Nathalie Lamprecht
Charles University, Faculty of Arts

Creative Commons 4.0 by Nathalie Lamprecht. 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.

Anne Fogarty and Tina O’Toole, eds.

Cork University Press, 2023. 356 pages.

ISBN: 9781782055648

There are few academics who manage the precarious balance of being teachers, researchers, and prolific writers quite as well as Patricia Coughlan has done over her impressive forty-plus-year career. It is no wonder, then, that an expansive and insightful collection such as Reading Gender and Space is dedicated to her. In close conversation with Coughlan’s own comprehensive scholarship, the fifteen essays collected here discuss a wide range of topics, covering a variety of time periods. Edited by Anne Fogarty and Tina O’Toole, the collection presents a valuable contribution to the field of Irish (literary) studies, presenting new insights and opening up space for further exploration into a fascinating selection of topics. In a wide-ranging collection, the essays are brought together by a devotion to Coughlan’s own brand of criticism, which combines a close engagement with the text at hand and feminist as well as psychoanalytical approaches. Indeed, in her preface to the collection, Margaret Kelleher surveys Coughlan’s long and successful career, highlighting her “ability to integrate historicist and textual approaches with fresh and diverse theoretical perspectives” (xxii). The preface ends on a brief review of Coughlan’s work as a teacher who inspired many to follow in her footsteps, including most of the contributors to the collection. It further notes Coughlan’s contributions to conferences and her tongue-in-cheek humour, setting the tone for a collection of rigorous academic work, which yet manages to be engaging and lovingly devoted to one of the greats in our field.

In their introduction, editors Anne Fogarty and Tina O’Toole underline “the variety of [Coughlan’s] interests […] and the span of her academic curiosity” (1), noting how the collected essays, taking inspiration from Coughlan, are accordingly varied. They do, however, isolate two themes that are common to all of them, namely the eponymous gender and space. Structurally, the collection is interesting as it is split into three sections in an attempt to unify the various thematical and theoretical concerns of the essays within. Thus, these parts each have an overarching theme, namely “The Politics of Genre”, “The Family Romance and Sibling Relations”, and “Rethinking Femininity/Masculinity”, containing between four and six chapters each. Each part is introduced by poetry which speaks to similar themes and shines a light on the overall focus of the collection on poetics and language use.

In chapter one, entitled “‘Gente Blanca’ in the Green Atlantic: Selfhood, Victimhood, Whiteness, and Early Modern Ireland”, Patricia Palmer surveys life writings of and about two sixteenth-century missionaries and their voyages in South America, discussing the writers’ strategies of blurring boundaries between reality and fantasy. Referencing Coughlan’s influential essay on Anne Enright’s The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch and its assertion that South America offers the perfect setting for the questioning of European systems of order, Palmer concludes her trilingual analysis on the astute observation that outside of Ireland, the Irish were themselves colonizers, willing to accept and profit from slavery.

Sarah McKibben in her essay “Transformational Transactions: Eochaidh Ó hEodhasa’s Poem (1603) to James I” discusses the high political importance of Bardic poetry, referring to Coughlan’s argument that texts are always embedded in their context. In a carefully detailed analysis of the poem “Mór theasda dhòbair Óivid”, she offers a fascinating new way of looking at that genre, which so seldom begets new research. McKibben emphasizes the poet’s ability to assert his own culture and sophistication via a reference to Ovid, noting that the poem is a multi-faceted response to an important historical event, in which Ó hEodhasa manages to warn of the power of the new king while praising him and asking him for leniency.

Chapter three is Nicholas Daly’s fascinating exploration of the parallels between advancing public transport, and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s urban ghost stories, which takes inspiration from Coughlan’s writing about the importance of space in Le Fanu, as well as her historically informed close readings. “The Ghost Comes to Town: Le Fanu and the Urban Gothic” argues against Le Fanu as the “Invisible Prince” and instead positions him as a keen observer of and – through his family – participant in the restructuring of Dublin’s trainlines. Indeed, by leaving behind analyses of Le Fanu’s work as being reflective of the disintegration of the Ascendency, and instead seeing it as portraying anxieties brought on by advancing public transport, Daly manages to portray Le Fanu’s stories as specific to their own time and space, despite their historic settings.

