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Act of reclamation: Arlen House reissues books by Irish female authors

New editions of novels by Annie Smithson, Kate O’Brien, Catherine Dunne, Lia Mills and Anna Maria Fielding Hall

Our literary inheritance favours men and skews the canon, so if the name Anna Maria Fielding Hall (1800-1881) is unfamiliar to you, it’s hardly surprising. One of the most prolific and influential writers of her time, A Life of No Light Toil: The Anna Maria Fielding Hall Reader (Arlen House, €15), edited by Marian Thérèse Keyes, is an act of reclamation, an anthology revealing the staggering range of her work.

Wexford-born, she moved to London at fifteen, later marrying Samuel Carter Hall (caricatured by Dickens as Mr Pecksniff from Martin Chuzzzlewit). They were the literary couple du jour, but her husband’s name occluded hers, despite reviewers believing her the superior writer.

Over three decades she wrote plays, novels, and children’s books, with an eye for illustration and its production; the cross-pollination of her illustrations for children and her husband’s art connections fascinate the anthology’s compiler, Thérèse Keyes. Including The Dark Lady, a Victorian ghost story, the collection is a beautifully illustrated tasting menu of an “enigmatic and intriguing” writer.

Kate O’Brien is now known for her beautifully crafted novels documenting the pain and paralysis of bourgeois Ireland, due in no small part to the revival of her work by Arlen House

If Fielding Hall was prolific, Annie Smithson’s popularity was similar to bestselling authors today. Imagine Maeve Binchy going out of print — this is what happened to Carmen Cavanagh, (Arlen House, €15), a novel which after first publication in 1921 saw ten editions over thirty years. Her novels were devoured, and according to Alan Hayes she was one of the first proponents of magic realism.

The novel opens in Donegal, as Marcella and her housekeeper Ellen arrive from Dublin to start a new life in Gleann Cholm Cille in 1911. Trained as a district nurse, Marcella is thrown in at the deep end, attending the delivery of a baby with an audience of half the village in the next room. Her good friend Carmen Cavanagh comes to the region, and the story follows them through dramas and dilemmas as they try to fulfil their duties in unforgiving circumstances. With some surprising turns, it’s a real taste of popular fiction from a different era.

Kate O’Brien (1897-1974) is now known for her beautifully crafted novels documenting the pain and paralysis of bourgeois Ireland, due in no small part to the revival of her work by Arlen House, under the editorship of Eavan Boland. Her novels paint a claustrophobic Irish middle-class life, with transgressive themes for her time, from illicit love and suicide in The Ante Room (1934), to lesbian love in Mary Lavelle (1936), the first of her novels to be banned for “obscenity”.

Pray for the Wanderer (Arlen House, €15) is likely a response to this ban; it follows author Matt Costello, who leaves London to return to Mellick (O’Brien’s fictionalised Limerick), as De Valera’s Ireland is being born. Torn between artistic freedoms abroad and the pull of home, the novel examines not only questions about what a writer can and “should” write, but also the loneliness of exclusion. An absorbing book to read in the context of free speech, censure and cultural opprobrium.

In her afterword to A Name for Himself (Arlen House, €15), Catherine Dunne writes that following the account of a murder-suicide, she was “consumed by the need to understand, or at least to gain some insight, however imperfect, into what might drive a man to murder the woman he claimed to love, and then to take his own life.” It is dismaying that the novel is as pertinent in 2022 as it was when it was first published in 1998.

The book achieves exactly what Dunne set out to do; it reaches inside the head of Farrell, a compelling character with a fractured childhood, and gradually the reader is brought down a darkening path, a mirror to the relationship between Farrell and Grace, which is poisoned by degrees. It’s a gripping read, with a kind of deceptive warmth, something unsettling in the wings right from the start. “Works of fiction deal with truth — not necessarily with fact, but with truth.”

Truth lies darkling in Another Alice (Arlen House, €15), the magnetic novel by Lia Mills. It is as fearless as it is exquisitely written in its portrayal of abuse and the savaging of innocence. In her foreword, Paula McGrath writes that in Ireland at the time of publication in 1996 “the traumatised psyche remained almost entirely unexplored territory, in life as in the arts,” and considering the silence around sexuality and abuse it is to Poolbeg’s credit the novel ever saw light.

The book submerges into Alice’s psyche, as she attempts to understand herself and what has happened to her, wounds erased and dismissed by her own family — all the more urgent now she has a daughter, Holly. It’s staggering how illicit this subject was thirty years ago, how people hid behind curtains, hid from themselves; Mills writes about this kind of wilful denial, and its eventual disintegration: “The best way to keep a secret is not to know it.”