Maurice Francis Egan, ‘On Irish Novels’, (1904)

Bibliographical details: ‘On Irish Novels’ in Catholic University Bulletin [Washington, D.C.], 10, 3 (July 1904), pp.329-41; rep. as ‘Irish Novels’, in Irish Literature (1904), Vol. VI, pp.vii-xvii - with a small emendation in that the closing lines include a brief remark on Seamus MacManus. The present text has been kindly supplied by Professor Robert Mahony of Catholic University of America (Washington). Some obvious errors in the original are here indicated as [sic]; all orthographical and typographical errors are my own [BS].

The new movement which is expressing itself in Irish literature to-day is not akin to the movement that influenced the Irish novelists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. in the first place - and this is one of its chief values in many eyes - it is not a movement of reaction. In the second, it is not purely social. There is not an Irish novelist worthy to be mentioned in this paper whose work can be judged exclusively by a literary or artistic standard. The greatest of them all, William Carleton, was a novelist because he put character, alive and palpitating, on paper and fixed it there for all time, preserving the varying shades of vitality. He likewise gave the atmosphere of certain parts of his country so accurately that his novels, whatever may be the literary judgement of the future, must have an enormous sociological influence on the work of the future historian of Ireland.

The influences that have touched such diverse personalities as Miss Edgeworth and Miss Laffan, Samuel Lover and Charles Kickham, Gerald Griffin and Anthony Trollope, who wrote novels of Irish life, Lady Morgan and Charles Lever, are not the influences that move Lady Gregory, Mr William Yeats, Dr. Douglas Hyde, or Katharine Tynan, when she does not write novels. Canon Sheehan belongs also to the old sociological school, while Dr Barry, at least in one novel, has shown that he is willing to be receptive to the influences lately developed and recognised. In the newer movement, art counts for much, - and there is the old yearning for mysticism of the past. In the older movement, mysticism, counter for little and conscious art for less. 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. Carleton and Griffin, Lover and Lever, even the Banims, can not somehow prevent themselves from seeing the Irish people from the outside. When Griffin sings of his childhood, one feels that there is a note of regret in the song for the separation which the alien language, claiming and holding him, has made for him from the essences of the Irish past. And when Carleton makes some of his very snobbish notes, for the benefit of a prejudiced and ignorant public, one knows that he is trying to look at his own race from an alien standpoint. The Hon Miss Lawless, Miss Laffan, Miss Jane Barlow, even the exquisite Moira O’Neill, who has the point of view of a novelist, though she is not one, all have sympathy and understanding but it is a sympathy and understanding not unconscious. Thackeray’s characters are more evidently painted from the outside than many of Lever’s and Lover’s. The dash, the sparkle, the irresponsibility of Lever’s soldiers are only the glints of sunlight on the surface of rippling waters; and the imitators of Lover, Nugent Robinson, whose short story, “The Little Chapel of Monamullen”, and Myles O’Reilly, have done no more than reproduce these effects. Lover, whose Handy Andy, is the best of all his works, has a coarseness of touch, a lack of art, and a habit of patronising the Irish, which is amusing now; it is easy to imagine how irritating it must have been whent he people thus patronised and ‘arranged’ for foreign inspection were powerless to resent it. It used to be very a common remark among visitors to Ireland that ‘the Irish did not know their own literature’. ‘Their own literature’, in the estimation of the tourist, was principally ‘Father Tom and the Pope’ and the uproarious novels of Lever. The defect in both Lover’s novels, Rory O’More - by all odds the best - and Handy Andy is that they were written with an eye on what the English reader could expect the Irish personages to do; - but, in all except the outer characteristics of a wonderfully complex people, they give only hints. We get near to the heart of the people in Carleton’s ‘Poor Scholar’, in Banim’s Crohoore of the Billhook, in Griffin’s Collegians - above all, it seems to me, in spite of the demands of a non-Catholic audience, in Carleton. [303]