In the fourth chapter, “‘Very little to have been so long about’: Pastoralism and William Morris in Yeats’s Poems, 1899-1905 and Related Writings”, Yeats’s middle period comes under scrutiny. Alex Davis argues that despite the poet’s own admission of being dissatisfied with his Poems,1899-1905, through this volume and subsequent revisions, as well as through his engagement with William Morris, Yeats fashioned his voice for the new century. Despite lacking direct reference to Coughlan’s work, Davis’s detailed textual analysis is akin to her own approach to otherwise neglected topics.

In her chapter “Fianaise Lom / Bare Witness: Surrealism and Life Writing in the Work of Celia de Fréine”, Máirín Nic Eoin offers an in-depth exploration of de Fréine’s oeuvre, specifically her use of surrealist imagery and poetry as life writing. Particular focus is placed on her collection Blood Debts/Fiacha Fola, which focuses on the Hepatitis C scandal which affected numerous women in the 1990s and early 2000s. One of the longest chapters in the collection, Nic Eoin’s essay gives an indication of the wealth of research still to be conducted on de Fréine’s work.

Chapter six, by Catherine La Farge, is entitled “Siblings: Juliet Mitchell and Malory’s Morte Darthur” and is an extensive psychoanalytical analysis of Malory’s Arthurian stories and their portrayal of sibling relationships. While this essay makes no direct reference to Coughlan, it engages with her work through its use of psychoanalysis to explain the doublings and deaths of siblings in these stories. La Farge explains how Juliet Mitchell amends psychoanalysis’s failure to account for lateral sibling relationships in the development of the self, arguing that unresolved sibling issues are the basis of Malory’s stories, in which people struggle to relate to each other. She then concludes that the time of writing, characterized by “crises, tensions and factiousness” (126), informed Malory’s depiction of fractured and deadly sibling relationships.

In chapter seven, “Fathers and Sons, Mothers and Daughters: The family romance in Katherine Cecil Thurston’s The Fly on the Wheel”, Clíona Ó Gallchoir connects to Coughlan’s scholarship through her engagement with Freudian theories and her dedication to investigating an otherwise neglected or too easily dismissed text. She sees the novel as a feminist protest against the lack of roles for women outside of the home in Ireland at the time, in which the woman appears at first as the mere object of man’s desire until she escapes her bounds by committing suicide. Overall, the essay convincingly argues that The Fly on the Wheel, for its realism, focus on an emerging Catholic middle class and feminist perspective, deserves a place in the canon of foundational works of Irish literature.

Chapter eight, borrowing its subject matter from Coughlan, focuses on Maeve Brennan’s Dublin sequences and how they can be read as a critique of the nuclear family, the 1937 constitution and the loss of power women experienced after independence. In “‘Now in the city there are two worlds’: Maeve Brennan’s Dublin Sequences”, Eamonn Hughes explores the intricate connections between stories and sequences, the interplay of Brennan’s life and work, and the empathy and mockery dealt to both her female and male characters. In an empathetic reading of a contradictory woman’s laudable work, he shows the importance placed on both the private and the public space in the author’s oeuvre, as well as her focus on female characters’ interactions with these spaces.

In the ninth chapter, “The Law of the Mother and the Sibling World: Leeanne Quinn’s Queer Ecologies”, Moynagh Sullivan attempts to combine neuroscientific and evolutionary biological research, psychoanalysis by Juliet Mitchell, and ecocritical elements. This creates a rather dense text, that is in parts difficult to decipher. What does emerge, however, is an in-depth analysis of the poet’s oeuvre and the way she, in communion with her partner, the visual arts, and the environment creates worlds of togetherness in her poetry. Eschewing inclusion in a masculinist canon, Quinn instead takes inspiration from and seeks connectivity with other women artists and poets, highlighting the importance of support and collaboration in her practice.

Elisabeth Okasha’s brief, well-structured exploration of the overlap between grammatical gender and biological sex in Anglo-Saxon names, “Female Personal Names in Old English”, sets the tone for the third and final part of the collection, which deals broadly with “Rethinking Femininity/Masculinity”. While an interdisciplinary approach is always appreciated, in this otherwise literary minded collection, this linguistic text seems slightly misplaced. Yet, it speaks to some of the concerns brought up elsewhere, especially through its feminist re-evaluation of certain case studies and attention to language use.

