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The Most Gifted Woman in Ireland

Tadhg Foley

Hannah Lynch (1859-1904): Irish Writer, Cosmopolitan, New Woman, by Faith Binckes and Kathryn Laing, Cork University Press, 248+xii pp, €39, ISBN: 978-1782053330

Shelley, in the preface to his Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, excoriated the “savage criticism” of Keats’s Endymion in the Quarterly Review, describing the author as a “murderer”. The same publication had favourably reviewed works by the Reverend George Crolly, Eaton Stannard Barrett and the Reverend Henry Hart Milman, as well as “a long list of the illustrious obscure”. Literary, like other canons, are constructions often seen as unproblematic and the authors canonised regarded, a trifle profanely, as the fittest who have managed to survive. Shelley was, of course, using the oxymoronic term “illustrious obscure” ironically but, as this book splendidly and convincingly proves, it can also be semantically redeemed, rescuing from present obscurity the undoubtedly illustrious Hannah Lynch. Katharine Tynan’s obituary of Lynch spoke of one who left “a name writ in water”, quoting the self-inscribed epitaph on the gravestone of the same John Keats. Despite being written in the inhospitable element of water, his words remained and did not suffer the proverbial fate of those writ in air, the spoken words. We are greatly indebted to Faith Binckes and Kathryn Laing for their invaluable work in restoring Lynch to our memory.

Having immersed themselves in many archives, spread over a number of countries, and using the rich resources of digital technology, the authors have produced a superbly scholarly volume. Lynch was not only the author of novels and short stories but of several novellas, travel and critical writings, including one of the earliest studies of the novelist George Meredith, and translations from French and Spanish. Frances Low, “a pioneering journalist and commentator on women’s affairs” wrote of her “scathing wit” and suggested that her articles in periodicals should be collected “into one volume, and once and forever settle the question of whether there is a woman who can write a melodious and graceful prose-style”. She was, Low continued, “equally brilliant whether she was writing criticism, often of a sufficiently pungent nature, upon decadent French novelists or vivid descriptions of Spain and Greece and Southern France, or social or political articles” and those “exquisite little stories she wrote for Macmillan’s Magazine”. Finally, “towering above all other literary productions of the day”, was her “Masterpiece that has never won the recognition it surely will, viz., The Autobiography of a Child”. In this context, Harper’s Bazaar’s description, in 1902, of “Miss Hannah Lynch” as “the most gifted woman Ireland ever produced”, is perhaps less hyperbolic that it might otherwise appear.

The Ladies’ Land League, founded by Fanny and Anna Parnell in January 1881, was finally disbanded by August 1882. Lynch’s sisters Nannie and Virginia were active members but, according to Myles Dungan, “One of the most prominent, enterprising and tenacious members of the Ladies’ Land League” was Hannah Lynch, who seemed “to have made the survival of United Ireland a personal project”. This Land League paper, where the “No Rent Manifesto” was published, had been raided by the police, copies of the paper had been seized and almost the entire male staff arrested. However, members of the Ladies’ Land League, in most unladylike fashion, took over the production and distribution of the newspaper. In the somewhat condescending, but supportive, words of the editor, William O’Brien, who had been imprisoned, they “most unselfishly and valiantly, for several months” kept its accounts and “supplied some of its most piquant writings, and foiled the police raiders by a thousand ingenious feminine devices [aka ‘wiles’] for circulating the paper”. Frances Low wrote that Hannah Lynch “escaped to England, bringing with her the broken-up type of United Ireland” and Katharine Tynan credited her with carrying it over to Paris as well as engaging in a “similar act of clandestine distribution”.

Binckes and Laing claim convincingly that Lynch’s political and literary networks, from some of which she eventually practised social distancing, illuminate “forgotten links between the Ladies’ Land League and the earliest formations of the Irish cultural and, more specifically, Literary Revival”. She was at the heart of a “crucial shift in the London-Irish literary world”, because of the role played by its London branch in the establishment of the Southwark Junior Irish Literary Club, the later Southwark Irish Literary Society and then the Irish Literary Society. The Ladies’ Land League was also the first link in a chain leading to feminist nationalist and suffragist organisations, and the authors further support Tina O’Toole’s contention that the Ladies’ Land League was “intimately connected” with the rise of the “Irish New Woman”.