Anthony Trollope’s Irish novels, The Macdermots of Ballycloran, The Kellys and The O’Kellys, followed much later by The Land Leaguers, deserve the criticism of the London Times in 1848 - “Of The Kellys and the O’Kellys we may say what the master said to his footman, when the man complained of the constant supply of legs of mutton on the kitchen table. “Well John, legs of mutton are very substantial food”; and we may say also that John replied, “Substantial, sir - yes, they are substantial but a little coarse.” Trollope one of the first of English novelists, whose Warden and Barchester Towers ought to rank among the classics, had too coarse a touch for the lights and shadows in the April-country of Ireland. His Irish novels, he admits, were never heard of in Ireland, and the editions sold in England were very small; the first two he wrote for pleasure; The Land Leaguers has less interest than the others, - and indeed, no method could be less addapted than the hard-and-fast one of Trollope for representing the Irish of any period.

Trollope’s point of view was sympathetic, and, though he could not do what he did for the Anglican parson - that is, give us the best pictures of Protestant clerical life done in English - pictures that have a right to stand beside those Mrs. Oliphant made of the dissenting clergy in The Chronicles of Carlingford - his portrait of Father John and his curate are much truer and kinder than might be expected from a man who had little knowledge of the inner life of priests. He was faithful to Irish life as he saw it. ‘it was altogether a jolly life I led in Ireland, he says in his Autobiography. ‘The Irish people did not murder me, nor did they even break my head. I soon found them to be good-humoured, clever, the working classes much more intelligent than those of England - economical, and hospitable. We hear much of their spendthrift nature, but extravagance is not the nature of an Irish man, He will count the shillings in a pound much more accurately than an Englishman, and with much more certainty, get twelve pennyworth from each. But the Irish are perverse, irrational and but little bound b the love of truth. I lived for many years among them - not finally leaving the country until 1850, - and I had means of studying their character. [331]

Miss Edgeworth was a realist but with more theories than Trollope. The Ireland of Castle Rackrent was not the Ireland of fifty-one years later. Miss Edgeworth, unlike Miss Austen, but like Miss Burney and George Eliot, had the misfortune to fall under masculine influence. Miss Burney, who saw her world with keen, interested, and observant eyes in Evelina, became mannered and verbose in Cecilia; George Eliot, who was delightfully humorous and finely receptive to the values of social relations in Scenes from Clerical Life and The Mill on the Floss, became more and more didactic and less truly artistic as Mr. George Lewes’s influence over her increased. Dr Johnson’s habit of making fishes talk like whales, caught by Miss Burney, destroyed the promise of her youth, and Dr. Edgeworth’s comfortable method of setting everything by rule and measure interfered with the free development of Miss Edgeworth’s talent as a novelist. In Castle Rackrent, in Ennui, in The Absentee, we see traces of those economic theories, those constant appeals to the processes of natural philosophy that had begun to take the place of spirituality in the bosum of many self-complacent persons in the middle of the eighteenth century. It was in this atmosphere of self-satisfaction that Madam de Genlis brought up the Orleans princes; it permeated all the literature for youth, and the very essentials of it are found in the maxims of Benjamin Franklin.

Castle Rackrent is the best remembered of Miss Edgeworth’s novels. It interpreted certain phases of Irish life to a public ignorant of them. All her novels are free from sectarian prejudice, and, in spite of the lack of vitality in some of the characters drawn by her from fashionable life, she deserved the admiration that Sir Walter Scott unreservedly expressed for her. Her sympathy is always on the side of the angels and the Irish. With the terrible or the deeply pathetic, she is not at close quarters. She prefers to see them at a distance. She had limitations - the limitations of her creed and time. A clear head, a good heart, a well0-balanced mind, a moral point of view, a keen sense of humour and as keen an appreciation of wit gave her the qualities which caused her Irish novels to be appreciated by the only public that could afford to buy them - the English. She saw the evils of absenteeism; and these evils she depicted as degrading the character of the landlord as well as ruining both the mental and the physical life of the tenant. The Absentee and Ennui are good examples of her work in trying to correct the prevalent absenteeism.

