By Eleanor Fitzsimons
On 19 July 2017, Dr Whitney Standlee of the University of Worcester wrote a wonderful blog post for the Irish Women’s Writing Network describing her experiences at George Egerton and the fin de siècle, an inaugural two-day conference held at Loughborough University in April 2017. On day two, Dr. Standlee delivered a fascinating paper on Egerton’s ‘Portrayal of Mindscape and Landscape in the Norwegian Context’. In her blog post, she mentioned my paper on the Irish context of Egerton’s writing. Since this seems like a perfect topic for the Irish Women’s Writing Network, I have summarised my key points here.
My interest in Egerton began with her tenuous connection to Oscar Wilde, which I discovered when researching Wilde’s Women; she quotes Wilde in an epigram to ‘A Little Gray Glove,’ the fourth story in her debut collection, Keynotes (1893). Egerton’s association with the Decadent Movement linked her to Wilde. She in turn reinforced his association with New Woman writing. When Wilde was imprisoned in 1895, her connections to Aubrey Beardsley, John Lane and The Yellow Book ensured that her reputation suffered without justification. Afterwards, Lane grew reluctant to publish stories as inflammatory as those included in her early collections, Keynotes and Discords (1894).
Neglected for decades, Egerton’s contribution to literature was recognised by Margaret Stetz, Mae & Robert Carter Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Delaware, almost three decades ago. This brilliant woman has championed Egerton throughout her stellar career and remains her most significant biographer. Stetz recognised that Egerton ‘felt her deepest blood and spiritual ties’ in Ireland, even though she maintained a ‘troubled, though unbroken, emotional attachment to it throughout her life’ (93).
Tina O’Toole of the University of Limerick, who has examined Egerton’s ‘diasporic identity’ extensively, explains: ‘An understanding of George Egerton’s use of her Irishness as a subversive tool to disrupt the ideological matrix, holding both women and men in place, is vital for any reading of her work’ (2008: 126). Other scholars who have examined this aspect of Egerton’s identity include Whitney Standlee, Iveta Jusová of Carleton College in Minnesota, Elke D’Hoker of the University of Leuven, and Scott McCracken, Professor of English literature at Keele University; he describes Egerton’s Irish identity as ‘the unknown quantity at the centre of her narratives’ (139).
In a letter to her cousin Ethel de Vere White, written in 1926, Egerton declared herself ‘Intensely Irish’. Yet, her Irish identity is far from straightforward. Born Mary Chavelita Dunne to Isabel George, a Welsh Protestant, and Captain John Joseph Dunne, an Irish Catholic, on a British Army base in Melbourne in 1859, she lived on three continents, travelling between Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Wales, Ireland, Germany, Norway and England. Ireland was her home for two significant periods of her life; during childhood and adolescence, a time when her mother died and the family were mired in poverty; and later, in adulthood, when she lived in Millstreet in County Cork with her husband Clairemont Egerton, a Canadian citizen and struggling novelist whose lack of success obliged her to take up her pen to supplement the family income.
Egerton’s Irish identity was shaped significantly by her fondness for her rebellious, contrary father, a proud Irish Catholic who served in the British army in New Zealand but sympathised with the Maori cause. Egerton’s cousin and unreliable biographer, Terence de Vere White, described him as ‘an Irishman of a type in which English literature is rich and national pride condemns as an English invention,’ adding ’he lived with a large family, on air and other people for the greater part of his life’ (12). As secretary to Isaac Butt, Dunne declared staunch support for Home Rule and abandoned his family to throw his weight behind the cause. While his ten-year-old daughter lay dying, and bailiffs seized the family possessions, he was off canvassing for Butt.
Egerton’s loyalty to her Welsh Protestant mother allowed her to take a detached view of Ireland and her citizens. When the extended Dunne family turned their collective backs on John Joseph’s children, allowing her sisters to be confined in a terrible institution run by nuns, Egerton railed against the callousness of these ‘strict Catholics,’ and complained: ‘When she [her mother] lay in her coffin dead, not one came near’ (de Vere White, 13). This dichotomous identity explains why Egerton, as O’Toole puts it, ‘consistently addresses questions of national identities, kinship loyalties and, more significantly, outsider perspectives on different cultural practices’ (2000: 147). Jusová postulates that her ‘arguably more fluid understanding of racial, national, sexual and class identity’ arises from her ‘unstable social location, life experience of economically necessitated migration and tendency to identify with the subaltern’ (49-50).
