Michael Pierse’s review on Irish Women’s Writing, 1878-1922

Irish Women’s Writing 1878-1922: Advancing the Cause of Liberty, edited by Anna Pilz and Whitney Standlee, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2016, 280 pp., £70.00 (hardback), ISBN 9780719097584[*]

Irish intellectual life was revitalised in the tumultuous decades of revival and revolution covered by this important book. Amid the efflorescence of Irish writing that emerged during the Irish Literary Revival, an enchanting epochal image conjures one great man passing the burden of Irish national renewal on to another. According to one of them, W. B. Yeats, ‘all that stir of thought which prepared for the Anglo-Irish War, began when Parnell fell from power in 1891’, when ‘the race began, as I think, to be troubled by that event’s long gestation.’ Yeats portrayed himself as something of a Prospero figure whose poetic sorcery ‘troubled’ the ‘race’, though Roy Foster and others have drawn attention to the chronological inaccuracies in the Abbey doyen’s neat sense of causation here. If the eminent Revivalist’s self-aggrandisement has been deflated by histories of the period, the prism through which the Irish Revival is understood nonetheless invariably takes on an androcentric lens. The compelling postcolonial politics of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Ireland—a context of acute political disenfranchisement and disenchantment—has produced an over-focus on high politics and important men, and in writing, on those works that sent out ‘certain men the English shot’. Here, class and gender politics have played second-fiddle.

It is therefore hugely important, as we move toward the centenary of the Irish War of Independence, that Pilz and Standlee’s sparkling volume sets out a timely corrective to the ways in which, as they put it, ‘Irish writing has often been conceived in the popular imagination as a male phenomenon’ (1). Their book charts the lineage of something else that was ‘stirring’ in Revival Ireland, in the intellectual vanguard of Irish womanhood.

Over twelve fascinating chapters, Irish Women’s Writing 1878-1922: Advancing the Cause of Liberty provides a wealth of fresh insights and compelling analysis of hidden or neglected treasures of Irish women’s writing. Building on the pioneering scholarship of recent decades[i] on Irish women writers, it advances the case for a radical reconfiguration of the politics and literature of the period. Ably edited by Pilz and Standlee, it develops interconnected and robust interrogations of the gender and sexual politics of what was not only a time of great dynamism in Irish culture generally, but also of unprecedented success for its women writers. Yet the collection explores what are, in many cases, unjustifiably neglected works, and where some of them have been less neglected – as in the case, for example, with Constance Markievicz’s writings – this book nonetheless provides new insights into the complexities of the writers and their time.

Constance Markievicz (1868-1927)

Pilz and Standlee’s introduction helpfully outlines current and historical contexts, noting how, ‘over the course of these decades, Irish women entered the literary marketplace in conspicuously large numbers’ (2). Surveying the literature, they consider both the extraordinary publication successes of those women and the social and political context that enabled those successes—not least significant changes in educational policy, greater literacy and an expanding publishing industry. ‘Irish women were significantly more disadvantaged than their British counterparts’ (10), and within this context – where Irish women left their native land in greater numbers than men – the book focuses specifically on those women who tasked themselves with ‘advancing the cause of liberty’, if for each that cause is (often very) differently inflected as the tides of suffragism, separatism, agrarian, socialist and unionist struggles vied and overlapped in complex and often baffling ways. As educational prospects for wealthier women grew dramatically, following campaigns, stretching back to the 1840s, for women’s educational reform – the Intermediate Education Act of 1878 being a key legislative response – educational opportunity, ‘along with the growing professionalisation of women’s lives’, facilitated ‘a degree of female literary agency and a tendency for women to use their texts as a means of blurring the spheres of the public and private, the political and the cultural’ (11). Here our editors recall a pithy adage from Katherine Cecil Thurston’s 1908 novel, The Fly on the Wheel: ‘there is incentive in the thought of a forced passage’ (12).

