Patricia Haberstroh and Christine St. Peter, editors. Opening the Field: Irish Women, Texts and Contexts.
This collection of ten essays by female critics from several nations applies a range of theoretical approaches to diverse texts written by Irish women during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In so doing, the editors, Patricia Haberstroh and Christine St. Peter, show the value of studying texts by Irish women, which have finally been gaining some critical attention in recent years. Haberstroh and St. Peter's introduction to the essay collection contextualizes it within the growing body of scholarship on Irish women writers. The collection opens with an essay that demonstrates the need for a collection like this one that responds to traditional neglect of Irish women writers: Gerardine Meaney's essay explores the challenges of editing volumes IV and V of The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, which are devoted to women writers; these two volumes were published in 2002 to address complaints that the earlier volumes of the Field Day anthology included few women writers.
Haberstroh and St. Peter's essay collection is directed at a broad academic readership. That the writers of the essays teach at Irish Studies, Women's Studies, or English departments at universities in Ireland, Canada, Spain, Sweden, and the U.S. aims the collection at an international audience. Many of the essays in this collection begin by explaining the theoretical approach they will utilize. The essays end with brief discussions of the biographical and critical contexts of the authors and works discussed; these codas, like the introductions to theory at the opening of the essays, provide background that would be helpful to the undergraduate or general reader. Nevertheless, the meat of each essay is stimulating enough to enlighten Irish studies scholars, making Haberstroh and St. Peter's collection a valuable addition to any university library.
The distinguished poet Eilean Ni Chuilleanain, who edited Maria Edgeworth's Belinda (1801), provides an essay on masculinity in Edgeworth' s Ormond (1817). Ni Chuilleanain suggests that Edgeworth's novel is responding to ideas about masculinity in novels by Fielding and Austen, as well as to Edgeworth's own father's life and fictional narratives.
Heidi Hansson applies locational feminist theory to Harriet Martin's little-known novel, Canvassing (1832). Hansson's explanation of locational feminist theory is excellent, and it includes an interesting discussion of her own unusual position as a Swedish scholar of Irish literature. According to Hansson, Canvassing compares election campaigns with women's strategies for winning husbands in the marriage market. However, as Irish voters are disappointed in the British parliament, so are the two Irish protagonists disappointed in the English husbands that they won.
Patricia Coughlan examines Peig Sayers's autobiography, published in Irish in the 1930s, which has been used as a school text for teaching the Irish language for many decades. Living on the Great Blasket Islands as a mother of ten, Sayers was a famous oral storyteller who dictated her autobiography to her son and others. Coughlan contends that though Sayers's autobiography has been used to teach children to venerate "the ideal and pious Irish mother" (70), her work "deserves to be reread for the power of her texts as social history from a woman's perspective and for the psychological insight they afford into feminine subjectivity in Irish traditional society" (69-70).
Katherine O'Donnell's essay about queer sexuality in Kate O'Brien's Mary Lavelle (1936) aims to show that a queer reading can enhance readers' appreciation of many texts (88). O'Donnell analyzes triangular relationships within O'Brien's novel to uncover its hidden lesbian meaning.
Discussing Marina Carr's experimental tragedy, Portia Coughlan (1999), Cathy Leeney compares Cart's "anti-heroine" to Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (94). Leeney concludes that "manipulations, and instabilities of form, stage space, and dramatic language ... open possibilities for the overturning of narrative power and reflect crises in representation" (99).
Luz Mar Gonzalez Arias's essay, "Sheela-Na-Gigs as Multiple Signifiers of the Female Body in Ireland," focuses upon visual rather than literary texts. "Sheela-na-gigs are medieval carvings to be found on the walls of some Irish churches and castles" (102) that picture women's vulvas in an exaggerated fashion, but often omit their breasts. Scholars debate the significance of medieval Sheela-na-gigs, according to Arias, who also examines Susan Connolly and Carmel Benson's contemporary paintings of Sheela-na-gigs, which "encourage contemporary women to stop perceiving their own corporeality as a heavy, awkward and shameful burden of guilt" (116).
Rebecca Pelan discusses several contemporary Northern Irish women's poetry (especially the work of Ruth Cart and Medbh McGuckian). Describing the publishing market for Northern Irish writers in contrast with those of the Irish Republic, Pelan argues that the women of the North have achieved more in poetry than in other literary genres, though Northern poetry has been dominated by men.
The author of two seminal books about Irish women's writing, Ann Owens Weekes applies Adrienne Rich and Jessica Benjamin's theories about motherhood to Mary Morrissy's Mother of Pearl (1996). Rich approaches the maternal from a lesbian perspective, and Benjamin, from a psychoanalytic one; Owens Weekes combines the two critics' perspectives to uncover "an ancient, almost universal, gendered myth" within Morrissy's novel (145).
In Haberstroh and St. Peter's collection's final chapter, another novel by Morrissy is examined--The Pretender (2000). Anne Fogarty contends that "The Pretender, with its multiple stories of duplicated selves, constructs a rich mythography of disempowerment and social exclusion and unflinchingly explores the painful psychoses resulting from female dependency" (160). It initially seemed odd that Morrissy's work merits two chapters in this collection, whereas many leading women writers are never mentioned; however, such delving deeply into Morrissy's work suggests the rich research opportunities that exist for studying Irish women's writing. This seems especially evident since the Irish writer Anne Enright has just won the Booker Prize.
Jeanette Roberts Shumaker
San Diego State University, Imperial Valley
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|Author:||Shumaker, Jeanette Roberts|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2008|
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