Network Publication: Irish Women Writers at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: Alternative Histories, New Narratives

Edited by Kathryn Laing and Sinéad Mooney

Introduction: “A Palpable Energy”

Kathryn Laing and Sinéad Mooney

Silenced female voices, the gendered gaps and absences in archives and literary histories, and silence as theme and technique, all feature in many of the essays included in this collection. Addressing these occlusions and retrieving these voices is the chief thread that connects this project to numerous predecessors, not least the groundbreaking publication in 2002 of volumes IV and V of the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, dedicated to women’s writing and traditions in response to their underrepresentation in the original three volumes. However, Irish Women Writers at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: Alternative Histories, New Narratives, while still addressing itself to issues of representation, retrieval and reconsideration of the silenced, ironically finds itself participating in a rich and multi-voiced critical conversation.

Assessing the future impact of Irish feminism in the wake of the Field Day volumes IV and V, Linda Connolly warned in 2004 that internal “discontents and divisions,” and debate about canons and feminist anthologising projects required continued navigating, and that “[w]hat is now done with this anthology is crucial to the future of feminism in mainstream studies” (2004, 154). What has been done and achieved since is considerable. Citing a range of publications and the success of recent anthologies of Irish women’s writing, Margaret Kelleher in 2016 asserted that “we are in a better place as critics and teachers,” identifying a “palpable energy” in Irish writing, publishing and indeed criticism.[1] It is not an exaggeration to say that this energy is not only palpable but clearly now a powerful feminist force in Irish studies. This energy charge, evident in contemporary feminist literary and cultural recovery projects, continues to initiate new of ways reading, teaching and conceptualising the work of Irish women writers, poets, dramatists, historians and other neglected figures from diverse disciplines.

Katherine Thurston The Booklovers Magazine, 1905

Patricia Coughlan’s assertion that “the harvests of canon expansion must be continually reaped by active work specifically within criticism, if the writers and texts which research recovers are to be integrated into the literary-historical narrative” remains pertinent (“Introduction” 2008, 2). Significant occlusions and exclusions still exist. However, it is now possible to describe and celebrate, without complacency, the extraordinary flourishing of scholarship on Irish women writers broadly and more specifically on turn-of-the twentieth century women writers—and to identify coordinates on a map of pioneering scholarship in a necessarily fluid and flexible field of intellectual and critical enquiry. Key coordinates are, significantly, too numerous to list in their entirety here, but must include anthologies, dictionaries, databases and the multiple interventions and publications by critics including J. W. Foster, James H. Murphy, Heidi Hansson, Gerardine Meaney and Margaret Kelleher, to name but a few.[2] Scholars continue to build on these legacies, from Heather Ingman’s Irish Women’s Fiction: From Edgeworth to Enright (2015) to Tina O’Toole’s recoveries of the Irish contexts of numerous “New Woman” writers in The Irish New Woman (2013) and Whitney Standlee’s attention to underrated writers including Katharine Tynan, L. T. Meade, and Katherine Cecil Thurston in Power to Observe: Irish Women Novelists in Britain, 1890-1916 (2015).

This critical landscape also comprises a considerable body of scholarship dedicated to individual writers of the turn of the twentieth-century period, recently recovered or examined anew, including Eva Gore Booth, Emily Lawless, Constance Markievicz and Hannah Lynch, for example. Anthologies such as Lucy Collins’s Poetry by Women in Ireland: A Critical Anthology, 1870-1970 (2012) or Sinéad Gleeson’s The Long Gaze Back (2015) continue the work of recuperating neglected poets and poetry, short story writers and their work respectively. Activist movements including the “#Waking the Feminists Campaign” and “Fired! Irish Women Poets and the Canon,” launched to challenge gender equality issues as well as the academic and cultural status quo, conferences, newly developed databases, and a flourishing of edited collections of scholarship have all contributed to the continued activity of “opening the field.”[3] These collections have often focused on a particular theme, genre or talismanic moment, Fictions of the Irish Land War (Hansson and Murphy, eds., 2014), for example, while the essays gathered in Irish Writing 1878-1922: Advancing the Cause of Liberty (Pilz and Standlee, eds., 2016) are framed by specific attention to “the political engagement, both direct and oblique, of texts written by Irish women during the pivotal historical period between 1878-1922” (2). In the contexts of the “Decade of Centenaries, a series of commemorations remembering key historic events in the 1912-22 period,” Women Writing War uncovers “the work of a range of women who were active cultural producers and agents, deeply invested in the political and military struggles of their day” (O’Toole, McIntosh and O’Cinnéide, eds., 2016, 1). A History of Modern Irish Women’s Literature, the most recent co-ordinate on the rapidly expanding and shifting map of pioneering scholarship, marks a pivotal moment: “We are now at a point in time where a fruitful dialogue between feminist literary scholarship and new practices in literary history and literary criticism in Ireland can combine to generate a history of modern Irish women’s literature” (Ingman and Ó Gallchoir 2018, 4).  