Several of Egerton’s stories tackle Irish themes. Her semi-autobiographical novel The Wheel of God, dedicated ‘to my Dear Father 1898,’ examines the Irish emigrant experience. Mary, her protagonist, has an Irish father and an English mother. As a result, her ‘feelings about her Irish identity fluctuate between a deeply felt identification with the Irish and a sense of shame for, and desire to disassociate herself from them’. Asked if she is Irish, she replies ‘half of me’. Yet, she realises that the Irish ‘touched her as no outsiders’. When she speaks, her accent is ‘English in its genesis, and fostered for the sake of the mother,’ yet when comforting a peasant girl, a fellow-passenger on an emigrant ship, she adopts an assimilating brogue. Elsewhere, in her intensely supernatural story ‘Oony,’ included in her collection Symphonies (1897), the eponymous child has a Catholic father and Protestant mother and is pulled between both traditions.
The incarceration of Egerton’s sisters, coupled with her own bitter experiences with a religious order in Germany, turned her against the patriarchal Roman Catholic Church. ‘The more I go into Irish history,’ she wrote, ‘the more clearly I recognise that the tragedy of Ireland was the day Pope Hildebrand came into touch with her through Henry II – and Latin influence or Latin form replaced the old Gaelic form of Christianity’ (de Vere White, 160). She blamed the church for the obliteration of the ‘lurking, savage passion which is in every Celt,’ a resentment she explored in her fiction. In ‘The Marriage of Mary Ascension’, subtitled ‘a Millstreet Love Story’ and included in Flies in Amber (1905), she exposed the clerical and parental collusion that facilitated oppression in middle-class Ireland, explaining: ‘Fear of sin bred fearsomeness of the soul; the imperative call of nature became an evil to be fought against, as a ghoul luring to death and damnation’. She pulls no punches, writing:
Better be the sane mother of a bastard than a mad virgin!” said “the woman who would not be cheated,” when the cost of the pearl of chastity in Ireland’s fair crown was explained to her by “the man who wasn’t afraid of the truth”.
Although Egerton spent much of her life in England, she was situated, as O’Toole puts it, ‘outside of British political and cultural hegemonies’ (2008: n.3, 840). Her awareness of the disparaging tone adopted by English commentators when discussing Ireland may have fired her loyalty while at the same time reminding her of flaws she knew intimately: drunkenness, irresponsibility, and God-ridden, fatalistic, superstitious. Perhaps, like Mary in The Wheel of God:
She felt the racial difference keenly, felt how irrational Irish people were, with their interest in everything and in every one’s troubles, their expansive confidences, their almost childish want of reticence.
She hated the ‘ugly purity’ of Ireland, and realised that Dublin was ‘provincial’. In The Wheel of God, she illustrated the Irish inferiority complex by introducing a doctor who ‘grafted what he believed to be a real English accent on to his original middle-class brogue’. Yet, neither was she impressed by the English with their conventional morality and unforgivable hypocrisy. In a letter to her father, when describing the virtuous fits the English press – ‘nice, Englishly nice and nicely English’ – was having over women going to see the plays of Henrik Ibsen, she sneered:
It is all humbug, part of the most positive British doctrine, of commit adultery, seduce any women you can, in fact sin as you please but don’t be found out. It’s all right so long as you don’t shock us by letting us know (de Vere White, 11).
In ‘A Cross Line’, the first story in Keynotes, her Irish protagonist suggests that an English author’s timidity arises from his fear of shocking ‘the big middle class’. She herself noted the ‘aloof distance’ of the English, who, in her opinion, had ‘no wit, no quick-on-the-uptake, no cynical criticism of current events and people, in a word dull’ (de Vere White, 175). Little wonder she feared she was not liked there; ‘They sense my indifference to their ranks and distinctions,’ she wrote, musing elsewhere ‘I do not fit in with the folk or their whimsies and I do not think I ever shall’ (de Vere White, 39-40).
