University of Limerick
Irish Lesbian Writing Across Time makes a salient contribution not just to lesbian studies internationally, but also to the field of Irish women’s writing. This exhaustive work documents the development of Irish lesbian fiction and how this corresponds with Irish history and lesbian politics, drawing on two centuries of textual sources ranging from novels, short stories, and drama from women writers from the Republic and Northern Ireland. Anna Charczun conducts this analysis through her timely reconceptualization of Vivienne Cass’s 1979 theoretical model of “Homosexual Identity Formation.” The model proposes five stages of the contextual and corresponding narrative development of lesbian visibility and desire and its concomitant societal perception. As such, Charczun conceptualizes an innovative theoretical approach to analyzing not just lesbian and gay narratives, but, as she says, bisexual and transgender identities also. This theoretical framework works well for the purposes of this study as it tracks the development of lesbian narratives against a documentation of their contexts, whilst also effectively organising the vast amount of historical, textual, and additional scholarly and theoretical sources used throughout this study.
This book takes as its contextual starting point the publication of “Ladies of Llangollen,” in the General Evening Post in 1790, considered the first literary example of lesbian desire in Ireland. The relationship between the “Ladies,” Eleanor Charlotte Butler (1739–1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755–1831), is given as an example of a “romantic friendship” (5), viewed as an entirely socially acceptable relationship between women in the eighteenth century. Their relationship, in addition to the cross-dressing and transgender characteristics evident in the lives of the Ladies, is interestingly termed “pre-lesbianism” here and is read through New Woman writing with a focus on Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801), Edith Somerville and Martin Ross’s The Real Charlotte (1894), in addition to the fin-de-siècle writing of George Egerton, Sarah Grand, Rosa Mulholland, and Katherine Cecil Thurston. Charczun usefully incorporates a classification of first- and second-generation New Woman writers into her analysis of fictional lesbian sexuality; the former are defined as largely asexual, while the latter challenge all gendered restrictions including phallocentric ideas about women’s sexuality. Drawing on Cass, the textual analysis is read through the first stage in the developmental model of Irish lesbian narrative: hesitation. There are two phases in this stage: a suggestion but not a definite representation of lesbian desire; and then an implicit reference with direct challenges to gendered hierarchies, clearly aligned with the historical context of first-wave feminism and the New Woman and mapped out with meticulous textual detail in the selected texts. This framework allows Charczun to weave the complexities of theory, historical context, and multiple textual examples with a convincing clarity and poignantly establishes the significant contribution of New Woman writers to the representation of lesbian desire in Irish women’s writing.
With same-sex desire now finding its place on the page in Irish writing, chapters two and three focus on texts and writers in post-independence and post-war Irish contexts. Both chapters explore the theoretical stages of comparison and exploration with chapter three being situated in an advanced phase of this stage. Contextually, chapter two draws on the influence of lesbian writings from outside of Ireland—largely England and France—and focuses its close analysis on the writing of Elizabeth Bowen, Molly Keane, and Kate O’Brien from 1927 to 1934. Reference is made to historical events of significance in terms of lesbians in Irish society and narrative, including the Oscar Wilde trials, the revolutionary period, and women’s feminist, political, and nationalist activism; however, the main focus is on the impact of Modernism and the experimental literary tools used to incorporate the subject of female same-sex passion in their fiction. As is so often the case with Irish women writers in this period, departures from dominant patriarchal—or in this case heterosexual—convention are necessarily encoded; these writers place lesbian attachments on the margins of heterosexual-centred narratives. Same-sex desire is thus successfully interwoven through the plots but simultaneously adequately concealed from the prevailing Catholic mores and draconian censorship laws. The chapter analyses several narrational techniques to reveal the presence of lesbian desire, such as lesbian panic, lesbian continuum, and lesbian presence. Charczun’s exploration of Bowen’s adolescent lesbian characters, viewed here as bracketing heterosexually-dominant narratives, is particularly absorbing. Charczun acknowledges the scholarly tendency towards putting Bowen in the “Big House” category, and her analysis here contributes greatly towards recent efforts to address this injustice to Bowen’s legacy. Scholarly inquiries into lesbian desire in Bowen is of course not new, but this text does very well to acknowledge existing scholarship while situating it firmly in the development of lesbian desire in fiction.
Chapter three follows on from a Modernist to a Postmodernist reading, elucidating a distinct shift due to second-wave feminism, when more overt homosexual references are made, specifically in works by Elizabeth Bowen, Kate O’Brien, and Edna O’Brien, from 1949 to 1988. Noting the absence of any same-sex narrative examples from 1934 to 1949, Charczun offers a thorough contextual explanation, drawing on events in Ireland including censorship and Catholic dominance, and, internationally, the rise of far-right ideologies and their concomitant persecution of homosexuality. The representation of lesbian desire remains at the same stage as in chapter two but has developed to a phase of “lesbian existence” (67), a term borrowed from Adrienne Rich referring to both the historical and evolving lesbian presence. The application of this theoretical stage to Bowen’s women characters is particularly insightful due to the connections made with the previous chapter and as such is worthy of mention again here. Bowen’s experimentation with style, form, intertextuality, and structure is often referenced, but the argument here is that it is within those stylistic perplexities that Bowen inserts her lesbian narratives. Moreover, the development of lesbian narratives outlined by Charczun is exemplified by Bowen’s many protagonists who begin as adolescents experimenting with their lesbian desire, but who in later novels do “not develop into heterosexuality in their adulthood, but [are] transformed into the conscious self-realisation of lesbian desire” (66). The repeated use of Bowen therefore ideally demonstrates the efficacy of the developmental approach used. Although Bowen is the first Irish writer to enter the word “lesbian” into fictional narrative, with Dinah asking: “Mumbo, are you a Lesbian?” (197) in her 1964 novel The Little Girls, lesbian fiction is still largely considered to be on the fringes at the close of this period. However, the representations of lesbian sexuality become much more overt in the latter phase, and Charczun pays tribute to the achievements of the writers who paved the way for the next stage of development.