Featuring acts of recuperation and innovative readings of recovered writing, Irish Women Writers at the Turn of the Twentieth Century contributes to the creation of new narratives and insights into the history of Irish women’s writing during this specific period. In this volume, our aims are dual: firstly to give readers a flavour of the “palpable energy” that is currently driving scholarship in this field and the diverse body of writing dedicated to both recovery work and, secondly, to shaping original critical perspectives on writers who have been made visible and around whom a critical field is continuing to develop. Published in association with the Irish Women’s Writing Network, 1880-1920 (https://irishwomenswritingnetwork.com), the objective of this particular volume is also to illustrate and to build on the ethos of the Network: developing further international and interdisciplinary conversations and connections between scholars who are already established in their field, early career scholars, postgraduates and researchers whose area of expertise crosses disciplines. The research of contributors working in differing disciplines and based across the world, examining diverse writers, dramatists, poets, novelists, journalists, travel writers, children’s writers, visual artists and historians, is collected here, establishing unexpected crossings and intersections, and dialogues between essays and critical approaches. The shifting nature of this critical ground, and the fact that the contributions include both initial recovery work which lays the foundations for subsequent scholars and also more “established” names which can now be considered in multiple contexts, we offer as evidence of a vibrant and rapidly evolving field. This collection thus offers a snapshot of new directions and voices in current research on Irish women’s writing at the turn of the twentieth century.

In this collection, like Ingman and Ó Gallchoir, we employ a policy of “generous inclusion” in relation to the term “Irish writer” (2018, 5). Lindsay Janssen’s essay considers the journalism of a member of the Irish diaspora, Margaret Dixon McDougall (1828-1899), who was commissioned by the Montreal Witness to travel to Ireland as a special correspondent and report on the famine and Land War of 1879–82, while Barry Montgomery presents his research on the Lithuanian-born Hannah Berman, one of the earliest Irish Jewish writers, who immigrated to Dublin as a child around the year 1892, and who, as well as being a short story writer, novelist, and a prolific translator from Yiddish, was active in Dublin literary networks which aimed to establish common ground between the Irish and Yiddish revivals, and the cultural concerns of indigenous and newly-arrived communities. Still other writers considered here have been sidelined because of their marginality to the Irish Revival’s imperative of establishing a distinct national identity, because of what was perceived to be their too-close concern with the commercial demands of the British marketplace, or simply because of a lack of sufficient “Irish credentials,” whether those were judged by a sufficient quotient of recognisably Irish subject matter or residence.

Photograph of Edith Somerville (left) and Violet Florence Martin (right), from Irish Memories (1919)

