Tag Archives: James Joyce


In Irish folklore, the leannán sí or ‘fairy-lover’ is a beautiful female member of the Aos Sí or Aes Sídhe, the people of the barrows, who takes a human lover. These chosen men are permitted to live brief but inspired lives and their interactions with their supernatural muse results in the creation of great works of art.

Duncan, John, 1866-1945; The Riders of the Sidhe

The Riders of the Sidhe by John Duncan (Dundee City Council)

While it seems unlikely that our great poets, painters and writers have benefitted from productive liaisons with beautiful mythical beings, what is certain is that Ireland’s foremost artists have long been inspired by the real women who inhabit their lives. These women are often lovers, but they are also mothers, sisters, cousins and friends.

When Oscar Wilde, aged twenty-seven, embarked on a lecture tour of America, he was introduced in Minnesota as ‘a son of one of Ireland’s noblest daughters’. In an interview with journalist Mary Watson, Wilde described how ‘his mother, of whom he is very proud, inspired him with the desire to become a poet’. As Speranza, Jane Wilde emboldened a nation to challenge the authority of her colonizer.

Wilde wrote poetry throughout his life. His most moving and beautiful poem, ‘Requiescat,’ was written in memory of his beloved little sister, Isola, who died when she was nine and he, twelve. When W.B. Yeats included ‘Requiescat’ in A Book of Irish Verse (1900), it was hailed as ‘the brightest gem’ in the collection. The first four lines are inscribed on Isola’s tombstone:

Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.

Yeats himself is most closely associated with fiery Maud Gonne, revolutionary and founder of Inghinidhe na hÉireann (Daughters of Ireland). He called her ‘the new Speranza,’ not least because she stood over six feet tall as Jane Wilde did. Among many poems, she inspired his magnificent ‘No Second Troy’:

What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?

Yet Yeats’s early plays – Time and the Witch Vivien, The Island of the Statues, and Mosada – were inspired by Laura Armstrong, an earlier target of his infatuation. A lesser-known muse was fellow poet Katharine Tynan with whom Yeats collaborated on Poems and Ballads of Young Ireland (1888).

Iseult Gonne

Iseult, Maud Gonne’s beautiful daughter, played muse not only to Yeats but also to Ezra Pound, American poet and critic. Pound’s great friend James Joyce was inspired by lifelong partner and eventual wife, Nora Barnacle: ‘I love you deeply and truly, Nora,’ he wrote. ‘I feel worthy of you now. There is not a particle of my love that is not yours’. Patrick Kavanagh’s ‘On Raglan Road’ was written for Hilda Moriarty, a raven-haired medical student from Kerry who was two decades his junior.

Two women who inspired each other were Edith Somerville and Violet Martin, who wrote as Somerville and Ross, and gave us The Irish R.M. By the time Martin died in 1915, they had completed fourteen books together. Insisting that she retained a spiritual connection to her partner, Somerville continued to write and publish stories under their joint names. The women are buried side by side at St. Barrahane’s Church, Castletownsend, County Cork.


Edith Somerville and Violet Martin (Ross)

Ireland has a proud tradition of producing inspirational women, all of them highly accomplished in their own right of course. Without their influence, we would be deprived of many of our finest literary masterpieces.

International Literature Festival Dublin 2017 presents Herstory Salon: Ireland’s Lost Muses in Smock Alley Theatre, Thursday 25 May at 6p.m., followed by a reception at The Workman’s Club, Wellington Quay. Speakers include Mary McAuliffe, Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies at UCD, and author Eleanor Fitzsimons, with poetry by Dani Gill and Maria Bourke. The event marks the first anniversary of Herstory, Ireland’s new cultural movement created to tell the life stories of historical, contemporary and mythological women.

To discover more about Herstory please visit www.herstory.ie & to find out more about Wilde’s Women by Eleanor Fitzsimons visit here.


