Mrs May Hartley (1849-1916)


Life
née Mary Laffan [later Hartley]; b. 3 May, 41 Phillipsburgh AVe., Clontarf (Dublin), 2nd child & eldest dg. of a Catholic father and Protestant mother, Michael Laffan and Ellen Saran [née Fitzgibbon]; raised Catholic; moved to 4 Cross Ave., Blackrock; ed. Dominican Convent, Sion Hill; d. of Mrs. Laffan, 1861; d. of Ellen Sarah, her dg.; proceeded to Alexandra College; poss. spent time in France; acted as volunteer social worker in the Liberties with Fr. C. P. Meehan; contrib. article on ‘Convent Boarding Schools for Young Ladies’ to Frazer’s Magazine (June 1874), criticising the regime;
 
issued Hogan MP (1876), an Irish retelling of the Faustian theme, and suffered nervous breakdown at its ill-reception; issued The Hon. Miss Ferrard (1877), a tale of growing up in Ireland in which the vulnerability of Protestant proprietors to the antagonism of their Catholic tenants is conveyed through the predicament of the title character, Helen, an Irish land-owner; issued Flitters, Tatters, and the Counsellor (1879), together with The Game Hen, accounts of poverty in Dublin, and Baubie Clarke, concerning a street singer in Edinburgh; Flitters led to an admiring letter from John Ruskin [printed in his Correspondence]; trans. Hector Malot’s San Famille as No Relations (1880);
 
fnd.-member of Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, 1880; m. Walter Noel Hartley, chemist of King’s College and FRS, 1882; moved to Ballsbridge; engaged in promoting High Schol for Irish Catholic Girls; ceased writing during her marriage; issued Ismay’s Children (1887), set in Paris and prob. written by 1882; issued A Singer’s Story, also set in Paris ; a son, Walter John, b. 1889, became lect. in bacteriology in Cardiff and d. at Gallipoli. 1915; May Laffan Hartley becomes mentally unstable, and admitted to Bloomfield Hosp., 1910; Walter Hartley knighted 1911 and d. suddenly 1913; May d. 23 June; highly praised by T. P. O’Connor in his additional vol. to Read’s Cabinet (1880); author’s correspondence held by Macmillan & Co. CAB JMC IF SUTH OCIL

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Works
Hogan, M.P
. (London: Macmillan 1876); The Hon. Miss Ferrard (1877; 2nd edn. London: Macmillan 1881); The Game Hen; Flitters, Tatters, and the Counsellor: Three Waifs from the Dublin Streets (1879; 2nd edn. London: Simpkin & Marshall 1883); Ismay’s Children (1887); Christy Carew (1880; London: Macmillan 1882).

Reprint, Flitters[... &c.] and Hogan (NY: Garland Press 1979).

Criticism
Helen Kelleher Kahn, ‘May Laffan Hartley’, in Blackrock Society: Proceedings 2003 [2004], pp.112-14 [see extract]; Jill Brady Hampton, ‘Religious Ambivalence in May Laffan’s Hogan, M.P., in Evangelicals and Catholics in Nineteenth-century Ireland, ed. James H. Murphy (Dublin: Four Courts Press 2005), Chap. 10 [p.136ff

Note: Barry Sloan, Pioneers of Anglo-Irish Fiction, cites Hogan MP, an electioneering novel; James Cahalan, Irish Novel, cites Hogan MP as an example of the Dublin regional novel (p.78).

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Commentary
Maurice Francis Egan, ‘On Irish Novels’, in Catholic University Bulletin, Vol. 10, No. 3 (July 1904), 329-41: All the Irish novelists, except Miss Laffan and Miss Tynan, whose importance, after all, does not lie in her novels, seem to regard to [sic] the laws of proportion - in another phrase, the art of construction - as if they had no relation to the gift of story-telling. There is another distinct difference between the writers in the [302] Irish movement and the older novelists. (p.329; supplied by Robert Mahony, CUA; 1998.)

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James H. Murphy, Catholic Fiction and Social Reality in Ireland, 1873-1922 (Conn: Greenwood Press 1997), Part I: ‘Upper Middle-Class Fiction 1873-1890’, remarks: ‘The novels of May Laffan […] constitute a sustained attack against Irish Catholic respectability. Laffan, who was actually a Catholic, came from a mixed religious background. Her assaults on Catholic social inferiority were her way of distancing herself from the Catholic and emphasising the Protestant side of her own social background’; novels called “crude” and “repellent” by Katherine Tynan; cites example of Protestant miss disparaging the ‘flower-garden’ effect of the Catholic girls’ clothing; ‘The novel [Hogan MP] ends on a characteristically tendentious note with a reference to Hogan’s new mother-in-law who, “descries ‘mixed marraiges” as bitterly as the Cardinal himself.’ (p.491; here p.29); discusses The Honourable Miss Ferrard (1877), noting that Helena resents the advantages of Catholic gentry in relation to their tenants (p.44).

