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  • Emily Lawless's Maelcho and the Crisis of the Imperial Romance1
  • Patrick Maume (bio)

The novelist Emily Lawless (1852–1913) has attracted increasing attention in recent years, but no comprehensive overview of her achievement has yet been published. Critics focus on the best-selling Land War novel Hurrish (1886), the proto-feminist Grania: The Story of an Island (1892), and With Essex in Ireland (1890), whose first-person narration pastiched Elizabethan prose so effectively that Gladstone reviewed it as a genuine sixteenth-century account. Maelcho (1895), her novel of the seventeenth-century Desmond rebellion, has been neglected, although the young W.B. Yeats thought that while "hardly so artistic as Essex, it shows far higher powers."2 Whereas With Essex in Ireland presented the Elizabethan Conquest from the point of view of the conquerors, Maelcho, portraying the period primarily from the native perspective, represents a sustained attempt at saying the unsayable—at showing the inability of some of the dominant genres of English-language literature to represent the Irish experience of war and conquest. [End Page 245]

Maelcho exposes the national tale, an early nineteenth-century literary form seeking to reconnect with a preconquest bardic tradition, as a childish fantasy that can neither comprehend the experience of conquest nor produce a viable political project. (In this Lawless re-enacts a process of disenchantment displayed by some earlier proponents of the national tale, such as Sydney Owenson and Charles Robert Maturin.) The novel equally undermines—as wilfully overlooking unimaginable horrors—the genre of imperial romance derived from the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott, with its assimilation of the process of conquest and subjugation to the maturation of an adolescent and the advancement of civilization through a stadial model of progress. Not even Shakespeare provides a usable template; Maelcho measures the late Shakespearean romance Cymbeline, with its vision of reconciliation between court and woodsfolk, empire and indigene, against the Desmond Rebellion and finds it wanting. Lawless's bleak portrayal of the Elizabethan Irish wars is shaped by the political conflicts of her own day, as well as by the Darwinian implications of a directionless universe for the Victorian ideal of progress. Most devastatingly perhaps, she writes with the uneasy suspicion that sixteenth- and nineteenth-century sufferings inflicted in the name of empire were exacted by agents superior to those whom they displaced only in their own clear-eyed self-seeking.

An Overshadowed Life

Accounts of Lawless generally emphasize the involvement of her father's family in Irish political history. Her grandfather, Valentine Browne Lawless, second Viscount Cloncurry, was a United Irishman and ambivalent associate of Daniel O'Connell.3 (Less promisingly, the first Lord Cloncurry was a successful blanket merchant whose conversion from Catholicism to the Church of Ireland was probably insincere and whose peerage was a quid pro quo for his assiduous support of the government against the Patriot opposition.4 ) Lawless's [End Page 246] brother Valentine (1840–1928), the fourth and last Viscount Cloncurry, played a prominent and controversial role on the landlord side in the Land War5 before ending his days as a senator of the Irish Free State.6 Although Lawless was not responsible for her family background, it was a matter of contemporary public knowledge and influenced the reception of her own works. In a series of articles detailing the corrupt origins of many Irish peerages in order to question the legitimacy of the Lords' rejection of the Second Home Rule Bill, the Home Rule MP J.G. Swift MacNeill juxtaposes the dubious derivation of the Cloncurry peerage with Lawless's contemptuous reference in Hurrish toFOOTNOTEthe plebeian origins of many Home Rule MPs.7

Lawless's maternal family, the Kirwans of Castle Hackett, Co. Galway, appear to have been more influential than the paternal family in forming her sensibility. After her parents separated and before her father's 1869 suicide, the child lived with her mother in Ireland and Britain and on the continent until the older woman's death.8 Lawless's childhood summers with the Kirwans in northern Connemara, the Aran Islands, and County Clare provided the landscapes and, to some extent, the themes for her best-known fiction...


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