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George Egerton: Writing a ‘Topsy-Turvey’ World

I’m delighted that my feature ‘George Egerton: “Writing a Topsy-Turvey World”‘ was long-listed for the prestigious THRESHOLDS Feature Writing Competition. Egerton admired Wilde and emulated his style so I’ve decided that she qualifies as one of Wilde’s Women.


You can read my profile of the life and writing of this extraordinary woman on the Thresholds website here, or below:

George Egerton

George Egerton: Writing a ‘Topsy-Turvey’ World

by Eleanor Fitzsimons

Surely, a proto-modernist writer whose experimental approach and provocative themes were echoed, decades later, in classic works by James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence should enjoy an enduring reputation. No one would countenance the neglect of an author whose challenging first collection of short stories, Keynotes, sold more than six thousand copies in its first year, was translated into seven languages, and influenced Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. Yet the name George Egerton is rarely mentioned outside academic circles.

Perhaps Egerton, a woman, ensured her own neglect by engaging in unflinching criticism of the patriarchy. In ‘Now Spring Has Come’, the second story in Keynotes, she insisted that woman should embrace her true and turbulent nature, when she wrote: ‘the untrue feminine is of man’s making.’ Egerton’s sensual exploration of such dangerous themes provoked a backlash so intense that Punch magazine reflected the unease she incited among its Victorian readers by parodying her viciously in ‘She-Notes’ by ‘Borgia Smudgiton’.

Best remembered – if remembered at all – for Keynotes, Egerton was born Mary Chavelita Dunne in Melbourne, Australia, in 1859, to Isabel George, a Welsh Protestant, and Captain John J. Dunne, an Irish Catholic. A militiaman’s daughter, Egerton’s unsettled childhood unfolded between Australia, Chile and New Zealand, where her father participated in the brutal suppression of that country’s indigenous Maori people. She was also educated for a time in a German Catholic boarding school. The early death of her mother, when Egerton was just fourteen, obliged her to abandon aspirations of becoming an artist in order to spend her formative years in and around Dublin, helping her widowed father to raise her younger siblings. As a result, she considered herself ‘intensely Irish’. Several of her stories tackle Irish themes: ‘The Marriage of Mary Ascension’ explores clerical and parental oppression in middle-class Ireland, while ‘Mammy’ includes an account of prostitution in Dublin.

Once her father could spare her, Egerton trained as a nurse and lived in New York for a time, before returning to Ireland as travelling companion to the Hon. Charlotte Whyte-Melville. When Captain Dunne discovered that Whyte-Melville’s husband, Henry Higginson, an Episcopalian priest, was having an affair with his daughter, he threatened Higginson at gunpoint, prompting Egerton to flee to Norway with her lover. Their marriage, contracted in June 1888, endured for less than a year and, shortly afterwards, Higginson, a volatile alcoholic, died of complications related to his illness. Although Egerton lived in Norway only briefly (she soon moved on to London), her time there honed her literary abilities. A talented linguist, she had learned Norwegian and immersed herself in the works of Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg and Nobel Prize-winner Knut Hamsun, with whom she enjoyed a brief romance and whose work she translated into English. She used her relationship with Hamsun as the inspiration for ‘Now Spring Has Come’. Egerton also studied the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche a decade before they were translated into English; she references him in several of her stories and is the first person to do so in English literature.

In November 1891, Egerton married Egerton Tertius Clairmonte, a Canadian citizen and struggling novelist whose lack of success obliged her to take up her own pen in order to supplement the family income. It helped that the couple had moved to rural Ireland where Egerton encountered few distractions. Her pseudonym paid tribute to her late mother, whose maiden name she took, and also to her husband. Remarking that this was ‘the only provision that he ever made for her’, Egerton’s biographer, Terence de Vere White, noted: ‘Her elopement with Higginson gave her the material for a book; her second husband, by his dependence on her, gave her the motive to employ it.’ George, the couple’s only child, was born in 1895, the same year his parents divorced. By then, John Lane and Elkin Mathews of the Bodley Head had published Keynotes (1893), which Egerton dedicated to Knut Hamsun, her former lover.