Stetz suggests that ‘anti-Irish prejudices’ may explain why English critics never linked Egerton to the Anglo-Irish Celtic Revival movement (93). Certainly, her Catholic background set her apart. Yet, a qualified, complicated identification with Irishness and a willingness to explore artistic and spiritual visions aligns her with Synge and Yeats. Unlike them, she strove to develop a uniquely feminist literary aesthetic, tackled sexual taboos, and never romanticised the peasant experience. She was sceptical of the Celtic Revival and regarded the Abbey Theatre as a place where ‘a clique of half-brows talk as pundits’ (de Vere White, 141).
In A History of the Irish Short Story, Heather Ingman argues that Egerton foreshadowed Joyce in her critique of Dublin’s narrow-minded materialism. Certainly, her vibrant descriptions of the ‘grimy’ streets of Dublin in The Wheel of God lend credence to this. Yet, she had little time for Joyce and described Ulysses as ‘sheer ballyhoo’. In truth, she would have liked to start her own movement; ‘I wonder,’ she asked De Vere White in a letter, ‘if there will ever be an optimistic school of Irish writers. The drab and sordid seems to draw them like a magnet steel’ (de Vere White, 162).
For the last half-century of Egerton’s life, she ‘firmly refused’ all invitations to Ireland. Writing of Dublin in 1939, she assured de Vere White:
I am quite weaned of my allegiance. I see life there would never have been possible to me. There is no freedom of any kind. They blather about political freedom, ‘cutting the bonds that bind them to England etc. etc.’ they evade the real issue – their own spiritual, mental and moral bondage (de Vere White, 166).
Yet, living in England, she was ‘deliberately Irish;’ she joined the Irish Genealogical Society, read Irish books, and took a keen interest in Irish plays and actors. George Bernard Shaw, when producing her play His Wife’s Family (1907), warned that she had made it excessively Irish and would find no actors to play her characters. Throughout her life, Egerton retained strong links to her old island home. Yet, she harboured no illusions, insisting ‘I could not live in Eire. Censorship and cramped conduct would not appeal to me’ (de Vere White, 175). Her trenchant nationalism, combined with her healthy skepticism when taking stock of that Catholic, colonial land, underpins her ideology and sets her apart from her peers.
Eleanor Fitzsimons blogs at http://eafitzsimons.wordpress.com and is on twitter as @EleanorFitz
Eleanor is the author of Wilde’s Women: How Oscar Wilde was shaped by the women he knew (London, Duckworth Overlook, 2015). She is working on a new biography of E. Nesbit.
If you wish to submit an article to the blog please contact Dr Deirdre Flynn.
References and Further Reading:
de Vere White, Terrence. A Leaf from The Yellow Book: The Correspondence of George Egerton. (London: Richards Press 1958)
Ingman, Heather. A History of the Irish Short Story (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)
Jusová, Iveta. The New Woman and the Empire (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2005)
McCracken, Scott. A Novel From/On the Margins: George Egerton’s Wheel of God in Gender and Colonialism, ed. Timothy R. Foley, Lionel Pilkington, Sean Ryder &Elizabeth Tilley (Galway UP 1996), 139-157
O’Toole, Tina. ‘Ireland the Terra Incognita of the New Women Project’ in New Contexts: Re-framing Nineteenth Century Irish Woman’s Prose (Cork: Cork University Press, 2008)
O’Toole, Tina ‘Keynotes from Millstreet, Co. Cork: George Egerton’s Transgressive Fictions’ in Colby Quarterly: Vol. 36, Issue 2, 2000, Article 8.
Standlee, Whitney. ‘George Egerton, James Joyce and the Irish Künstlerroman’ in Irish Studies Review, vol. 18, no. 4 (November 2010), pp. 439-452.
Stetz, Margaret Diane. “George Egerton: Woman and Writer of the Eighteen Nineties.” Ph.D. Thesis, Harvard University, 1982