Heidi Hansson’s edited collection New Contexts: Re-Framing Nineteenth-Century Irish Women’s Writing (2007) has been praised by reviewers for its call for the field of literary studies to be augmented and for ‘addressing women’s literature as a “distinct tradition”’. Together with her monograph Emily Lawless 1845-1913: Writing the Interspace, published in the same year, Hansson’s work has been described as ‘the basis for a productive and timely reassessment’ of Irish women’s literature. Here, we ask Hansson, Professor in the Department of Language Studies at Sweden’s Umeå University, about the origins of her interest in Irish literature and what we can learn from studying literary texts from a transcultural perspective.
This is the Fourth interview in the Research Pioneer Series. Our first interview with John Wilson Foster is available here and our second with Heather Ingman and Clíona Ó Gallchoir is here and James H Murphy is here.
What initially drew you to the study of Irish women’s writing of this period?
In the year 1999-2000 I had the opportunity to work in the Centre for Irish Literature and Bibliography at the University of Ulster in Coleraine, Northern Ireland. I had come to Coleraine to pursue a project based on the idea of cross-gendered writing, that is, women writing in a man’s voice, and was curious to see if there were any Irish writers I could include. Quite early, I discovered Emily Lawless’s novel With Essex in Ireland (1890) and became interested both in Lawless as a writer and the late nineteenth and early twentieth century period. I was particularly intrigued by the circumstance that a book of such obvious literary merit as Essex had apparently more or less disappeared from literary history. This suggested that there might be other women writers from the period who had also been neglected or forgotten by literary historians and so the project that led to New Contexts began. Initially, the project went by the name of “out of context,” since the idea that set it in motion was that women disappeared from literary history because the established categories could not accommodate them or their work.
Can you explain your concept of ‘interspace’ and how it might usefully be explored in relation to the work of other writers?
I encountered the term “interspace” in an article by Emily Lawless describing the particular character of the landscape in North Clare. It seemed to me a very modern idea, although I’ve since realised that it was commonly employed to describe the features of insects, particularly butterflies and moths which was one of Lawless’s great interests. In the North Clare article, though, Lawless uses the term to describe the in-between character of the landscape as neither land nor sea, and I transferred the concept in my interpretation of her work as reflecting national and even nationalist feeling but Unionist politics. In relation to postmodern and poststructuralist theory, I see the idea of the interspace as corresponding to the idea of “both-and” or “neither-nor” that is sometimes used in discussions of, for example, historical metafiction.
What unique insights might international scholars such as yourself bring to the study of Irish women’s literature?
The expectation that Irish literature is only intended for Irish readers and has to be interpreted in a national framework of Irish politics and national history seems reductionist to me, especially since the Irish diaspora very early created a global market for writers. Even though it is still the case that authors and works are normally categorised in terms of nationality, the national origin of a work is only one of the ways it produces meaning. I believe that international scholars can bring other perspectives to bear on the interpretation of Irish women’s literature, revealing how Irish women writers belong to global as well as local networks and respond to international as well as national trends and developments. As a non-Irish academic, I believe that it may be easier for me to set aside national-political concerns and study the material from other angles.
What was your experience in securing a publisher for your monograph on Lawless?
I did not experience any particular difficulties finding a publisher for the Lawless monograph, although publishers outside Ireland, i.e. in England, were not interested and rejected the project without – I believe – much reflection. Twenty years ago, Irish women writers were considered even more marginal than today.
You have chosen to disseminate your research in a range of publication formats: edited volumes, journal articles, and single-author studies. What would you say is the relative merit of each of these publication forms in bringing Irish women writers to the attention of readers/researchers beyond Ireland and the Irish studies community?
I would love to say that books – single-author studies or edited collections – are still the main avenues of dissemination in the humanities, but given how journal articles are made available today through various on-line services, I would have to accept that the way we access research publications has changed. I still want the material I use to have been through a peer review process and scrutinised by an editor, but publishing in journals that are indexed and accessible on-line is probably the easiest way to ensure a wider reach. Still, some databases – for example databases with large collections of older literature – do not allow equal access to everybody since the copyright laws of various countries may affect what material can be accessed and/or downloaded. We still need libraries and the bliss of spending a day in a silent reading room.
If you could pick a single Irish woman writer to interview, who would it be and why?
I would love to know more about Selina Bunbury who was certainly not one of the best, even though she was one of the most prolific Irish writers in the nineteenth century. I would like to hear about the situation for a single woman who needed to support herself by writing, how far she realised how the need to make money affected her choice of topics and her style and whether she ever dreamed of being another kind of writer. Her three-volume novel Our Own Story from 1856 reveals some of the social restrictions that circumscribed women’s writing although she never explicitly rebels against the rules. Bunbury died in 1882, so she only just makes the 1880-1920 time slot, but her experiences might illuminate what writing-as-work meant for Irish women around the turn of the century and to what extent the need to adapt to social rules still applied.
What book, play or poem/poetry collection written by an Irish woman between 1880 and 1920 do you feel deserves more attention and respect, and why?
I’ve always felt that Jane Barlow’s Irish Idylls (1892) and her other “narratives of community” deserve more attention, both for the way they construct and interrogate a myth of rural Irishness and for the way they combine the short story and the novel format through linked story-chapters. Some of her female characters are definitely worth a closer look.
What, in your view, are the most important issues and most promising avenues for future research in Irish women’s writing?
I believe that Irish women’s periodical writing is an under-researched area and that periodicalists – who did not always coincide with novelists and poets – were an important influence on the formation of women’s literary voice in Ireland.
Does the category ‘Irish woman writer’ need to exist? Is it viable or important to separate women’s literature from men’s; to explore it as distinct category?
I looked back through my files and discovered a number of lists I’ve made over the years: Ulster women, Irish women writers in Canada, Irish women writers in England, Irish women travel writers and so on. Establishing a category is one way of searching for knowledge. It provides a bird’s-eye view and can reveal overall tendencies, highlighting similarities and differences simply because of the opportunities for comparison. It does not give justice to the individual accomplishment or the internal complexities of a work, however. Grouping women writers together yields a certain kind of knowledge and provides a certain type of context, but it is always necessary to be aware of what kind of context we create for our investigations and why.