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Tina O’Toole, The Irish New Woman. (Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture series), Gen. ed., Joseph Bristow. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 216 pp. ISBN 978-0-230-31391-0. Hbk £50

Reviewed by Jane Ford.

The Irish New Woman is a rich and ambitious study which draws out the often overlooked Irish contexts of New Woman writing. Focusing on authors who are themselves Irish, or who identified themselves as such, including Sarah Grand, George Egerton, L.T. Meade, Katherine Cecil Thurston, Tina O’Toole argues that much of this writing owes its radical character to the social and political unrest that occurred in Ireland during the period c.1880-1922. O’Toole claims that female political activism – most visible in the activities of Anna Parnell and the Ladies’ Land League – suggested a dissident female model for their counterparts in fiction; as O’Toole points out, Irishness became a “disruptive sign” performed in response to the “dominant social and political formations of the late nineteenth century” (5).

I have to confess to feeling some initial hesitation about the claims of this study. In itself “Irishness” is an equivocal concept, and this ambiguity becomes particularly apparent in the context of large-scale emigration and civil disagreement about ownership and national identity. Unfortunately, the book’s opening anecdote, an account of the 1888 London Match Girls’ Strike, does little to allay these concerns. Picking up on the largely unremarked fact that many of the striking women were so-called “Irish Cockneys,” O’Toole suggests a resonant image of “empowered young Irishwoman” at the heart of the study: “an outsider to British culture but [a figure] who nonetheless knows her rights” (2). O’Toole claims that “The Irish New Woman explores another “strike against hegemonic power at the end of the nineteenth century” – that is, New Woman fiction (2). Despite their naivety, the problem with these remarks is that they imply a misleading neatness about Irish identity and how it might be marshalled politically. This somewhat loose formulation is unfortunate because, in the pages that follow, it quickly becomes clear that O’Toole is, in fact, highly attuned to the many faces of Irish national identity in fin-de-siècle women’s writing. Indeed, in the course of her study, O’Toole deftly negotiates the difficulties of the appellation “Irish,” illustrating how Irish identity might be experienced (albeit differently) on both sides of the colonial administration and mobilized for a range of political ends.

Building on recent work in Postcolonial Studies, Chapter 1, “Feminism and Famine,” interrogates Sarah Grand’s engagement with British imperialism, focusing on her 1897 novel, The Beth Book. O’Toole complicates the feminist-imperialist epithet sometimes attached to Grand, pointing out that her semi-autobiographical novel betrays a level of ambivalence about the imperial project. O’Toole explains that on the one hand, Grand relies on cultural stereotypes produced within imperialism (Matthew Arnold’s idea of the “emotional Celt,” for instance) and endorses both the creation of British settler colonies abroad and the “expanded horizons for women” these offered (17). On the other hand, in the figure of Beth, Grand identifies with the colonized Irish subject and, as O’Toole argues, Beth’s vexed relationship with food is tied up with her experiences in post-Famine Ireland. Through a series of innovative close-readings, O’Toole makes a convincing case for food as a “nexus of power relations” in Grand’s novel and she does so with reference to related scholarship on eating practices in women’s writing more generally (39).

In Chapter 2, “Empire Girls,” O’Toole usefully develops her discussion of the “interrelationships between feminist fiction and empire-building,” by focusing on representations of the “wild Irish girl” in the girls’ school fiction of L.T. Meade (43). O’Toole explains that Meade, who was from a “minority Protestant caste” in southern Ireland, explicitly espouses a feminist-imperialist point of view (65). The boarding school setting of her books forms a pedagogic scenario in which the dissident Irish girl can be reformed into a “proper imperial subject” by her British peers, the “empire girls” (53). Much of the chapter centers around two novels – Wild Kitty (1897) and The Rebel of the School (1902) – which similarly feature a rebellious Irish girl who is threatened with expulsion from her school. O’Toole claims that The Rebel of the School, which describes how the Irish girl’s schoolfellows intervene to prevent her exclusion, offers a somewhat corrective treatment to the earlier novel in which “wild Kitty” must relinquish her residence at the school. O’Toole plausibly suggests that this change might relate to the fall in imperial confidence following the Boer War in tandem with the increasing prospect of Home Rule in Ireland.

Chapter 3, “The New Woman and the Land War,” stands out as a real highlight of the study, providing, as it does, a convincing and eminently well-researched account of the role Irish women’s writing played in the “early formation of New Woman tropes” (12). Alongside an impressive range of other sources, O’Toole examines Anna Parnell’s account of the activities of the Ladies’ Land League in The Tale of a Great Sham (not published until 1986 when it was picked up by Arlen House) and Hannah Lynch’s 1891 novel The Prince of the Glades, whose protagonist is modelled on Parnell. With just the right balance of historical detail and textual analysis, O’Toole describes how the Ladies’ Land League “propelled Irish women into the public sphere,” opening up a “discursive space […] within which Irish women could openly address issues of national politics and public affairs” (86-7). As O’Toole points out, the “strong female exemplars” emerging from the Ladies’ Land League became a mine of literary material for Lynch and her contemporaries. The chapter is, as I say, very strong, but given that Anna Parnell is exhibited as a real-life prototype of the literary New Woman, and the Land War period an immensely important cultural moment for Irish women, this material might have served more profitably as a first chapter.

