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Irish Novelists and the Victorian Age by James H. Murphy (review)
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Fiction by Irish men and women in the nineteenth century has recently proved a happy hunting ground for critics who seek to read Irish literature as a colonial phenomenon, as a body of literature that exhibits in its subject matter and forms the impact of an alien, imposed mode of governance upon an indigenous culture. In criticism of individual authors and in literary and cultural history a consensus has in fact developed in which the inchoate shape of many Irish novels of the period, and the lack of an achieved realism in many texts, are not to be attributed to authorial inadequacy but to the near impossibilty of representing the fractured, contested nature of Irish colonial reality in such an essentially bourgeois form as the English Victorian novel. Where Irish fictional traditions seem to emerge from the colonial disorder, as for example in the national tale or in gothic imagining, these are read as narratives that inscribe the colonial predicament of key social groupings: the emerging Catholic middle class before and after Catholic Emancipation in 1829, for example. What is often addressed as gothic fiction, by authors including Charles Robert Maturin, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, and Bram Stoker, is seen, in its tales of dynastic anxieties, hauntings, and fears of social pollution, to express the political unconsious of a Protestant ascendancy caste that in such writing was unwittingly anticipating its own demise. And the absence of nineteenth-century realism, according to the colonial/postcolonial paradigm, can be celebrated as proto-experimental writing that has its apotheosis in the work of James Joyce. As James H. Murphy puts it here, “the colonial periphery had been transformed into the modernist centre” (3). It is a measure of Murphy’s independence of mind that while he by no means dismisses such thinking out of hand, he is prepared to offer a series of contextual studies of different kinds of nineteenth-century Irish novels and novelists that complicates the generally received picture in fascinating ways. Murphy wittily suggests that he knows his work has its quietly iconoclastic aspects when he observes: “The question of the existence of an Irish Middlemarch has . . . often been raised by critics who would not be best pleased to find one” (4).

If Murphy doesn’t find us an Irish Middlemarch in his extensive trawling of novels by Irish writers of the period (he deals with 370 novels by 150 authors), he does supply a thoughtful taxonomy of literary kinds adopted by Irish writers in the Victorian age. We are introduced to the ways in which his writers employed the fashionable novel, the military novel with its characteristic “rollicking” (38), the novel of sensation, the political novel, religious and historical fiction, and the Land War novel. Excellent chapters analyse the ways in which Irish writers dealt with the New Woman and with what he terms the “Vortex of the Genres” at the fin de siècle. As the century ended, fiction in Britain had become markedly variegated as such things as science fiction, the imperial romance, the gothic, and the naturalist mode became, as it were, items for niche markets. Murphy shows the ways in which Irish novelists contributed to this process and to what he terms “the splintering of fiction in Ireland” (288). A final chapter provides a series of snapshots of literary lives that reveal that many Irish novelists of the period were dependent on the financial support of the Royal Literary Fund or on the British civil list. For many of them fiction simply did not pay.

What this book convincingly and very usefully demonstrates is that Irish writers of various kinds of novels contributed significantly to the broad field of English Victorian fiction and that the authors themselves were involved in British literary life to a considerable degree. The frequent reviews of their work in the Athenaeum, which Murphy frequently cites, is clear proof that the English public was willing critically to consider fiction by authors from the sister kingdom, thereby enfolding their work in the extensive category of Victorian letters.

At the individual level this was not always a comfortable embrace. Murphy shows, for example, how the authority William Carleton achieved through his Traits and...

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