- Irish Autobiographical Fiction and Hannah Lynch's Autobiography of a Child
In 1933, a reader of the bibliographical journal the Irish Book Lover wrote to request information on an intriguing Dublin author of the previous generation, Hannah Lynch: "Has any biographical notice of this popular authoress ever been published? Besides several novels she wrote French Life in Town and Country, and was a well-known contributor to magazines about forty years ago."1 This reader knew more than most but still gave little sense of the range of Lynch's achievements. Not only a novelist, Lynch was a translator, literary critic, columnist, author of short fiction, and travel literature. Her life was exciting, peripatetic, and brief, most of it spent travelling between London, Dublin, and the Continent before finally settling in Paris, where she died aged forty-four in January 1904. A few months later, the Irish Book Lover published its response. Much of this was gleaned from a copy of the Dublin Evening Herald (September 1918), the author of which confirmed that "Hannah Lynch is little spoken of in her own country to-day."2
Had they found a copy of the 1904 obituary tribute to Lynch published by her friend Frances H. Low, readers would have discovered that this critical neglect had started much earlier.3 For Low, Lynch's lack of profile was emphatically not the result of lack of talent. Rather, it was the consequence of her satirical and pugnacious style, which had made "cruel enemies" among Ireland's "literary gods."4 Yeats had been one of the targets of this satire in an article published in 1888, when Lynch pilloried him as "Augustus Fitzgibbon" a rather ridiculous young man idolised by his circle of acolytes.5 During her career Lynch also attacked Decadent authors—including her compatriots Wilde and George Egerton—oafish "Saxons," anti-Dreyfusards, misogynists, the army, and the Catholic Church. Born and raised a Catholic, Lynch frequently [End Page 195] criticised what she viewed as the deeply oppressive elements of this institution, with the energy of an aggrieved insider. In the non-fictional French Life in Town and Country, she aligned herself with noted Catholic rebel Victor Charbonnel—a move that didn't prevent one reviewer in the Catholic World from claiming that such a hostile account could only be the work of an English woman, probably a Protestant.6 The provocative quality of Lynch's writing was even remembered by the author of the Evening Herald article, who noted the "flutter" generated by a "volume of unconventional gossip about her early years in Dublin."7
The only book that fits this description is Autobiography of a Child, the main subject of this article. Lynch's unpublished correspondence with her Parisian friend Cécile Vincens8 gives a taste of just how contentious this book was when first published:
Dear Madame Vincens,
I send you a copy of the "Autobiography of a Child" which threatens to make a terrible scandal. Rome is at my heels, bishops are barking and threatening me with actions and who knows what. I hear I am to be dreadfully hounded [?] in the Catholic and High Church papers. I await my doom in fear and trembling.
I should like to hear what you think of the book.9
Lynch's dramatic account of the reception of Autobiography of a Child was not exaggerated. The book generated considerable critical comment in the mainstream press in England, France, America, and Ireland as well as in the ecclesiastical papers. It was Lynch's seventh full-length work, initially published as a serial in Blackwood's Magazine, almost simultaneously with Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.10 Its powerful first-person narrative follows the story of a young Irish girl from her earliest memory to around twelve years of age, tracing the shaping of "the Dublin Angela" into "the English Angela" and ultimately Angela of Lysterby, "the Irish rebel."11 This tale is told from the perspective of her older self, now "a hopeless wanderer"12 with youth and optimism behind her.
The narrative opens with a startling sketch of Angela's mother, "a handsome, cold-eyed woman...