Chapter 4, “The New Mother Ireland,” picks up on George Egerton’s subversive treatment of the themes of family and motherhood in her short story collection Keynotes (1893). O’Toole begins by providing a brief background to the mother Ireland trope, explaining that national and gender identities were closely imbricated, especially “in the period between Land War and partition, c.1880-1922” (88). As O’Toole points out, the gendering of the Irish nation had troubling ideological implications for women; a symbol of nation, “woman” was not only bound by the cultural expectations of her sex (and the fecundity implied in this) but she also became controlled territory. O’Toole demonstrates that Egerton re-conceptualizes the family unit along more affirmative lines, at the same time reflecting on “the darker aspects of maternity such as ‘illegitimacy,’ miscarriage, abortion and infanticide” (89). While existing scholarship tends to emphasize the Scandinavian influences on Egerton’s work, O’Toole resituates her fiction in the light of her Irish nationalism which she persuasively argues is a key, but overlooked factor in her “approach to maternal, and to familist and patriarchal ideologies” (89).

Focusing on writing by Grand and Thurston, Chapter 5, “The New Woman and the Boy,” considers how female transvestitism, specifically the adoption of a male (pre)adolescent identity, provides fictional New Women with “temporary access to male privilege” (14). As O’Toole remarks, the “‘boy” suggests a meeting point between Aesthetic writing, which highlights boyhood’s transience, and New Woman writing, which capitalizes on the boy’s productive (though equally impermanent) androgyny. The analysis is skilfully handled but this chapter sits uncomfortably within the remit of the study because it is unclear exactly how the Irishness of these authors operates within the framework of resistance described by this book. O’Toole attempts to address this issue in the chapter’s conclusion, pointing out that gender performativity “[p]erhaps […] may be linked to the way in which, for many Irish authors who migrated to live and work in the London metropolis during the period, the construction of their own national identity was often highly performative” (127). Even so, this chapter needs a stronger and more sustained statement about national identity as a “live” factor in these narratives to make it work in the context of the book as a whole.

Perhaps surprisingly, Chapter 6, “The Transnational New Woman,” returns to George Egerton, this time to consider how Egerton’s trans-nationalism or “diasporic experience” (she had connections with Australia, Ireland and Scandinavia) reinforced her dissident stance in relation to a number of social realities. In her analysis, O’Toole uses the gender and critical theorist, Rosi Braidotti’s concept of “nomadic subjectivity” to consider how Egerton’s migrancy allows her the geo-political freedom to “posit a range of subject positions” that challenge received ideas about gender, class and nation (130). Valuably, the chapter reflects on the hybridity of national identities included within the designation “Irish”– a hybridity that might describe many of the writers addressed in this book – but this chapter tips the balance of the study unhelpfully towards Egerton.

Two discreet but nonetheless persistent themes of this study are those of community and citizenship and O’Toole revisits these ideas in her conclusion. Citing Regenia Gagnier’s recent Individualism, Decadence & Globalization (2010), O’Toole argues that New Woman activism generally operated according to a co-operative or relational (as opposed to individualistic) logic. O’Toole points out that in nineteenth-century political discourses, family and nation were conceptualized along those similar patriarchal and heteronormative lines and although New Woman writers generally resisted traditional civic and family structures, they articulated “a commitment to a wider community at local and global level” (149). As the study demonstrates, though this commitment might find expression in utopian communities of New Women, it could also point to the idea of an imperial family as we see in Grand, for instance, who draws analogues between “the workings of the body and the [paternalistic] governance of the imperial state” (37). Given O’Toole’s abiding emphasis on the individual (New) woman’s positioning within a wider community, and her fitness to participate within this community, expressed variously in eugenics, maternity and the imperial citizenship, it would have been helpful to see these issues drawn out more fully in the introduction.

This issue of emphasis is minor, however, since on the whole, O’Toole’s study makes for a fascinating and original book that should be of great interest to New Woman scholars and to those working in Migrant and Postcolonial Studies. Indeed, in mapping out the largely unacknowledged part that Irish women writers had to play in the formation of the literary New Woman, O’Toole significantly reshapes our understanding of the social and political landscape of fin-de-siècle women’s writing.

Jane Ford is currently working as a session tutor at Keele University. Her Ph.D research, which she completed at the University of Portsmouth in July 2013, examined metaphors of economic exploitation and domination in fin-de-siecle literature. Alongside Drs Kim Edwards Keates and Patricia Pulham, she is currently editing a collection of essays titled Economies of Desire at the Victorian Fin-de-Siecle: Libidinal Lives (Routledge, 2015).