Sado-Masochism in Clare Boylan’s Home Rule and Holy Pictures

Jeanette Roberts Shumaker
San Diego State University, Imperial Valley, USA | Published: 15 March, 2011
ISSUE 6 | Pages: 91-102 | PDF | DOAJ | https://doi.org/10.24162/EI2011-2026

Creative Commons 4.0 2011 by Jeanette Roberts Shumaker. This text may be archived and redistributed both in electronic form and in hard copy, provided that the author and journal are properly cited and no fee is charged for access.

In Holy Pictures  (1983) and Home Rule  (1993), Clare Boylan deconstructs the family dynamics of urban Ireland a century earlier, portraying mothers who contradict the Irish ideal of maternal selflessness. Boylan critiques the Irish family structure of the late 1800s and early 1900s by showing how it can pressure mothers to become sadists. In addition, Boylan complicates the stereotypical heterosexual romance by portraying cruel wives. This essay draws upon Freud, Julia Kristeva, Michelle Masse and other theorists to illuminate the sado-masochistic dynamics in Boylan’s novels.

En Holy Pictures (1983) y Home Rule (1993), Clare Boylan desmonta las dinámicas familiares de la Irlanda urbana del siglo anterior presentando madres que contradicen el ideal irlandés de la generosidad maternal.  Boylan critica la estructura familiar de finales del XIX y principios del XX, mostrando como ésta puede presionar para que las madres se tornen sádicas. Además, Boylan complica el romance heterosexual estereotípico presentando esposas crueles. El ensayo se sirve de las ideas de Freud, Julia Kristeva, Michelle Masse y otros teóricos para iluminar dinámicas sadomasoquistas en las novelas de Boylan.

Feminismo, Sadomasoquismo, Boylan, Maternidad, Freud, Kristeva, Masse

A well-known Dublin journalist who died in 2006, Clare Boylan published several novels and short story collections, including a completion of Charlotte Bronte’s unfinished novel Emma Brown in 2003.1 Boylan’s first novel, Holy Pictures  (1983), concerns Daisy Devlin Cantwell and her family of Dubliners during the 1920s; its prequel, Home Rule (1993) covers Daisy’s family during the 1890s through 1920. Boylan meticulously researched the eras of Home Rule  and Holy Pictures  to portray them accurately, including “the preoccupations of daily life” (St. Peter 2000a: 49). Boylan deconstructs the family dynamics of urban Ireland from 1890-1930, by portraying mothers who violate the Irish ideal of maternal selflessness.2

As well as the changes to women’s roles that industrialization brought to Ireland during the latter part of the nineteenth century, a devotional revolution occurred in the Irish Church that resulted in more rigid gender roles and a glorification of asexual maternity in the style of the Virgin (Gibbons 1996: 85). “The cult of the Virgin Mary, which flourished from the late nineteenth century — asserted in part in opposition to the Protestantism of the colonial rulers — strengthened the construction of asexual, maternal and domestic femininity upon which hyper-masculinity and socio-economic and sexual regulation depended” (Nash 1997: 115). Not only sexual regulation but self-sacrifice was required of women: “The cult of the Virgin endorsed not merely chastity and motherhood as womanly ideals, but also humility, obedience and passive suffering” (Innes 1993: 40). Jenny Beale (1986: 52)contends that even non-religious Irish mothers from the second half of the twentieth century felt guilty about their inability to reach the ideal of motherhood that the Virgin personifies . Yet Home Rule and Holy Pictures contain disturbing (though at times humorous) portrayals of mothers mistreating their daughters without feeling guilty.

Focusing upon the Madonna’s influence upon women, Julia Kristeva’s “Stabat Mater” helps explain mothers’ aggressiveness towards their daughters in Boylan’s works, along with the daughters’ acceptance of such mistreatment. The worship of the Virgin common in Catholic nations like Ireland can encourage women to long to become unique among women, as the Madonna is (Kristeva 1986: 181). The urge to outdo other women may be shown through “exacerbated masochism . . . the highest sublimation alien to the body” that is associated with nuns and martyrs (181). Boylan’s daughters embrace such masochism.

Like Kristeva’s, Michelle Masse’s ideas about female masochism in gothic novels shed light on the daughters’ toleration of their mothers’ cruelty in Home Rule  and Holy Pictures. Masse analyzes Freud’s beating drama that she contends underlies sado-masochistic relationships in the heterosexual family. “In dealing with others, the masochist replicates the interpersonal relations she knows: she may appropriate the power of the sadist and, in so doing, reproduces masochism” (1992: 51). Though Home Rule  and Holy Pictures  are not gothic novels per se, they do contain entrapment, abuse, suicide attempts, and molestation. With a cold eye, Boylan reveals that the viciousness of some mothers towards their daughters may have continued, generation after generation, in late-Victorian and early twentieth-century Dublin.