Lynch deemed her “Paris Letters” in the Academy not suitable for discussing questions of sexual identity and sexual politics, but her fiction, especially from 1896, provided a more suitable location for such topics. Her first novel, Through Troubled Waters (1885), was not exactly an exercise in bridge-building. She had, it seems, spent time working at Carrowntryla/Carantrila, Co Galway, the landed estate of the Handcock family, which proved for her to be a fiction-finding mission as well as an opportunity for an assault on the landed gentry from within. Apparently there had been a family scandal which involved the murder of sisters in order to make way for their brother. The families concerned, the Handcocks and Clanrickards, are reported to have bought up copies of the book and destroyed them. The novel, the authors tell us, provoked a “furious response”, presenting a “bare-knuckle assault on received ideas about male and female roles, the nature of motherhood and marriage, priestly behaviour, and aristocratic dignity”. Lynch was deeply concerned with unequal power relations between genders and with related questions of women’s autonomy and independence. In her “explicitly cosmopolitan New Woman narratives”, according to the authors, the heroine, “often Irish”, is in revolt “against marriage and other markers of the conventional destinies of woman”. Jinny, in Jinny Blake (1897), describes marriage as “Unstable as water”, a phrase which may have been borrowed from James Anthony Froude’s unflattering judgement of the Irish temperament. The plot of An Odd Experiment (1897) concerns the decision of a wife to take her husband’s young lover into the family home, and other novels and stories were interventions in the New Woman debate. The authors agree that her work can undoubtedly be seen as contributions to the emerging category of Irish New Woman fiction and quote her “full-throttle assault on the condition of Irish women”: “As girls they think its natural they should be sacrificed to their brothers, natural they should be tyrannized over by their fathers, and ordered to marry for the convenience of families. And when they in turn have children they train them in the same dreary and unjust traditions, and make the girls wait upon the boys and give up everything for them.” But Lynch always remained ideologically self-critical, as in her “Paris Letters” where, though a practitioner herself, she frequently interrogated the genre of New Woman fiction.

According to Lauren Arrington, “Most women in the Ladies’ Land League were not suffragists since suffrage enjoyed a close relationship to a pro-imperialist, even racist, position”, while “nonetheless, the women in the league set a feminist precedent”. Throughout her life, Lynch remained “a staunch anti-imperialist”, but this did not lead to an “unquestioning relationship with her home nation”. However, this position had consequences at the imperial centre. George Meredith had seen manuscripts of Lynch’s novels when working as a reader with the publisher Chapman & Hall, and he commented that she had “real powers”, admiring her intelligence and writing style. But her plotting and subject matter concerned him. The Prince of the Glades, exploring the political condition of Ireland, was for him an unpromising subject as Fenianism, for some reason, lacked aesthetic appeal at the centre of empire. But, he wrote, “the task of creating interest in Fenianism would try the cleverest pen: and the hero has Fenian fever”. As well as ideological unacceptability, this position had consequences for her marketability.

Lynch was imbued from her youth with a nationalism which endured but, as in her other ideological positions, she submitted to subsequent critique. Her international range, intellectually as well as geographically, her more than casual experience of visiting and indeed living in other countries, doubtless contributed to her more nuanced version of nationalism. There is, Binckes and Laing inform us, disillusion in Lynch’s fiction with the “patriarchal attitudes embedded in Victorian ideologies generally, and in the nationalism of the period more specifically. Her critical portrayal of the ways in which ideals of masculinity and the heroic shaped Irish nationalist identity is sharpened by the portrayal of proto-feminist heroines”. It is, of course, easy to see how the feminisation, and indeed infantilisation, of subject races and peoples under imperialism provoked an undoubtedly toxic hyper-masculinity. Nationalism was a powerful force against empire but Lynch “noted the dangers inherent in being guided by a nationalist fervour that takes on the attributes of the imperialism from which it seeks to liberate itself”.

The Dreyfus Affair in France in the 1890s and early 1900s provoked violent debates on questions of religious and national identity and was widely discussed in Great Britain and Ireland. Lynch, in her “Paris Letter”, mounted a powerful defence of Dreyfus in the context of “militarism, empire and race”. She was, of course, aware that Dreyfusard positions emanating from Great Britain were largely motivated by imperial competition with France. But she was shocked when Michael Davitt, who would have shared her anti-imperial positions, made an anti-Dreyfusard statement in Le Figaro. In a letter, not to the Academy, but to the conservative St James’s Gazette she wrote: “As a professional Irish patriot it is fitting that Mr. Davitt should side with France in her conflict with England. But, as an Irishman who has suffered with the weak in strife against the strong, who has thundered repeatedly against injustice and iniquity, I find no words, as an Irishwoman, to express my indignation and surprise on finding this victim of oppression to-day on the side of injustice and iniquity in another land.”