“Are you to be at Lady Clonbrony’s gala next week?’ said Lady Langdale to Mrs. Dareville, while they were waiting for their carriages in the crush-room of the opera-house.
“O yes! everybody’s to be there, I hear,’ replied Mrs. Dareville.
“Your ladyship, of course?”
“Why, I don’t know if I possibly can. Lady Clonbrony makes it such a point with me, that I believe I must look in upon her for a few minutes. They are going to a prodigious expense on this occasion. he tells me the reception rooms are all to be new furnished, and in the most magnificent style.”
”At what a famous rate these Clonbronys are rushing on,” said Colonel Heathcock. “Up to anything.”
“Who are they? these Clonbronys, that one hears of so much of late?” said her Grace of Torcaster. “Irish absentees, I know. But how do they support all this enormous expense?”
“The son will have a prodigiously fine estate when some Mr Quin dies,” said Mrs. Dareville.
“Yes, everybody who comes from Ireland will have a fine estate when somebody dies,” said her Grace. “But what have they at present?”
“Twenty thousand a year, they say,” replied Mrs. Dareville.

Later, Lady Langdale says of the Irish peeress:

”If you knew all she endures to look, speak, move, breathe like an Englishwoman, you would pity her.”
“Yes, and you cawn’t conceive the peens she teeks to talk of the teebles and cheers, and to thank Q, and with so much teeste to speak pure English,” said Mrs. Dareville.
“Pure cockney, you mean,” said Lady Langdale.
“But does Lady Clonbrony expect to pass for English?” said the duchess.
“Oh, yes I because she is not quite Irish bred and born only bred, not born,” said Mrs. Dareville. ”And she could not be five minutes in your Grace’s company before she would tell you that she was Henglish, born in Hoxfordshire.” [333]

To a healthy-minded woman like Miss Edgeworth, who valued, among other things not English, her relationship to the Abbé Edgeworth, the snobbishness of certain compatriots was unendurable; she liked and admired the Irish; even their faults were to her not real faults - or, at most, they were faults of her family circles to be condoned, if possible; if not, to be accepted so long as they did not imply meanness. Castle Rackrent led Sir Walter Scott to use his wide ezperience with the Scottish character in a similar way. ‘If I could,’ he said to James Ballantyne, ‘but hit Miss Edgeworth’s wonderful power of vivifying all her persons, and making them live as beings in our minds I should not be afraid.’

The time came when he was not afraid for the world had given its verdict, and it justly put Sir Walter far beyond Miss Edgeworth in the portrayal of National Characteristics. Still, when Sir Walter attempted the novel of fashionable society, he felt the limitations much more than Miss Edgeworth. Belinda, Miss Edgeworth’s worst novel because that philosophic doctor, her father, would meddle with it, is incomparably better than “St. Ronan’s Well.” Thady, the teller of the story of the family of Castle Rackrent, was not as a creation, surpassed by Scott; one may yawn over the talk and the tribulations of Miss Edgeworth’s fine ladies and gentlemen, but her common people are always very much alive and racy of the soil that alone could give such beings birth. 0rmond, as far as the story of Irish life goes, is of more importance than either Ennui or The Absentee. The real Miss Edgeworth, the lover of the manifestations of character, the sincere, the unaffected, the graphic is here. The novel of manners is one of the most useful documents for the historian, as we know; and, in English literature, it is of very recent growth. The historian of Ireland in the eighteenth century could as fairly neglect Castle Rackrent and Ormond in his sociological chapters as the historian of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, dealing with France, could afford to pass by the psychological studies, expressed in fiction, of Paul Bourget.