In her chapter, “Writing Irish Women in South America”, Laura Izarra returns to a more literary approach with an examination of the life writings of nineteenth-century Irish woman migrants in Argentina. Taking inspiration from Coughlan’s argument that only through persistent intervention can masculine-focused narratives be countered, she attempts to refocus attention to the diaspora experiences of ordinary women. Looking at their letters and autobiographical novels, she discerns how they play with the traditional roles of women in both Irish and Argentinian society at the time, commenting on history, economy, war, and family life. By maintaining connections with family members in Ireland, Australia, and elsewhere, these women constructed transnational networks that might be ongoing today.

Chapter twelve, “‘All I am is feeling’: Samuel Beckett, Aesthetics, and the Matter of Mother”, presents Seán Kennedy’s discussion of the misogyny so rampant in Beckett’s writing and how it should not be taken at face value, but rather as an indictment of the misogynists themselves, something Coughlan has pointed out previously. In his chapter, Kennedy shows that the economy of masculinity needs the infrastructure of women, both unseen and free of cost, in order to prosper which is why the masculine is threatened by the feminine. Kant, Kennedy reminds us, thought that feeling and need are in the way of aesthetics; Beckett, by admitting to his own vulnerability, and thus becoming a better writer, disproves this. This is a compelling argument supported by ample textual evidence.

In her chapter “‘Mind Our Men’: Fragile Masculinity in Post-Crash Irish Men’s Writing”, Anne Mulhall turns towards a by now very familiar topic, namely novels written in the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger depicting masculinity in crisis. She analyses three novels by male writers and discovers that they make use of horrific violence against women and general misogyny, sometimes crossing the line between critiquing and contributing to such anti-woman discourses. This aligns with so-called mancessionary narratives, in which women and feminism were blamed for the perceived downfall of man during the economic crash. Mullhall sheds light on the fact that the mancession is itself a myth, as it is women who are disproportionately affected by economic cuts and increased care duties. This article, probably completed before the publication of Austerity and Irish Women’s Writing and Culture, 1980–2020, edited by Deirdre Flynn and Ciara L. Murphy, yet seems in close conversations with that collection’s theme.

In the penultimate chapter, entitled “‘a permeable membrane gives at the slightest touch’: The Ecopoetics of Houses in the Poetry of Vona Groarke and Sinéad Morrisey”, Margaret Mills Harper argues for Groarke and Morrisey as ecopoets, showing their lyricism which is urban and focused on houses to be engaged with space, the self and the (non-human) other in a way akin to other poets of that genre. She also speaks to the freedoms afforded to these two poets by their strong predecessors Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin and Medbh McGuckian. From Coughlan this insightful formal analysis borrows the notion of blurred boundaries between interior and exterior space in Irish women’s poetry.

Finally, chapter fifteen is a critique of post-feminist notions, using Gilles Deleuze’s concept of “dividuation” to analyse Anne Enright’s short story “Natalie” and Leanne O’Sullivan’s poetry collection Waiting for my Clothes. Both of these authors, Claire Bracken argues in “Alienated Subjects: Post-Feminist Control and Contemporary Irish Femininity”, first show the alienation and separation created by the post-feminist ideal of femininity, only to then subvert these ideas through a desire for connection with other women as postulated by feminism. In close conversation with Coughlan’s work, this final chapter highlights the importance of continuing a feminist critique of Irish literature, despite certain victories won in recent years.

Overall, one might be inclined to say that this collection offers something for everyone. Spanning the genres of life writing, fiction, and poetry, as well as the fields of history, psychology, linguistics, and literature, it speaks to the value offered by Patricia Coughlan’s eclectic body of work, which continues to grow. For the contributors to honour their friend, colleague, and mentor in such a way is indeed touching, especially seeing as their own contributions are no less intriguing than Coughlan’s own catalogue. This it will be easy to brush up on, since an extensive list of her publications is included in the appendix to the collection.

Acknowledgements

Work on this review was made possible with the financial support of the Charles University Grant Agency, project no. 128323, entitled “The Young Woman in Recent Irish Fiction”, implemented at the Faculty of Arts of Charles University.