‘Power to Observe’

Irish Women Novelists in Britain, 1890–1916

by Whitney Standlee (Author)
©2015 Monographs X, 278 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 62


Irish women flourished in the publishing world at the turn of the twentieth century, and a number of the most popular and prolific of these authors chose to live and work in Britain. As expatriates, these women occupied a complex cultural space between Ireland and Britain from which they were able to observe the rapidly altering political landscape in their homeland and, in particular, the debates that concerned them as women.
This book examines the lives and literature of six Irish novelists – Emily Lawless, L. T. Meade, George Egerton, Katherine Cecil Thurston, M. E. Francis and Katharine Tynan – who lived and worked in Britain between the years 1890 and 1916, between them producing nearly 500 published works. Drawing on a range of their novels, this study explores their participation in the prevailing debates of the era: the Irish Question and the Woman Question.
This book was the winner of the 2013 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in Irish Studies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Dedication
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • CHAPTER 1: A View from ‘Both Sides’: Emily Lawless’s Rebellion Novels and the Irish Question
  • CHAPTER 2: ‘You Can’t Have a Big World If You Only Just Know This Part’: The Critique of Cultural Insularity in the Novels of L. T. Meade
  • CHAPTER 3: ‘No Country’ for Old Maids: Escaping Ireland in the Novels of George Egerton and Katherine Cecil Thurston
  • CHAPTER 4: ‘Your Dream-Ireland Does Not Exist’: M. E. Francis, Catholicism, and the Irish Literary Establishment
  • CHAPTER 5: ‘Affection for England and Love of Ireland’: The Altering Landscapes of Katharine Tynan
  • Conclusion: Writing about Ireland; Writing about Problems
  • Bibliography
  • Archive Sources
  • Electronic Sources
  • Published Sources
  • Index
  • Series Index

| ix →


I would like to express, first of all, my deep gratitude to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for funding the doctoral research on which this book is based. I am also grateful to the British Association for Irish Studies and the International Association for the Study of Irish Literature, both of which have provided support for the project.

The book would not have been possible without the invaluable guidance provided over the years of its gestation by Frank Shovlin, to whom I will forever be indebted for his support and encouragement. I am sincerely grateful to Marianne Elliott, Diane Urquhart and Lauren Arrington – all of the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool – for their advocacy and assistance. I am indebted to John Wilson Foster, who has encouraged me to pursue the road less travelled and who, through his pioneering work into Irish literature, has laid the foundations for those of us who have followed in his wake. In mentioning Jack Foster, I must also direct my thanks to a number of researchers who have helped me, either directly or indirectly, either through personal encouragement or the example of their work, including James H. Murphy, Heidi Hansson, Margaret Kelleher, Shaun Richards, Laura Izarra, Kathryn Laing, Matthew Campbell, Naomi Doak, Aurelia Annat, Scott McCracken, Theresa Wray, Beth Rodgers, Tina O’Toole, Rolf Loeber, Magda Stouthamer Loeber, Lisbet Kickham, Tony Murray, Eve Patten, Mary S. Pierse, Julie Anne Stevens, Patrick Maume, Bronwen Walter, Ellen McWilliams, R. F. Foster, Claire Connolly, Peter van de Kamp and all those who are working to illuminate and expand our knowledge of Irish women’s literature. Thanks to both Ellen McWilliams and Tony Murray for making me feel like a welcome part of the Irish in Britain group.

I also wish to acknowledge the staff of the Special Collections and Jo Ashley, the subject librarian for Irish Studies, at the Sydney Jones Library, University of Liverpool and the staff at the following libraries and archives: ← ix | x → the Jesuit Archive in Dublin, and particularly Damien Burke, who allowed me to share his office and a space heater during a particularly cold and snowy week in Dublin; the John Rylands Library Deansgate and the John Rylands University Library, Manchester, with special thanks to Janet Wallwork, who shared her knowledge of Katharine Tynan with a true generosity of spirit; the National Library of Ireland; the Firestone Library at Princeton University; Trinity College Dublin Library; Marsh’s Library, Dublin; Roscommon Public Library; the Bodleian Library, Oxford; and the British Library, London. I would also like to extend my profound gratitude to Mark Blundell, who contributed days of his time, numerous cups of tea and a corner of his living room at Crosby Hall to assist me with my research into his great grandmother’s work.

I cannot neglect to mention the early and ongoing support of the two men who, by being enthusiastic and gifted lecturers, kindled my interest in Irish literature in my undergraduate days, Dr Scott Brewster and Professor Michael Parker. At the University of Worcester I have received consistent and invaluable encouragement from colleagues such as Jill Terry, David Arnold, Barbara Mitra, Jean Webb, Luke Devine, Andreas Mueller, Nicoleta Cinpoes, John Parham, Peter Cann and Simon Hardy.

As always, thanks to my extended (and extensive) family for their support and understanding, especially my mother for her daily emails which always express her unwavering belief in me, my father, stepfather, stepmother, sisters and parents-in-law for their interest in the project, and to my sons, Ryan and Nathan Standlee, for just being.