In a series of interlinked stories, Egerton’s first collection explores the gradual acceptance by her female protagonists that the purity required of them was a patriarchal construct imposed in order to deny them sexual freedom and fulfilment. In ‘Now Spring Has Come’, she was scathing in her criticism, writing:

Men manufactured an artificial morality; made sins of things that were as clean in themselves as the pairing of birds on the wing; crushed nature, robbed it of its beauty and meaning, and established a system that means war, and always war, because it is a struggle between instinctive truths and cultivated lies.

Egerton’s women reject their proscribed roles as guardians of morality, and refuse to engage in the heteronormative courtship plots familiar to readers of the time. Instead, they cooperate with other women, often overcoming constructed ethnic and social divisions in pursuit of agency and self-determination. ‘Woman, where her own feelings are not concerned, will always make common cause with women against men’, she wrote in ‘The Spell of the White Elf’, the third story in Keynotes.

While most of Egerton’s heroines are white middle– and upper-class women, in ‘Under Northern Sky’, Marie Larsen, a maidservant, entertains her drunken master with compelling tales in a bid to ensure that her mistress enjoys an uninterrupted night. In doing so, she ‘[takes] the enemy by stratagem’. The emancipated women that populate these dangerous and destabilising stories prompted comparison to Ibsen and sparked intense speculation as to the true identity of their author. Reviewing Egerton’s collection for The Academy in 1894, literary critic William Sharp described her fictional world, where women explore their desires and pursue supportive relationships with other women, as ‘topsy-turvey’.

Although closely associated with the fin-de-siècle New Woman movement, Egerton was uncomfortable with her inclusion: ‘I am embarrassed at the outset by the term ‘New Woman’’, she admitted. In an interview with American periodical Book Buyer, she confessed to having no views on ‘emancipation’ or the ‘woman question’. Unlike true New Woman writers, Egerton adopted an essentialist approach to gender, encouraging women to abandon all ambitions of emulating men in order to focus on the realisation of their own potential. In her epistolary and largely autobiographical novel Rosa Amorosa, she wrote:

Broadly speaking, woman has given most of her energy to a development of masculine qualities, instead of a cultivation to the utmost of the best in herself – as woman – with the object of producing the finest type of womanhood.

Although her exploration of sexual emancipation and self-actualisation resonated with New Woman preoccupations, Egerton shunned notions of equality. Yet, while she envisaged an alternative calling for woman, her forthright language reflected the fury of the burgeoning women’s rights movement. In ‘Now Spring Has Come’, she wrote:

What half creatures we are, we women! – hermaphrodite by force of circumstances, deformed results of a fight of centuries between physical suppression and natural impulses to fulfil our destiny.

Egerton loathed the duplicity of Victorian society, which she summed up in a sardonic letter to her father, writing: ‘sin as you please but don’t be found out it’s all right so long as you don’t shock us by letting us know.’ Little wonder her protagonist in ‘A Cross Line’, the first story in Keynotes, dreams of escape:

A great longing fills her soul to sail off somewhere too – away from the daily need of dinner-getting and the recurring Monday with its washing, life with its tame duties and virtuous monotony.

Although Egerton intended ‘A Cross Line’ to be the last story in her collection, the Bodley Head insisted it go first since, as Professor Margaret Stetz argued:

With its plot based on casual adultery, its references to unwed mothers, and its flattering portrayal of a woman who drinks whiskey, goes fishing alone, and smokes cigarettes, ‘A Cross Line’ […] guaranteed attention for the whole book.

Fearless in her choice of theme, Egerton also subverted conventional genre boundaries that set long-form and short-form fiction apart. Norwegian academic Gerd Bjørhovde insists that readers were ‘as shocked by the way she wrote as by what she wrote’. Her stories spill into each other, chasing themes from first page to last, as she explores the innate wildness of a woman’s nature and allows her female protagonists to seize opportunities for self-knowledge and control of their destiny. In Discords, her darker and far less successful second collection of stories, Egerton documents the barriers women collide against when attempting to break free from rigid Victorian norms. Here, she explores alcoholism, marital abuse, prostitution and suicide. In ‘Virgin Soil’, the fifth story in the collection, a newly married woman is destroyed by her ignorance of the sex act.

