This Irish Fiction of Emily Lawless: a narrative analysis.
PhD thesis, National University of Ireland Maynooth.
If the measure of a writer‟s relevance is the extent to which he or she registers the discursive range of the period in which they write and the extent to which subsequent generations can recover that discursive energy from his or her work, then Emily Lawless should require no justification for inclusion in a tradition of significant Irish literary voices. The fictional work, in particular, of this writer facilitates access to an expanse of issues which constituted a major part of late nineteenth-century political, social and cultural debate in both Ireland and Britain. Most notably, the dissident alternative aspiration which she voiced to an increasingly monologic Irish nationalism renders a study of her work indispensable to a thorough and meaningful appraisal of that period.
The methodology employed in this study is, through a close textual reading of the four major novels which have a direct bearing on the national project, Hurrish, With Essex in Ireland, Grania and Maelcho, to discover and examine the specific discursive elements operating in each and, widening the analysis, to both contextualize Lawless‟s use of such elements and evaluate their social and political function with reference to current critical interpretations. By such a method, the relevance which Lawless registered in her own period is reflected by a comparable relevance in the current critical attitude to her period‟s literature. Also, only through such a primarily textualist study can the threads which make up each novel‟s subtext be picked up and followed. One such subtext appears in Hurrish by which the natural environment is represented equivocally as both familiar homeland and as a landscape inscribed by an estranging antipathy. By revealing the correspondence of this textual thread to the overt narrative of a fractured community it is possible to explore the close interaction of an ideological position taken by the author to both agrarian violence and Irish national belonging and the personal disquiet regarding her position. Similarly in Grania, the uncovering of Lawless‟s inflection of a Bildungsroman concerning a West of Ireland peasant woman with metropolitan discourses of degeneration and Social Darwinism allows for an in-depth evaluation of the narrative as a critique of essentialist doctrines deployed by Gaelic and Cultural Revivalists in
1890s Ireland which centred on the regenerative ethnic purity of the western native peasant stock. That such a discursive element operates through a comparative and evaluative incompatibility signals the misgivings which Lawless appears to harbour concerning an integrative and accommodating national future.
As in the case of Grania, the method of close reading employed in this thesis will also allow for a positioning of Lawless within a broader British literary current in its capacity to reveal discursive, generic and technical aspects of her writing which correlate with the wider imperial and social literary tradition to which Lawless also addressed herself. This is particularly evident in Maelcho in which Scottish Enlightenment stadial theory and the historical novel form pioneered by Sir Walter Scott will be shown to play a significant role in Lawless‟s conceptualisation of Irish social and historical development. Likewise in With Essex in Ireland the use of the female element in the narrative as a mechanism for managing the social category of competitive male violence will be seen to reflect that employed by the English novel of the same period as outlined by Nancy Armstrong. It will be the intention of this dissertation, therefore, to demonstrate that Lawless‟s engagement with contemporary social issues, whether directly as in Hurrish and Grania or indirectly through her historical fiction in With Essex in Ireland and Maelcho, is motivated by a determination to tease out the co-ordinates of an Irish national consciousness and thus concentrate attention on the knots and wrangles which conceptions of national identity and social formation posed. In doing so she tended to shade much of her representations of Irish issues with traditional Ascendancy political values which inevitably rendered her evaluations and solutions tellingly partisan. Within her fiction, the authorial emphasis is invariably brought down to the level of the individual -- a level to which Lawless consistently reduces the issues with which she grapples. It will be the argument of this dissertation that Lawless‟s use of alienated subjects as protagonists of each of the novels discussed here demonstrates the attempt by her to focus attention on the displacement of a significant tradition in Irish historical and cultural inheritance, a tradition which she viewed as progressively excluded from and dispossessed of meaningful participation in contemporary political and social formations of a modern national identity.
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