Irish Lesbian Writing Across Time

A New Framework for Rethinking Love Between Women

by Anna Charczun (Author)
©2021 Monographs X, 310 Pages
Series: Reimagining Ireland, Volume 104


Following the recent advancements in Irish lesbian politics, North and South, lesbian writing is attracting more attention from scholarly audiences, making this body of work particularly timely. Irish Lesbian Writing Across Time is an attestation of a historical presence of lesbians in Irish literature, as it analyses the progression of Irish lesbian narrative over the past two centuries, while verifying key characteristics of time periods that correspond with the model of development. It also investigates Irish lesbian activist literature, writing from diaspora, and fiction published around the time of the decriminalisation of homosexual acts and later the inclusion of same-sex marriage in Irish and Northern Irish laws.
The book examines authors such as Maria Edgeworth, Sarah Grand, George Egerton, Elizabeth Bowen, Kate O’Brien, Edna O’Brien, Emma Donoghue, Mary Dorcey, Anna Livia, Shani Mootoo, and Hilary McCollum, whose inclusion of lesbian desire to the Irish literary canon proves an invaluable contribution.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction From Hesitation to Pride/Synthesis: The Journey of Irish Lesbian Narrative between 1801 and 2020
  • Chapter 1 Covert Representations of Lesbian Desire in Fin-de-siècle Fictions by Irish New Woman Writers and the Historical Antecedents in Earlier Irish Literature: 1801–1910
  • Chapter 2 Lesbian Continuum and Lesbian Desire as Implicitly Encoded in the Works of Elizabeth Bowen, Kate O’Brien and Molly Keane: 1927–1934
  • Chapter 3 Lesbian Existence in the Post-War Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, Kate O’Brien and Edna O’Brien: 1949–1988
  • Chapter 4 Towards More Overt Representations of Lesbian Desire: 1989–2007
  • Chapter 5 Lesbian Writing from Irish Diaspora: 1982–2008
  • Chapter 6 Twenty-First-Century Representations of Lesbian Desire in Northern Irish Fiction and Drama: 1922–2018
  • Chapter 7 Some Conclusions: Into the Future of (Irish) Lesbian Writing
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

←viii | ix→


I would like to thank Professor William J. Spurlin, whose constant academic and emotional support has got me through the most difficult stages of the writing process. His diligence, patience, constructive criticism and, most of all, unwavering faith in me and my work have been my motivation and inspiration.

Further thanks go to Prof. Claire Lynch, who supported me in terms of networking. I will be forever grateful for that.

Lastly, I would like to thank Dr Tina O’Toole for all her advice and encouragement in these difficult times.

←x | 1→


From Hesitation to Pride/Synthesis: The Journey of Irish Lesbian Narrative between 1801 and 2020

The personal interest in this area of study derives from my own voluntary national displacement caused by the inability to reconcile multiple identities in my country of birth – Polish, lesbian and Catholic. Polish lesbian politics and community are practically non-existent in a country predominantly governed by men, an unwavering power of the Catholic Church, and a new homophobic government and leading party. There only exist a handful of LGBTQI+ organisations, none of which are strictly lesbian. Women’s roles in Polish society are still largely those of wives and mothers, where their position is still confined in large measure to the private sphere, and Polish feminism, which is classified as only in its second wave (Graff 103), does not include lesbian-feminism. The limited position of women in the public discourse, and the invisibility of lesbians in feminist ranks, strengthens stereotypes and lesbophobia, which often lead to acts of hate and even aggression. For this reason, the insubstantiality of translating the modern and sophisticated word ‘queer’ into Polish worked in favour of many lesbians, who chose this identification in order to escape the derisive ring of the Polish word ‘lesbian’ (Kowalska 329–330). Unfortunately, this also further emphasised the indiscernibility of Polish lesbian individuality. Taking all of this into consideration, the Republic of Ireland, where the visibility and a near-full acceptance of lesbians were improved in a short period of a mere few decades, became a source of my amazement and admiration. Before the 1970s, the two countries were quite similar in terms of religiosity, heteronormative patriarchy and a hidden lesbian existence and politics. Yet Poland is now not only a long way behind Ireland and the rest of Western Europe in granting its gay and lesbian citizens equal ←1 | 2→human rights, but with a third of the country becoming pro-family and LGBT-free zones, and the recent 2020-re-election of the homophobic president, Andrzej Duda, Poland is quickly becoming one of the least queer-friendly countries in Europe.

