English and Lancashire dialect will be used to demonstrate the extent to which, whilst there is a strong regional identity associated with this literature, it also displays profound knowledge of national and global political concerns, and therefore deserves to be considered as part of the popular response to the fallout of the American Civil War. These works can be seen to cement a Lancastrian identity by redefining its relationship with the metropole, the south of England, and the North and Southern regions of the USA, but they also illustrate a growing awareness of the importance of the region as the economic base of Britain’s trade dominance and imperial mission. Exploring political, literary and scholarly avenues, this paper examines the reasons for, and the implications of, the exclusion of these contemporary voices from popular and scholarly histories of the crisis.

Famine Tales from India and Britain (Ayesha Mukherjee)

Ayesha Mukherjee is Associate Professor of Early Modern Literature and Culture at the University of Exeter. Her publications include Penury into Plenty: Dearth and the Making of Knowledge in Early Modern England (Routledge, 2015) and A Cultural History of Famine (Routledge, 2019). She is Principal Investigator on the AHRC-funded projects Famine and Dearth in India and Britain, 1550-1800, and Famine Tales from India and Britain.  

This paper will examine the processes of memory and memorialisation at work in contemporary attempts to reconstruct and narrate stories of famines from sixteenth- to eighteenth-century India and Britain. The famine chronologies of the two countries in the early modern period are uncannily parallel, and this period also marks a time when both nations faced some of the worst famines in their history. Yet, many of these pre-colonial famines have long been neglected in scholarly discourse and popular imagination alike. This paper draws upon the research of two AHRC-funded projects – the first of which recovered sources, in around 10 languages, which enable us to examine the connected cultural histories of famine and dearth in India and Britain, 1550-1800; and the second, current project, which enables the retelling of some of these past events through both traditional and modern media of Indian scroll painting and graphic art, with accompanying songs and performances. Narrative processes of early modern famine literature itself frequently relied on memories and reconfigurations of past famines. The paper will first discuss such remembering in the interactive contexts of early modern Britain and Mughal India, and then analyse the processes of revisiting and retelling early modern stories of famine by two groups of artists who live and work in the current contexts of rural and urban India.

Sun 4:00 pm - 5:15 pm