WHY does academic criticism matter? And why does a collection like this, with a clear focus on work by women at the turn of the last century, have particular value? Is it not enough to know about and study the exalted few Irish writers who are recognised as important and universally relevant, those with international appeal and reputation–the ones I don’t even have to name because your mind, reading this, is already filling in the blanks?
Well, no. It’s not enough–and not just because our notions of what is significant, important or relevant change over time. It matters because the historically assumed non-existence or scarcity of Irish women writers is untrue. It matters because assumptions about their lack of value or relevance are wrong. It matters because when we look at Irish literature across the centuries but exclude women and other writers who don’t conform to–or who write in direct opposition to–our notions of what is appropriately ‘Irish’, the shape and developmental trajectory we assume for it bears little resemblance to its actual shape. Worse, the texture is entirely missing. Without connective tissue, the body of a literature can’t breathe let alone grow or be coherent. It will eventually die. And it matters because the apparent vacuum is a deprivation for writers as well as readers of the future. How much time is lost when we need, not only to reinvent the wheel, but to reimagine it?
It’s like coming across the ruined wall of what was once a town. If a brick is enough for you, there’s no more to be said. But if it’s depth, colour, and movement you’re after, if it’s life you want–with all its mess, argument, and contradiction, its soaring pleasures as well as its crushing defeats–a single wall won’t satisfy you, it will only sharpen your appetite.
I should declare bias, here. I started writing when I was a child, before my imagination got the news that it was supposed to be gendered. When I wasn’t reading, I was inventing worlds in my head and on paper, drawing maps of (p.xiii) places I didn’t know enough to call fictional. Speaking, I’m embarrassed to admit, lines of dialogue, whether I was alone or not. Writing was something I always wanted to do, but I didn’t know a writer was something a person like me could be. There are as many internal and personal reasons for that sense of a lack of entitlement as there are writers they inhibit. There are practical obstacles, which have been extensively and capably discussed elsewhere. What’s relevant here is the unnameable absence that amounts to ignorance, the not-knowing that there are models, exemplars, and solutions to hand.
Reading dismantled my internal barriers, block by suffocating concrete block. I came to women’s studies in the 1990s and read my way to the blindingly original insight that I wasn’t the first, I wouldn’t be the last, I wasn’t the only writer who had to chisel her own path to the printed page. Finding your own way is part of the necessary apprenticeship a writer undertakes, but it helps when the path is lit and broadened by those who’ve travelled it already. I’m a slow learner, but it finally dawned on me that no one would give me permission or invite me to write. Equally, no one could stop me except myself. If I wanted it, I had to step up and claim it, learn how to do it word by word, deal with the fallout later. Authority requires agency and by definition no one else can give it to you or do it for you. It really is that simple. It’s that hard.
Reading the work, the lives, journals, and letters of writers of any age, gender or background helps us to understand what writing is, what it means to those writers, what challenges they had to overcome to do it, their intentions, ideas, failures, neuroses, joys. The words of women writers had specific power for me because so many of my personal obstacles and taboos were rooted in gender and ‘loyalty’, that great universal silencer. Whether to family or individuals, to peer group, church or state, loyalty will trip us up and blind us every time. In a country steeped in contested memory and identities, those things are highly charged. It would be simpler to lapse into brooding silence instead of raising awkward questions, but where’s the satisfaction in that? The more questions we pose, the more we learn.
My first novel, Another Alice, was written as a counter-narrative to a lot of white noise and nonsense that was being bandied about at the time, on the airwaves and in print, about women and sexual violence. The novel took shape in my mind in 1992, a bad year to be a woman in Ireland; it was the year of the X case and several other high-profile cases of rape and murder. I wanted to give a character space from which she could answer back, tell her own story in such a way that readers would enter it with her and hear what she had to say. For me, writing the novel explored questions about ownership of a story, who gets to tell it and how. It’s a matter of choosing, defining, and inhabiting a narrative space.
(p.xiv) Those issues returned in force with my most recent novel, Fallen, which is set before and during the Easter Rising in Dublin (1916). I started with a simple–and, significantly, a neutral–question: What would it be like to step out of your house one day and find your city overtaken by forces you don’t recognise or understand?