Lynch’s taste for travel, Binckes and Laing argue, is central to her writing. Her status as a lone, unchaperoned woman traveller, and coming from Ireland, a country much travelled against, doubtless sharpened her critique of existing dominant travel narratives. She rejected the “swooping overview” of Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris, in preference for what she called “the vagabond’s scrutiny” of, for instance, her native city, with its “irregular streets, the labyrinthine lanes, and vaguer plans of old Dublin, with its strongly marked individuality”. Hers is an indictment of the male’s controlling gaze, of him who is the master of all he surveys. Her vagabond perspective is a feminist challenge to this domineering vision, a potent kick against the pricks (Acts 9:5), the embracing of wandering, uncertainty, instability, vagueness. Indeed, etymology is on Lynch’s side as the words “vagabond” and “vague” both derive from the Latin word vagari, to wander. And vagueness is intolerable to the imperious eye.

From the beginning, Lynch, “[i]n order to balance her political, artistic and financial requirements”, produced “fiction that drew upon a series of existing templates ‑ romance, Gothic, the detective story, the historical novel”. If there had been such a thing as a Victorian/Edwardian Literary Trade Descriptions Act, Lynch would have been in serious trouble. As we saw, the extraordinarily well-travelled Hannah was an accomplished smuggler. However, in what one might call discursive contraband, her daring and systematic engagement in smuggling templates spectacularly outshone her success in smuggling printing plates. For instance, her incendiary views on gender roles, motherhood, and marriage in Through Troubled Waters appeared under the generic rubric of “romance”. Indeed, the genre, the authors state, she “both deployed and deflated” and it “remained a signature of her work”. Thanks to her smuggling expertise she contrived to publish even in conservative organs and her “seemingly neutral pieces” carried “traces of her commitments”. Her once famous Autobiography of a Child (1899) is set in a Gothic-like convent in the fictional English town of Lysterby and features the brutal whipping, by Sister Esmeralda, of Angela, an Irish child, for allegedly breaking a statue of an angel (the source of her own name). It was serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine, a pro-imperial Tory organ, though less jingoistic than John Bull, which had linked Lynch directly to the Phoenix Park assassinations. The authors ask: “Did the fact that this was a story about a child allow Lynch to smuggle an anti-imperial text into a pro-imperial journal?” This generically impure text, Binckes and Laing inform us, “draws freely and self-consciously upon a wide range of related discourses”, which include not only autobiography and a study in child psychology, but also “biography, memoir, fiction, BildungsromanKünstleroman, rebel tale, Gothic thriller, Victorian classic and fairy tale”.

There are several other important issues discussed in this rich and variegated study. Particularly illuminating are the accounts of the political and literary networks, in Dublin, London, and Paris, that sustained and enriched Hannah Lynch’s working life. They provided the “sociable, semi-professional atmosphere so vital for women making their way as independent agents in a male-dominated world”. Of particular significance in these groups was the role played by journalism, a profession which contributed powerfully to the liberation, intellectual and economic, of many a New Woman. Lynch and her friend Mabel Robinson were especially interested in the part played by journalism in national and gender politics. One of the illustrious obscure mentioned by the authors, and deserving of scholarly attention, is Emily Crawford, a Protestant from Co Longford who had moved earlier to Paris, a high-profile journalist, who “not only reported on international current affairs” but acted as advocate for “women writers generally, for women in journalism, and sometimes for journalism itself”.

In a certain sense, Binckes and Laing are in apostolic succession to Susan Mitchell who, in 1908, published a book of ballads entitled Aids to the Immortality of Certain Persons in Ireland. But in reputational terms Mitchell’s “persons”, unlike Lynch, were from the more-or-less quick rather than the dead. So, it’s all hail to Binckes and Laing, the Resurrection Women!


Tadhg Foley is professor emeritus of English at NUI Galway. He is completing a study of the life and work of Max Arthur Macauliffe (1838-1913), a judge in the Indian Civil Service and a celebrated authority on the Sikh religion.



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