Chapters four and five cover a similar time frame around the turn of the twentieth century, but the latter broadens the analysis significantly by considering the role of diaspora transnationalism/culturalism in lesbian representation in narrative discourse. Chapter four covers Irish fiction from 1889 to 2007 and takes as its contextual backdrop the immense advancement of lesbian politics towards the close of the 1990s. During this period, writers start to bring lesbian characters and plots from the margins right to the centre of the story, and same-sex desire is rendered explicit on the pages of Irish fiction. Deftly traced through these chapters is a rapid movement between the theoretical stages of development. In the eight years in focus here the stages of tolerance/acceptance, following the decriminalization of homosexual acts in 1993, and then pride/synthesis in the Celtic Tiger era, are all achieved. Tolerance and acceptance appear in literature as an overt coming out and a sense of being a part of the LGBTQI+ community, but what Charczun notes is that a feeling of alienation from the heteronormative population persists, while pride/synthesis appears as a sense of equality with heteronormative counterparts. These stages are analysed through an illuminating close reading of Mary Dorcey’s short story collection, A Noise from the Woodshed, and Emma Donoghue’s story, “Going Back”, and her novels Stir-Fry (1994) and Hood (1996). Donoghue’s works signal a transition to the pride/synthesis stage, a period Charczun defines as “post-decriminalistation,” which also includes the final text, Dorcey’s 1997 novel Biography of Desire.
While each of the previous chapters necessarily delves deep inward to the folds and edges of the selected stories to find evidence of lesbian desire in Irish literature, chapter five broadens the perspective outwards, with a very welcome analysis of the diaspora writing of Anna Livia and Shani Mootoo. Existing scholarship attests to the predominance of the open expression of the homosexual experience being situtated away from home, but Charczun posits a clear distinction between the development of lesbian fiction from Ireland to that from diasporic sources. Writing from outside of Ireland created a sense of freedom in terms of lesbian desire. As chapter four notes, there was a rapid progression in the development of lesbian writing following the advancements in legislation, and the contention here is that this, in turn, prompted a push for lesbian writers globally to work towards updating, in a sense, the Irish literary tradition. The difference found in diasporic writing, and highlighted specifically through Charczun’s model, is that the openness about lesbian experiences gained from a distanced perspective also includes direct references to the ongoing issues and struggles facing lesbian communities. This points to the notion that though there is a clear trajectory in terms of improved representation of lesbian relationships and identities in narrative, this change is complex and not always linear.
The final chapter exemplifies the comprehensive breadth of analysis conducted in this work; the focus here is on Northern Irish lesbian narrative in drama and theatre and looks at writing by Stacey Gregg, Jaki McCarrick, Hilary McCollum, and Shannon Yee. This section opens with the position of women during the Troubles and therefore requires an adaptation of the developmental model used for the study thus far. The explanation for this is worth noting: themes of sexual desire were ousted in favour of nationalism and masculinist violence; women during this period were largely confined to traditional gendered roles and any expression of sexuality —heteronormative or other— was considered highly transgressive and non-patriotic. While the justification for the narrowed timeframe, scope, and adapted model is well-argued and the focus of this chapter highly needed, one wonders whether a deeper exploration of Northern Irish narrative from earlier than this time frame or indeed a comparative analysis of drama and theatre might be an area ripe for further research. Testament to the adaptability of Charczun’s developmental model is that all stages could be fluidly applied to the much shorter timeframe in the case of Northern Irish playwrights and work perfectly in outlining the rapid shift from a considerably stunted feminist/lesbian movement to what Charczun describes as “an explicit queer theatre, with room for representations of all genders, sexualities, religions and cultural differences” (227).
An astoundingly thorough exploration has been conducted in Irish Lesbian Writing Across Time that truly enriches the field of lesbian writing and indeed Irish women’s writing in general, due in large part to the outstanding close textual analysis throughout. To endeavour to cover the development of lesbian lives in Irish writing over two centuries is an aspirational undertaking. This is not least because it takes into account the historical context, politics, gender and class hierarchies, religion, nationalism, emigration and feminist and lesbian activism and explores these through perspectives including psychology, sociology, cultural, and queer studies. This is a mountainous task that has been masterfully handled here, due to the chronological order but largely because of the developmental structure that has been deployed. Charczun’s skill in correlating this must be commended.
The theoretical framework provides a vital mode of analysing the position of lesbian experience and identity. Charczun highlights the point that though there is a clear line of development in this regard, lesbian identity and the expression of same-sex desire is in flux. In this sense, the model outlined in this text is one that can be reapplied in an ever-changing society where social, cultural, and/or political turns can and will impact lesbian lives on the ground and then the page. In a similar vein, this developmental model can also be applied to interrogations of lesbian narratives from other countries. The model may well not align as neatly but this would only benefit comparative analyses and our understanding of the evolution of lesbian experience globally.