Literature: Anglo-Irish Literature in the Nineteenth Century
Anglo-Irish Literature in the Nineteenth Century
There are many possible definitions for the term Anglo-Irish literature. The designation can categorize works based on something as simple as the language of the work or more complicated notions such as the racial, religious, or class background of the author. The focus here is Irish writing in the nineteenth century that was composed in English by Protestant authors representing the interests of the landowning class primarily for audiences in England. Understanding Anglo-Irish writers and their work along these lines is intended to guide an initial inquiry, not to exclude anomalies, questions, and contradictions. Although the literature incorporates a wide range of themes, the tradition centrally comes to terms with the dynamic role of the landowning Protestant minority in a largely poor and Catholic country. Anglo-Irish literary works are intimately involved with three key periods of political tension and change in the century: the Act of Union of 1800, the Great Famine of 1845–1851, and the land question of 1870–1903.
Maria Edgeworth (1767–1849) was among the first authors to examine the cultural effects of the Act of Union. Beginning with the novel Castle Rackrent (1800), she described the anxiety of the Anglo-Irish in the United Kingdom. Since they were no longer solely the unchallenged ruling ascendancy of the island, Edgeworth was concerned with establishing an identity separate from the cultural and political challenges of the English and managing the threat of Catholic Emancipation. In her later novels Ennui (1809), The Absentee (1812), and Ormond (1817), she laid further groundwork for two dominant elements of this struggle for identity within Anglo-Irish literature: family secrets and the Big House.
Sidney Owenson, Lady Morgan (1776?–1859), offers a romantic sensibility in her work that contrasts with Edgeworth's reform-minded anxieties about the Irish ruling class under the union. In novels such as The Wild Irish Girl (1806) she reconciles the uncertainty of the union by uniting Protestant and Catholic characters in both national and social matrimony. Her work also recognizes the challenge of representing Ireland fairly both to Irish readers and to a larger, less-informed, and more metropolitan English readership.
Standing out as a kind of irregularity among Anglo-Irish writers, William Carleton (1794–1869) grew up among Catholic farmers in County Tyrone and converted to Protestantism after an abortive attempt to join the priesthood. The literary successes of his fiction, notably "Wildgoose Lodge" in Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (1830) and Valentine M'Clutchy (1845), depend in part on his ability to critique the extremes of both his native Catholic and adopted Protestant cultures. His novels such as The Black Prophet (1847), Emigrants of Ahadarra (1848), and The Tithe Proctor (1849) portray the tragedy of famine among the Catholic peasantry for Anglo-Irish and English readers.
As both a political and human catastrophe, the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849 splits Anglo-Irish literature in two directions. One strain confronts the failure of the English government to deal with widespread starvation and emigration by moving toward cultural nationalism, while another remains entrenched in preserving the waning political capital of the ruling class. Many Anglo-Irish nationalists wrote for the Nation, a newspaper committed to Irish self-determination and run by both Catholics and Protestants. Important Nation contributors include Thomas Davis (1814–1845), the paper's founder and author of the poem "A Nation Once Again"; John Mitchel (1815–1875), whose radical critique of the British empire led to his conviction and transportation to Van Diemen's Land, detailed in his Jail Journal, or Five Years in British Prisons (1854); and "Speranza" (1826–1896), the pen name of Jane Elgee, later known as Lady Wilde and the mother of Oscar, who inveighed against starvation and poverty in poems such as "To Ireland," "The Voice of the Poor," and "The Famine Year" and was among the nationalist women poets and critics writing for the Nation.
Although it existed well before the Great Famine, the Anglo-Irish Gothic is the representative genre of the class whose members did not become invested in one form or another of nationalism. Anglo-Irish Gothic works match Edgeworth's focus on Big Houses, locked rooms, and family secrets with a mounting anxiety about the decline of Protestant Ascendancy rule and the expanding power of the Catholic majority. Charles Maturin (1780–1824) explored the power of the fantastic to uncover the darkest secrets of the ruling class in the novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). J. Sheridan Le Fanu (1814–1873) approached this anxiety psychologically, describing different states of consciousness during intense emotional situations in novels such as Uncle Silas (1864) and in short stories like "Carmilla" and "Green Tea," collected in In a Glass Darkly (1872). At the end of the century Bram Stoker (1847–1911) blended Irish and eastern European folklore with Anglo-Irish Gothic disquiet in Dracula (1897), in which the aristocratic title character is both connected to and divorced from his home soil in a manner that suggests the land question.
Although Charles Lever (1806–1872) was extremely popular in England throughout his career (rivaling even Charles Dickens in the 1840s), his novels focus almost exclusively on representing Ireland and the Irish to England. His works failed, however, to engage fully with the political anxieties of the Anglo-Irish, and he often cast the Irish peasantry in an unflattering, comic light in novels such as Harry Lorrequer (1839). Outraged nationalist criticism for his stereotypes and accusations of plagiarism were almost certainly contributing factors in his decision to live abroad in Europe after 1845.
Edith Somerville (1858–1949) and Martin Ross (the pseudonym of Violet Martin, 1862–1915) began their careers with cheerful yarns about hunting and country life such as Some Experiences of an Irish RM (1899). These stories employ stereotypical "stage Irish" representations of the peasantry reminiscent of Lever's novels. However, they describe the twilight of Anglo-Irish rule as a consequence of both its own excesses and increasing Catholic political power in their more serious novels The Real Charlotte (1894) and The Big House at Inver (1925). The destruction of the Big House in the latter novel provides a grim punctuation mark for the anxieties of Edgeworth, the hopes of Owenson, and the fears and secrets of the Gothic writers.
The collapse of the Big House did not mark the end of Anglo-Irish literature, however. By incorporating European ideas of aesthetics and bohemian society into their work, writers such as George Moore (1852–1933), Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), and W. B. Yeats (1865–1939) were able to transform the anxieties of Anglo-Irish literature into a confident cultural nationalism. Moore explored a variety of unconventional social and aesthetic innovations in his feminist novels A Drama in Muslin (1886) and Esther Waters (1894). Oscar Wilde trained his critical eye on the audience itself in plays such as An Ideal Husband (1895) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), thus reversing the traditional relationship between the Irish writer and the English reader. Yeats searched for a new form of literary expression by combining rereadings of heroic legends and mythology with a close examination of Irish folk culture and oral traditions in Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888). Yeats's blending of Anglo-Irish literary sensibilities with folk culture, mythology, and French aesthetics took shape in his play The Countess Cathleen (1892) and continued in the works of numerous writers during the Irish Literary Renaissance.
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Sean T. O'Brien