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  • Competing Claims of Family and Nation: Introducing The Troubled House
  • Karen Steele

This issue’s “Radharc ar gGul-The Backward Glance” feature highlights the little-known and remarkable The Troubled House: A Novel of Dublin in the ’Twenties (1938) by Rosamond Jacob. For students and scholars of Ireland’s revolutionary years, The Troubled House provides a bracing perspective on the competing claims of family and nation, two institutions that—by Eamon de Valéra’s reckoning—worked in concert to establish Ireland’s independence. Not simply a novel about the nationalist struggle written by a woman, The Troubled House represents distinctly different female (and male) responses to war. These range from a mother who cannot be confused with Mother Ireland, to a New Woman painter who plays with men but lives for her art, to a pacifist republican who eschews violence but temporarily enlists with the IRA. Influenced by Freudian theories about the family, Jacob explores such complicated familial dynamics as sibling love and rivalry, surrogate mothers and daughters, and Oedipal sons competing with their father. Dynamically plotted, the novel vividly captures significant events during the Anglo-Irish War to engage with competing views about the legitimacy of violence to achieve a political end. It even anticipates a new current in literary criticism, Animal Studies, as Jacob’s novel is filled with evocative and telling scenes of humans and their beloved cats and dogs. The Troubled House is thus equally provocative and enticing for analysts schooled in psychoanalytical, new historicist, and Animal Studies approaches to literature.

For feminist critics, The Troubled House allows readers to probe a number of important themes still underappreciated and understudied by present-day Irish [End Page 58] Studies scholars. Though a novel about the nationalist struggle, it highlights how a changing nation must necessarily contemplate shifting gender roles for both men and women. One minor but unforgettable character, the aptly named Narcissa Ogilvie, or “Nix,” links revolutions in politics with revolutions in art. A New Woman and an artist, Nix pursues men as assiduously as she pursues modernist aesthetics. As she explains, “I’m only an artist who has the advantage of working in a new field” (TH 122).1 Readers soon discover, however, that Nix is describing not merely the “Cubist tendencies” of her painting (TH 121), but also the feminist project of “reversing the gaze” to enjoy and represent masculine beauty: “Practically never will you see a man’s portrait that looks as if it was done for the love of any kind of beauty. . . . When I paint a man, I paint him to show the various kinds of charms I see in him . . . and for nothing else” (TH 123). Nix admits to “a certain modernness of manner.”2 But as Gerardine Meaney remarks, her behavior toward both men and art is undoubtedly “transgressive looking” (TH 62).

The narrator, Maggie Cullen, is defined by her familial role as mother; yet, because she narrates the story from her vantage point as “an exile” (TH 9)—having returned from a three-year absence in Australia nursing an ailing sister—she views her family and her homeland with an outsider’s eyes. This sustained absence and her feminist values prior to departure influence each of Maggie’s sons to be a new kind of “emancipated” man. We learn that Maggie had taught her sons to sew “and to be independent of women” (TH 44). Whereas her nephews pursue “horse-racing and Rugby football; who seemed . . . to judge everything in terms of money” (TH 118), Maggie’s sons prove well-equipped to bring about both social and political transformations to Ireland. Each of her three sons, in fact, has developed distinctive approaches to the claims of family and nation. The tall, quiet, eldest son Theo is named after Wolfe Tone, yet “practically the only man” (TH 16) to espouse pacifist republican principles. Younger brothers Liam and Roddy disclose they are IRA volunteers—though each, at times, takes up tasks and adopts militant strategies more familiarly associated with Cumann na mBan and the women of the Irish Citizen Army; too young to enlist formally, Roddy “not only carried ammunition and messages habitually for Liam’s company, but had...


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pp. 58-63
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