by

Dr. Aintzane Legarreta Mentxaka

Unknown

  Jill Franks. British and Irish Writers and the Women’s Movement: Six Literary Voices of their Time. Jefferson (NC): McFarland, 2013

 

What a thrill to anticipate the sight of this band of amazons riding on the crest of the hill. And what an exciting formation – Mrs Dalloway with The Last September, The Golden Notebook with The Country Girls, Big Women with My Dream of You.  Shocking to think how rare it has been to look at the history of women and women’s literature, in Britain and Ireland, as a group. The inevitable consequence of a colonial context, perhaps, a wasted potential undoer of that very context, for sure. So here we stand, for ages, phone cameras and cheering banners at the ready, anticipating a melodious graceful gallop, and… there’s a faint distant clacking ―whether of hooves or falling rocks it is not easy to say.

Jill Franks’ British and Irish Writers and the Women’s Movement: Six Literary Voices of their Times is a book of literary criticism, informed by psychoanalysis. It consists of two parts: a history of the feminist movement in the UK and Ireland from the late nineteenth century to the present, and a comparative analysis of six novels, in pairs, with one charper each covering the First, Second, and (so-called) Third Waves.  The Introduction explains that the purpose of the book is to “study feminist literary consciousness and history in two geographically-close but culturally-distant nations in order to better understand how historical conditions affect feminism” (7).

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The general structure of the book is tradicional, and the subsections are too, as indicated by their titles: “Relationships of gender and class in the authors’ lives”, or “Conclussion: Comparative Analysis”, are characteristic (109, 204). The terminology feels old fashioned too, from”Freudianism” rather than Freudian psychoanalysis (12), or “gynocritics” rather than feminist criticism (7), to undigested turns of phrase such as “[Northern Ireland’s] sectarian-apartheid communities” (12).  And in classic mode, the book even opens with a quote from the Oxford English Dictionary ―the entry for “Voice” (7). In other ways, it is the attitude rather than the language which feels contrary, the anti-porn discurse, for example, skidding off our shinny post-queer-theory polished floors. The text also sports wild generalisations, exclamation marks, and banter, not usually found in academic writing.

And yet, this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Once upon a time, verve, assertiveness, and a disregard for contemporary convention resulted in original, engaging, and insightful analysis. Irigaray and Kristeva, for example, can get away with inconsistencies, raptures, jolting, corner-shopisms. They have won that right by the power of their ideas and the hip hop urgency of their writing.

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History is central to the book. The focus tilts towards Ireland, and the conclussion is firmly planted there, but structurally the study is organised around the two geopolitical entities of Britain and Ireland, with the History Section divided in two chapters, one for each. It would have been productive to look for ways in which national, cultural, and social allegiances have confounded and magnetized feminists across the water. It is a painful truth that for 600 years, the imperial administrative centre at Dublin Castle had as much in common with Irish nationalist aspirations as they differed in. The compass needle of gender-class-sexuality-authoritarian norms unchanged: same road, different heading. An obvious point, worth making again. Women here and there have a string of differences, and as many accords.

The book’s historical survey starts with the Ladies Land League in 1881 in the Irish section, and the 1903 Women’s Social and Political Union in the British section. A mention to the relative gender equities of Irish Brehon law would have been interesting here, although the decision to open with the First Wave fits the tripartite structure of the literary analysis. However, to matter-of-factly align Virginia Woolf and Elizabeth Bowen to the First Wave of the women’s movement, as the book does, is misleading: at the time of their births in 1882 and 1899, the battle was well underway. It would have been helpful here to discuss late nineteenth century ‘New Woman’ literature as a nexus of English, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish feminists. The ‘New Woman’ movement, named in 1894 by the Irish novelist and critic Sarah Grand (investigated by Sally Ledger, Tina O’Toole, and others), also offers a sex-positive bridge-across-time to Women Libbers; ‘New Woman’ author George Egerton (Mary Chavelita Dunne) and Germaine Greer are kin.