In most Western countries, on the other hand, the arena of gay, lesbian and queer studies has gained a lot of publicity in recent years. In times when economically developed countries grant equal marriage rights to their lesbian and gay citizens, and where homo-, lesbo- and transphobia begin to be reproached and, in fact, in many cases criminalised, lesbian, gay, trans and queer studies are thriving. A vast multiplicity of works on same-sex desire and gender and sexual dissidence are emerging frequently, where new theories, criticism, historical and geopolitical studies, to name but a few, implement and intersect with this vastly growing field. The Republic of Ireland, specifically, which joined the European Union in 1973, decriminalised homosexual acts in 1993, and held a successful referendum on equal marriage rights to same-sex couples in 2015, is becoming an area of interest to many scholars. The country, which until quite recently was considered to be a cradle of Catholic faith, and was known for its vast emigration following the periods of famine and economic depression, made huge economic advances in the era of the Celtic Tiger and opened its borders not only to non-Irish immigrants, but also to returning gay men and lesbians who were no longer afraid to exhibit their true sexual identities in Ireland. Northern Ireland, despite the initial resistance posed by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), is not far behind, having granted marriage for same-sex couples in January 2020.1 And, as it is so often the case, national literature was the fervent companion of these changes, reflecting, more or less overtly, certain influences of the new Irish economy, cultural hybridity and, most importantly, LGBTQI+ politics.

Many Irish lesbian authors and their novels or short stories have been analysed in a vast number of texts by various scholars. These, however, concentrate either on one author, the writing from the Republic of Ireland or Northern Ireland, or on a comparison of a few novels/short stories based on one given time period. Although Emma Donoghue, in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing: Irish Women’s Writing and Traditions, quotes and briefly describes lesbian prose and poetry written in Gaelic and English ←2 | 3→between 1745 and 1997, there has not yet been a complete work that has gathered and inspected in depth a wide range of prose by major lesbian Irish novelists written in English into a single work. Irish Lesbian Writing Across Time offers an examination of works and their authors, together with analyses of Irish historical and social context in a single volume.

For centuries, there existed a division between Irish, Anglo-Irish and Irish-born migrant authors and, given Irish history, such demarcation is unavoidable. Nonetheless, one of my arguments within this book is that, despite the geographical location, it is still possible to identify as Irish and have a strong emotional connection with the country of origin. Consequently, I will offer analyses of diasporic writers, whilst highlighting that these authors’ works are still clearly affected by their country of origin, with its culture, traditions and people. The book also investigates various genres, ranging from novels, through short stories to plays, originating from the Republic and Northern Ireland, and provides an account of major female writers in and of the whole island of Ireland, in whose works there can be found detectable traces suggesting the presence of lesbian desire. As I will demonstrate in Chapter 5, writing from diasporic locations allowed Irish women authors to write about lesbian desire in an open manner, as with the influences of globalism, transnationalism and transculturalism, the development of lesbian fiction written from diaspora is quite distinct from works emerging from Ireland alone.

