Clíona Ó Gallchoir, review of Emily Lawless, 1845-1913: Writing the Interspace
by Heidi Hansson, in The Irish Times (26 May 2007)

There are some Irish writers who are deemed to have produced interesting or worthwhile writing only in spite of themselves: for most of the previous century, Emily Lawless was very decidedly among them.

In Lawless’s case, it is apparently in spite of her landed, Anglo-Irish background and her unionist beliefs that she produced several novels that deal with Irish historical, cultural and political themes, and a number of poems that for several decades found their way into school anthologies, however incongruously, as examples of stirring patriotic verse. In this she has a lot in common with her predecessor Maria Edgeworth, whose work was for some time read as being valuable or interesting in so far as it escaped the deforming influence of her affiliations to the elite landed class.

In Lawless’s case, history was even more evidently against her than it was against Edgeworth. Her writing coincided with the high point of the Literary Revival, and she knew and corresponded with some of its leading figures, such as Lady Gregory, even spending a weekend at Coole Park with Gregory and W. B. Yeats: this served only to underline the differences between them, however. According to Heidi Hansson, Lawless referred to Yeats privately as a “disloyal”, and Gregory noted in her journal that Lawless and Yeats spent the weekend quarrelling, Lawless taking issue with Yeats’s insistence that a writer’s first duty was to his - or her - art, rather than to practical considerations such as supporting a family or earning a living. Gregory was quick to point to the “British” and “commercial” origins of Lawless’s family to explain her concern with the mundane and material, and thus a picture emerges from this incident of a woman and a writer who was both ambivalently Irish and out of step with the dominant artistic and cultural movement of the time.

As Hansson notes, “as an Anglo-Irish woman writer who combined nationalist feelings with unionist sympathies Lawless was an unsuitable subject for canonisation in the new Irish state”. As a consequence, only one of her many novels is currently in print, and Hansson’s book is the first to attempt a comprehensive discussion of Lawless’s literary achievements. Hansson makes a thorough and by and large convincing case for a reassessment of Lawless, focusing on the hitherto ignored or misunderstood issue of gender in Lawless’s writing. Hansson does not deny the ambiguity that exists in Lawless’s writing towards the idea of an Irish nation-state, instead aiming towards “an interpretative model that acknowledges complexity and avoids the constrictions of traditional political interpretations”.

The inspiration for this approach comes from Lawless’s own concept of “interspace”, a word she coined to describe the unique landscape of north Clare, where land, sea and sky meet. According to Hansson, Lawless’s love of and close attention to this landscape and her description of it as something that is both/and as well as neither/nor provides a key to her writing, frequently characterised by a doubled perspective, and throws light on her position, not only as an Anglo-Irish patriot who upheld the Union, but also as a woman writer within the patriarchal literary culture of the 19th century.

In addition to these theoretical (but highly readable and thought-provoking) reflections, Hansson provides an essential and scholarly introduction to the entire range of Lawless’s writing, beginning with her early novels, set in England and clearly influenced by the New Woman fiction of the period. This chapter reveals some of the contexts that can be recovered in order to read Irish women’s writing and, in Lawless’s case, that would enable us to relate it to the work of other writers, such as George Egerton, Sarah Grand and Katherine Cecil Thurston.

Other chapters deal with Lawless’s west of Ireland novels, Hurrish and Grania, her historical novels, Maelcho and With Essex in Ireland, and her work in history and biography - where she addressed the work of her predecessor Edgeworth as part of a series, rather ironically entitled “English Men of Letters”. The final chapter deals with Lawless’s poetry, which forms the smallest part of her output, but on which, thanks to those school anthologies, whatever reputation she enjoyed in post-Independence Ireland rested. Though highly conventional in form, poems such as “After Aughrim”, “Fontenoy, 1745” and “Dirge of the Munster Forest, 1581” still retain a good deal of power.

Hansson’s aim of being inclusive and comprehensive means - inevitably - that the discussions of individual texts are rather brief, which seems a pity when the discussion is focused on her most interesting work, such as her accomplished and fascinating novel Grania (1892), a work that resonates surprisingly strongly with contemporary readers. This novel, set on Inis Meáin (which Lawless visited some years before Synge) expresses most vividly the writer’s complex sense of identification with the beautiful and harsh landscape of the west of Ireland. The eponymous heroine, an Irish-speaking native of the island, is a strong but ultimately doomed figure who is both emphatically of the place (the novel’s subtitle is “The Story of an Island”), but also somehow unassimilable within the island’s community. As such, it gives powerful expression to Lawless’s own both/and, neither/nor position. According to Hansson, all of Lawless’s work can at some level be read in the context of her “need to envision an Irish and a female identity that allows difference”. This book performs a very valuable service in giving readers access to Emily Lawless and her considerable body of work, and one would hope that she will have considerably more readers in the 21st century than she had in the 20th.

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