Review of Anna Pilz and Whitney Standlee, Irish women’s writing, 1878-1922

Anna Pilz and Whitney Standlee, eds. Irish women’s writing, 1878–1922: Advancing the cause of liberty. Manchester University Press, 2018, 280 pages, paperback, €15.99

Reviewed by Katie Mishler

Historically, the canon of Irish writing has been defined by a selective number of key, monumental figures—Oscar Wilde, W. B. Yeats, and James Joyce, to name a few. This litany of familiar names has defined not only what it means to be an Irish writer, but the contours of Irish identity and culture itself. Such a clean, linear trajectory inevitably risks exclusion. Although there has been significant headway over the past twenty years, Irish literary, historical, and cultural studies still have far to progress in terms of achieving gender balance in terms of representation. The continual erasure of the contributions of women to the Irish nation in terms of both their political and artistic engagements makes the collection Irish Women’s Writing, 1878-1922: Advancing the Cause of Liberty, edited by Anna Pilz and Whitney Standlee, such a significant and timely work of scholarship. Lia Mills, whose forward opens this collection of essays, recounts her experience of being an Irish woman academic and author as one of limitations which were transformed into possibilities upon her discovery of an alternative canon which encompasses the work of female writers. Likewise, the essays in this collection persuasively question the prevailing narrative of the Irish literary tradition as wholly male.

The essays collected by Pilz and Standlee engage in important recovery work, and the diverse identities and literary styles featured in this book are testament to the prolific and multifarious output of women at the end of the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth centuries. Tellingly, the excavation of overlooked and understudied authors establishes a female political literary tradition in Ireland which goes back centuries, rather than merely decades. The array of archival approaches employed by the essays in this collection, which has a particular emphasis on periodical and publishing culture, usefully contextualizes the influx of female Irish writers and novelists during this timeframe. The editors carefully selected the years of 1878-1922 for investigation not only due to this proliferation, but also because this timeframe is one of great historical significance both in terms of Irish national politics as well as shifting perspectives regarding women’s roles.  Although public avenues of political engagement were largely closed to women, the essays in this volume demonstrate how female writers discursively engaged with the political, economic, and personal concerns of a newly emergent class of educated, middle-class Irish women.

For women who wanted an identity and occupation outside of marriage, there was a lack of suitable employment opportunities, and many female novelists had to strategically piece together a viable living. The opening essays by Patrick Maume and James H. Murphy explore how the fiction of Charlotte Riddell and Rosa Mulholland, respectively, interrogates issues of land proprietorship, changing class structures, and the economics of marriage. If women were to achieve economic self-sufficiency, it would be necessary to reform their educational prospects; from the 1870s onward, women campaigned for equal access to secondary education, the right to sit competitive exams, and the right to attend university. The debates surrounding female education and adolescence are featured in Heidi Hansson’s examination of the juvenile fiction of Emily Lawless. Hansson clearly analyzes how Lawless critically counterbalances the freedom of childhood with the structures of formal education, and the role the latter plays in forming an Irish national identity. Whitney Standlee in turn examines how the school girl novels of L. T. Meade, which were written for an emergent class of newly educated girls as independent readers, present a social view of education as sustaining the development of powerful female friendships and allegiances.

Conceptions of freedom as well as equal opportunity feature heavily in the gender politics of the period, and gave rise to suffragism, the New Woman, and the popular debates regarding the Woman Question. Jane Mahony and Eve Patton’s explore how Ulster writer Beatrice Grimshaw negotiated and adapted her fin de sièclefeminist concerns with liberty, exploration, and experience in response to a shifting publishing market. As a travel writer, her commercial success was achieved by her physical mobility and artistic versatility; her travel to and exploration of the South Pacific enabled her not only to seek out personal adventure, but to support herself as a writer and to further write about women’s personal freedom. Ciaran O’Neill and Mai Yatani explore how diverse writers such as George Egerton, Hannah Lynch, and Katherine Cecil Thurston were drawn to the urban metropole in order to access political liberty, social freedoms, and unrestricted artistic expression. The existing canon of Irish urban writing, emblematized by the work of Joyce, is largely male, and this chapter establishes how before the publication of UlyssesIrish women writers embraced self-imposed exile and sought out life in urban locales abroad in order to write about self-actualization and upward mobility, countering the rural imperatives of Revivalism.

Both the late nineteenth and early twentieth century saw the rise of nationalist politics in Ireland, as well as political upheaval on a global scale with World War I. Notably, the years of 1878-1922 saw the effort of Home Rule Movement and Parnellism eventually culminate in the Anglo-Irish War of 1919-1921, as well as the establishment of the Free State and the Partition of the North of Ireland. Granted that women were largely excluded from political engagement in the public sphere, their discursive efforts reflect a range of interests which exist outside of the polarizing debates of nationalism and unionism. Shifting demographics and linguistic change in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Ireland led towards a transitory period of social bilingualism. Margaret Kelleher’s article examines the overlooked issues of bilingual practice in the writing of Sommerville and Ross as a negotiation between different ideologies and identities. By examining how bilingualism functions as a form of creative invention, renegotiation, and humor in the works of Somerville and Ross, Kelleher points to the need to investigate the dynamic range of bilingual language practices in Irish Studies as a whole. The essay by Anna Pilz also focuses on the creative negotiations between the playwriting of Lady Gregory, audience reception, and political identity. By looking at the positive response to Gregory’s Jacobite play ‘The White Cockade’, Pilz persuasively argues that negotiations between ideological representations were far more nuanced than previously thought, ultimately asserting that the Abbey’s mainstream success was impeded by elitism and class ideologies, rather than denominational or political allegiances.

The collection’s specific focus on political writing allows a broadening of conceptions of ideological binaries, as several essays in this collection put forth nuanced understandings of political identities. The essays by Kieron Winterson and Naomi Doak further examine how mobility and migration may have influenced and shaped the writing and political imperatives of Katherine Tynan and F.E. Cricthon. Aurelia Annat and Lauren Arrington turn to the works of Ella Young, Eva Gore-Booth, and Constance Markievicz to examine how of the writings of these committed nationalists and political activists contained layers of personal and political demands, rather than merely reflecting the imperatives of mainstream nationalism. The research included in this collection presents a compelling overview of the diverse social, cultural, and political issues which shaped Irish women’s writing of this period, while the recovery work and archival methodologies undertaken broadens understandings of Irish literary cultural studies and periodical culture.

KATIE MISHLER is a Research Scholar in the Humanities Institute at University College Dublin, where she recently finished her PhD on James Joyce and Irish Gothic Writing.