- “Colleen Modernism”: Modernism’s Afterlife in Irish Women’s Writing
Scholars interested in studying twentieth-century Irish women’s writing can make use of a rich body of single author monographs, intellectual biographies, and insightful critical articles as well as the wealth of material provided in volumes 4 and 5 of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. A number of these studies address the biographical links between twentieth-century Irish women writers and influential modernists, informing readers, for instance, that Maud Gonne encountered the Futurist Valentine de St. Point in Paris, or that Mary Colum hobnobbed with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O’Neill, and Elinor Wylie in America. But few address in any sustained way how these writers engaged with modernist imperatives. In recent years, Elizabeth Bowen has been situated convincingly among the pantheon of modernists.1 However, with a few notable exceptions, experimental Irish women writers like Brigid [End Page 94] Brophy, Mary Manning, Blanaid Salkeld, and Sheila Wingfield are regularly ignored in accounts of modernism, whereas others whose work might be claimed for this movement still hover outside its margins.2 Kate O’Brien, for example, is generally read as a realist, Dorothy Macardle charged with conformist historiography, and Mary Colum merely mined for anecdotes about Joyce.
Literary scholarship, in other words, has been reluctant to explore the significant contributions Irish women writers have made to modernism. However, a surprising number of these authors—including the three examined in this essay, Elizabeth Bowen, Brigid Brophy, and Mary Manning—helped to fashion and promote high modernism’s formal and thematic innovations. The rubric of “Colleen Modernism,” a term I have coined to describe the profound and intricate relationship of Irish women writers to international modernism, can help us locate and understand the intentions, production, and reception of twentieth-century Irish women writers whose work has been excluded from discussion or admitted only on certain terms. A vulgarization of the Irish cailín, “colleen” is the widely disseminated English popularization of the Irish word for “girl.” A translation plagued by trivializing connotations, “colleen” points to the problematic “translation” of Irish women writers and their work into modernist literary culture. The oxymoronic phrase Colleen Modernism implies that the popular stereotyping of Irish women as a unique national type cosseted from modernity has obscured our recognition of these writers’ innovations.
A deliberately capacious term, Colleen Modernism invites us to examine the socio-linguistic complexities unique to the cultural production [End Page 95] of Irish women writers who engaged with modernist forms, themes, and tactics. In encouraging the recuperation and examination of these women’s work, the term also promises an analytical framework with which to appreciate the complexity of Irish modernism and with which to address thorny questions plaguing modernist studies more generally. For instance, Elizabeth Bowen’s most aggressively experimental novel, Eva Trout or Changing Scenes, appeared in 1968; Brigid Brophy’s linguistically innovative In Transit: An Heroi-Cyclic Novel, in 1969; and Mary Manning’s satirical The Last Chronicles of Ballyfungus, in 1978, although portions of it appeared in The Atlantic Monthly beginning in 1974. Steeped in characteristics we identify with high modernism, these novels call into question the accepted temporal boundaries of that movement, which are identified anywhere on a conservative spectrum running roughly from 1890 to the beginning of World War II. Published in the late twentieth century, these three works manifest formal and thematic characteristics of high modernism well past that movement’s “sell by” date.
The late invocation of high modernism in the novels might be productively explained by Irish political and cultural conditions. The response of Irish women to modernism was complicated in part by the retrograde gender politics of the state and the Catholic Church as well as by the resistance toward modernity encouraged by Irish nationalism. An oppositional stance toward a dominant culture is one of the hallmarks of modernism. But in a culture seeking to establish first its independence and then its authority, such a stance was vexed—particularly for those subject to state practices evincing discomfort, if not outright hostility, toward professional women in the public sphere. However, Eva Trout, In Transit, and The Last Chronicles of...