Katherine Cecil Thurston (1875-1911)

Patrick Maume’s chapter explores late nineteenth-century Irish-set novels by Charlotte Riddell and her accounts of Irish writers’ struggles in the then heady climate of London commercial publishing. This theme of ‘the metropole (usually London) as a site of great personal liberty and freedom for young female characters’ (101), as Ciaran O’Neill and Mai Yatani put it later on, recurs throughout the volume. In Maume’s chapter, Riddell’s typically Victorian concerns of inheritance, social improvement, philanthropy and economic rationalisation are parsed in great detail. His treatment of her portrayals of the ‘fallen woman’ is intriguing in terms of the developing gender and class politics of the time. Riddell’s haughty attitudes to the poor – and espousal of ‘enlightened landlordism’ – are in tension here with the strides forward her success as a woman writer represents. Maume’s characterisation of her work as ‘shrewd’ and ‘honest’ – if ‘idiosyncratic’ – is generous, given Riddell’s post-Famine characterisations of the ‘improvident’ poor, but his examination of her work here teases out some of the most vital ideological clashes of the time.

Charlotte Riddell (1832-1906)

Rosa Mulholland (1841-1921)

Tensions between radical feminist and conservative class politics re-emerge in James H. Murphy’s chapter on Rosa Mulholland’s later work. Murphy examines these tensions in great detail. Notwithstanding some of her qualms regarding contemporary feminist politics, Mulholland’s work was infused with a ‘campaigning urgency’ (33), particularly as regards matters such as women’s objectification, professional opportunities, and the oppressions of marriage. Again, we encounter the transformed climate in terms of women’s career possibilities, albeit, as Murphy importantly acknowledges, for ‘those with means’ (33). Mulholland’s often radical refusal of patriarchal and imperialist norms is explored here in considerable depth, though Murphy is attentive too to her conservative instincts on other matters, for example her ‘notion that one’s state in life reflects one’s moral choices’ (36). He also takes up the theme of emigration and the opportunities it afforded for a critical perspective on Irish society—another issue that recurs throughout the book. The chapter’s attention to conflicts between content and form (e.g. 41, 45) – as the conventions of romance grate against the challenges to patriarchy – is superb.

Emily Lawless (1845-1913)

Heidi Hansson’s focus on Emily Lawless’s The Book of Gilly (1906) notes the recent growth in Irish childhood studies, situating Lawless’s work within the emerging field. Lawless, a ‘unionist and anti-suffragist’, writes with ‘residuary Victorianism in style, ideology, and subject matter’, yet her novel illuminates ‘the close relationship between education, class and gender politics’ (50), evincing qualified support for progressive change in educational matters. If her depiction of Ireland as a ‘pre-modern utopia’ is problematic (as Hansson rightly argues), it also provides ‘a space where metropolitan culture can be critiqued […] a space of alternative possibilities’ (52-3). Hannson’s chapter brilliantly elucidates the contradictions inherent in Lawless’s symbolism of Nature pitted against modernity, situating the work carefully within broader contemporary debates about childhood, education and epistemology, and examining how they link to the fraught postcolonial context. One wonders if a fruitful comparison could be drawn with Patrick Pearse’s pamphlet of the following decade, The Murder Machine (1916).

L.T. Meade (Elizabeth Thomasina Meade Smith, 1844-1914)

Co-editor Standlee’s own chapter, on female homosociality in L. T. Meade’s schoolgirl novels, continues the educational theme. Meade’s work enjoyed astonishing commercial success, and her writing was avowedly political—her move from Cork to London in 1875 prompted by an attraction to the opportunities for women’s emancipation then fermenting in the metropole. Meade was prolific, authoring more than 280 works of fiction and becoming ‘the most popular living novelist among young female readers at the turn of the twentieth century’ (66-7). That her writing has been so neglected since again indicates the more general problem tackled by this book, and Standlee’s exploration of themes of girlhood, suffrage, women’s agency – ‘schoolgirls with “Go”’ (69) – and Meade’s promotion of an anti-sectarian, intrasexual sociality amongst young Irish women, provides gripping insights into an important Irish writer.