The novel and the short story have very much in common as the short story is understood to-day. The narrative, the [334] string of episodes into which characteristics rather than character enter, has not the qualities of the form of literature which for almost two centuries we have called the novel. The novel proper differs principally from the romance in its accent on character and atmosphere. The short story of to-day is not the tale made so famous in English letters by Blackwood’s Magazine. It depends, like the novel, on atmosphere - the colour of the society it interprets - and on the development of psychology. Most of the Irish short story writers approach more to the novel, as we understand it to-day, as a rule, the writers of short stories, like Miss Jane Barlow, are included almong the novelists.

Lover and Lever, however, were romancers rather than story writers. Smollet, or Dickens at his worst - when justly interpreted by Cruikshanks [sic] - was no more of a caricaturist than Lover. Those who read Smollet now, look on his caricatures as bad art and those of Dickens, though deserving a similar censure, do not offend as Lover’s offend. There is the effect, in some of Lover’s comic pages, of heartlessness. Poverty and wit, starvation and humour exist together, but the result in the eyes of an author who does not write merely to make his public laugh, ought to be pathetic, heart-stirring and tear-stirring, rather than amusing; if test of a novel is the question whether one remembers character or incident Lover must be put outside the class of novelists, for, in Rory O’More and Handy Andy, it is the incidents that are etched on our minds. The characters stand out as persons that are created for the incidents. This is even truer of Lever than of Lover. From Harry Lorrequer to Lord Kilgobbin, there is hardly one character, except Micky Free, that holds fast to the memory; there is no person who seems so real as Carleton’s Poor Scholar, Griffin’s Hardress Cregan, or the hero of William [sic] Banim’s Crohoore of the Billhook.

Lever is the first of all the romancers of military life, as Maxwell is of the Sporting life of the Irish gentry. Maxwell’s best work is in The Wild Sports of the West; it has all the sparkle, all the recklessness of Lever in his Leveresque moods. It is evident, in this book, that congenial tastes bound Lever and Maxwell together. No succeeding writer in any language [335] has given to the life of the camp and barracks the glamour with which governments endeavour to make them alluring by means of gold lace, flags and music, but the brilliance of Lever is a surface brilliance. It seems almost a pity that Lever should have chosen Ireland and Irish influences as his themes, for no writer has given the Irish a more widespread reputation for that irresponsibility and volatility, - so agreeably contemplated by a dominant race, - than this very clever romancer. He stands alone in literature; in lightmindedness, in that gaiety of heart which leads to anything but gaiety of head in the morning, who can come near him? He apotheosises wine, women and song and makes the primrose path of dalliance as agreeable as the Moore-Anacreon pictures of heaven where rosy cupids float on bubbles of rosier champagne. He saves himself always from mere coarseness or vulgarity, and he is so light-hearted that nobody seriously asks whether his point of view is moral or not. His pictures of Dublin society in its bloom will live, and his fun no doubt continue to smooth the wrinkles of care, in spite of the fact that Jack Hinton and Harry Lorrequer and Tom Burke - all chips off the same block - seem rather more puppet-like than they did twenty years ago. The improvement in taste and the higher demands made on the construction power of the romance of to-day are shown by the modern view of his Maurice Tierney and Gerald Fitzgerald. They seem thin and tired at times; but, even as they are, there has been so far no story of Irish chivalry that at all approaches Lever’s romances - even taking Gerald Fitzgerald which he evidently regarded as his weakest, as a standard. And yet no period in which Irishmen held a conspicuous place offers more alluring opportunities to the man of creative imagination than the years following ‘the flight of the wild geese’ [see note]. With James II and Louis XVI, Sarsfield and the Duke of Berwick and all the glittering groups of fighting exiles, from the period of the Sun Monarch to that of the Sea-Green Marat what vistas of romance there are! Gerald Fitzgerald brings us down to the time of Louis XVI, Mirabeau and the figures that moved about him appear; this romance has not the verve and [336] the swing of the earlier books yet, from the point of view of the literary critic, it is constructively and in style much better than many historical romances which are more read to-day; but Lever did not like it, and, in spite of the unusual pains he took in writing it, he did not wish to include it in the collected edition of his works. Mr. William McLennen in Spanish John, Mr. S. R. Keightly [sic] in The Last Recruit of Clare’s, and Mr. L. McManus in Lally of the Brigade, have tried their hands; - so far they have made only promises to transfigure epochs which will always appeal to the love of the heroic.

