Irish Novelists and the Victorian Age by James H. Murphy, Reviewed by Mary Jean Corbet
 

Irish Novelists and the Victorian Age
By James H. Murphy
(Oxford, 2011) 304 pp.
Reviewed by Mary Jean Corbet on 2011-07-11.

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James H. Murphy does a fine job of answering the perennial charge that nineteenth-century Ireland produced no fiction worthy of our critical attention. Although conceding the possibility "that many Irish novels of the Victorian age are of low quality," he contends that "their exclusion from the canon of Irish literature was the result of concerted efforts by the members of Ireland's emergent literary establishment in the 1890s and 1900s" (13). De-anglicizing the Irish nation formed the ideological basis for preferring ostensibly homegrown products to those of foreign growth. Cultural nationalists preferred recovering indigenous fictions (and a Gaelic oral tradition) to trafficking in a body of writing about Ireland directed at a primarily English reading audience. Then and perhaps also now, the "secret anxiety about Victorian Irish fiction" was "that much of it was not truly Irish at all, but merely the product of an assimilation to British culture" (5). Undertaking the cultural work of decolonization--the project initiated by Douglas Hyde, a founder of the Gaelic League and subsequently first president of the Republic--meant tossing the novel overboard.

Ultimately, however, the literary history that followed from Irish political and cultural independence could turn the perceived curse of "no truly Irish fiction" into a blessing. "The absence of a robust bourgeois literature" in the realist tradition "enabled Irish fiction to become the locus for a pioneering modernism, most notably" in the writing of James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Flann O'Brien (3; emphases in original). If scholars today continue to debate Ireland's relation to nineteenth-century modernity, no one doubts that its twentieth-century novelists led the way to international modernism. For the most part, Murphy sidesteps the vexed questions that postcolonial critics in particular have raised about both the Irishness and the Victorianness of what he is content to call "the Irish Victorian novel." Instead, he cites over 350 novels and 150 authors in this comprehensive survey, demonstrating the generic range and thematic richness of the works he describes and, in some instances, analyzes. Short, readable chapters give quick access to unknown authors and unfamiliar titles, enabling scholars of the English novelistic tradition to dip into the broad range of materials covered and to select the choice bits for further reading. More or less chronologically organized, the book clearly explains which writers and genres came to the fore in each decade and which issues were paramount. In chapter 2, for example, placing Lady Blessington's silver-fork novels of the 1820s and 30s alongside the military and adventure fiction of William Hamilton Maxwell lets readers glimpse the perennial "problem of how to glue the two parts of Irish society together in one work" (36): where Blessington fails, Maxwell succeeds. The imagined community of military fiction, Murphy suggests, "enabled Irishmen ... from all classes to interact with each other ... on the basis of something like equality" (40).

Without critical partisanship he also reads the work of Irish-born or Irish-identified writers who now have a place in the English canon, such as Sheridan Le Fanu (discussed in chapter 5) and Bram Stoker (chapter 10). Although Le Fanu's "pursuit of peculiarly Irish themes in his fiction of the 1860s" offers plenty of grist for nationalist or postcolonial mills, Murphy invites us to recognize the multivalence of the work across the national divide when he casts him as "an Irish writer working within the world of British Victorian fiction" (100). While seeking neither to vilify nor to redeem those English writers who take Irish life as their putative subject--William Thackeray (chapter 4) and Anthony Trollope (chapters 6 and 8) being the key figures here--Murphy clarifies their relations to other writers in their time. Thus we see Thackeray in relation to his erstwhile friend, Charles Lever, while Trollope's Irish novels--from his first, The Macdermots of Ballycloran (1847), to his last, unfinished one, The Landleaguers (1883)--are set beside other mid- to late-century texts. The novels Murphy surveys highlight crucial phases in the history of nineteenth-century Ireland: landlord-tenant conflict, the impact of the famine in the 1840s, the emergence of an international Fenian movement, and the transformative power of the Land War in the early 1880s. Deftly locating the sites at which English and Irish fiction intersect in terms of genre, Murphy charts a range of connections and continuities that cut across national and cultural difference within Ireland as well as between Ireland and England.