Even in a history pivoting on political action, such as the one presented here, there are important inter-national links which may have been worth mentioning. For example, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century period, there is a confluence of agitation in the islands, and an effervescence of politically-aware publishing projects. Vide the use of the hunger strike as concerted political strategy, developed by suffragettes in England, taken up by Irish suffragettes, and then adopted by republican Irish nationalists in the 1910s (see the work of Shannon Byrne). Vide the socialist networks that in the 1913 Dublin Workers Lockout got ‘Ireland-first’ Constance Markievicz and ‘Suffrage-first’ Hanna Sheehy-Skeffinton behind the same soup-kitchen counter, and brought ‘attack-in-all-fronts’ Dora Montefiore from London in the failed attempt to rescue workers’ children from the crisis. As for the reader-and-publisher networks, among other things we could consider the transformation of the London-based The Lady’s Journal in 1887, under the feminist editorship of Oscar Wilde, or the creation of the Cuala Press in Dublin 1908, an off-shoot from the Morris-inspired Dun Emer Guild of Evelyn Gleeson and the Yeats sisters (see Gifford Lewis). And then there is the radical journal Urania, set up in Manchester in 1916, edited by the Irish Eva Gore-Booth and her partner the English Esther Roper  ―sufragettes, union activists, militant pacifists both―, seeking to advance the ‘feminisation’ of the world as the only path to a utopian renaisance (see Sonja Tiernan).

The author of the book explains that, “[s]ince history is necessarily a subjective shaping of facts interspersed with opinions, women’s studies admits the subjective viewpoint” (86). The book’s two History sections, focusing on biographical information, are decidedly gossipy, and the author almost admits as much, declaring that in choosing detailed biographical accounts, she has favoured “colourful” lives (19). The intricate domestic arrangements of Maude Gonne are narrated in detail, but there is nothing on Sheehy-Skeffington. Doris Lessing’s and Germaine Greer’s supposed attraction to brutish men is underlined, yet there is no discussion of Nuala O’Faolain’s well publicised abusive behaviour towards her partners. But the inconsistencies are not the main issue. The approach to history is. How can the exceptional mutate into the representative? The author’s list of Flawed Feminist Heroines is reminiscent of the traditional model of European History, with long lists of portentous kings and queens as a seeming shorthand to the not-quite-electrifying business of every day living. There are other ways of writing history, and we must continue developing them or we will simply vanish.

This is not to say that in the history of women in Britain and Ireland, we should not pay attention to the lively detail, to beliefs and phobias, to friendships, enmities, and professional intersections. So, for example, it is significant to the Early Modern period that the first play in English by a female author to be professionally staged, by the Welsh Katherine Philips, opened in Dublin’s Smock Alley Theatre in 1663, with a political agenda encouraged by Lord Lieutenant Ormond, and an ironic agenda all of her own (see Schut and Russell). For example, it is revealing of the predicament of educated imperial subjects that Mary Wollstonecraft took up writing in 1788 after working as a governess for a Dublin family, when her job was terminated on account of her unbecoming conduct. For example, it enriches our view of early twentieth century modernism in Ireland and Britain to picture a distracted Katherine Mansfield and D.H. Lawrence visiting their friend, Irish surrealist painter Beatrice Glenavy, in her cottage by the sea in Howth… or to picture the befuddled Woolfs visiting their friend Elizabeth Bowen in her crumbling ‘big house’ in Kildorrery. Packing a full sadlebag of personalised items such as these is a good thing, but a broad supple parchment map, with its aspirational ‘objective viewpoint’, should be the first thing to go into it. Britain has received much attention in histories of the women’s movement, so there are plenty of accounts to chose from, and for a short history of women in Ireland in the period covered by this book, I would suggest Lucy Collins’ excellent survey, in her introduction to Poetry by Women in Ireland 1870-1970, published in 2012, or the literature-rich chapter on history in Heather Ingman’s study Twentieth Century Fiction by Irish Women, of 2007, a book which uses Kristevas’ ideas (on nation, the sacred, mother-daughter, etc) as a set of lenses.

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In terms of the writing, a resolute editorial hand is missing in the book. McFarland are rigorous and professional publishers, so the irregularities here are inexplicable. There are oversimplifications of ideas, movements, literary forms, and historical periods (“Tatcherism changed the consciousness of good English people until their former selves were unrecognizable”, 201). A number of stylistic issues could have been brushed: there are eruptions of inconsistent, out-of-sync verbs; quotes are often inserted after a colon without further engagement, while unrelated things are brought together in unruly paragraphs, and summaries of novels are interrupted by comments; the use of parenthesis, and dashes for parenthetical info that should be in main text, is incorrect or misleading. There is a lack of reflexion in some statements (“[Woolf referred to her class] as ‘daughters of educated men’ .  .  .  In other words, she was not equally concerned about the welfare of all women”, 96), and the writing is sometimes inappropriate (“With shapely legs and a pixie face, [the young Doris Lessing] was appealing, confident, and motivated to find love”, 132).