Some essays concern comparatively well-known Irish women writers considered from fresh perspectives: Seán Hewitt reads Emily Lawless as a natural historian; Julie Anne Stevens’ essay on Edith Somerville uses her 1928 roman d’atelier French Leave, 1880s diaries and sketchbooks as a way of exploring female visual artists’ international networks; Sinéad Mooney considers the Cork New Woman novelist Katherine Cecil Thurston’s diseased and deranged male characters in terms of the fin-de-siècle discourse of degeneration; Matthew Reznicek returns to Thurston’s “transgressive Künstlerroman,” Max, from a different angle, paying particular attention to the ways in which “the novel’s representation of the transnational European railroad as fluid destabilises heteronormative identities” (page in collectionxx). Other essays concern authors or bodies of work seldom or never critically considered before now, grounded in archival research and the patient combing of periodicals and identification of the writers behind pseudonyms. Mary Pierse is eloquent on the difficulty of determining the most basic biographical facts about her subject, the Co. Down suffragist, feminist critic and journalist L. A. M. Priestly, in county archives and libraries, while Patrick Maume traces similar difficulties in retrieving the life and work of the Donegal Presbyterian “kailyard” writer Erminda Rentoul Esler (c.1860-1924), identifying her as a subject for further research. Essays on other unfamiliar writers, such as Lisa Weihman’s discussion of Theodosia Hickey, a children’s writer whose comedic 1933 roman á clef of the 1916 Rising, Easter Week, speak eloquently both to recent research on Irish women’s writing about war and the Irish revolutionary movement (O’Toole, McIntosh and O’Cinnéide 2016) and to two other essays in this collection: Lia Mills’ account of Eva Gore-Booth’s radical poetic engagement with the Rising and WWI and Maureen O’Connor’s eco-critical contextualisation of Gore-Booth’s pacifism with her other progressive causes alongside the work of fellow Irish first-wave feminists such as Alice Stopford Green, Margaret Cousins, and Charlotte Despard.

Eva Selina Laura Gore-Booth and her sister Constance Gore-Booth, later known as the Countess Markievicz

The “Decade of Commemorations” is in fact a constant presence behind much of the research presented here: issues concerning bearing witness and acts of memory are at the core of Lindsay Janssen’s investigation of how Dixon McDougall’s writing on the Land War variously navigates the “reality boundary” and the historicity of the events she witnessed as a journalist, and Christopher Cusack’s argument that the persistent belief that the memory of the Famine has been repressed in Irish literature “is at least partially inflected by the gender dynamics of canon formation” and his counter-examples of its portrayal in forgotten writing such novels and short stories by Jane Barlow, Louise Field, L. T. Meade and Mildred Darby (39). Lia Mills’ tracing of the pacifist Eva Gore-Booth’s ambivalent idealisation of the 1916 Rising crystallises around Esther Roper’s witnessing of the dramatic meeting at Mountjoy jail between Gore-Booth and her rebel sister Constance Markiewicz, whose execution had just been commuted to life imprisonment, and Gore-Booth’s subsequent attempts to prevent the execution of Roger Casement.      

Heidi Hansson’s rich essay builds on and charts new fields of enquiry on The Nineteenth Century, further exploring how Irish woman contributors over the periodical’s first quarter-century negotiate the traditional female “modesty topos” by framing their claims to authority in terms of eye-witness accounts of travel and late Victorian imperial philanthropy as strategies for the gradual negotiation of a female public voice. Many contributors’ essays further foreground literary endeavours as a form of activism strongly engaged with the issues of the day, be they nationalist, anti-imperial, suffragist or other. L. A. M. Priestley’s writings on votes for women appeared in journals as widely different as the Irish Citizen and the Vote, The Irish Presbyterian and in the theosophist journal The Herald of the Star, as documented in Mary Pierse’s essay. For Maureen O’Connor, Eva Gore-Booth’s anti-conscription activities align closely with her vegetarianism and her mystical poetry and verse drama, while the feminist historian Alice Stopford Green was “a member of Cumann na mBan, and contributed frequently to advanced Nationalist newspapers in the period leading up to the Rising, was a close friend of Roger Casement, and was one of two women who provided the funds for the Howth gun-running trip” (20-21). If nationalism, while it inhibited or sidelined some women writers, provided others of the period with a position from which to write, it is clearly far from the whole story.