Masse explains the logic through which women may act cruelly whenever they can: “There is in such cases a basic conservative identification with the very system that assures their

[women’s] oppression: their limited status and power are asserted within such a system by damaging other women, children, and servants, for example” (1992: 62). Following Masse’s model, Elinore Devlin of Home Rule  makes her eldest daughter, Lena, into a household drudge as soon as she turns fourteen. Later, Elinore sends Lena away from her beloved suitor to work as an unpaid companion against her will. At the turn of the twentieth century, Elinore treats her other daughters with similar callousness, taking some of them out of school to put them to work at an earlier age than she did Lena. Elinore even drives her child Weenie to attempt suicide by repeatedly cutting off  the girl’s hair to punish her for allowing her baby brother to fall into a canal and drown.

According to Masse, a woman’s “abuse may even be used to justify her own abusing of others” (1992: 48). Elinore suffers due to Weenie’s negligence that resulted in her beloved son’s death. However, Elinore does not take into account that Weenie was a little girl being asked to do an adult’s job of watching a toddler. Instead, Elinore torments Weenie for decades. Another reason why Elinore feels victimized is that she is a mother of numerous children in a working-class household: “Until Lena was old enough to take over, she [Elinore] felt like someone set upon by a mob” (Boylan, HR 36). Elinore reveals her lasting resentment when she advises her daughter Janey to abandon her paternal grandmother to starvation, refusing to aid the old woman herself. “’I have been there,’ she [Elinore] said in a piteous little voice. ‘Now you can find out what it’s like to have your youth go sour as mine did while you expend yourself on people who cannot possibly appreciate it’” (109). Elinore here implies that she wants her daughters to suffer for using up her youth.

Elinore’s easy dismissal of her working-class, Irish Catholic daughters’ rights comes in part from her sense of superiority to them as a middle-class, English Protestant. British cartoons of the 1800s portray Irish Catholics as degenerates (Greenslade 1994: 77). Elinore voices similar prejudices of religion and class when she says to Lena, whom she has just separated from her suitor: “Say your prayers or cross your fingers or whatever you people do” (HR 82). Boylan criticizes the workings of prejudice within a family, particularly the self-deception that lets Elinore regard her daughters as her husband’s Irish Catholic offspring, not hers.

Boylan’s novel’s depiction of social history is shown by the similarity between her characters’ circumstances and those fin de siècle historians describe. For example, Elinore’s exploitation of her daughters is not unusual for her era. In a study of British women’s labor and domestic patterns from 1850-1914, Jane Lewis (1986: 18) notes that servants were often related to their employers — for example, servants might be the widows of their employers’ cousins. In accord with this trend, Elinore appropriates a different daughter as the family servant whenever she needs one. Daisy becomes a nun to avoid becoming the household slave when her mother determines it is her turn. Daisy does not believe that housework is as important as it was conventionally regarded. In her study of housework in Ireland between 1890 and 1914, Joanna Bourke reports that “the basis of domestic bliss was good housekeeping, and bad housekeeping was criminal” (1993: 267). In line with this view, Elinore has her daughters keep up her drawing-room to such a standard that the nuns in the orphanage across the street regard it as a glimpse of heaven. Ironically, the nuns give Elinore all the credit for producing this domestic achievement, and none to her daughters.

Elinore’s mistreatment of her daughters occurred during a period when few options were open to women for working outside of the home. The predicament of the unmarried daughter worsened after the Famine of the 1840s; as Ireland became increasingly male-dominated, the percentage of women working outside the home decreased from 29 percent in 1861 to 19.5 percent in 1911 (MacCurtain 1985: 48). Besides having limited opportunities to work outside the home, women’s options to marry were reduced by an increasingly troubled economy. In 1861, 43.3 percent of women in Ireland were single, but in 1911, 48.26 percent of women in Ireland were single (Innes 1997: 39). In forcing her daughters to serve her as unpaid servants, Elinore is upheld by the gender ideology of her time. For example, The Victorian Girl and the Feminine Ideal  argues that “the good daughter was gentle, loving, self-sacrificing and innocent” (Gorham 1982: 37). Boylan interrogates not only Elinore’s behavior as an individual, but the economic forces and gender, religious, and class ideologies that compel her to act as she does.

Despite initial resistance, many of Elinore’s daughters become self-denying in response to her harshness towards them. For example, Lena becomes a little mother to her younger brothers and sisters, tirelessly cooking and cleaning for them. Soon after Elinore sends Lena to live with old ladies in the country as their companion, Lena leaves them because they work her too hard and do not feed her well. Also, she misses her suitor and siblings. Notwithstanding Lena’s sadness, Elinore forces her to return to her position with the ladies. Eventually, though, Lena becomes devoted to the old women; finally, they promote her to housekeeper. When they die years later, they leave Lena their fortune. At that point, Lena is happy about being able to put her mother and brother, Will, in the luxurious surroundings she believes that they deserve.3 Lena forgets to think about her own happiness, for she has learned to share her mother’s prejudices, effacing herself as an Irish Catholic, female servant. Boylan exposes the injustice of Elinore’s manipulation of Lena, Beth, and Weenie so that they behave abjectly.

Daisy foils her mother’s plan to turn her into a domestic slave by joining a nunnery. Still, who could be more self-abnegating and pure than a beautiful young nun? As a nun Daisy will have the dignity of sanctity, along with greater freedom and higher status than she would have had as her mother’s servant. She will have her own room, instead of having to share one with her sisters. Elinore realizes that these are the reasons why Daisy chooses the convent, not because of having a vocation. Becoming a nun was one of the few careers open to Irish women — perhaps this was because convents adopted the roles associated with mothering such as educating the young, nursing, and providing charity to the old and impoverished (Innes 1997: 40).

