- Irish Novels, 1890-1940: New Bearings in Culture and Fiction
John Wilson Foster has long been one of the most astute critics of the Irish novel. Beginning with his 1974 study, Forces and Themes in Ulster Fiction, and continuing through his 1987 study, Fictions of the Irish Literary Revival, his essay collection Colonial Consequences (1991), and his recent edited collection, The Cambridge Companion to the Irish Novel (2006), Foster has consistently attended to the historical, cultural, and religious context of the novel in Ireland. Irish Novels, 1890-1940: New Bearings in Culture and Fiction, however, may turn out to be his most lasting contribution to criticism of this genre. In a series of dazzling chapters primarily dealing with the period 1890-1922, Foster offers provocative and convincing readings of major writers such as Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker, but he primarily deals with popular writers—those who do not fit the narrative that was promulgated by the Literary Revivalists and many later commentators—in the process also recovering a whole host of neglected authors, particularly women.
In his introduction and throughout this study, Foster takes pains to emphasize the great variety of fiction by Irish writers that has been ignored by critics, primarily because such writings were set outside of Ireland or were set in urban milieus (Joyce is the great exception to this latter bias, as he notes), dealt with overtly religious issues, portrayed middle- to upper-class milieus, or were written by expatriates or women. By offering a study that complements his 1987 account of the Irish literary revival in fiction, Foster's study offers a different narrative about Irish fiction of this period than the commonplace one—that the Irish novelistic tradition is a ruptured one—and indeed, shows that a host of subgenres persisted from the Victorian era through the beginning of World War II. He also refreshingly suggests (and often proves through his analysis of the novels of this period) that the Irish exceptionalism that so many of the Revivalists and later commentators have asserted about both Irish literature and culture is heavily qualified by the cultural commerce with Britain that such neglected and popular writers have long portrayed. Foster's own cultural upbringing as a Protestant in urban Belfast undoubtedly contributes to such a desire to reconfigure what has long been a largely nationalist construction of fiction from this period, but so does his insistence on scrupulous scholarship and an admirable objectivity that extends into and may stem from his own interest in science and nature. (He is the head editor of the voluminous and illuminating Nature in Ireland: A Scientific and Cultural History , and he contributed several long, illuminating essays on the topic to that volume). As he notes in the introduction, because so many of the novels he discusses are out of print, he has perforce included plot summaries in his analyses, and these incisive, deft summaries are themselves reason to read this study.
It is simply impossible in the limited space of a review to do justice to the great range of writers whose work Foster so thoughtfully explores, so I will single out three chapters in particular, "A New Theology: Protestantism and the Irish Novel," "Bad Blood: Sectarianism in the Irish Novel," "Dracula and Detection: Among Genres II." In the first part of "A New Theology," Foster surveys several novels—James Douglas's The Unpardonable Sin (1907), L. T. Meade's A Princess of the Gutter (1896), May Crommelin's A Woman-Derelict (1901), F. E. Crichton's The Soundless Tide (1911), Eleanor Alexander's The Rambling Rector (1904), W. M. Letts's The Rough Way (1912), and Ella MacMahon's A Pitiless Passion (1895)—in the context of the conflict between Ritualism and Evangelicalism within Anglican Protestantism in Victorian and Edwardian Ireland. Later sections of this chapter treat the female novelist E. Rentoul [End Page 116] Esler's portrait of a crumbling, dogmatic Presbyterianism in A Maid of the Manse (1895); Deborah Alcock's more confident depiction of Anglican Evangelicalism in...