Beatrice Grimshaw (1870-1953)

Beatrice Grimshaw, yet another commercially successful Irish writer in this era, is the subject of Jane Mahony and Eve Patten’s equally compelling chapter. Grimshaw’s global reach as a successful travel writer brings her ‘instinctive feminism’ (82) to bear on a restless wanderlust. Grimshaw refused to be trammelled in a number of ways. Not least of these, as the chapter conveys, was ‘the increasing conservatism of the international print culture marketplace in the 1890s’ (82). As Mahony and Patten show, Grimshaw deftly negotiated social, commercial and geographical boundaries, becoming a global celebrity through around-the-world voyages in which her journalistic skills and intellectual rigour brought repeated commercial successes. But if her challenges to gender orthodoxies – particularly around the ‘marriage question’ – are profound, Grimshaw’s commercial opportunism often entails a deeply problematic collaboration with imperialist exoticism and racism. Grimshaw’s work, then, sits at the interface of the New Woman – which threatened the Empire – and the old stereotyping that sustained it. Her paradoxical position here – and elsewhere, as an advocate of female independence who peddles patriarchal romances­ – is wonderfully illuminated through a sophisticated and rigorous analysis.

George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne, 1859-1945)

Ciaran O’Neill and Mai Yatani’s chapter on ‘Women, ambition and the city, 1890-1910’, picks up again on an important thread of experience common to many of the writers cited in this book—that relationship between movement to the metropole and female liberation. Ireland’s ‘second rate’ status, the ‘Revival “resistant” text’ (103, 104), women’s struggles in professional contexts, and the related portrayal of art as a means of liberation (for women of means) are considered in relation to writers such as May Hartley, Emily Lawless, Katharine Tynan, Rosa Mulholland, George Egerton, Katherine Thurston, Hannah Lynch and Kathleen Mannington Caffyn. This is a wonderfully ambitious chapter, its broad thematic sweep and range of writers producing a compelling analysis of the age, though more probing of the postcolonial politics of writers embracing ‘whatever was progressive, scientific, and urban’ (102), and of the class politics of the chapter’s ‘tales of self-actualisation and upward mobility’ (116) would have been welcome.

Edith Somerville and Martin Ross (Violet Martin; respectively 1858-1949 and 1862-1915)

One of the highlights of the book is Margaret Kelleher’s chapter on ‘bilingual manoeuvres’ in the work of Edith Somerville and Martin Ross (Violet Martin). Furthering recent scholarship on the writing duo’s attitudes to the Revival and the Irish language, and their deployment of Hiberno-English dialect, Kelleher develops a fascinating account of their encounters with Gaelic, which she fits into a persuasive commentary on ‘the need for more dynamic models of linguistic change in Irish cultural studies which can attend to the politics and practice of language use as mobile repertoires and creative manoeuvres rather than as markers of one or other monoglot ideology’ (122).

Augusta Gregory (1852-1932)

Pilz’s chapter on Augusta Gregory’s play The White Cockade (1908), continues the theme of transculturation. It illustrates how, in invoking the politics of fin-de-siècle Jacobite revivalism, Gregory ‘lampoons the Irish who believed in the Stuart king’ (147). But due attention is given also to the Abbey Theatre co-founder’s problematic personal and political position in regard to such matters; undercutting Gregory’s play is the ‘undeniable link between religion and social status’ in her own family background, which injects ‘an element of sectarian elitism’ (147, 148). Yet Pilz also shows how a ‘favourable response to The White Cockade among a Catholic audience and across the political spectrum [… illustrates that] there was potential for dialogue and understanding between the two denominational groups, complicating the binary oppositions of the Revival which have tended to inhere’ (152).

Katharine Tynan (1859-1931)

Katharine Tynan’s work has not been generally well received by the modern critic, Kieron Winterson concedes, but his delineation of her political thought delves beneath ‘the surface details of her work’ – which ‘seemed most keenly nationalistic’ (157) – to tease out some of its less considered complexities. Winterson posits fertile contradictions: her early friendship with Irish republican and labour leader Michael Davitt and later admiration of the socialist rebel James Connolly, but continual preoccupation, also, with the doings or the wealthy and aristocratic; her literary contributions to Irish cultural nationalism on the one hand, but on the other, her poetic exaltation, in ‘In Time of Expectation’ (1886), of British Prime Minister William Gladstone; the ‘romantic force’ (160) of her youthful devotion to Irish constitutional nationalism, and her later Great War poems that enthuse in the cause of England, the ‘Queen of every loyalty’ (164). This is fascinating stuff.