Janey is the only Devlin daughter who rebels not only against her mother Elinore, but against the age’s feminine ideal: Janey becomes a successful nightclub singer, marrying and abandoning ever richer husbands in Ireland, and later America. Through making Janey the most resourceful, joyous character in Home Rule, Boylan suggests that even in the early twentieth century some Irish women may have managed to escape the limits of their gender, religion, nationality, and class; Janey flourishes, while avoiding acting cruelly to her daughters like Elinore and Daisy.

But is it fair to blame Elinore for turning her daughters into the domestic slaves or exploitative mothers that their era’s ideology encouraged them to become? Since Home Rule is narrated from Elinore’s daughters’ perspectives, particularly Daisy’s, Elinore is not portrayed sympathetically. Feminist critics comment upon the one-sidedness of daughter-narrated fiction about mothers. “The experience of motherhood is not the phallic experience that the child supposes it to be,” writes Jane Gallop (1982: 123). Other critics note, “Generation after generation, daughters translate betrayal by the culture into a betrayal by their mothers. Ironically and tragically, mothers are blamed for the very betrayal that they themselves suffered” (Debold et al. 1993: 55). Marianne Hirsch reports that in the 1970s, women novelists often made a daughter’s consciousness central to their works; the mother is seen as the so-called other that daughters fear they will become should they bear children, reflecting what Adrienne Rich calls “matrophobia” (1989: 136).4

Writing in the 1980s and 1990s about a vanished era when Irish women’s options were much narrower, Boylan depicts matrophobia to some extent. It is true that many of Boylan’s mothers are cold, and that daughters dominate Home Rule  and Holy Pictures; neverthelesss, seeing Daisy’s growth from an unhappy daughter into an indifferent mother leads the reader to understand the reasons for her inadequacies. Since Boylan wrote Holy Pictures  first, she may have later written its prequel, Home Rule , as a vehicle for explaining Daisy’s flaws as a mother and wife. Elinore’s cruelty to Daisy, along with Danny’s molestation of Daisy, trains Daisy to become a neglectful and exploitative mother. Boylan exposes the Freudian beating drama of woman harming woman as an ongoing, destructive reaction against female powerlessness. It is also a brutal strategy that keeps Elinore and Daisy affluent after they become widows.

When she is young, Daisy blames her mother for mistreating her and her sisters. It is only when Daisy goes through the pain of childbirth that she understands what her mother went through while bearing ten children against her wishes. During the late-nineteenth century, the “risks of death in childbirth increased with each successive birth” (Lewis 1986: 153). Elinore practices contraception through placing a bolster between herself and her husband on their bed, but he throws it away. She then locks him out of their bedroom, but, on occasion, he climbs up the drainpipe and through the window. When she becomes pregnant for the tenth time, Elinore bathes in boiling water to try to abort the fetus. Under these circumstances of numerous, inescapable pregnancies, readers can begin to understand why Elinore resents her daughters as well as her husband.

After her husband is killed while rescuing a little girl from a rearing horse, Elinore tries to get financial help from her family in England, but fails. She then pawns the treasures of her drawing-room that she had stolen from her parents when she eloped with Danny Devlin. It is only after there is nothing left to sell that Elinore sends Lena away to work as a companion. Elinore’s exploitation of Lena and her other daughters may in part be seen as a last-ditch attempt to save her children from starvation.

“Mothers, and the women within them, have been trapped in the role of she who satisfies need but has no access to desire” (Irigaray 1993: 51). Maybe it is in reaction to her lack of access to desire that Elinore habitually hides in her drawing-room playing with her dolls, while ignoring her children. The dolls enable Elinore to enjoy playing at mothering, but her real children require work. Elinore’s regression into girlish play is an escape from her children’s demands and her own frustrated desires. When young Elinore had acted on her desire to follow the plot of Wuthering Heights  through eloping with handsome, working-class Danny Devlin, it resulted in what she considers a disaster; Elinore curses Emily Bronte as she faces her tenth pregnancy. The other desire Elinore now pursues is more socially acceptable than was her passion for young Danny. Elinore wants to bear sons, since even her disapproving mother might then consider her a success: “A woman was nothing unless she had a son” (HR 34). Elinore here mirrors the sexism of her era. Raising her sons as Protestants and her daughters as Catholics like their father, Elinore puts her daughters’ meagre earnings into educating their brother, Will. With patience and determination, Elinore makes Will into a British officer who leads a genteel, happy life until he is killed, at 37, during World War I. After his death, Elinore gradually declines into the madness in which she ends her life. Boylan shows the sad outcome for Elinore of caring only about her sons, not her daughters. Ironically, Elinore’s neglected Catholic daughters survive, while her cherished Protestant son is sacrificed to the British empire that she bred him to love.