Only in ‘The Regeneration of Two’, the last story in Discords, does Egerton sound a hopeful note, allowing her protagonist to enjoy a fulfilling, non-marital romance and a gratifying career helping other women. As American scholar Martha Vicinus suggests, this decision to lighten the tone may reflect Egerton’s ‘need to imagine a better world where women work together and men understand and keep their freedom too’. It is telling that she set this story in her beloved Norway rather than Victorian England, where she had made her home by then. While Egerton had plenty of detractors, she had supporters too. In 1895, publisher John Lane, with whom she had a romantic liaison, wrote to her from America, assuring her that her stories were ‘very much in the air’ there. Adopting the title ‘Keynotes’, he published a series of New Woman fiction under the Bodley Head imprint.

Egerton also wrote for quarterly literary periodical The Yellow Book: her story ‘The Lost Masterpiece’ was included in the very first issue in April 1894, and her connection with this publication created an association with the Decadent movement. By echoing Oscar Wilde’s style in several of her stories, and quoting him in an epigram to ‘A Little Gray Glove’, the fourth story in Keynotes, she reinforced Wilde’s association with New Women’s writing. Several passages in ‘A Cross Line’, which imagine a dance in a ‘dream of motion’, take much from Wilde’s Salome, although Egerton’s woman dances for her own pleasure and not in an attempt to satisfy the male gaze:

She can see herself with parted lips and panting, rounded breasts, and a dancing devil in each glowing eye, sway voluptuously to the wild music that rises, now slow, now fast, now deliriously wild, seductive, intoxicating, with a human note of passion in its strain.

This dancing woman is acutely aware of the undermining decorative role she is expected to fill, a common theme in New Woman writing. In a show of solidarity, she wonders if other women feel the same.

Egerton’s association with Wilde, and the consequent discontinuation of The Yellow Book, damaged her reputation. Although she wrote five short story collections, an epistolary collection, one novel, and several plays, she never replicated the success of Keynotes. Her decline coincided with her marriage in 1901 to drama critic and literary agent Reginald Golding-Bright, who was fifteen years her junior. Following his example, she became drama agent to George Bernard Shaw, who produced her first play, and also to Somerset Maugham. Egerton, known by then as Mary Chavelita Bright, passed the final four decades of her long life in relative solitude and died in 1945. As one obituary writer put it:

George Egerton’s death brings back to mind the so-called ‘new woman’ school of fiction of the nineties in which the ‘problems’ of the relations of the sexes for the first time in English literature were put before a somewhat bewildered Victorian public.

Interest in Egerton has grown in recent years but she remains neglected in comparison to contemporaries such as Olive Schreiner, Sarah Grand, and Mona Caird. Yet, her unique brand of feminist writing is worthy of our interest and her revolutionary ideas had a significant influence on several groundbreaking writers, both male and female.


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Me on Joyce & Wilde & At It Again

To tie in with my earlier post, here is my heartfelt speech from this evening’s launch of Romping Through Dubliners:

‘I first encountered At It Again, in the form of Maite and Niall, at the Oscar Wilde Festival in Galway in September 2015, and I was struck by the energy and joy they injected into Romping Through Dorian Gray, their witty guide to Wilde’s lush novel; a dynamism and irreverence that was very much in keeping with the approach taken by Oscar himself. I was also struck at that time by the great enthusiasm with which they – and happily I – were welcomed into the inner circle of those who keep Wilde’s work fresh in the public mind, a generosity of spirit that is common to all true lovers of literature in my experience.

