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  • Impressionism, Naturalism, Symbolism:Trajectories of Anglo-Irish Fiction at the Fin de Siècle

As Ann Ardis and Lesley Higgins have argued, versions of modernism that have traditionally privileged the so-called men of 1914 or the canonical texts of 1922’s annus mirabilis implicitly reproduce a prohibition against speaking about the 1890s in anything other than derogatory terms.1 The dynamic has been gendered in crucial ways: male modernists’ phobic disassociation from key figures of the period such as Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater has been well documented, while feminist projects, including Cassandra Laity’s H. D. and the Victorian Fin de Siácle, have suggested ways of recharting women’s writing that explicitly reject the silence surrounding 1890s aesthetics.2 If more work is still to be done in this area, I want to suggest that we need at the same time to expand our understanding of the fin de siácle beyond the clichéd images of Wildean world-weary decadence in order to situate such images amid striking artistic and political crosscurrents. As a starting point for such a project, I propose thinking again about how Ireland figures in our imagining of modernism’s history.

Through representatives like Yeats, Joyce, and Beckett, Irish writing has typically taken a central position in that history, providing emblematic figures for both cultural-nationalist and cosmopolitan strands of modernist identity. Ireland’s own fin de siácle, however, remains understudied, except for Wilde and the “Celtic Twilight” writings of Yeats’s early period. The Irish 1890s was bookended by the fall of nationalist leader Charles Stuart Parnell (disgraced in 1890 and dead a year later) and the emergence of the Irish Literary Theatre at decade’s end, [End Page 787] and it is thus easily dismissed as a period of transition between phases of nationalist political expression. And yet one of the earliest assessments of the decade, Holbrook Jackson’s 1913 study The Eighteen Nineties, placed Ireland squarely at the center of its account, with pivotal chapters devoted to George Bernard Shaw and “The Discovery of the Celt,” as well as to Wilde. If Yeats and the Irish literary revival still take pride of place here, as they would in later studies such as Austin Clarke’s The Celtic Twilight and the Nineties (1969), there is at least the sense that a closer study of Ireland’s own fin de siácle might help to displace the Anglo-French bias in 1890s scholarship and to encourage thinking of literary history in ways that cross the century divide instead of in ways that lead to the erecting of high walls to separate modernists from their Victorian predecessors.3 In such a spirit, I propose to examine Irish writing from the 1890s anew here, focusing on two literary movements—naturalism and “New Woman” fiction—that have only recently begun to interest Irish scholars. To the extent that the work of important period figures like George Moore or George Egerton (Mary Chevelita Dunne Bright) is featured in a study like Jackson’s, it is not represented as indicative of significant currents in Irish writing in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and it is only through recent scholarship by critics such as Tina O’Toole and Joe Cleary that we are now able to recenter their work in our understanding of the Irish 1890s.

As O’Toole has convincingly argued, feminist and Irish studies scholarship alike have tended to overlook the Irish ancestry of a number of central New Woman writers, including “Iota” (Kathleen Mannington Caffyn) and Sarah Grand, in addition to Egerton.4 Along parallel lines, Cleary proposes that the study of Irish fiction in the nineteenth century and beyond had tended to fixate on the question of realism, to the extent that naturalism has been “ignored or even, in extreme cases, dismissed as more or less alien aesthetics, the argument being that the most successful Irish writing has always been anti-empiricist, anti-realist and hence fantastic and protomodernist or modernist in temper.”5 Placing these discrete interventions in dialogue allows us to construct a very different view of Ireland at the turn of the century from...


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