Home Rule and Holy Pictures  mix comedy with tragedy to critique the damaging relationships of  Elinore and Daisy with their daughters and husbands. Michael Patrick Gillespie describes “the particularly Irish literary inclination to integrate comedy (especially when tinged with ridicule) into the most tragic of topics” (1996: 121). Boylan may have learned that technique from Swift, Joyce, Beckett, Molly Keane, and Flann O’Brien. Comedy does not detract from Boylan’s fiction’s depth, however. Mikhail Bakhtin writes that through laughter, “the world is seen anew, no less (and perhaps more) profoundly than when seen from the serious standpoint” (1968: 66). That may be particularly true for the marginalized woman writer questioning disparities of gender. “From Behn . . . there exists a tradition of women’s comedy informed by and speaking to the experience of being female in a world where that experience is devalued” (Barreca 1994: 28); in other words, “women’s writing of comedy is characterized by its thinly disguised rage” (Barreca 1994: 21). In line with this, anger erupts through Boylan’s narrator, and especially during Elinore’s speeches. For example, Elinore mixes humor with resentment when she explains that Danny misunderstood her youthful allusions to Wuthering Heights: “’Whatever our souls are made of, yours and mine are the same,’ I [Elinore] told him. She gave a sour laugh. ‘Do you know what he said?’ ‘Are you a Catholic too?’” (HR 30).

Elinore realizes too late that illusions gained from fiction prevented her from grasping the significance of her beloved’s difference in education, religion, nationality, and class. The narrator, like Elinore, creates edgy comic commentary when describing Elinore’s feelings about Danny upon their marriage night: “he was like a man trying to kill something that would not die” (31). Even before getting pregnant, Elinore, conditioned by Victorian praise of the asexual lady, perceives a very real threat to her health posed by Danny’s desire. Taking advantage of her higher-class status, Elinore treats Danny with increasing disdain, in order to prevent pregnancy. She becomes the rejecting, controlling one — he, the imploring, submissive one; in their marriage, Elinore’s superior class standing, nationality, education, and force of character reverse the standard heterosexual dynamic.5

Their destructive marriage results in loneliness for the couple and their children. Jean-Louis Giovannangeli’s observation about Boylan’s fantasy novel,Black Baby  (1988), also applies to Home Rule  and Holy Pictures : “the isolation and loneliness of Boylan’s characters mirror that of Joyce’s Dubliners” (1996: 173). As a child, Daisy dreads her boisterous elder sister Janey, who reenacts violent crimes reported in the newspapers, ordering Daisy to play the victim. As a small girl, Daisy waits each afternoon for her father to come home and talk to her, because her elder siblings and her mother frighten her. As Nancy Chodorow writes, “a daughter looks to her father for a sense of separateness and for the same confirmation of her specialness that her brother receives from her mother” (1978: 195). Like Daisy, Danny Devlin looks to the father-daughter relationship for the emotional nurture that Elinore withholds. Boylan exposes the tragic consequences of a father taking too much from his daughter.6

Danny’s neighbors think of him as a hero for having saved a whole street from typhus and a would-be-suicide from hanging herself; nevertheless, this hero repeatedly molests Daisy after Elinore bans him from their bedroom. Boylan shows how the lack of contraceptives causes a late-Victorian wife to adopt the only method she can think of — abstinence, without imagining the consequences for her daughter. During Danny’s attacks on Daisy, “He was like someone looking for something he had lost” (HR 13). Turned into an object of her father’s perverse desire, Daisy is betrayed again and again by the one person she loves most. It is no surprise that, once grown, Daisy duplicates her mother’s exploitation of women and children, since Daisy herself experienced the ultimate in exploitation.

After her father’s fatal accident, Daisy blames herself, because she had wished him dead. As another result of being molested, Daisy becomes unusually modest; this is seen when she goes swimming wearing a dress. As a teenager, she refuses to wear attractive clothes, instead dressing like a child. Elinore cannot understand why Daisy refuses to grow up and make the most of her unusual beauty: “To see the prettiest of her daughters in this gauche state of denial was almost as diasappointing as seeing another flaunting her body in vulgar entertainments” (HR 115). Elinore does not know that Daisy has good reasons to fear being attractive. The consequences of Daisy’s dread of adulthood haunt her own children; like Elinore’s daughters, Nan and Mary must tend their mother as though they were the parents and she was the child. Little Nan thinks of Daisy: “Already, she seemed to know that she was there for her mother, rather than her mother being there for her” (Holy Pictures 216). Nan copes with her disappointment in Daisy by becoming the mother to Daisy that Nan wishes she had for herself. Boylan portrays Daisy’s unconscious reproduction of the family structure that victimized her, and now hurts Nan.

Even in their highflown romantic style Daisy and Cecil imitate Elinore and Danny, if on a grander scale. Julia Kristeva writes that modern novels portray “the amorous flash. The one in which the ‘I’ reaches the paranoid dimensions of the sublime divinity while remaining close to abject collapse, disgust with the self” (1987: 368). Daisy meets Nan’s father, the handsome Cecil Cantwell, while mailing a letter outside her convent in England. They fall in love there and then, though Daisy is a postulant. Cecil reawakens Daisy’s dreams that she had abandoned when she realized that she had no true vocation as a nun. Daisy’s pure image in her habit puts Cecil “on fire,” as he reports in his letter to her (HR 150). Cecil’s crisp appearance in a British soldier’s uniform has a similar effect upon her: “He was the very image she had given herself of God. She had no choice but to worship him” (139). In his study of seduction, Jean Baudrillard points out that, “To seduce is to die as reality and reconstruct oneself as illusion” (1990: 69). That is what Daisy and Cecil do. During five years of separation while Cecil serves at a military post in India, Daisy and Cecil cherish their illusions about each other based upon their sole, brief encounter at the mailbox. Elinore is quick to chide Daisy about this: “You have no nature for the realities of married life. All you want is to worship and be worshipped from afar” (HR 162). This from the woman who saw Danny as the successor of Emily Bronte’s Heathcliff!