A relatively unexplored Belfast writer, F. E. Crichton, is the subject of the following chapter, Naomi Doak arguing that Crichton’s neglect is indicative of the broader ‘absence of Ulster women writers, particularly Ulster Protestant women novelists, from the annals of Irish literary history’ (174). Doak’s claims that Crichton’s elite childhood in Hopefield House was ‘diverse enough to embody a microcosm of Ulster society at the turn of the twentieth century’ (175), and that her novel, The Precepts of Andy Saul (1908) – which portrays gender and class relations in a protestant Big House – presents again ‘a microcosm of Ulster society’ (180), are problematic. Equally, the relative neglect of the ethno-national exclusivism of Crichton’s apparently ‘pragmatic vision’ and contribution ‘to the evolution of a sort of provincial or regional self-consciousness for Ulster’ (183, 177), minimises a context of acute and increasingly belligerent unionist supremacism. While the analysis of Crichton’s role as ‘native informant’ in critiquing her own community is interesting – especially so when it draws comparison with Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent – Doak’s contrast between her own approach and what she terms, in relation to Declan Kiberd’s analysis of Edgeworth, ‘post-colonial ideology’ (178), would require greater elaboration than it is afforded here. What is nonetheless gripping about this chapter is its study of the complexities of Crichton’s class lens on sexism, and her use of comedy and self-referential irony to ridicule patriarchal norms and ascendancy values.

Ella Young (1867-1956)

Another neglected Ulster protestant writer, though one of a very different historical bent to F. E. Crichton, is Ella Young.  Aurelia Annat’s chapter on Young concentrates on ‘how she absorbed and adapted contemporary discourses of gender, violence, and nation in her reworking of Irish myth and mysticism in order to generate a vision of a new Ireland’ (191). As a republican poet and occultist, lecturer in Celtic mythology, and probably a lesbian, who hailed from a conservative, protestant, Ulster unionist background, Young’s development provides a captivating case study of the tumult of the times. Annat’s research provides a fascinating exploration of this idiosyncratic writer and her complicated milieu.

Eva Gore-Booth (1870-1926)

Lauren Arrington ably distils new inflections from the writing and politics of sisters Constance Markievicz and Eva Gore-Booth. Close attention is paid here to the ways in which ‘the sisters manipulated radical social and national discourses in their attempt to appeal to the various sympathies of the audience’ (210). The chapter details the Gore-Booth’s deft handling of the various progressive strands of contemporary political movements, firmly rebutting also that ‘widely held misconception that Constance – if she were ever a feminist at all – abandoned feminism for nationalism’ (211). Arrington’s analysis, of Markievicz’s ambition ‘to cultivate the “masculine side of women’s souls” and the “feminine side of men’s souls”’ (224), along with the sisters’ theatrical ventures and the points at which their respective political visions diverge, paints a richly textured history of two rebel women at odds with both patriarchy and Empire. Arrington is cautious to point out also where the Gore-Booth sisters’ resistance is itself limited by gendered discourses always bubbling beneath the texts. This is a fittingly excellent final chapter.

The women writers surveyed in this book can hardly be taken as representative of the Irish women, generally, during the Revival years: of the eighteen women whose writing and activism is surveyed, thirteen hail from the protestant middle or upper classes, the rest from relatively well-off or middle-class catholic families. In other words, these women were, at least in terms of class, unrepresentative of the mass of Irish women. What, we might ask, of the poor women who couldn’t write or had little opportunity to gather their thoughts and commit them to paper, let alone have them published—unlike working-class men of the time, such as Robert Noonan (Tressell), Francis Ledwidge and Patrick MacGill, who managed ‘forced passage[s]’ of their own?

