New Hibernia Review 8.1 (2004) 93-106
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The Mastering of Selfhood in Kathleen Ferguson's The Maid's Tale
Kathleen Bernadette Ferguson was born in Tamnaherin, County Derry, in 1958. She earned a doctorate in English literature with a dissertation on narrative voice in Dickens at the University of Ulster, where she subsequently taught. Regrettably, The Maid's Tale (1994) has evoked little critical response other than an approbative entry in the Dictionary of Irish Literature, which praises Ferguson's novel for avoiding "the usual stereotyping of the clergy one finds in many Irish novels."1 Our own consideration of her work can best begin with some relevant taxonomy, in order to view her fiction in the wider context of the contemporary Irish novel, both Catholic and Protestant. A preliminary paradigm of classification is suggested by James Cahalan's reference to "the divergent fictional models established by earlier Irish realists and fabulists—or by the early naturalistic Joyce and the later fantastist Joyce."2 According to Cahalan, these two alternatives, realism and fabulism, have been "the most fruitful one[s] available to contemporary Irish novelists."3 The Maid's Tale is planted firmly in the realist camp. But the very broad category of realist Irish fiction contains many subcompartments whose brief consideration will clarify the place of Ferguson's novel in contemporary Irish literary tradition.
The first of these subcompartments concerns the bildungsroman, or developmental novel, defined by Cahalan as "describing its protagonist's coming of age."4 According to Cahalan, "Joyce's Portrait does remain the quintessential bildungsroman as well as Künstlerroman (artist-novel)."5 Leading Ulster novelists excelling in this type of fiction include Benedict Kiely, in whose Dogs Enjoy the Morning (1968) Peter Lane experiences a sexual initiation in the course of growing up; Brian Moore, in whose The Temptation of Eileen Hughes (1981) the [End Page 93] eponymous protagonist escapes her amorous employer and eventually finds another job; and Anthony C. West, whose The Ferret Fancier (1963) explores the awareness of its young male Protestant protagonist, who is prone to sexual fantasies. Two leading novelists from Ireland who also emphasize the bildungsroman, can be briefly cited. John McGahern's second novel, The Dark (1965), features a young, rural protagonist who eventually seeks employment in the civil service in Dublin after first overcoming attraction to the priesthood and later dropping out of University College, Dublin. In his posthumously published novel, Thy Tears Might Cease (1963), Michael Farrell depicts Martin Matthew Reilly's development from boyhood, between 1910-20, with particular emphasis on the 1916 Easter Rising.
Female Irish novelists have also often turned to the bildungsroman. Two examples from Catholic Ireland are The Country Girls (1960) by Edna O'Brien, which tracks the experiences of Caithleen Brady and her friend, Baba Brennan, from the early 1940s to the end of the 1950s in their peregrinations from home to boarding school, to work in Dublin; and Holy Pictures (1983) by Clare Boylan, which explores the bleak lives of two impoverished sisters in the 1920s. Examples from Northern Ireland include The Maiden Dinosaur (1964) by Janet McNeill, which follows the progress of a woman subjected to paternal sexual abuse and subsequent stressful relationships with men; and The Captains and the Kings (1972) by Jennifer Johnston, which treats the failed attempt of a widower to succor a working-class Catholic boy who is eventually forced by his parents to go away to school, leaving his grieved guardian to die. As Jennifer Jeffers has shown, a recent offshoot of the Irish bildungsroman, pursued by both male and female writers, concerns homosexual initiation—a motif through which "the 1990's 'coming-of-age' novel also becomes the 'coming-out' novel."6 Relevant examples include When Love Comes To Town (1993) by Tom Lennon and Stir-fry (1994) by Emma Donoghue.
The category of female Irish novelist foregrounds issues that constitute subcompartments of the Irish novel relevant to The Maid's Tale. These are clarified by Janet Dunleavy and Rachael...