What I knew of the Rising was the received and cherished account that amounts to the foundation myth of the Irish state: On Easter Monday 1916, while the Great War convulsed the world, a group of Irish men and women took over key buildings and civic spaces in Dublin in the name of an Irish republic that didn’t yet exist. It took six days of street fighting and siege for the British Army–which included thousands of Irishmen–to force a surrender. The rapid execution of sixteen of the leaders of the Rising turned public opinion against the British and set us on the path that ultimately led to independence. It’s a story we love, with good reason.
The trouble with iconic and well-loved stories is that their surface is so smooth, so perfectly glossed, that they’re difficult for a writer of fiction to penetrate. When I found my way inside the available narrative space, the story I loved and thought I knew about the Rising became something else entirely. The story that wanted me to tell it was other than the one I started with; it revealed itself slowly and against the resistances, conscious and unconscious, of my own previous relationship with it. My angle of entry was such that I found I had to rearrange the lines, bend them to new shapes that would accommodate the uncomfortable realities. For example: not the sixteen dead leaders my mind naively retained as a toll, but 442 people dead, more citizens than rebels and British Army put together. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have moments of unease about all this, a return of those ghosts of entitlement, ownership, loyalty. But I also had the comfort of knowing I was neither the first Irish, nor the first woman, writer to experience such qualms or to write against the conventional grain.
When I began to research and read the work of turn-of-the-(last)-century Irish women writers, first as an MA student and later as a teaching and research fellow at University College Dublin, I was genuinely shocked that they occupied such a blind spot in our literature. I think what actually shocked me most was my own previous willingness to accept not just their absence but, effectively, their non-existence through my own lack of curiosity. As if only women of our time have ever cared about questions like equality, freedom, self-actualisation, art, survival, ambition, faith, or justice. The omission was unthinking rather than deliberate, but it amounted to betrayal just the same. I knew about the token few, of course–Edgeworth, Somerville and Ross, Bowen, O’Brien–but except for the latter, I had an inherited expectation that their work could have no particular value or relevance to contemporary Ireland and may even be in some way inimical (p.xv) to it. It’s shaming to admit to such intellectual laziness on my part, but it’s true, so I must.
I did what I could to make up for it. I’d spend the next ten years reading, teaching, and writing about women writers of that generation, the generation whose work this book addresses so comprehensively. I came to love and value them, not just for their work, or for their approach to the stories they told and the worlds they depicted, but for what I came to know of their writing lives, how they were received, what happened to them later. My world and time are so different that we might as well inhabit separate planets, but what struck me was how much more we have in common than the artificial–and perceived–divisions that separate us. Here were the models and exemplars I’d been missing, without knowing enough to know I needed them. Now, when I write, I feel their solid presence at my back, the ground of a ghostly tradition underfoot. Collectively, they have the bracing effect of Get on with it, or get out of the way.
Fiction’s great strength is empathy. Or maybe I mean that empathy is what makes fiction possible. It might even be the actual, osmotic mechanism that draws a reader into the world behind the lines and enlarges our understanding of the complexity of human experience. It expands our sense of possibility, but only if we read variously and with an open mind–this is another reason why critical essays asking a wide range of questions of a broad selection of writers matter.
The challenge for writers is to write variously and with an open mind. The most crucial decision for any story is what narrative position(s) to occupy. This choice determines everything that follows: the story’s shape, its bias, its atmosphere; where the light falls, where the shadows deepen; and what it all might mean, on its own terms and for a reader.
The work of academic criticism is not a million miles away from creative writing, but it leans instead towards creative reading, generating worlds of discussion and argument along with flashes of brilliant illumination. The extent and quality of a novel’s life depends on the alert, discriminating, and continuing attention of readers. Critics act as a conduit between fictional and actual worlds. It is an act of immense generosity to bring a critical intelligence to bear on someone else’s work, to immerse yourself in it; to enlarge, promote, and help to extend its life through discussion, introducing the work to new readers in new contexts and, crucially, passing the conversation on through the generations.
If literary history matters at all, if culture and context matter at all, then attentive engagement with the work of women writers, as in the essays presented in this volume, is vitally important. Otherwise we are left with a false sense of a series of giant leaps rather than something organic, various, evolving; a literature that people of previous generations were reading, (p.xvi) writing, and talking about; a world that is dynamic not static, alive and not dead, still waiting to be explored.
Books like this one tell us that despite the doomsday predictions–the death of the author, the death of the book–there is a new generation of readers, academics, and critics who care enough about the texture and fabric of literature to devote their own creative, thoughtful energy to keeping the conversation going, to keeping the work alive.
Dublin, March 2015