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Helen Kelleher Kahn, ‘May Laffan Hartley’, in Blackrock Society: Proceedings 2003 [2004]: ‘May Laffan Hartley, novelist, was born at 41 Phillipsburgh Ave., Clontarf, Dublin on May 3rd, 1849, second child and eldest daughter of Michael Laffan and his wife Ellen Sarah, nee Fitzgibbon. There was a gap in social rank between the parents. The Fitzgibbon family, originally tenants on the Knight of Glin’s Estate in Co. Limerick, moved to Dublin in the 1820s, joined the Church of Ireland, and took part in the business life of the city. Gerald Fitzgibbon, fourth son of the family, became a barrister, and subsequently a judge. He founded a legal dynasty, and was guardian of his niece, Ellen Sarah, whose father, Thomas Fitzgibbon, died young. Michael Laffan also came from a tenant-farming background, but in North Tipperary. His father was a publican, and Michael, exceptionally for a Catholic, had become clerk in the Dublin Custom House in the 1840s. / May Laffan had one older brother, William (b. 1848), two younger brothers, Michael Fitzgibbon (b. 1852) and James (b. 1854), and two younger sisters, Ellen Sarah (b. 1850) and Catherine (b.c. 185 8). All the Laffan children were reared as Catholics. / [...] May Laffan Hartley wrote accuratly and entertainingly of the emerging middle class in nineteenth-century Ireland, particularly with reference to Dublin. HGer novels owe little to English influencs; much more to Balzac. She can be seen as belonging to that late nineteenth-century group of Irish realist writers to which Emily Lawless, Violet Martin, George Moore and Edith Somerville also belonged, thoug unlike them she did not come from a land-owning background. Her inheritance of mixed religious traditions enabled her to comment on differing views and beliefs in a way which presents a vivid and original picture of the social and political climate of her time.’ (Bibl., James Murphy, Catholic Fiction & Social Reality in Ireland 1873-1922, 1997; John Sutherland, The Stanford [sic] Companion to Victorian Fiction, 1989; Robert Welch, ed., The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature, 1996.)

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Margaret Kelleher, ‘Prose Writing and Drama in English; 1830-1890 […]’, in Cambridge History of Irish Literature, ed. Kelleher & Philip O’Leary (Cambridge UP 2006), Vol. 1: ‘In 1880, the Cabinet of Irish Literature hailed May Laffan (Hartley) as “to some extent the precursor of a new school in Irish fiction”. Her first novel, Hogan MP (1876), provides a sharply observed portrait of contemporary middle-class society in a manner that may have influenced Kate O’Brien’s Mellick scenes. Between 1876 and 1887, Laffan published four other novels and three volumes of short fiction. Laffan and her contemporary, Fannie Gallaher (who occasionally wrote under the pseudonym “Sydney Starr”), were also the pioneers of “slum fiction” in Irish settings. In 1879 Laffan published “Flitters, Tatters and the Counsellor”, a day in the lives of three street children, which ran to six editions in Ireland and England and at least two in America within the first year of publication, and was approvingly cited by John Ruskin and by Yeats. Gallaher’s sketch Katty the Flash: A Mould of Dublin Mud, which appeared the following year, is a more satirical portrait - in this case of two street vendors, mother and daughter - and approaches the grotesque at moments in the narrative. Overall, Laffan’s work is the more deserving of attention, and challenges the prevalent view of fiction of this period as only rural in subject. Of her depiction of Dublin merchant life and petty politics, Robert Lee Woolf, an early champion of Laffan’s work, noted that “the nineteenth century has at last caught up with Ireland and the spectacle is not pretty”. (Woolf, Intro. to Flitters, Tatters and the Counsellor and Other Sketches ([1881] (NY Garland Press 1989, p.vii.)

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References
Justin McCarthy, Irish Literature (1904), treats her as contemporary and gives ‘An Electioneering Scene’ from Hogan MP.

Stephen Brown, Ireland in Fiction [Pt. I] (Dublin: Maunsel 1919) lists novels , Hogan, M.P. (1876); The Hon. Miss Ferrard (1877; 2nd edn. London Macmillan 1881); The Game Hen; Flitters, Tatters, and the Counsellor (1879; rep. 1883) Ismay’s Children (1887) ; Christy Carew (1880). Hartley is briefly cited in Barry Sloan, Pioneers of Anglo-Irish Fiction, for Hogan MP, an electioneering novel. She is anthologised and highly praised by T. P. O’Connor in his add. vol. to Read’s Cabinet.

John Sutherland, Companion to Victorian Literature (London: Longman 1988): husband was knighted, 1911; possibly separated from her, or died young; Hogan, a venal Home Rule MP; quotes Spectator review, ‘we have seldom have had to read through a modern novel which left a worst taste behind than this’; Christy Carew denounces hostility to mixed marriage; later works little more than ‘sketch books interlarded with pathos.’

Belfast Central Library holds Flitters, Tatters and the Counsellor (1895); Hogan, M.P. (1881); The Hon. Miss Ferrard (1881); Ismay’s Children (1887), all fiction.

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