Irish women’s place in genre writing should be saved from ignominy
In 1911, a woman named Mary Helena Fortune died in Melbourne, Australia, her death largely gone unnoticed. By this time she was an alcoholic, nearly blind, and boasted of a career criminal for a surviving son, the exoticly named Eastbourne Vaudrey Fortune – better known, unsurprisingly, as George. She lived on a small Australian Journal boarding house and was so poor when she died that she was buried in a grave intended for another.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that Fortune came to be associated with the pseudonym WW, or “Waif Wander,” under which she wrote hundreds of detective stories, including a pioneering Journal series titled The Detective’s Album, detailing the case of an Australian lawyer named Mark Sinclair. Fortune inhabited these first-person narratives so convincingly that readers were convinced they were the work of a serving or recently retired judicial officer. The Journal did nothing to disillusion its subscribers with this notion, probably believing that the myth would sell more copies than the truth, namely that the tales were written by an intelligent and gifted woman born in Belfast in 1833, who was arrival in Australia. via Canada in 1855 with her father and infant son, leaving behind a bad marriage.
Fortune rarely appears in Irish author lists, partly because of confusion over her roots, but also because she was a genre writer – doubly cursed, as we shall see, by being a woman – and the Ireland does not have an unblemished record when it comes to recognizing the contribution of practitioners of the genre to its literature, markedly in the last century. The general exception is Gothic, which is hard to ignore, although the fact that it can be read politically makes it more palatable to skeptics of the genre.
The assault on genre writing in Ireland began as early as 1892, when Douglas Hyde, who would eventually become the first president of the Irish Free State, delivered a speech to the Irish National Literary Society in Dublin, in which he urged his listeners to put on their faces. “severely against the dreaded pennies, the shockers shilling”. For Hyde, genre writing was not only ‘trash’ and ‘vulgar’, it was also ‘English’, which made it undesirable in the extreme. It had nothing to do with his conception of Irish, which was limited to anything that “smelled more of the soil, the more Gaelic.” If it was genre fiction, it wasn’t Irish literature. In fact, it probably wasn’t literature at all.
One of the errors still sometimes peddled about Irish genre fiction is that it exists separately from a higher form of writing, but this is as wrong with Irish literature as it is with literature in general. For much of its history, all fiction has been viewed as weakly cultured, regardless of its content. Its biggest sin was its accessibility: to enjoy fiction, it was not necessary to be learned, only to have a little learning.
To most 18th or 19th century readers, to despise a work of fiction because it contained elements of genre would have seemed as absurd as relegating Hamlet and Macbeth to Second Division Shakespeare because it contained ghosts. A hierarchy in which genre fiction must, of necessity, fall below literary fiction is largely a product of 20th century critical thinking. So far, there are, to paraphrase Duke Ellington on music, only two kinds of fiction: good fiction, and the other genre.
There is also no clear line separating Irish writers from literature and genres. Douglas Hyde’s Celtic colleague WB Yeats, whose fascination with the occult extended to anthology and the creation of ghost stories, appreciated writers eager to explore the limits of their imaginations. In 1912 he used the Cuala Press to publish the work of Lord Dunsany, one of the fathers of what is today called “strange fiction”; Dunsany would in turn encourage young Mary Lavin in her writing. Elizabeth Bowen wrote the prefaces to two books by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu, and contributed stories and an introduction to Ghost Books edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith. Asked by The New Yorker in 1992 to list his literary influences, William Trevor, who aspired to write thrillers when he was young, could only cite the detective novels he had read as a child. Brian Moore started out as a thriller and worked with Alfred Hitchcock. Liam O’Flaherty published stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery magazine. The list of these literary Irish cross pollinators goes on and on.
Almost 40 years after Hyde first rallied the troops against genre fiction, the corkonian writer and scholar Daniel Corkery, representing the extreme nativist rump of the Irish critical camp, would define the three great forces of being Irish nationalism – and, by extension, its literature – as the religious conscience of the people, Irish nationalism and the land. Everything else, frankly, could go and hang. Corkery could have added another condition: masculinity, as the Irish fictional narrative was, for much of the 20th century, predominantly male.