At the same time, the survey approach and the organization of chapters by theme rather than by author also allows Murphy to note the distinctive topoi of Irish novels, which were always under pressure in the nineteenth century to take a side or advance an argument. Fiction that responds directly to Irish conditions, Murphy says, such as the rise of the Fenians and the turmoil induced by the Land War, demonstrates those "specific circumstances at particular periods that helped to accentuate the political dimension of Irish novels and to inhibit the aesthetic of realism" (3-4). While the strategies of such novels are by no means unique to Irish fiction, Murphy persuasively argues that we can find "significant attempts at realism in the Irish land novel" (120), even in the face of sectarian side-taking and finger-pointing. "The enemies of realism in Irish fiction," he writes, "were precisely those ... conventions that had been the bulwarks of the Irish novel from the beginning of the nineteenth century: the burden of individuals having to be representative of wider Irish realities, writing novels as allegories, and, in particular, the national marriage" (137). But the friends of realism aimed at something more like an impartial view. Set during the famine but shaped by post-famine developments, both Annie Keary's Castle Daly (1875), first serialized in Macmillan's Magazine, and Margaret Brew's The Chronicles of Castle Cloyne (1884) represent a broader outlook on rural Irish society within the context of the increasing social and political changes that dominate the 1870s and 80s. If Castle Daly is "no Middlemarch," Murphy concludes, it "is perhaps its cousin" (134).

Significantly, these two novelists were part of a larger group of women writers that came to prominence in the later nineteenth century and "often raised issues to do with women" in Land War fiction, "sometimes even in a proto-feminist fashion" (168). Alongside George Meredith's Diana of the Crossways (1885) and George Moore's A Drama in Muslin (1886), fiction by Irish women writers such as Emily Lawless and Rosa Mulholland identified the oppression that Irishwomen of all backgrounds endured, though they experienced it differently from their different positions. If, for example, the landlords were finally to lose their land, then unmarried women of the landed class were sure to lose their portions and their chances at marriage. One might even argue that political unrest and economic upheaval in late-Victorian Ireland helped to precipitate the New Woman movement in England, for as Murphy suggestively notes, "many, perhaps even a majority, of its iconic leading women writers were Irish" (169), including Sarah Grand, George Egerton, and Iota (Kathleen Mannington Caffyn). By juxtaposing the chapter on the Land War with the one on New Women, Murphy helps to identify a progressive movement that crosses external and internal boundaries.

"Apart from women's fiction," Murphy concludes, "Irish and British fiction began increasingly to go their own ways toward the end of the century" (262). He attributes this divergence to "the growth of a more distinctive, middle-class Irish market for fiction" (262) and, by implication, to the rise of the cultural nationalist and/or sectarian stance that circumscribed the representational possibilities for fiction in an increasingly divided culture. Many of Murphy's other local arguments remain similarly implicit. In laying down what he calls "the blunt instruments of post-Irish-revival criticism" to take a "survey-cum-interpretation approach" (261), he slights the ongoing critical debates spawned by cultural nationalism and postcolonial critique, mixed with a heavy dose of poststructuralist skepticism. He thus tends to minimize complex critical arguments. This seems to me a shame, since the primary audience for this book is very likely to include those who know little about the fictional materials under discussion and even less about the debates within Irish studies that have for so long consigned "the Irish Victorian novel" to the dustbin from which he aims to rescue it. A chapter on these debates would have strengthened the book.

Nonetheless, Murphy has done yeoman's work in recovering forgotten texts and highlighting the intersections between English and Irish fiction of the period. In doing so, he serves all readers who aim to read Victorian novels, wherever they were written, across the boundaries of nations and canons.

Mary Jean Corbett is the John W. Steube Professor of English and Affiliate of the Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and author of Allegories of Union in Irish and English Writing, 1790-1870 (Cambridge, 2000). Her most recent book is Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf (Cornell, 2008; paperback, 2010).


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