Research Pioneers 9: Elke D’hoker

In 2011, Elke D’hoker co-edited a ground-breaking collection of essays entitled Irish Women Writers: New Critical Perspectives (Peter Lang). Seminal in the field, this work helped to shape the critical framework of Irish women’s writing and acted to lead the way for future researchers. Among her expansive list of publications in English and French on Irish writers from the late nineteenth century onwards, D’hoker’s 2016 study Irish Women Writers and the Modern Short Story (Palgrave, 2016) stands out for making an innovative contribution to the corpus of research. By focusing on the genre’s development from the late nineteenth century via the works of George Egerton and Somerville and Ross to the twenty-first century with attention to collections by Anne Enright and Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, this book offers a compelling analysis of the ‘lines of influence’ that connect Irish women writers across space and time. Heather Ingman has described this study as ‘a stimulating and engaging account that justifies its focus on women writers by the fresh angles it opens up on the Irish short story so often viewed as settled around themes and styles defined by male writers and critics.’

D’hoker’s current projects include a scholarly edited collection of a selection of short stories by Ethel Colburn Mayne to be published by Edward Everett Root for their Irish Women Writers series and a research project on The Bell and the modern Irish short story. As Director of Research for the Humanities at the Leuven Centre for Irish Studies and Vice President of the European Federation of Associations and Centres for Irish Studies, D’hoker occupies a leading role in the field of international Irish Studies research. 

This is the ninth interview in the Research Pioneers Series conducted by Anna Pilz & Whitney Standlee. Our first interview with John Wilson Foster is available here, Heather Ingman and Clíona Ó Gallchoir is here, James H Murphy is here, Heidi Hansson is here, Lucy Collins is here, Gerardine Meaney here, Margaret Kelleher here and David Clare, Fiona McDonagh and Justine Nakase here.

Q: Your early work focused on the Irish writer John Banville. What initially drew you to the study of Irish literature and, in particular, how did you eventually come to study Irish women’s writing?

ED: I chose Banville as a topic for my dissertation, not so much because he was an Irish writer, but because of the philosophical dimension of his writing. I had done an additional degree in philosophy at the time and it seemed a nice way to combine my interests in both disciplines. So my interest in Irish literature was a by-product of the PhD, as it were, one that was fostered by attending Irish studies conferences, although it had also been sparked by a course on the Big House novel which I took with John Wilson Foster for my MA at UBC, Vancouver. My turn to Irish women’s writing was an even later development: there had been an absolute absence of women’s writing and feminist concerns when I studied in Leuven and it was only during my postdoctoral research that I decided to focus on women’s writing and gender studies. I need to thank Anne Fogarty for this awakening, since she asked very critical questions in my viva about the lack of feminist theory in my dissertation and so I scrambled to make up for that lack afterwards.

Q: Your research has focused in recent years on the short story. What have you found particularly compelling about Irish women’s short stories and their contribution to the genre?

ED: If Irish women’s writing in general has often been marginalised in literary history, short stories have suffered from a double marginalisation. Even in Ireland, which prides itself on having a great short story tradition, the genre was often ignored in literary criticism. In the early 2000s, when I first started working on the Irish short story, there seemed to be almost no critical interest in the genre at all. Fortunately that changed with Heather Ingman’s A History of the Irish Short Story in 2009 and the general revival of the form among contemporary writers. So, on the one hand, I chose to focus on women writers of short fiction, because I felt that they were being unfairly neglected and that I could add something new. On the other hand, I really became fascinated by the genre of the short story itself – its condensation, lyrical quality, formal control – and by the many beautiful and moving stories Irish women had written. I also think that the short story, precisely because of its place in the margins of the literary field, gives writers greater leeway to address taboo topics, to experiment with new forms or to raise complex issues in an open-ended way. And this holds especially true for women writers (similarly situated in the margins of the literary field), who have often turned to the short story in this way. 

Q: We are almost a decade on from the volume Irish Women Writers: New Critical Perspectives. This collection opened up novel comparative and theoretical frameworks, aiming to place Irish women’s writing more firmly in dialogue with European literature and history. In your estimation, what would constitute new critical perspectives in the field of Irish women’s writing, and particularly Irish women’s writing of the 1880-1920 period, now?

ED: This collection came out of a conference which I organised in Leuven, together with my colleagues Raphaël Ingelbien and Hedwig Schwall in 2007. Many scholars working on Irish women writers attended and I have very fond memories of the event. I think the comparative and European perspectives remain important ones to counter the exceptionalism to which Irish studies sometimes falls prey. In a similar way, I believe that we need to broaden the scope of our historical research: from the limited canon of (women) writers to the wider literary field, for instance through a study of popular and middlebrow novels and of the short fiction and poetry published in periodicals. I think we are sometimes in danger of exaggerating the innovations and originality of the canonical writers when the larger literary field in which they wrote is forgotten. Of course, it remains equally important to read the established writers anew through the perspective of new critical theories (ecocriticism, posthumanism, age studies, etc.) so as to open up new dimensions in their work and ensure their continued relevance for contemporary readers.

Q: Your research has focused on questions of gender, narrative and genre. What were the most influential moments or works that shaped your trajectory as a scholar in these particular areas?