Since the task of finding new angles on Wilde, one of the most closely examined men in the world, second only to Joyce perhaps, was thought to be next to impossible, I realised that I, with my focus on Wilde’s Women, and they, with their delightful romp through Dorian Gray, were kindred spirits who shared a belief that there is always something new to say. Their enticing approach to Wilde, Stoker and Joyce has ensured that I’ve taken a huge interest in their activities ever since.

Irish people can be justifiably proud of the wealth of great literature that our tiny island has produced, yet, sometimes, we make the mistake of being a little too reverential about the whole affair. It’s not uncommon for us to feel intimidated by the towering reputation of a writer as magnificently talented as James Joyce. As a result we may feel that his work is not for the likes of us when, in fact, it was written with precisely us in mind!

Decades, ago, when I was in my twenties and working in London, an English colleague, on learning that I was a Dubliner, rushed to my desk to talk about Ulysses, his favourite book: ‘What  bit had I enjoyed most,’ he wondered? ‘Exactly which of the Martello Towers that punctuate our eastern shoreline featured in the opening chapter?’ On and on he gushed until, finally, I had to stop him and admit that I had never read Ulysses. He turned on his heel in disgust, leaving me wondering why I, a Dubliner through and through, somehow believed that Ulysses was not for me, a book to be endured rather than enjoyed. It was the beginning of a lasting curiosity.

Dubliners, Joyce’s collection of short stories, provides the perfect entry point for anyone keen to read his work. Although published in 1914, Joyce had written the interlinked stories between the years 1904 and 1907. Publishers were wary of the forthright language and fretted about bringing out a book in which so many of Joyce’s contemporaries were immediately recognisable and might take umbrage; Dubliners, of course, were far more likely to take umbrage at being omitted rather than included. The fact that Dubliners was rejected by numerous publishing houses, including London-based Grant Richards, its eventual publisher, provides a lesson in perseverance for us all.

In writing Dubliners, Joyce held up a mirror to Dublin society with the intention of provoking a citywide epiphany. A proponent of individualism, like Wilde before him, he hoped that, once confronted with reality, his compatriots might question their circumstances and crawl out from beneath the twin yoke of church and state. Like everything Joyce wrote, Dubliners was radical and challenging; it was neither pompous nor staid. It was aimed at ordinary, decent, and not so decent, Dubliners as much as it was at scholars and academics, who were welcome to read it too.

By insisting that Dubliners is for everyone and by prompting us to engage with this wonderful city, Romping Through Dubliners, a manual, is a truly fitting companion piece to Joyce’s original. It gives ownership back to the people it was written for. It is very telling that the word ‘fun’ is included on the very first page, a word that some people, although no one present in this room I suspect, forget to apply to Joyce.

With their intriguing maps and tips for dressing up, or ‘cosplay’ as my teenage son would say, Romping Through Dubliners recaptures the immediacy that was always present in Joyce’s work. Its interactivity calls to mind the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books that so captivated children of the 1970s and 1980s, myself included, who were invited to determine the outcome of their own quest; an acknowledged source of inspiration for the At It Again manuals. By suggesting tie-in activities such as ‘sip sherry & talk politely about death’ Romping Through Dubliners pokes gentle fun at the quirky customs and habits of Dubliners that were so brilliantly exposed in the original

The playful illustrations add vitality and capture the essence of the original. The whole ethos of At It Again, and of Joyce too, is exemplified in a quote from ‘An Encounter’ highlighted on page 14:

 ‘Real adventures do not happen to people who remain at home. They must be sought abroad’.

‘Abroad’ in the ‘here, there and everywhere’ sense of the word that is. The scope of the At It Again’ team’s ambition is illuminated by their suggestion on page 31: WHY DON’T YOU: ‘Pursue your dreams’. It gives me great pleasure to introduce Maite, Niall, Jessica and James of At It Again, a dynamic bunch who describe themselves with great accuracy as ‘cultural treasure hunters who bring Irish literature to life’. Long may they continue to do so!’