Other contributions draw out a more oblique but no less compelling politics from their subjects, setting up some intriguing dialogues between essays. An eco-critical approach connects Maureen O’Connor with Seán Hewitt’s reading of Emily Lawless’s fictional portrayal of the natural world in terms of her work as a natural historian whose interests “ranged across entomology, botany, marine zoology and geology” (29); the Irish landscape also features in Matthew Reznicek’s account of Max (1910), which he reads in terms of a feminist “geographics” of nomadism between variously oppressive Irish and Russian topographies. George Egerton and Emily Lawless considered as Irish “New Woman” writers form the subject of Aintzane Legarreta Mentxaka’s essay on early modernist deployments of silence, which can never be apolitical in a period of Irish nationalist literary production which privileged woman as sorrowing mother or imperilled maiden, both static and silent icons of national identity. Anne Jamison’s consideration of Edith Somerville’s subversive adult fairytale “Little Red Riding Hood in Kerry” (1934) explores the construction of a “modern, Irish equestrian ‘New Girl’” in the context of female empowerment through foxhunting, the economic exploitation of young women under the renewed agitation for land centred on Ireland’s 1933 Land Act and the highly coded narratives of Irish folklore.

Even contributions dealing with bodies of work less obviously grounded in the major national or international debates or events of the turn of the twentieth century in Ireland, such as Elke D’hoker’s discussion of the work of the Co. Cork short story writer, biographer, translator and novelist Ethel Colburn Mayne (1865-1941), nonetheless testify to a declining Anglo-Irish social order and the stultifying conditions in which impoverished daughters lived. Pre-empting not only the desperate daughters, devouring mothers and decaying Big Houses of Elizabeth Bowen, Molly Keane and Jennifer Johnston, her maternal portraits also resonate strikingly with the “weak, miserable creatures who obsess over their sons and resent their daughters” in Theodosa Hickey’s Easter Week (Weihman, page in this volume). Colburn Mayne has hitherto been chiefly remembered for her association with The Yellow Book in the 1890s, but a consideration of her work necessarily involves, as Heather Laird argues, the stipulation of “[a]n historical framework that decentres familiar notions of power and the political and, consequently, expands the category of the historically relevant,” hence automatically producing “a body of scholarship more attuned to that which is at the margins” (2018, 18). Such a decentring is key to the concerns of this collection.

If there is, finally, as our collection’s title suggests, no one single story of Irish women’s writing any more than there is a monolithic “Irish writing,” Irish Women Writers at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: Alternative Histories, New Narratives represents one initiative among many in an increasingly rich and complex scholarly and publishing landscape. The Irish Women’s Writing Network (1880-1920), whose inaugural symposium in 2016 provided the initial impetus for the collection, continues to gather momentum as an interdisciplinary association for the sharing of research among members across the world, with bibliography and archive pages under development and regular postings of blogs contributed by established, early career scholars and postgraduates on their current research. Now available on its website is a new series of blogs, interviews with some of the pioneering scholars in the field of Irish women’s writing.[4]

Other projects involve the inauguration of two new Irish women’s writing series with Edwin Everett Root Press. Key Irish Women Writers offers comprehensive accounts of significant individual careers focusing on the long nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth; the first volumes to appear will be Maria Edgeworth by Clíona Ó Gallchoir, Elizabeth Bowen by Heather Ingman, Jane Wilde by Eibhear Walshe and Kate O’Brien by Aintzane Legarreta Mentxaka. A second series, Irish Women Writers: Texts and Contexts, aims to make forgotten, out of print, or uncollected texts by Irish women writers available for the purposes of teaching and research; the first volumes include Ethel Colburn Mayne: Selected Stories, edited by Elke D’hoker, Hannah Lynch’s Irish Girl Rebels: “A Girl Revolutionist” and “Marjory Maurice,” edited by Kathryn Laing, and Rosa Mulholland (1842-1921), Feminist, Victorian, Catholic and Patriot, edited by James H. Murphy.  Together with other ongoing recovery initiatives by Tramp Press and others, and a new Museum of Irish Literature (MoLI, https://moli.ie) which opened with an exhibition on Kate O’Brien, there is, if not yet sufficient reason for outright celebration, at least the basis for fruitful ongoing collaborations and conversations. To this evidence of the “palpable energy” identified by Margaret Kelleher, Irish Women Writers at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: Alternative Histories, New Narratives, contributes a diverse range of material in order to further such dialogues.

Reproduced with permission from Edward Everett Root Publishers. For the contents page and further details click here.

References

Bourke, Angela et al., eds. 2002. The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing Volumes IV and V: Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions. Cork: Cork University Press.