Finally, words cannot express how much I owe to Simon Barton, Jimmy Fennessy, Kati Nurmi, Niall Carson, Ciaran O’Neill and Anna Pilz – thanks Niall, Ciaran and Anna for reading and commenting on this work. All were once my colleagues and are now like family. I could not have done it without them.

| 1 →

Introduction: Irish Women, British Politics, and the Novel

‘M. E. Francis,’ otherwise Mrs Francis Blundell, is like so many of the younger writers of to-day, Irish.

SIR WILLIAM ROBERTSON NICOLL, ‘New Writers’, Bookman (1894)1

Mrs Thurston, the author of The Circle, the novel which has been so much talked about, is one of the numerous young Irishwomen who have made a name for themselves in the literary world.

— ‘A Rising Novelist’, Tatler (1903)2

I think it is pretty generally recognised to-day that one of the most effective, if not quite the most effective, vehicles for conveying ideas to the general public is the novel. Few, at all events, will deny that it may be a most powerful means of propaganda.

STEPHEN J. BROWN, ‘Novels of the National Idea’, Irish Monthly (1920)3

Three decades into the twentieth century, the ardent Irish nationalist Daniel Corkery produced a list of those writers among his compatriots who had chosen to live and work outside of Ireland. In expounding on what he identified as a peculiarly Irish tendency, Corkery suggested that the exodus of literary talent from his homeland was nearly absolute. Most ← 1 | 2 → of Ireland’s actively professional writers were at that time living elsewhere, he asserted, and those few who remained in the country tended to be either less committed to the pursuit of writing, or more amateurish in stature. ‘It is to be noted that whereas most of those expatriate writers live by the pen,’ Corkery wrote, ‘there are hardly more than one or two of the home-staying writers who do so, so that in a way we have no home-staying writers at all’.4 In offering as evidence of his contentions a list of literary exiles that included James Joyce, Austin Clarke, Sean O’Casey, Liam O’Flaherty, George Moore and George Bernard Shaw, Corkery made a compelling argument that there was indeed an ongoing and troubling haemorrhage of native literary talent from Ireland.

This proclivity was not in any regard new, however. It had been in evidence for decades by the time of Corkery’s writing and was attributable to the fact that the Irish literati had been disillusioned with the ‘depressed state of the Irish publishing industry [since] the nineteenth century’.5 The preferred site of relocation for Irish authors was very often the nearest point of expatriation: Britain. The magnetic attraction that London in particular held for Irish writers is exemplified in the letters and diaries of Katharine Tynan, who, when embarking on a visit to the English capital in 1884, wrote to her mentor Father Matthew Russell, the editor of the Jesuit-owned periodical the Irish Monthly, to request a letter of introduction into a literary household: ‘You will understand that I am very anxious to make some literary friends,’ Tynan confessed. ‘To get into a London literary circle is my earthly ambition’.6 By the end of that same year, Tynan had become characteristically dismissive about Dublin and the prospects for publishing there: ‘I should not go to [the Dublin publishing house M. H. Gill & ← 2 | 3 → Son] unless as a dernier resort,’ she commented to Russell when considering options for the publication of her first volume of poetry:

You must not think me presumptuous when I say that publishing in Dublin would not please me very much. I have always thought that to publish there is almost to ensure that the book shall be still born. Tell me anyone whose book published by Gill has had a vogue outside Ireland, and I am ambitious enough to wish for a larger audience than the Ireland of to-day.7

As a middle-class Catholic and the daughter of a farmer, Tynan may have come from a more modest background than did her contemporaries William Butler Yeats and George Moore, yet she viewed late nineteenth-century Dublin in much the same manner as they did: as a literary backwater.

The exodus Corkery referred to may have been longstanding and had its viable reasons for existing, yet there is an element of his list of exiles which remains unexplained: its gendered one-sidedness. His is a roll call which strongly indicates that the tradition of leaving Ireland for the sake of literary endeavour was a peculiarly masculine phenomenon. Expanding Corkery’s list still further to incorporate other prominent exemplars of the practice such as Thomas Moore, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett, it becomes apparent that, in popular conception, Ireland’s literary exiles have been envisioned as predominantly or even exclusively male. If it was indeed the case that it was solely men who were leaving the country to forge their writing careers, however, the literary exodus would have been distinctly at odds with the prevailing gendered divide in Irish emigration. Between 1891 and 1921, more than half – approximately 53 per cent – of emigrants from Ireland were female.8 Where Britain was the intended destination, Irish women not only outnumbered their male counterparts but were more numerous than any other ethnic group. Over the course of the entire 150-year period between 1850 and the turn of the twenty-first century, it was in fact Irish females who continually constituted ‘the largest migrant ← 3 | 4 → group to come to Britain’.9 These figures are commensurate both with Irish literacy rates, which climbed from 53 per cent in 1851 to 88 per cent in 1911, and with a sharp decline in marriage rates in Ireland over the same period, indicating that, lacking viable or advantageous marital prospects, women were leaving Ireland in pursuit of the jobs they required, and were better equipped than ever before to enter the professions rather than follow the traditional routes of mill work or domestic service.

