Enduring fictions: celebrating The Long Gaze Back

An event at Trinity College Dublin explores questions about women’s creativity and self-expression in Ireland since the 18th century

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, whose story The Coast of Wales appears in The Long Gaze Back, will discuss the work  with Aileen Douglas, professor of English at Trinity. Photograph: Eric Luke

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, whose story The Coast of Wales appears in The Long Gaze Back, will discuss the work with Aileen Douglas, professor of English at Trinity. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

In October 2015 the Guardian ran a feature called “A new Irish literary boom: the post-crash stars of fiction” and its author, Justine Jordan, asked Anne Enright what she noticed about new trends in Irish writing. Enright said there was “a confidence in female voices that I haven’t seen ever before – a hugely important thing”. She continued: “Traditionally, Irish writing has been about breaking silences. The biggest silence has continued to be about the real lives of women.”

On first reading, these seem like lucid statements, but they rely entirely on the eloquence of the unsaid. Enright doesn’t tell us what those “silences” are, nor does she elaborate on what she might have in mind when she gestures towards those “real lives of women”. But these statements hold within themselves the evidence that proves the point Enright is making, and the sensitive reader can summon up the watchfulness she has elsewhere ascribed particularly to the Irish reader. Unless questions of shame or desire are involved, women’s lives have been hidden lives; aspects of women’s experience, from the profound to the banal, have been overlooked.

Moreover, the women who have chosen to write – or who, perhaps, have felt that writing has chosen them – have faced obstacles which have far less often stood in the way of men. “[A]ny woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at,” said Virginia Woolf of Judith, the sister she imagined for Shakespeare in A Room of One’s Own. That text let the light in on these questions when it was first published in 1929, and it continues to inspire and sustain. But as Woolf well knew, you didn’t have to make this sort of thing up.

I think often of Freda Laughton in this regard. Born in Bristol in 1907, she later lived in Ireland, and she published one collection of poems, A Transitory House, in 1945. Nobody knows when she died. In one of her last essays, Woolf said, “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” If only we could ask Woolf what she would make of the case of a woman, like Laughton, who did sign her poems – her accomplished, renewing, vital poems – and then faded from view altogether.

Woolf gave us a language for the ethical questions which have to inform our understanding of the history of the writer, female and male, a language which still helps us to negotiate the silences Enright does not name. Perhaps we need to mix the metaphors. Breaking silences in literature is often about observation and reflection: a writer’s articulacy lies in what they show us, as much as in what they tell us. All the time they are dealing in words, but they can draw us – the reader – in in different ways, making us see before they make us hear. And the act of reading most often is a private, silent act, but no less radical for it. So, when Enright talks about breaking silences she must surely have in mind the access we are granted, through writing by women, to different subjectivities; to the depiction of experience in emotional as well as actual terms. Breaking silence is about changing perspective.

This is also true, of course, when that perspective is a male one, as is the case in the first of Enright’s Three Stories About Love, which is collected in Sinéad Gleeson’s The Long Gaze Back: An Anthology of Irish Women Writers. Published by New Island in 2015, The Long Gaze Back is the choice for this year’s Dublin: One City One Book, and it has been the prompt for an event at Trinity College in the One City One Book programme, which takes place on Thursday, April 5th.

Enduring Fictions: Celebrating The Long Gaze Back will explore questions about women’s creativity and self-expression in Ireland since the 18th century. Aileen Douglas, professor of English at Trinity, will discuss these issues with Éilís Ní Dhuibhne, whose story The Coast of Wales appears in The Long Gaze Back. Paul Delaney, Eve Patten and Amy Prendergast, fellow experts in women’s writing, Irish writing, and short fiction from the School of English will look closely at three more stories featured in the anthology: by Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Bowen and Mary Lavin.

In addition to these conversations about the writers and their work, selected excerpts from the stories will be read by Cliodhna Kelly, a final-year student in TCD’s drama department. The event will also include choral music: the acclaimed Mornington Singers, under the direction of Orla Flanagan, will perform work by the contemporary Irish composers Éna Brennan and Caitríona Ní Dhubhghaill. The Morningtons will sing Frank Corcoran’s setting of Caoine, too, a piece which takes us back to the tradition of the keen – a woman’s lament; and Under-Song, Seán Doherty’s setting of a poem by Lola Ridge, the Irish-American poet and radical.

Marian Evans, or George Eliot, to use the man’s name by which she is more commonly known, wrote in 1859 that: “The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies”. In their varied work, the artists who will be celebrated on Thursday have opened up the possibility for sympathetic recognition that Eliot identified – in other words, they have broken silences. Our job is to listen.

Enduring Fictions: Celebrating The Long Gaze Back takes place at 7pm on Thursday, April 5th in Regent House, Trinity College. More details at https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/enduring-fictions-celebrating-the-long-gaze-back-tickets-43934457144. The event is now booked out, but to enquire about cancellations please email lavanro@tcd.ie. The full programme for Dublin: One City One Book 2018 can be found at http://www.dublinonecityonebook.ie/

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