Collins, Lucy, ed. 2014. Poetry by Women in Ireland: A Critical Anthology, 1870-1970. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Connolly, Linda. 2004. “The Limits of ‘Irish Studies’: Historicism, Culturalism, Paternalism”, Irish Studies Review Volume 12, Number 2: 139-62, DOI: 10.1080/0967088042000228914.

Coughlan, Patricia. 2008. “Introduction.” In Irish Literature: Feminist Perspectives, edited by Patricia Coughlan and Tina O’Toole, 1-16. Dublin: Carysfort.

D’hoker, Elke, Raphaël Ingelbien and Hedwig Schwall, eds. 2011. Irish Women Writers: New Critical Perspectives. Switzerland: Bern.

Foster, John Wilson. 2008. Irish Novels 1890-1940: New Bearings in Culture and Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gleeson, Sinéad, ed. 2015. The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers. Rearsby: W F Howes.

Haberstroh, Patricia Boyle, ed. 2007. Opening the Field: Irish Women, Texts and Contexts. Cork: Cork University Press.

Hansson, Heidi, ed. 2008. New Contexts: Re-Framing Nineteenth-Century Irish Women’s Prose. Cork: Cork University Press.

——— and James H. Murphy, eds. 2014. Fictions of the Irish Land War. Bern: Peter Lang.

Ingman, Heather. 2015. Irish Women’s Fiction: From Edgeworth to Enright. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.

———and Clíona Ó Gallchoir, eds. 2018. A History of Modern Irish Women’s Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kelleher, Margaret. 2001. “Writing Irish Women’s Literary History.” Irish Studies Review Volume 9, Number 1: 5-14.

———. 2016. “Literary Cabinets and ‘Who’s in, Who’s Out’: Katharine Tynan (1902) and her Successors.” Irish Women’s Writing Network (1880-1920). Podcast audio, https://irishwomenswritingnetwork.com/podcasts/

Laird, Heather. 2018. Commemoration. Cork: Cork University Press.

Luddy, Maria and Gerardine Meaney. 2007. A Database of Irish Women’s Writing, 1800-2005. https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/irishwomenwriters/

Murphy, James H. 2011. Irish Novelists and the Victorian Age. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

O’Toole, Tina, ed. 2005. Dictionary of Munster Women Writers, 1800-2000. Cork: Cork University Press.

———. 2013. The Irish New Woman. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

O’Toole, Tina, Gillian McIntosh and Muireann O’Cinnéide, eds., 2016, Women Writing War: Ireland 1880-1922. Dublin: University College Dublin Press.

Pilz, Anna and Standlee, Whitney, eds. 2016. Irish Women’s Writing, 1878-1922. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Standlee, Whitney. 2015. Power to Observe: Irish Women Novelists in Britain, 1890. Oxford: Peter Lang.

Notes


[1] “Literary Cabinets and ‘Who’s in, Who’s Out’: Katharine Tynan (1902) and her Successors.” This plenary lecture is available as a podcast on the Irish Women’s Writing Network website. The network was launched at the “Occluded Narratives: Irish women’s writing 1880-1910” Symposium, 25-26 November 2016, Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.

[2] For example, the Field Day volumes IV and V (Cork 2002), the Dictionary of Munster Women Writers, 1800-2000 (Tina O’Toole, ed. 2005); A Database of Irish Women’s Writing, 1800-2005 (Maria Luddy and Gerardine Meaney 2007).

[3] Opening the Field: Irish Women, Texts and Contexts (Haberstroh, ed., 2007) is one of the many works of scholarship to follow on from the publication of the Field Day Anthologies volumes IV and V. Foundational edited collections include Irish Literature: Feminist Perspectives (Coughlan and O’Toole, eds., 2008); New Contexts: Re-Framing Nineteenth-Century Irish Women’s Prose, (Hansson ed., 2008); and Irish Women Writers: New Critical Perspectives (D’hoker, Ingelbien, and Schwall,. eds., 2011).

[4] Mapping pioneering scholarship in this field is a new Network project launched by Anna Pilz and Whitney Standlee in 2019. See “Research Pioneers”, https://irishwomenswritingnetwork.com/category/research-pioneers/

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