As a historian of Dublin’s tenements, Kevin C. Kearns, has put it: ‘Can one imagine any figure in Irish society with less time and opportunity to write letters and keep diaries than Ma’s from the Liberties or northside – past or present – burdened with large families, financial problems, domestic chores, outside job duties and emotional strains?’[ii] As the poet Paula Meehan has written of what her own impoverished mother bequeathed, ‘Little has come down of hers, / A sewing machine, a wedding band, a clutch of photos’. While Meehan’s mother scrubbed floors, ‘As she buffed the wax to a high shine’, did she ‘catch her own face coming clear? / Did her mirror tell what mine tells me? / I have to shrug and go on / knowing history has brought her to her knees.’[iii] The account that wealthier women could leave in writing has had much greater permanence, if it too has often been met with a historian’s (or literary critic’s) shrug. But many of the women studied in Pilz and Standlee’s volume were acutely conscious of these class inequalities.

Monument to the Unknown Woman Worker, Belfast (a sculpture by Louise Walsh)

Poor women do indeed appear in the writing and in the histories of the campaigning women suffragists and socialists of the wealthier classes surveyed in this book. Both Constance Markievicz and her sister Eva Gore-Booth were consistent advocates for radical social reforms, the former a leading socialist, the latter leading in ‘the fight for social reform in Britain, focusing her attention on improving the lives of working-class women including barmaids and female factory workers’ (210). As James H. Murphy notes in his chapter, Rosa Mulholland’s 1886 novel Marcella Grace has as its heroine ‘a vigorous young woman from a Dublin working-class background’, albeit she ends up a landlord who ‘retreats to the domestic sphere’ (35). Other Mulholland works continue the theme of the poor woman’s struggles, although her individualising focus on personal morality, as opposed to social forces, is deeply problematic (e.g. 36). L. T. Meade’s Great St. Benedicts (1876), likewise, deals with healthcare poverty in London. And Katharine Tynan writes, in her poem ‘The Unemployed’ (1923), of the despair of post-war men on the margins (168). Sarah Grand, and others, also use their social position to campaign for women less financially fortunate than themselves—if others, such as Charlotte Riddell, were by contrast disdainful of women of the lower orders.

The book’s focus on elite women, in other words, cannot be fairly posed as a criticism; as Standlee notes, if the late nineteenth century opened up unprecedented educational opportunities for women, ‘it was, however, largely middle-class girls whose educational horizons were broadened’ (78). The class of the women who got to broaden the field of Irish writing was reflective of the limitations of the age. Undoubtedly, though, as this volume and other patient, challenging scholarly work of recent decades on Irish women writers has indicated, further accounts of poorer women, whether written by themselves or by those who campaigned for their betterment, will emerge.

This important and path-breaking volume shines a light on women’s struggles in the cause of liberty and will significantly expand and inform the potential for more research in Irish women’s studies for decades to come. Such scholarship continues to challenge the field of Irish literary criticism, to expand its focus and debunk its androcentric biases. It is vitally important and still urgent work, and Pilz and Standlee’s achievement here presents a major milestone in the recovery of Irish women’s writing.

[*] This review is an expanded adaptation of a recently published version in the Irish Studies Review (Volume 25, 2017) and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the publishers and editors of that volume.

[i] By a range of scholars such as Tina O’Toole, Patricia Coughlan, Clíona Ó Gallchóir, Anne Fogarty, Gerardine Meaney, Heidi Hansson, Margaret Kelleher, Julie Anne Stevens, Maureen O’Connor, Susan Shaw Sailer, Lisbet Kickham, Anne Fogarty, and Patricia Coughlan.

[ii] Kevin C. Kearns, Dublin’s Lost Heroines: Mammies and Grannies in a Vanished City (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 2004), p. xxii.

[iii] Paula Meehan, ‘The Pattern’, Mysteries of the Home (Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1996), pp.11-13 (p. 11).

 

This article was first published on Micherl Pierse’s website. Access it here.

2017-06-30T09:11:23+00:00

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