The book displays a laissez faire attitude to specifics. The sourcing of images is blanketly acknowledged to a single commons website (including the famous 1902 Beresford portrait of Woolf, presented as “early 1900s (Photofest)”, in 99).  The referencing is neglected, and it gets most wobbly when it is most needed, in an extended discussion on pornography (a throwback to the darkest hour of the 1970s Sex Wars), where the porn=violence view is supported by vague “studies have found…”, “interviews with protitutes revealed…”, or “interviews with pornography users and partners of users revealed…” (191, 88), while research results are given elsewhere without background of year, country, age, as if they would automatically apply to everyone (see 8).  In addition, there are a few inacuracies, such as Nancy Astor being the first female MP, Ulysses having been banned in Ireland, or RH Tawley being a “member of Bloomsbury” (113).

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The impetus of the study is feminism, but I found it difficult to engage the book in conversation because of its unfamiliar-sounding political dialect. The book’s priorities, method, grievances, humour, thrills, individuality… all seemed to clash with mine.  It is of concern that the author is working in a context where she feels the need to “validate” the project (8) and even “defen[d]” the field (9). Perhaps our differences have to do with this. As a scholar, I do not feel that I am under siege.

And then, there is the question of psychoanalysis.  In the book, Kristeva (on the abject) and Klein (on object relations) are only employed briefly at two points, even though the Introduction announces a focus on both thinkers. Chodorow’s and Showalter’s work make an appearance there. It is surprising to find no more than a passing mention to Lacan’s ideas, which many feminists have found so hospitable. There are some throaway references to Butler, and her “theory of gender performance” (97). The theory is not discussed, but (notwithstanding the philosopher’s own disclaimer about her muddled early formulations), “performance” is innacurate here.  It is more tuned to Joan Riviere’s psychoanalytic development of “womanliness as masquerade”, in an influencial essay from 1929 which may have been useful here. But in the book, psychoanalysis seems at one stage just a passport into personal, private experience. So, the author explains that, “New Criticism cautioned against a reading of the text alongside or intertwined with the author’s biography. Fortunately, psychoanalytic criticism, particularly popular in the 1960s and 70s academy, reversed this bias, making the text all about the author’s Freudian neuroses” (emphasis in original, 12). But perhaps this is not fair. In the Introduction, the author warns that “[i]n this study I use biography in conjunction with psychoanalytic concepts” (emphasis added, 13) ― the piecemeal, haphazard resorting to these concepts is her prerogative.

Psychoanalysis is not my weapon of choice, but I have seen it used dexteriously by feminist critics. A flaming arrow on a birch-bent bow. Coughlan, Corley, Fogarty, Giffney, Ingman, Meaney, Mulhall, Radley, Sullivan… And that’s just a handful of scholars currently working in Ireland.

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Moral. Having the nerve does not mean you’ll hit the target. But courage alone will get you far.

This book is inspiring in the possibilities it outlines. Feminist historiography should make its own roads. And many other writers whose style or themes have been aligned to feminism (Ursula le Guin, Eilís ní Dhuibhne, Dorothy Richardson, Kate O’Brien) ―thoroughbreds you may say―, are standing by for comparative analysis. And there’s the criss-crossers, be they Irish-British (Brigid Brophy) or Anglo-Irish (Iris Murdoch), as well as the civil-partnered Éire-Brittanias (Emma Donoghue).  And we shouldn’t forget  ‘grade’ fiction, such as comicbooks (Possy Simmonds), or fanfic (Lasair).  I would rather have their work critically analysed, than their persons psychobiographied. But that’s just me.

And while we ponder on what or who, and how, why not hunt down Margaret Laurence’s We Write as Women, a thrilling and entertaining book of feminist psychoanalytic analysis of literary texts by women, including Irish and British writers, and first published in 1936, which has sadly been forgotten.

 

pic- portrait with books- medium size- may 2011

Aintzane Legarreta Mentxaka is a writer, researcher, and teacher, currently lecturing in English, film, and Irish Studies at University College Dublin. She has published a book on the writer Kate O’Brien (Kate O’Brien and the Fiction of Identity, McFarland, 2011), a book of poetry, and over forty essays on literature and drama in a wide range of journals, in English, Spanish, and Basque. Her post-doctoral  research project on ‘the modernist intermediality of Irish women writers’ was recently awarded the prestigious ‘Government of Ireland’ scholarship. Her play A Pair of New Eyes, about two forgotten historical Irish women from the nineteenth century, who were pioneers of science, technology, and art, was premiered in Dublin on 5th November.