Like her mother before her, Daisy sees love as determined by Gothic conventions. Masse writes of heterosexual relationships that, “Every girl, and every Gothic heroine, learns that it is only in the mirror of his [the beloved’s] regard that she exists, only in the plenitude of his subjectivity that she is whole” (1992: 90). Before marriage, Daisy is the insecure one. Daisy undergoes periods of anxiety when Cecil does not write to her: “She would do anything to recover the moment when he asked her to marry him, to recapture that confidence” (HR 164). Daisy recalls his phrase about being set on fire by her beauty: “By such a careless phrase could a man waste a woman’s youth” (HR 185). To rekindle Cecil’s interest, Daisy has Janey write him passionate letters; Daisy signs the letters without reading them. Cecil begins to write her daily, to Daisy’s relief. Here the underside of romance comically appears in Janey’s letters that border on soft porn. Ironically, while Cecil fantasizes about their potential physical love, Daisy, like a heroine in a fairy tale, waits for her handsome prince to save her from becoming an old maid. Similarly, as a child Daisy had waited for her good-looking father to rescue her from her mother’s rejection, then found his abuse instead.7 After waiting for Cecil for five years, Daisy’s beauty dims. When he finally arrives, he is just as good-looking as he was five years ago. The narrator explains: “Passing women admired him and then appraised his mousy partner [Daisy]. Her heart was sore with worship. She felt speechless and despairing” (1992: 189). As Masse comments, “women’s devaluation enables and maintains men’s overvaluation. . .” (1992: 90). Daisy’s abject relation to Cecil somewhat comically echoes her brief spell as a potential bride of Christ.

However, Daisy and Cecil’s power positions reverse after marriage. Because Daisy is frigid as a result of being molested by her father, Cecil falls in love with her all over again. Thinking of Janey’s disconcerting advice to wives to hold themselves back if they want to sustain their husbands’ interest, Daisy realizes that “without her permission a part of her was shut off from him [Cecil] forever. She rejoiced at this accident” (197). The idealistic soldier who had fallen in love with a nun is enamored with his reluctant wife. The once unavailable Cecil and the formerly imploring Daisy exchange roles; Cecil now takes the role of abjection, and Daisy, of distant unavailability. In this they replicate Elinore and Danny’s marital roles. Nancy Chodorow observes that when similar problems recur in marriages across the generations, they are often “part of the routine process of family reproduction” (1989: 66).

Boylan depicts their dynamics of Daisy’s disinterest and Cecil’s frustration with tenderness and quiet irony. In response to Cecil’s adoration, Daisy regains much of her old radiance. They are happy at times — happier than Elinore and Danny were. During Daisy and Cecil’s fifteen years of marriage, Cecil continually courts his wife, whom he affectionately calls Mags, shortening her given name of Marguerite. The narrator describes the couple’s happiest moments: “In these rare moments it was as if they found each other at the post-box and for the rest of the time they restlessly sought one another” (315). Nan and her younger sister Mary feel soothed at such times: “the children sensed the aura of homeliness, like a cake in the oven” (316).

Notwithstanding brief spells of joy, Mags and Cecil’s marriage has problems that recall those of Elinore and Danny. In both generations, Dublin neighbors admire the husband for his altruism — Danny’s of the physically heroic type, and Cecil’s of the philanthropic. Cecil, as a successful businessman, can afford to be philanthropic, whereas Danny as a poor man could only act heroically. The two men’s contrasting styles of charity coincide with Bourke’s observation that women in Ireland were better fed in 1914 than in 1890 (262). This is reflected in the improved adult economic status of Mags (and her sisters Beth, Janey and, ultimately, Lena) compared with Elinore. Nevertheless, Mags, like Elinore before her, resents what she regards as her husband’s dangerous hobby of charity. Cecil brings homeless people home to stay in their house overnight, and they are routinely robbed as a result. A snob like her mother, Mags hates entertaining the poor, feeling that they contaminate her drawing-room. Some of Cecil’s charity cases are women, whom Nellie, the maid, suspects that Cecil seduces. Instead of molesting his daughter as Danny does, Cecil compensates for his wife’s disinterest in sex by quietly pursuing other women, including Mags’s sister, Ba. In both Danny and Elinore’s and Daisy and Cecil’s marriage, a young female relative becomes the lonely husband’s victim — first Daisy of Danny, then Ba of Cecil.

Yet Cecil is a victim, too, for his suicide is the darkest outcome of his painfully distant marriage. Ironically, after his suicide, Mags tells the neighbors of the couple’s passionate, undying love, denying her part in his death. Like Elinore, Mags had beaten her husband figuratively through years of indifference, which helped cause Cecil’s suicide. Since Danny once figuratively beat little Daisy/Mags through his perverse attacks, Mags is in a sense reproducing her father’s abuse in a new, self-protective form — neglect of her husband and daughters.