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Joyce on Wilde

I’m all about James Joyce today, since it is my great honour to have been asked by At It Again to say a few words at the launch of their delightful little manual Romping Through Dubliners in The James Joyce Centre on North Great Georges Street, Dublin 1. You can read my speech encouraging Dubliners to embrace Dubliners  by clicking here.


Yet, I can’t let this opportunity pass without mentioning Joyce’s commentary on his compatriot Oscar Wilde. In March 1909, a production of the opera Salome by Richard Strauss, which was based on Wilde’s play of the same name, opened at the Teatro Verdi in Trieste, where Joyce was living at the time. To coincide with this ‘Oscar Wilde: il poeta di “Salomé”’ [Oscar Wilde: The Poet of Salome]*, Joyce’s lengthy analysis of Wilde’s life, was published in Il Piccolo della Sera on 24 March 1909.

Joyce opened by analysing Wilde’s elaborate name – ‘Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde’ – and commenting on its appropriateness, given that the original Oscar, son of Ossian in Celtic mythology, had been ‘treacherously killed by the hand of his host as he sat at table’. Wilde too, Joyce believed, met his death ‘in the flower of his years as he sat at table, crowned with false vine leaves and discussing Plato’.

Controversially, while acknowledging the considerable influence that Lady Jane Wilde had exerted over her younger son, Joyce did not believe this had worked to Wilde’s advantage. He wrote:

‘His mother’s susceptible temperament revived in the young man, and, beginning with himself, he resolved to put into practice a theory of beauty that was partly original and partly derived from the books of Pater and Ruskin. He provoked the jeers of the public by proclaiming and practising a reform in dress and in the appearance of the home.’

Although he noted the success Wilde had enjoyed with his sharp social comedies, Joyce was damning in his assessment of the position of the Irish comedic playwright in English society, writing:

‘In the tradition of the Irish writers of comedy that runs from the days of Sheridan and Goldsmith to Bernard Shaw, Wilde became, like them, court jester to the English.’

Joyce believed, with good reason, that Wilde had frittered away his new-found wealth on ‘a series of unworthy friends’. Since, in his opinion, Wilde’s popularity was superficial and unsustainable, he was not at all surprised that, as soon as Wilde fell from favour, ‘[h]is fall was greeted by a howl of puritanical joy’.

Joyce, who had been devout in his early years but had turned his back on religion, took the opportunity to comment on Wilde’s late conversion to Catholicism, writing:

He died a Roman Catholic, adding another facet to his public life by the repudiation of his wild doctrine. After having mocked the idols of the market place, he bent his knees, sad and repentant that he had once been the singer of the divinity of joy, and closed the book of his spirit’s rebellion with an act of spiritual dedication.

Ultimately, Joyce saw Wilde as a victim of a system that tolerated him only as long as he posed no real threat:

‘Whether he was innocent or guilty of the charges brought against him, he undoubtedly was a scapegoat. His greater crime was that he had caused a scandal in England, and it is well known that the English authorities did everything possible to persuade him to flee before they issued an order for his arrest. An employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs stated during the trial that, in London alone, there are more than 20,000 persons under police surveillance, but they remain footloose until they provoke a scandal.’

He believed that the turn of Wilde’s life was:

‘the logical and inescapable product of the Anglo-Saxon college and university system, with its secrecy and restrictions’.

And he mourned the fact that Wilde’s literary reputation had been destroyed:

‘his brilliant books sparkling with epigrams (which made him, in the view of some people, the most penetrating speaker of the past century), these are now divided booty’.

Today we have reclaimed Wilde’s work and his reputation, and we celebrate his brilliance in myriad ways. One fitting example of the revival of our brilliant Oscar is to be found in Romping Through Dorian Gray, At It Again’s witty and interactive companion to his lush novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. In it, we are urged to ‘yield to temptation’, an activity that Oscar embraced wholeheartedly.


*The translation of ‘Oscar Wilde: il poeta di “Salomé”’ comes from The critical writings of James Joyce

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