An explosion in respected, innovative and sought-after writing from Irish women authors begs the question "What has sparked this surge of creativity and a renewed interest in Ireland's women writers?" Dr Whitney Standlee, a Senior Lecturer on our undergraduate English Literature BA (Hons) investigates this literary movement.
A New Trend in Publishing: The Growth of Irish Women's Writing
In March of this year, an article by Tara McEvoy published in Vogue magazine focused on an apparently sudden and unprecedented onslaught of ground-breaking, prizewinning and otherwise exceptional books written by Irish women. ‘Rarely has there been such an intense spotlight on Irish writing―and Irish women’s writing, in particular―as there is today,’ McEvoy writes in her article ‘How A New Wave Of Irish Women Writers Are Making Their Mark’, ‘Sally Rooney’s zeitgeist-riding Conversations with Friends garnered near universal acclaim in 2017… [and] last year also marked the first time the Man Booker Prize was awarded to a Northern Irish author: Anna Burns, for her dizzying and beguiling novel Milkman’. Adding to this more recent work such as Emilie Pine’s exceptionally frank and intimate memoir Notes to Self, published in July of last year, and references to slightly earlier novels by established Irish literary ‘heavyweights’ such as Eimear MacBride and Lisa McInerney, McEvoy compiles a persuasive argument that Irish women are not only an emerging literary force, but are perhaps the literary force to be reckoned with at the moment.
What the Study of Literature Can Teach Us
The appearance of a cultural trend such as this is rarely coincidental, and among the most important things that the study of English Literature and other humanities subjects can provide to students is a unique insight into how and why these types of literary affinities arise.
Familiarising ourselves with the current political climate, we might for instance see these women’s texts as responses to or expressions of a recent period of particular political upheaval in Ireland, ranging from the effects of the post-Celtic Tiger economic downturn to the debates on the Irish Constitution’s longstanding eighth amendment, which had until the historic vote that led to its repeal in September of 2018 outlawed abortion on almost all grounds.
Women and Pre-Suffrage Politics
Looking back, it would be logical to assume that, prior to the granting of suffrage to (some) females in the United Kingdom in 1918, women had little to no influence on political matters. Granted, women’s lives during and before the nineteenth century were marked by isolation: women of all classes tended to spend most of their lives confined to interior spaces and as outsiders to public life and affairs, and uneducated or under-educated females were not only the norm but also effectively the rule. This lends the sense that women had little opportunity to influence government policies and practices, and therefore remained politically powerless.
But to suggest as much is to underestimate the potential and agency of politically-engaged women to creatively manipulate the same system that officially excluded them. Indeed, there was a portion of the public sphere in which middle and upper class women, in particular, were gaining increasing exposure throughout the nineteenth century: publishing. As Bessie Parkes noted in her 1865 Essays on Women’s Work, the popular press was then affording women legitimate access to power: ‘With the growth of the press has grown the direct influence of educated women on the world’s affairs,’ Parkes wrote, ‘Mute in the Senate and in the church, their opinions have found a voice in sheets of ten thousand readers.’[i]
An Earlier Trend in Publishing: The Proliferation of Irish Women Writers ca. 1880-1918
Remarking on the power of the novel to inform and persuade readers on issues of Irish national importance in 1920, Stephen J. Brown wrote in ‘Novels of the National Idea’, ‘I think it is pretty generally recognised to-day that one of the most effective, if not quite the most effective, vehicles for conveying ideas to the general public is the novel. Few, at all events, will deny that it may be a most powerful means of propaganda.’[i] My own research focuses on this idea, looking into how Irish women, despite being denied the vote, were able to write and publish novels that attempted to influence public opinion on issues such as Ireland’s independence from the United Kingdom and women’s rights.
As with Irish women authors now, in the period between 1880 and 1918, Irish women novelists were plentiful and gained high profiles: Sir William Roberston Nicoll, the editor of The Bookman, remarked in 1894 that the author M. E. Francis was, ‘like so many younger writers of to-day, Irish’; in 1903, the Tatler magazine referred to Katherine Cecil Thurston as ‘one of the numerous young Irishwomen who have made a name for themselves in the literary world.’ Though you probably have not heard of them, Irish women such as Francis, Thurston and their compatriots Katharine Tynan, Emily Lawless and L. T. Meade were highly popular novelists in the run-up to the granting of suffrage to women (1918) and the establishment of the Irish Free State (1922), and all of them used their novels to attempt to influence readers’ opinions about one or both of these issues.
Looking Back; Looking Forward
We can learn to use our study of literary texts of the past to recognise important trends in popular culture in the present and even to predict them in the future. We might consider, for instance, a group of very recent books and films in which the theme of women exacting revenge on abusive men is prominent. If we had been clear-eyed enough in the middle of 2017, for instance, we might have spotted this trend in popular novels and films like Gone Girl (2012/2014), The Girl on the Train (2015/2016), the 2017 Sofia Coppola remake of The Beguiled and TV series Big Little Lies (2014/2017)
Through reflections of our own historic moment, could we have foreseen the sweeping changes that the #MeToo movement of October 2017 brought to the film and television industries? I think so. Had he studied the humanities, Harvey Weinstein might have seen it coming.
 Quoted in Showalter, Elaine (1978) A Literature of Their Own, London: Virago, p. 155.
 Stephen J. Brown, ‘Novels of the National Idea’, Irish Monthly 48/563 (May 1920), p. 254
Dr Whitney Standlee is a Senior Lecturer on our English Literature BA (Hons) course. She is the author of Power to Observe: Irish Women Novelists in Britain 1890-1916 (2015), and co-editor of Irish Women’s Writing 1878-1922: Advancing the Cause of Liberty (2018). She is currently co-editing a volume of essays on the Irish New Woman author George Egerton.