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Biography 26.3 (2003) 483-486

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Taura S. Napier. Seeking a Country: Literary Autobiographies of Twentieth-Century Irishwomen. Lanham, MD: UP of America, 2001. 234 pp. ISBN 0-7618-1934-7, $33.50.

In Seeking a Country, Taura S. Napier examines the life writings of six of the twentieth century's most important Irish women authors: the playwright, folklorist, and literary patron Lady Augusta Gregory; novelist, poet, and [End Page 483] autobiographer par excellence Katharine Tynan; literary critic Mary Colum; novelist and short story writer Elizabeth Bowen; "Iberophile" and novelist Kate O'Brien; and the contemporary poet and critic Eavan Boland. In this lively and readable study, Napier traces how these authors "discovered methods of self-narrative that merged their artistic devices as writers and experiences as educated women in a proscriptive intellectual milieu" (7).

Napier's study is structured around the concept of the "deflected autobiography." In such autobiographies, women's lives "are articulated without their being identified as the heroines, or even protagonists, of their works"; instead, the "autobiographical persona [of the woman author] appears in the space created by her absence, and in the prismatic versions of self that are her created and envisioned others" (10). This is a strategy particularly suited to artists such as Lady Gregory, who adopt it to protect themselves from charges of "unfeminine" egocentricity and arrogance. For many of these women, Napier argues, writing about others is the most direct (and culturally acceptable) route to understanding and writing the self.

Napier's own methodology—what might be described as "inter-genre excavation" (105)—follows on from this belief that the autobiographical enterprise is often diffuse and indirect, discernable in fiction and literary criticism as much as in those works traditionally classed as autobiography. Thus, in family histories such as Bowen's Court, the "autobiographical nature" of the work can be "extrapolated from the surrounding material of genealogy and historiography" (115). Ancestors become Bowen's alter egos, and it is through her commentary about her family that Bowen's identity is revealed to the reader. Napier neatly captures the contradictory nature of this tactic: "It is at once deflected autobiography, in which the 'I' remains offstage throughout most of the narrative, and a work of triumphant egocentricity, as Bowen extols her pride of race while using her ancestors as preliminary acts, before she appears as the heroine" (115).

Kate O'Brien reveals herself through similarly oblique methods, whether she is dispassionately observing tourists in her adopted home of Spain, or discussing the character flaws of her aunts. In works such as Presentation Parlour, O'Brien defines herself negatively through a process of elimination: her "autobiographies comprise an aesthetic sphere removed from her fundamental emotions and desires, yet as she casts off the personae of those who surround her, she emerges as herself" (153). Taking the notion of the "deflected" autobiography even further, Napier observes that O'Brien's "autobiographical self is best seen through her fiction" (105). To some degree this requires us, as critics, to accept the autobiographical in any text. Frustratingly, however, Napier does not directly address the problematic [End Page 484] implications of this approach, which might suggest that any work can be viewed in light of its autobiographical potential.

In Seeking a Country, Napier highlights the self-consciousness of these women authors in approaching the genre of autobiography. Many express a distrust of the form, and make strenuous efforts to distance themselves from it. Mary Colum wrote to her publisher that she was "deliberately trying to write an entertaining book, not write out everything that happened to me" (81). In pursuit of this goal, Colum produced Life and the Dream, a work that represents a "consciously-crafted" act of "fictional self-creation" (84). Like Colum, all the writers in Napier's study are concerned as much with psychological truth as with historical accuracy or the objective "facts" of their lives. This is reflected in the non-linear modes they often employ to tell their stories. Places, people, and events are assembled in impressionistic, digressive, and anecdotal narratives that refuse a...


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