In 1964, Vivian Mercier edited a collection, Great Irish Short Stories, with selections dating from AD 700 to the present day, but only found room for three tales by female writers. Mercier’s goal, according to his introduction, was “to show that Irish [my italics] have a special gift for the news ”. The situation had improved somewhat by the turn of the century, but only because it could hardly have gotten worse. Barely a quarter of the plays in the gigantic Penguin Book of Irish Fiction (1999), which began its presentation in 1726 with Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, were the work of women, a proportion corresponding almost precisely to the level of female representation. among writers. of fiction in 1950, historically the lowest ebb for the involvement of women in its production.
Both volumes, it should be noted, display a marked aversion to genre literature, compulsory Gothic aside, an absence that inadvertently perpetuates old injustices, because to exclude genre writing is also to automatically exclude. much of the fiction of women, who were particularly attuned to the commercial and artistic possibilities of genre work. It is a manifestation of what has been called the “masculinity of high modernism”, which distrusted popular literature and attached great importance to literary experimentation and to the idea of the novel as high culture, in particular. when written by a man.
Not that female critics were united in their vision of gender writing. In her 1985 essay Irish Women and Writing in Modern Ireland, Nuala O’Faolain asked: “Why have so few Irish women been writers? – a question arguably based on a false premise, as the content of Shadow Voices shows – before dismissing genre fiction as an appropriate form of literature for women, arguing that “realism is the only mode available for women writers who want to write to and women ”. According to O’Faolain, these are the only economic reasons “which have, in modern times, pushed the woman writer towards popular genres”.
In addition to taking a fairly doctrinaire approach to writers’ perfectly understandable desire to make a living from their work, O’Faolain may have underestimated the seriousness, artistry and ingenuity of generations of female authors. Popular Victorian-era Irish writer and editor LT Meade, who used her influence to promote women’s education and employment (and, probably not unrelated, was a prime target of male critics), examined issues of marriage finance and female entrepreneurship in her stories, but with a touch of the pen. More recently, Jane Casey’s depictions of first-generation Irishwoman Maeve Kerrigan negotiating misogyny and sexism in the London Metropolitan Police seem horribly premonitory in light of PC Wayne Couzens’ rape and murder of Sarah Everard more early this year.
Economic imperatives may play a role in a writer’s choices, but genre writers have long recognized that their stories can function as stealth vectors for ideas and social commentary, operating much more subtly and effectively than pamphlets. and controversies.
Excluding genre writing from the narrative of Irish literature also robs it of much of its joy and color. Beatrice Grimshaw’s 1922 story, The Cave is Shameless Pulp, a story of sailors being stalked by a spectral dinosaur on a remote island, but it’s also delightful to be so far removed from the fictional conception written by a daughter of Co Antrim textile makers might look like. Grimshaw was liberated by acquiring a bicycle as a young woman. Having experienced the joys of independent exploration of the Antrim hinterland, she realized that nothing prevented her from venturing further and ended up spending 30 years living and working in New Guinea. Again, you will search for it in vain in most anthologies of Irish writing, apart from those from specialist publishers such as Dublin’s Swan River Press.
Shadow Voices is therefore not an alternative interpretation of Irish literary history. Rather, it takes over 60 Irish writers, many of whom have been ignored, forgotten or deleted from the standard version, and restore their lives and work to this larger dossier. These two words – life and work – are important here. To dismiss much of this writing as ’empty’ and ‘nothing’, as a great Irish novelist and critic recently did, is also to dismiss the lives of its creators as essentially worthless. For writers such as LT Meade and Mary Helena Fortune, their life was their job and, as women, they had to overcome significant obstacles to stand out. They deserve better than to be reduced to an inaccurate footnote in a prohibitive chronicle of Irish fiction. Shadow Voices is, I hope, one more step towards redressing this injustice.
Shadow Voices: 300 Years of Irish Genre Fiction, A History in Stories, edited by John Connolly, will be published in a signed edition by Hodder & Stoughton on October 28