Jenny Farrell reviews a new book on the fight to write by women writers in Ireland
And perhaps, before literature dies, there will come a day when no one notices an author’s gender or race but says only ‘I have just read an astonishing, unforgettable book by a fantastic human writer.’ I plan to live to see this.
So writes Mary Dorcey in the newly published Look! It’s a Woman Writer! Irish Literary Feminisms, 1970-2020 (Éilís Ní Dhuibhne ed., Arlen House 2021). Does her statement contradict the book’s purpose? I think not. Rather, it reaches into a time beyond the experiences described here, into a future when such full equality of gender, race and class is achieved that they no longer spell marginalisation and exclusion from the cultural mainstream.
The twenty-one poets, fiction writers, playwrights in this book tell how they became the writers they are. They come from the whole island of Ireland, they author in both Irish and English, and they were born into a range of social backgrounds.
Most of the women were born in the 1950s and benefited from the abolition of secondary school fees. This dilution of class educational privilege was significant. The writers grew up in a society that oppressed women on many levels, intersecting with class background, resulting in a far-reaching and profound lack of self-belief.
“Nothing in my childhood suggested I might become a writer… I expected that one day I would grow up and become a shop assistant or hairdresser” writes Celia de Fréine. Educators ignored women writers, and society banned books by any progressive author, female or male.
The writers collected here describe their personal trajectories to becoming the authors they are today, how they learnt about women writers in the past and how they each individually broke into the world of literature, despite continuing societal prejudice. Catherine Dunne relates a 2015 experience where “novelist Catherine Nichols, disappointed at the silence from agents that greeted her latest manuscript, decided to send it out under a (male) pseudonym.” She received a very different response – similar to the experience of the Bröntes, over 150 years ago.
This book is important. It sheds light on the history of Irish women writers, and the personal stories related in the book represent a much greater circle. It also highlights areas of continuing failures by the cultural establishment towards them. And it celebrates people like Jessie Lendennie and Eavan Boland who played a crucial role in encouraging women to take on the fight and write. It will be a long road before we reach the classless society anticipated by Mary Dorcey. Books like this are steps along the way.
The book will be launched online on July 15th at 7pm, see here.
Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.