There are two romances - one written by an Irishman, but not a romance - The Epicurean - the other Irish of the Irish, Gerald Griffin’s The Invasion - that have been lost sight of by the general reader. The Epicurean is very remarkable and well-written; in spite of its erudition, it is vital. The Invasion is very worthy of a much higher place than The Epicurean; it ought to have done for the later Danish period of Irish history what Ivanhoe did for the early Norman period of English history. For some reason or other, not apparent, The Invasion is almost forgotten, though it abounds in stirring scenes and vivid pictures of that old life of Druid and gallowglass and prince and sept of which most of us know so little. No one who has read it can forget it. It might be said that Gerald Griffin sometimes tints when he should lay on the colours heavily, and this may have a shade of truth in it; but who could colour more heavily than Sir Samuel Ferguson in that wonderful Hibernian Nights of his, and what stories have been more completely forgotten? The reason for the neglect of The Invasion would seem more intangible, if the romance should be revived and read.

The melodrama of The Collegians has, by comparison, put the other novels of Gerald Griffin into the background. When Dion Boucicault dramatised this novel, he did its author a bad turn. It made the worst qualities of this fine work of fiction permanent in the public mind. Nothing can he said against The Colleen Bawn as a well-constructed play for the stage; but it is stagy of the stage, and Dion Boucicault found the hints for this theatricalism in the novel itself. It has not, however, the fine quality of the novel. Griffin had more art, [337] more refinement, more sense of the perspective of life than the Banims or Carleton; his studies in the world around him resulted in the expression of truths that all his contemporaries disdained. He knew the heart of Munster as only a man who was a poet could know it; there are pages in Tales of the Munster Festival that can not be rivalled in artistic effect, - an effect so convincing that the means by which it is obtained are lost to the reader in the terror or the pathos of the moment.

“The Half Sir” is one of the most careful presentations of certain phases of Irish life which Lover and Lever and Miss Laffan would have caricatured, the Banims seen as through a glass darkly, and which Carleton would have coarsened. The strain of pessimism which neutralised the Christian energy of Griffin at times relaxes his effort just as he nears a fine psychological climax. Take him as he is, and, without giving The CoIlegians the exaggerated praise it has received at the expense of his other works, he ranks very near the first of all the Irish novelists. Lady Gilbert (Rosa Mulholland) in The Wild Birds of Killeevey, shows some of the delicate insight into character which distinguishes him from his rivals. She has fine art; she is more healthy in her conception of life, more cheerful; but her work to his is as a pastel of the Lakes of Killarney on a sunny day to a Turner picture of a winter’s wreck on the southwest coast. The Aylmers of Bally-Aylmer and The Wild Birds of Killeevey should be read together as a contrast in Irish fiction; and both are works by careful artists. Maginn and Mrs. S. C. Hall and Croker are persons each of importance to the student of comparative literature, and each a good storyteller, though there are times when Mrs. S. C. Hall strikes fire out of the worn stony path-way of perfunctory story writing. Who reads Lady Morgan’s St. Claire now? It has gone out of fashion with the turban and the flowing ringlet and the Annuals with desperate verses in them and sugar-and-water stories, ‘I never loved a dear gazelle’, and other sentimentalities. Lady Morgan is above all sentimental and there can be no comparison made between the strong and graphic Boyne Water and The Denounced of John Banim; but The Wild Irish Girl and The O’Briens and the O’Flahertys deserve respect; they opened vistas of [338] the past to people who seemed, in their despair, to have neither past nor future. Say what we will, - to give a man a pedigree is to give him self-respect. Lady Morgan’s taste is not always correct; she is often as untrammelled in her sarcastic epithet as the first Lady Bulwer-I.ytton; but she loved a nation that then had few to love it. You may smile at her Glorvina and the swelling harp, and yet, in a sound heart, that smile ought to be near a tear. Seamus McManus, the latest of the Irish story-writers, would not dare to introduce Lady Morgan’s romantic effects and William Butler Yeats would doubtless put The Wild Irish Girl among the rococo [sic] ‘properties’ of a theatrical past - but, they are of another time.