ED: At the University of Leuven, where I did my undergraduate studies, questions of literary form where high on the agenda: we were thoroughly schooled in narrative theory, (post-)structuralism, and close reading, so the concern with narrative form has always been there for me. Although ideological, contextual and thematic approaches tend to predominate within Irish studies, I continue to find it interesting to look at how, through which literary techniques, a text creates meaning. Similarly, with regard to genre, I think literary history is to a large extent shaped by generic plots and patterns which a writer can use – or subvert – and which also shape the reader’s expectations. So it’s important to pay attention to these generic conventions and, again, that can only be done by reading beyond the canon. My interest in gender studies, finally, came later, but it is absolutely central to my work now. The work of feminist narratologists like Susan Lanser and Robyn Warhol showed how formal and ideological inquiries can be combined.

Q: Your most recent study is titled Irish Women Writers and the Modern Short Story. As scholarship in Irish Studies engages more and more with themes of ethnic diversity, multilingualism, and transnational modes of connection, do you think the category of ‘Irish woman writer’ has changed? How useful is such a category in terms of the questions that are driving research, especially within a European context?

ED: The category of Irish women writers is a problematical one in more than one way, but I suppose it serves pragmatic and strategic purposes. For several of the writers I discuss in my book (Bowen, Somerville and Ross, Mary Beckett, Egerton), being ‘Irish’ is just one vector of a far more complex identity. Yet, literary traditions are still largely thought of in national terms and I do think Irish writers shared certain traditions and experiences, even though they also had transnational links and international perspectives. Hence, the national focus has to be balanced with an international and comparative one. The category of ‘woman writer’ is equally problematic. I am sure that many of the writers I discuss would have objected to being called ‘a woman writer’. Ideally, indeed, they would just be discussed as writers on a par with their male colleagues. Yet in order to achieve that equality – in literary histories and critical studies – the work of women writers still needs that recovery work and special attention. So, in a way, it is to be hoped that the category of woman writer will become a superfluous one in the coming years, just like that of ‘man writer’, as their work and concerns achieve a fairer share of critical attention in mainstream Irish studies.

Q: Returning to the subject of Irish Women Writers and the Modern Short Story, in that volume you identify George Egerton and Somerville and Ross as ‘the mothers of the Irish short story’. What about these women, in particular, led you to view them as foundational to the development of a specifically Irish form of short fiction?

ED: There were several reasons for starting my overview with these writers. The modern short story only emerged as a genre in the final decades of the twentieth century as part of the booming periodical press at the time. For several decades, moreover, two modes of the short story existed side by side: the more plotted, eventful, entertaining magazine story – often with a twist in the tale – and the more plotless, experimental, psychological story that would come to be associated with the high modernists. Somerville and Ross’s R.M. stories and George Egerton’s Keynotes and Discords can be considered as among the earliest Irish representatives of these distinct traditions (which would become more intermingled in the course of the twentieth century). Yet, they were not the only ones, of course, nor was their work exclusively Irish: they were part of the larger London-centred literary field and they were also influenced by other European aesthetic movements at the time. To me, they were mostly useful for representing these different storytelling modes – and they have written great stories, of course!

Q: You are currently editing a selection of short stories written by Ethel Colburn Mayne, whose career was launched through the publication of her short fiction in The Yellow Book. She later became sub-editor of that particular periodical, which was both famous and infamous for featuring experimental and controversial literary works. What about Ethel Colburn Mayne’s work is of interest to you, and in what ways might she be included in/related to an Irish women’s literary tradition that encompasses other notable literary innovators such as George Egerton and Mary Lavin?

ED: Mayne is a fascinating figure and, sadly, I only discovered the full variety and richness of her work after I had completed my book, for she would have made an excellent writer with which to bridge the gap between the proto-modernist work of George Egerton and the late modernism of Elizabeth Bowen and then, later, Mary Lavin. Mayne was living in Cork (her father was an R.M.) when she submitted her first stories to The Yellow Book and her career started from there. Unlike Egerton, who also wrote for The Yellow Book, she continued writing short stories until the 1930s, so her work really shows the development from the New Woman and Aestheticist concerns of the 1890s to the modernism and feminism of the 1920s and 1930s. It’s another proof, as it were, that the modernists weren’t as new and innovative as they believed themselves to be. Mayne’s stories and novels are also really interesting from an Irish perspective: they often depict the rather sad fate of clever girls growing up in Ireland, hemmed in by expectations of feminine propriety and the compulsion to marry. They form an interesting counterpart to the work of George Moore, in this respect.

Q: Looking forward, what new questions do you envision emerging about women’s writing of the period 1880-1920 in particular? And where do you see the challenges in the field at the dawn of this new decade?

ED: For the period 1880-1920, periodical research seems an exciting new avenue as new digitization projects have made the material so much more easily accessible. For short fiction studies too, periodicals offer a wealth of material that is waiting to be explored: apart from the avant-garde little magazines that have been studied already, there were so many other magazines – mainstream, middlebrow, literary and popular – that published short stories. More research into that material will allow us to create a more accurate picture of the history and development of the form than through the traditional, rather myopic, focus on the modernist short story and a few canonical writers. For the study of women writers, this research seems especially crucial: many women were involved in the periodical market as writers, journalists, (sub-)editors (sometimes unacknowledged ones, like Mayne in The Yellow Book or Val Mulkerns in The Bell). The women’s networks that were thus created were also important to help other emerging writers. While there has been quite some research already into British and American periodicals, the involvement of Irish writers in these periodicals as well as the Irish magazine market itself really needs further investigation! After all, many established Irish writers published their work in a variety of periodicals (it was quite a lucrative business in the early 20th century) and the short story output in these magazines helped shaped genre expectations. We’re planning a conference on ‘Irish literature and periodical culture’ in Leuven in 2021, which will hopefully attract (and give more visibility to) scholars working in this field.

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