Daisy not only neglects her husband and daughters, but dislikes most of her sisters. Elinore’s disdain of Daisy and her sisters kindled their distrust of each other. As Kristeva might predict, Mags and Ba follow their mother in seeing themselves as “unique among women” (“Stabat”), so preserve emotional distance from their supposedly inferior sisters such as Janey. Because Mags (like Elinore) hates to do housework, Mags invites Ba to live with her and Cecil as their unpaid servant. Ironically, Mags never suspects Ba of having an affair with Cecil or of bearing his son, though people tell her that Ba’s boy looks like Cecil. Instead, Mags mistakenly imagines that Cecil is sleeping with Janey, her least favorite sister. Meanwhile, Ba pretends to serve Mags as her self-denying housekeeper while actually becoming her rival for Cecil’s affection. Taught by their mother to compete against their sisters, Ba and Mags covertly work against each other, as Kristeva might have foreseen.

These child-women carry a sting under their sweet exteriors. Yet Boylan’s critique of the Victorian man’s stereotypical penchant for such child-women becomes more dramatic as Holy Pictures progresses. When he was twenty-six, Cecil had told Mags he felt inadequate to the role of patriarch, terrifying her. Cecil had then explained to Mags that the only woman he had ever known who would advise or talk to him adult-to-adult was Janey; he regarded Janey as a friend, not as a potential lover. Mags did not believe him, and told Janey to move out of their house. Mags’s inability to see that Cecil desires only child-women, not mature women, causes her to reject the wrong sister — Janey not Ba — and to separate her husband from Janey, his only female friend.

Unlike Janey, Mags never helps Cecil handle adult responsibilities. One reason Cecil commits suicide is that he has to bear the family’s financial burdens alone. While Mags vacations in France, he tries to tell fourteen-year-old Nan about his money difficulties, but she too refuses to listen: “They stayed watching each other until her light grey eyes became shaded with the look of closure he had seen so often in her mother’s brown eyes” (HP 125). Whereas avoiding adult financial challenges is suitable for Nan the child, it is a limitation in a wife.

Cecil’s suicide is not merely a consequence of financial stress and lack of sympathy from his wife. His business fails because the corset he designed over a decade earlier has become outdated. Cecil refuses to redesign the corset, as he is a prude. During World War I, when Cecil had allowed Janey to design some silken undergarments modeled after the French style, his underwear-making business had boomed. However, when he found out that prostitutes and dancers were buying his products, he stopped producing Janey’s designs. Cecil’s corset means more to him than just a way to make a living. Rather, it symbolizes his paternalistic view that women need the protection that traditional corsets symbolize. Cecil’s ideal corset should be a kind of armor against improper male intrusion, not an enticement to men.

His antiquated view of women shown by his corset design resulted in his marrying Mags the child-wife in the first place. It is true that Mags cannot provide the emotional support he needs because she is childish, but childishness is what he expects from women. Cecil finds Mags’s childishness appealing, though he complains about it, much as Dickens’s David Copperfield learns to regret his wife Dora’s initially attractive immaturity. Another example of Cecil’s old-fashioned infantilization of women is seen when he refuses to send Nan and Mary to a good school. Like Elinore, Cecil is unwilling to invest in daughters. He never imagines that well-educated daughters might someday be able to run his business. It is both ironic and sad that Cecil self-destructs mainly due to his condescending view of women.

Although Cecil’s condescension towards women underlies the stress that leads to his suicide, another cause is the loyalty conflict that he undergoes due to having committed bigamy in marrying Mags. Fueled by Janey’s passionate letters that were signed by Mags, Cecil had married then deserted an Indian girl, Mumtaz, while he was engaged to Mags. Following the Madonna/ whore complex as was not uncommon for men of his era, Cecil treats Mumtaz, the woman of color, as though she were a sexual object to be used and discarded. Meanwhile, he idolizes the unavailable Mags, the well-bred white woman who symbolizes sexual purity. Mumtaz finally finds Cecil when Nan is fourteen. Upon seeing Cecil and Mumtaz’s wedding photo, Mags gives up the master bedroom to her. Much as Elinore punished Danny when she exiled him from their bedroom, Mags punishes Cecil through avoiding him. Cecil begins sleeping with his Indian wife, who demands that he leave Mags and his daughters. He drowns himself.

That Cecil chooses drowning as his suicide method might be regarded as the novel’s final indictment of his masochism. In Victorian literature and painting, drowning is the conventional fate of the seduced woman abandoned by her lover. Cecil’s susceptibility to the masochism stereotypically associated with femininity is suggested by his choice of death by water. Following the Victorian pattern of privately seeking sexual gratification with a woman of color while creating a public family with a white woman drowns Cecil emotionally, pushing him to escape via suicide. The ideology of Cecil’s era encourages him, as a white man, to abandon his Indian wife from mistaken shame; it also places unreasonable burdens on him as the husband of a white wife made inaccessible by child abuse.