‘The greatest of all the Irish novelists is without doubt William Carleton. Prejudices have passed - they were founded on principles, but let them go. Carleton has his vagaries; but when one reads his stories, one can not help saying, with Ophelia, ‘God have mercy on his soul, and on all Christian souls!’. To read when one is young, Carleton’s series of novels, Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry is to go into a strange land of bright sunshine and deep shadow, where there are great sorrows and great joys but very little happiness. One feels that one is looking at this new life in the grasp of a giant, and a giant who is strong and coarse and sometimes mean. Youth is intolerant. Carleton, with his glaring faults, is not the writer for youth. When a man has reached middle age, he may turn to these works of a genius who never took pains, for instruction and delight. Let us allow for all the faults of construction, the vulgarity that prejudices all readers of ‘Paddy Go Easy’ against Carleton, the occasional humble apologies to the English lords and gentleman - and you find one of the most moving writers that ever dipped a pen in his experience and wrote in English. To read ‘A poor Scholar’ well is to become a better man. When Carleton lets his peasants speak for themselves, they are perfect. When he speaks for them himself, he is at times what the French call banal, when he becomes one of them and speaks and acts with them, you see into their hearts and souls, you know their country as they know it. Then he is the master of the pathetic, of the terrible, of the simple, of the fair hope, of the dark [339] sorrow because he understands and forgetting himself in the depths of his understanding, be fires you with sympathy. For truth and horror, read “The Lianhan Shee”; for humour and grief “The Geography of An Irish Oath”; for simple faith - to feel all pure impulses stir within you - “The Poor Scholar.” This Gaelic is Gaelic is incorrect, we have been told - so incorrect that the philologers can not put it right. When Ophelia calls for her coach and Queen Gertrude weeps, who cares when coaches were used or invented? And so with Carleton’s Gaelic; - verbal infelicities are forgotten in a scene like that in “The Poor Scholar” where the father and mother look at the sleeping boy, who they hope will be a priest [quotes extensively].

There are strong and tender passages in Valentine McClutchy, The Black Prophet, and even in that popular romance, Willy Reilly; in Art Maguire, in The Emigrants of Ahadarra, but in the Traits and Stories we may look for the manifestations of Carleton’s genius at his highest. There was a lesser man who had glimpses of the fire that led Carleton on, Charles Kickham. Sally Cavanaugh and Knock-na-Gow can not be forgotten by those who have lived in the charmed atmosphere which Kickham’s wizard wand created. Carleton had led the way, yet it was not easy to be followed by men of more imagination but less feeling and experience.

Carleton stands alone. He is ruthless at times; he revels in horrors, as in ‘the Black Prophet’ where the descriptions of the famine are as heart-rending as the plague scenes in Manzoni, or the yellow fever episode in Charles Brockden Brown. Mr. D. J. O’Donoghue, in his admirable sketch of Carleton, says that Kickham is the only Irish novelist who approaches Carleton’s ‘power over the emotion’. ‘Outburts, occasional misrepresentations’, Mr. O’Donoghue says, returning to Carleton, ‘cannot however, obliterate his great service to Ireland, and, in the main, there is no picture so true as that presented in his Traits and Stories. A careful study of the Irish novelists - I except novelists like Julia Kavanaugh [sic], the author of Nathalie Adèle and J. Sheridan Le Fanu, who did not write about Ireland - is necessary for the understanding of the history of Ireland in the last. hundred years; and the material is plentiful and easy of access. (pp.339-41.)

1. Recently exquisitely and tenderly immortalised in Miss Lawless’s unique book of poems, ‘With the Wild Geese.’]

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