Katharine Tynan’s name may at first appear to be a gendered anomaly among the larger list of literary exiles, but, in actuality, she was far from atypical. Just as wider trends saw women emigrating from Ireland in greater numbers than men in the decades that surrounded the turn of the twentieth century, the same statistics appear to have applied to the gendered divide among literary emigrants. While actual figures are difficult to ascertain, the 1890s marked a significant point of entry for Irish women onto the British publishing scene, and the proliferation of these authors did not escape the notice of contemporary commentators. Sir William Robertson Nicoll, editor of the Bookman, a magazine which reported on publishing trends and thus one of those best placed to comment on the industry, noted in 1894, for instance, that the Laois-born author M. E. Francis (Mary Sweetman Blundell) was, ‘like so many of the younger writers of to-day, Irish’. Nearly a decade later, the Tatler suggested that the trend continued to hold true: about Katherine Cecil Thurston, a Cork native, a reviewer commented that she was ‘one of the numerous young Irishwomen who have made a name for themselves in the literary world’. Evidencing the inclination for emigration to Britain among female authors in his 1916 bibliography of Irish fiction, Stephen J. Brown managed to place more than a dozen Irish women novelists in England at the turn of the century alongside an only marginally greater number of male writers in similar circumstances, and this despite the relative scarcity in the volume of biographical details for ← 4 | 5 → female writers.10 More recently, in a brief review of Irish women whose literary careers were forged in Britain during the nineteenth century, Rolf Loeber and Magda Stouthamer Loeber name nearly thirty prominent Irish women who were both domiciled and publishing novels in England over the course of the 1800s.11

More than twenty years ago, Ann Owens Weekes suggested that Irish women’s writing was ‘an uncharted tradition’.12 Shortly thereafter, the historians Margaret MacCurtain, Mary O’Dowd and Maria Luddy created ‘An Agenda for Women’s History in Ireland’, in which they asserted that the ‘whole idea of female literacy leads one to investigate the contribution made by women to literature and culture in the [nineteenth] century’. Drawing attention to the fact that studies to that point had overwhelmingly favoured the work of just three Irish women writers – Lady Morgan, Maria Edgeworth and Lady Gregory – MacCurtain, O’Dowd and Luddy noted that work on and about female authors from Ireland had fallen well short of comprehensive; that there were, in fact, ‘many other women who also made an impact on the Irish literary scene’.13 Weekes subsequently published Unveiling Treasures: The Attic Guide to the Published Works of Irish Women Literary Writers (1993), a volume which attested to the depth of material remaining to be explored, and works such as James H. Murphy’s Catholic Fiction and Social Reality in Ireland, 1873–1922 (1997) and Kathryn J. Kirkpatrick’s Border Crossings: Irish Women Writers and National Identities (2000) provided additional detail into the nature and extent of Irish women’s literary work. The scarcity of women writers in the Irish literary canon was the instigation for MacCurtain, O’Dowd and Luddy to join with Angela Bourke, Siobhán Kilfeather, Gerardine Meaney, Máirín Ní Dhonnchadha and Clair Wills in editing the controversial fourth ← 5 | 6 → and fifth volumes of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, published in 2002, which were devoted solely to charting the tradition of Irish women’s writing. These two most recent volumes of The Field Day Anthology remained divisive for years after their publication, in part because so little scholarly attention had been paid to a number of the women writers whose work was featured in their pages that their inclusion had still to be fully justified. In the ensuing years, studies such as Lisbet Kickham’s Protestant Women Novelists and Irish Society 1879–1922 (2004), Mary S. Pierse’s five-volume Irish Feminisms: 1810–1930 (2010) and Tina O’Toole’s The Irish New Woman (2013) have emerged to evidence the prominence and proliferation of Irish women’s writing in the period. Alongside such works, John Wilson Foster’s Irish Novels 1890–1940: New Bearings in Culture and Fiction (2008) and Murphy’s Irish Novelists and the Victorian Age (2011), while not specifically conceived to rescue women’s novels from obscurity, collaterally unearthed substantial amounts of previously un- or under-studied work by Irish women, providing additional bases on which to build this critical heritage. Loeber and Loeber’s directive for research to be undertaken on nineteenth-century Irish women writers who lived and worked in England appeared in 2005. Since then, however, Heidi Hansson’s Emily Lawless 1845–1913: Writing the Interspace (2007) remains the sole full-length text to have been produced on an Irish female writer of the nineteenth century who lived and worked in Britain.14 This critical neglect is almost certainly due to the difficulty that presents itself in accessing texts by, and compiling biographies for, writers whose works and lives have long lain dormant. ← 6 | 7 →


X, 278
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2014 (December)
political landscape homeland literature cultural space
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. X, 278 pp.

Biographical notes

Whitney Standlee (Author)

Whitney Standlee lectures in English Literature and Cultural Studies at the University of Worcester. Her research interests include late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Irish women’s writing and women’s contributions to popular culture after 1880. She has published on the politics of Irish women’s writing, land war fiction and the Irish Künstlerroman. Currently, she is co-editing the forthcoming collection Irish Women’s Writing 1878-1922: Advancing the Cause of Liberty.


Title: ‘Power to Observe’
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
297 pages