During Mags’s widowhood, she imitates Elinore and Danny’s exploitation of their daughters. Mags rents rooms to male lodgers, ordering Nan to do the household chores. When Nan asserts her need to go to school, not daring to mention her dreams of a university education, Mags dismisses her daughter’s right to an independent future, as Elinore once did Mags’s. Mags takes exploitation farther when, several months later, an affluent, middle-aged lodger moves in. Because he continually brings gifts to Mags, Nan and Mary believe he is courting their mother. However, attesting to her loyalty to Cecil, Mags tries to marry Nan to the lodger, though she is only fourteen. Mags does not warn Nan about the sexual advances the man will make on the date that she forces Nan to go on. Afterwards, Mags is angry at Nan for fighting the man off, offending him and thus ruining the family’s chance at renewed prosperity. Mags duplicates the perversity of her father Danny when she encourages an older man to court her daughter; this is Mags’s cruelest betrayal of Nan. But Nan refuses to become a child-wife, and thus avoids reproducing her mother and grandfather’s incest in a new form.

Why does Mags betray Nan, as Danny once betrayed Mags? Incest is only part of the answer, causing what Christine St. Peter describes as “a sense of indeterminant intergenerational damage that leaches downward from parent to children, tainting affective and familial relationships” (2000b: 129). However, more than incest interferes with Mags’s ability to mother Nan. Chodorow points out that “the foundation for the mother’s participation in such a relationship is laid in her early relationship to her own mother” (1978: 90). Since Mags’s mother remained distant from her daughters, longing for sons, Mags does the same thing, but the son whom Mags bears dies at birth. Both Elinore and Mags respond to the financial demands of widowhood by turning their daughters into servants. Since Elinore and Mags never truly loved their daughters, it is easy to exploit them while playing the role of the brave, ladylike widow. Irigaray posits that the separation of mother and daughter required by patriarchy is damaging to both; mutual nurturing is needed instead, a matriarchal ethic (Kuykendall 1984: 267). Boylan’s two novels about Elinore, Mags, Nan, and Mary make that case.

Nan and Mary idealize their mother, despite her deficiencies, regarding their father as an obstacle to their closeness with her. Irigaray observes that, “Moral or immoral, they [men] always intervene to censor, to repress, the desire of/for the mother” (1993: 36). Hence, when Cecil sends Mags and her daughters to County Cork for several months, Nan and Mary are delighted to have their mother all to themselves: “Away from their father they knew Daisy was really theirs” (HR  282). But was she? Melanie Klein writes of such a belief about the mother that, “Idealization stems from persecution anguish and constitutes a defense against it” (qtd. in Kristeva 1987: 28). Kristeva interprets Klein as meaning that “those who are unable to set up a ‘good breast’ for themselves naturally manage it by idealizing” (1987: 28). As a little girl, Nan realizes: “She knew mother liked her and Mary and that they loved her, but to their mother love must always be something grand and beautiful and they were small and rather plain” (HR  287).

Instead of blaming their mother as Mags did Elinore, Nan and Mary respond to Mags’s neglect and tyranny by idealizing her, as Klein and Kristeva might predict. At the end of Holy Pictures, Nan and Mary plan to spend their meager savings on a Christmas gift for Mags instead of on going to see a movie, a rare treat they had fantasized about for months. Suggesting the gift, Mary says to Nan, “Poor mother has been so disappointed” (HP 200). They have become self-denying in response to their mother’s indifference. Michelle Masse points out that masochism is the norm for properly socialized women in Western cultures (1992: 2). Nan and Mary have been thoroughly socialized. However, Holy Pictures  shows that such an outcome is, in a way, monstrous, for Mags does not deserve her daughters’ selfless devotion. As in Blake’s “Songs of Innocence,” children are disturbingly unaware of their misuse by adults.

The monstrosity of the dynamics between parents and children is shown not just in the Devlin and Cantwell families, but in the larger Irish society of Home Rule  and Holy Pictures. Mags and Elinore are not the only adults who exploit children. After Danny dies, a moneylender, Mrs. Cohen, advises Elinore to hire her children out. As a result, Elinore’s twin daughters soon become ill-paid seamstresses, despite the nuns’ complaint that their intelligence is being wasted. In the next generation, Nan’s best friend, Dandy, a Protestant, is similarly taken from school at fourteen when her parents put her to work as a shop-girl, even though Dandy’s excellent exam results had included a note stating she was university material. To help her mother rear a series of siblings, Doll, Nan’s other friend, is removed from school at an even earlier age than Dandy. The local bully, Minnie, also becomes depressed once she is taken out of school at fourteen.

These young girls must become subservient and diligent, or they will be beaten or locked up like Dandy’s sister. At some point, they may exchange their parents’ dominion for that of a husband. After one of Elinore’s daughters marries an abusive, ugly man, Elinore considers the girl a success. A girl’s alternatives to marriage also involve danger and submissiveness: a girl may flee her parents and embrace a disreputable lifestyle, including possible sexual disease, unwed pregnancy, alcoholism, domestic abuse, and prostitution, as Janey did; or she may forever renounce love and childbearing, becoming a postulant, as Mags did. Boylan exposes the cage that many Irish girls learned to live within through becoming self-denying like Lena, the twins, and Weenie.