The stages of the development of Irish lesbian narrative that I put forth in Irish Lesbian Writing Across Time come from my reconceptualisation of Vivienne Cass’s theoretical model of ‘Homosexual Identity Formation’ (1979). She devised her model based on clinical questionnaire work with a number of Australian gay men and lesbians. Cass’s theory is pioneering amongst other psychologists, who later proposed similar models: Coleman (1982), Minton and McDonald (1984) and Troiden (1989). Over the years 1985 and 1986, Sophie devised a model developed specifically for women, which opened the field for an emergence of biracial identity models of multiply oppressed minority groups: Downing and Roush (1985), Morales (1989), Reynolds and Pope (1991) and Ossana, Helms and Leonard (1992). In 1996, McCarn and Fassinger proposed ‘A New Model of Lesbian Identity and Its Implications for Counselling and Research’, which, as its name ←3 | 4→clearly states, is based exclusively on the development of lesbian sexuality. Nevertheless, although this body of work adheres strictly to lesbians, with the final stages reflecting the development of lesbian fiction from diasporic and non-White backgrounds, as well as Northern Ireland, the original model of Vivienne Cass proves to be most useful, as her verification of the consecutive stages of development fits the purpose of my investigation and clearly portrays the advancement of Irish lesbian narrative. Although the stages of the lesbian narrative’s progression are not strictly correspondent with those of identity development, I found that their consecutive names, rather than their specific meanings, reflect concordantly the progression of an ever-growing lesbian presence in Irish texts by female authors.

Cass developed her model relying largely on the existing framework of interpersonal congruency theory of Secord and Backman, and Secord, Backman and Eachus, which, as she states, was based on the interactions of homosexual individuals with their environment (Cass, ‘A Theoretical Model’ 221). In order to be brought into a closer relation with the final stage of development, synthesis, the subject (or in my case, the text), would have to achieve congruency with an imagined perception of self and the social perception of self by others. In other words, the fiction needs to achieve an affirming view of itself in the eyes of its authors, as well as in the eyes of the readers. The examples of Irish women’s fiction that I chose to analyse as featuring lesbian desire, therefore, was to be congruent with three factors: the existing knowledge on women’s same-sex intimacy at each period of time, the state of the juridical law in terms of lesbian politics and censorship and an anticipated perception of each text by the wider public.

Cass emphasises that:

the development of private and public homosexual identities is recounted and portrayed as two separate but related processes. It is possible for [the subject] to hold a private identity of being homosexual while maintaining a public identity of being heterosexual. With increasing identity development comes a growing consistency between the two identities, giving rise in the final stage to an overall and integrated homosexual identity. (‘A Theoretical Model’ 220)

The interrelation of those two identities in Cass’s model reflects succinctly the development of the consecutive stages of Irish lesbian narrative, where, ←4 | 5→at first, references to lesbian desire are subliminal, or even unconscious, in the second stage they become careful of disclosure but are certainly suggestive, and in the ultimate three stages become indicative of the lesbians’ social relations with each other and, finally, with the broader social world. Although Cass’s model adheres to both gay men and lesbians, and it does not take into consideration bisexual or transgender identities, I believe that it suits the purpose of my work, as my reconceptualisation can portray a clear pathway of development, thus underlining one of my main aims of this book, which is to exemplify the shifts in Irish lesbian narrative in relation to Irish history and lesbian politics.

My proposed reformulation of Cass’s stages is supported by close textual and historical analyses of the texts, where I do not concentrate solely on the development of Irish lesbian narrative per se, but also verify how the presence of lesbian desire is determined by historical antecedents and the state of (lesbian) politics in a given time period. I pay particular attention to symbolism, textual techniques and experimentation, in order to observe some characteristic patterns indicative of each stage. I also propose a new framework, within which each text can be contextualised theoretically – this is often supported by a reconceptualisation of the already-existing studies according to which I develop my original terminology.

Cass divided her model into six stages: confusion, comparison, tolerance, acceptance, pride and synthesis. For the purpose of my investigation, however, I chose to limit this number to five, which resulted from the merging of the last two stages and transforming their names, in order to provide the most accurate image of the state of lesbian narrative at a particular moment in time and national politics regarding sexual relations between women. Accordingly, the stage of confusion becomes the stage of hesitation, which is indicative of the texts’ questioning, assuming and suggesting lesbian sexuality beginning from the early nineteenth century. The hesitation is portrayed in Chapter 1 as the supposed although not intended attempts of writers to suggest women’s fervent interrelations. Initially, it discusses the flourish and the first Irish case of romantic friendship of the Ladies of Llangollen that was rumoured to be more intense in its nature than those generally practised at the time, and the chapter argues that the record of their relationship is the starting point of the analysis of New ←5 | 6→Woman writing, which came later at the end of the nineteenth century. The chapter also analyses incidents of cross-dressing, cross-gendering and transgendering in the New Woman fiction that emphasised women’s efforts at defying the prevailing gender roles and, as I argue, signalling their same-sex passion.

A more advanced stage of hesitation, at the turn of the twentieth century, begins to be more suggestive of implicit references to lesbian desire than in the earlier part of the nineteenth century. The alternative to heterosexual submissiveness can be observed in women challenging gender hierarchy, a feature which prevails in the New Woman descriptions of cross-dressing, cross-gendering and transgendering characters. I propose that those actions of gender performativity, or of performing female masculinity, are also early representations of lesbian desire. Although the characters analysed in Chapter 1 are portrayed as heterosexual throughout the course of their respective texts, there certainly are perceptible allusions to homoerotic desire, as Sarah Grand’s Boy and Katherine Thurston’s Max are not only women who impersonate men, but, whilst in character, initiate intense same-sex friendships, making them same-sex desiring women, although not lesbians in the exact meaning of the word as we understand it today. Chapter 1 also draws attention to either absence or inadequacy of men, a feature which, in fact, prevails in lesbian fiction to this day. This facilitates two further patterns of the first stage of development, the emergence of the lesbian phallus, that results from the absence of the male phallus in George Egerton’s ‘The Spell of the White Elf’, and the transformation of lesbian desire into situational heterosexuality in Sarah Grand’s A Domestic Experiment and Rosa Mulholland’s The Tragedy of Chris, where both heroines reluctantly accept male advances after failures in initiating same-sex relations with their chosen objects of desire; failures that were partially, but not predominantly, caused by the expectations of Irish heteronormative society.

The next consecutive stage, of comparison/exploration, ‘marks the first tentative commitment to a homosexual self’ (Cass, ‘A Theoretical Model’ 225). The comparison in Chapter 2 refers to the impact of the availability and accessibility of lesbian writing from Western countries, such as England or France, which has undoubtedly influenced Irish female prose in terms ←6 | 7→of a more ostensible presence of female same-sex romantic attachment. The exploration, on the other hand, adheres to experimental textual techniques adopted by Elizabeth Bowen, Kate O’Brien and Molly Keane, which allowed them to include the subject of passion between women in their works. The chapter analyses several narrational tools, such as adolescence, lesbian continuum, lesbian panic, de rigueur lesbian presence and lesbian desire ‘bracketing’ the dominant heterosexual plots, in order to emphasise the authors’ attempts at exploring lesbian sexuality in Irish female writing. The term ‘bracketing’, specifically, through my reconceptualisation of Maud Ellmann’s ‘shadowy third’, plays a vital role in my analysis of the implementation of lesbian love within the discourse of Irish lesbian writing at the beginning of the twentieth century. The term refers to an implicit presence of lesbian desire that is interwoven into the peripheries of the otherwise heterosexually centred texts. ‘Bracketing’ does not only enter the subject of lesbian sexuality into the discourse of Irish women’s writing in a more open and positive manner than New Woman writing but, as a matter of fact, bypasses Irish censorship in a very intricate way, and begins to invade the potential readers’ subconscious by appearing as a secondary feminine character, yet indispensable to the plot of the text.


X, 310
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (October)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. X, 310 pp.

Biographical notes

Anna Charczun (Author)

Anna Charczun completed her PhD at Brunel University London in 2019, where she received the Vice-Chancellor’s Prize for Doctoral Research in the same year. Her research interests include Irish women’s writing, with an emphasis on lesbian writing. She has published on Irish lesbian writing at the end of the twentieth century and from diaspora.


Title: Irish Lesbian Writing Across Time
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322 pages