Nan’s friendship with Dandy does not survive the sudden onset of adult burdens after leaving school. However, Nan’s friendship with Doll continues because that unconventional girl marries a young Jew who allows her to see her friends. Holy Pictures  ends with Doll taking Nan and Mary on a picnic to celebrate Christmas, since they lack the money to pay for the traditional festivities. Instead, they climb a nearby mountain to decorate a snowy tree and enjoy the snacks they have brought. This ending provides an image of beauty and friendship that opposes the deprivation and drudgery Nan and Mary face at home. Nan is heartened by Mary’s growing maturity and practicality, knowing that she will soon have someone with whom to share the labor of her mother’s lodging house. Mary’s precocious talent for earning pocket money suggests the possibility that the two sisters eventually will find a way out of domestic slavery.

The generational beating drama of mother against daughter contrasts with this solidarity among sisters which Mags did not achieve in her generation. For not only had Mags never trusted Janey, who consistently looked after Mags’s interests, Mags did trust Ba, who betrayed her. Later, Mags had tried to exploit Weenie, the sister whom their mother had mistreated the longest.8 Nan and Mary’s mutual support embodies what Kristeva calls “herethics” (1986: 185), a generalized beneficence that defies the hatefulness of the Madonna ideal. Yet in Ireland during the 1930s after the novel ends, Nan and Mary will presumably experience the same pressures to compete for men and for maternal attention that Mags and her sisters once faced, since employment options for women will not have improved. The Irish Constitution of 1937 encouraged women to adopt the roles of mother and housewife (Owens 1984: 132), kept women from serving on juries, and prohibited married women from working for the civil service (Pelan 1996: 50). The Constitution officially reduced options for women by labeling motherhood as women’s vocation: “The political identification of woman and motherhood in Ireland, enshrined in the Irish Constitution . . . signals the conjunction of the power of the state, the Church and family ideology in the construction of femininity and in the coding of the female body” (Rooks-Hughes 1996: 84). Given these conditions for women, readers would know that Nan and Mary’s escape from the self-abnegation expected of them might end when their picnic does. Boylan’s next novels, which are set during the latter half of the twentieth century in Dublin — Room For a Single Lady (1997) and Beloved Stranger (1999) — leave Nan and Mary’s family behind, while positing a slow loosening of the deadening familial bonds seen in Home Rule and Holy Pictures.

The holiness of Holy Pictures lies in Nan and Mary’s survival as optimistic souls in the face of their paralyzing family struggles. A reader might expect a holy picture to show the Madonna, or at least Mags taking over that role, but the memorable image is of virginal Mary and Nan mothering their mother. Like her namesake St. Anne, Nan mothers Mary as well, but this time, Mary is the sister of Nan/Anne, not her daughter. Boylan replaces the distance of traditional mother-daughter and sister-sister relations with something better. In some apocryphal traditions, St. Anne is a virgin mother; perhaps Boylan is playing off such an idea in making her most motherly character be a girl rather than a woman. Boylan’s title, Home Rule, is likewise ironic — for while Home Rule suggests Ireland’s desire to rule itself directly, rather than through the English Parliament, this novel is about an English woman ruling her Irish household. Like Queen Victoria in miniature, Elinore imposes English class, gender, religious, and colonial prejudices upon her confiding subjects. However, like Mags, Elinore is so damaged by her destructive ideas and frustrating circumstances that she cannot embody “the Angel in the House” idolized by middle-class Victorians such as poet Coventry Patmore. Even after Ireland became independent of England in the 1920s, Holy Pictures shows that the “home rule” of family traditions sometimes persisted no matter what national liberties had been achieved. In these two novels Boylan questions the Irish family structure of the late 1800s and early 1900s, implying that it may prompt mothers to become more like domestic devils than angels.

  1. I offer thanks to professor Juan Carlos Ramirez Pimienta of San Diego State University, Imperial Valley for translating the abstract of my article into Spanish. []
  2. Boylan’s mothers and daughters include numerous caricatures. She acknowledges her debt to Evelyn Waugh for making her into a caricaturist; she also sees the source of her caricatures in children’s view of “all adults as being mad” (Quinn 1986: 29). Both Home Rule and Holy Pictures  focus upon children’s perceptions of their parents, mixing the comical with the menacing. []
  3. Lena dies of a fever before she can claim her fortune. []
  4. Irigaray reports that in modern times, “The mother has become a devouring monster” (1993: 40). []
  5. I am indebted to Susan Stanford Friedman’s locational feminist criticism for helping me see how Elinore’s and Danny’s geographics of identity are created by shifting combinations of circumstances.  According to Friedman, the relative power of characters depends upon the interplay of various determinants, including race, age, gender, nationality, class, and religion. []
  6. Christine St. Peter argues that Home Rule  portrays incest’s effects obliquely: “Certainly the oblique references to incest are only one element in a much more complex set of relations which damage the younger generation . . . one of many significant influences on the experiences of an individual and family” (2000b: 129). []
  7. Like Cinderella, women today are still waiting for something external to transform their lives (Dowling 31). []
  8. Mags had asked Elinore to lend Weenie to her so she could continue to avoid housework after her daughters were born. []

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| Received: 27-06-2010 | Last Version: 04-11-2010 | Articles, Issue 6