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Tina O’Toole, The Irish New Woman

Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 216 p., ISBN: 978-0-230-31391-0
Stephanie Eggermont
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Tina O’Toole, The Irish New Woman, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 216 p., ISBN: 978-0-230-31391-0

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1Tina O’Toole’s The Irish New Woman attends to an obscured issue in the field of New Woman studies, namely, the Irish aspect of the late nineteenth-century ‘Woman Question’. Throughout the study, ‘Irishness’ figures as a fluid signifier, pointing to the hybrid national identity of New Woman writers such as George Egerton, L. T. Meade, Sarah Grand, Hannah Lynch, and Katherine Cecil Thurston. O’Toole argues that the hybrid identities of these writers facilitated their challenge to hegemonic constructions of gender in the transformative period 1880–1922. Focusing on both the lived experience of Irish women writers and the aesthetic and generic aspects of their fiction, O’Toole demonstrates that the revolutionary Irish context gave these writers a crucial impetus to create the literary figure of the New Woman and to reshape the fixed narratives of nationality, ethnicity, class, gender, and sex. Impressive in its adept exploration of the political, activist, literary, and cultural history of Ireland, O’Toole’s study fills a gap within the existing scholarship of New Woman writing and within recent translocational approaches to British fin de siècle literature.

2O’Toole introduces the Irish women writers who constitute her corpus by situating them against the background of other female-oriented subversive movements in Ireland around the period 1880–1922 such as the Match Girls, the Ladies’ Land League, and the emerging first-wave feminists. In tandem with the New Woman writers, these movements are shown to encapsulate a revolutionary and communal challenge to fixed identity boundaries in turn-of-the-century Britain.

3In the first three chapters, O’Toole’s specific focus on the Irish context yields fresh insights into the work of Sarah Grand, L. T. Meade, and Hannah Lynch. O’Toole’s analysis of these writers’ novels relies on an impressive range of archival documents such as memoirs, letters, biographies, reviews, and newspaper articles. O’Toole consistently opts for an intersectional approach to her material, addressing the interaction between gender, nationalism, ethnicity, and class in the narratives as well as in the lived experience of the writers. One point of critique might be that O’Toole’s biographical-historical approach sometimes tends to overshadow the analysis of textual and aesthetic elements. Apart from a few references to the genre of schoolgirl fiction in chapter 2, the close reading and the attention to generic or aesthetic innovation anticipated in the introduction often remain quite brief.

4Chapter 1, ‘Feminism and Famine’, focuses on Sarah Grand’s use of her Irish background in the novel The Beth Book (1897). Refining Iveta Jusova’s analysis of Grand’s investment in imperialist ideology, O’Toole deftly demonstrates that the novel reveals a tension between Grand’s imperialist socialization and her complicated relationship to Ireland. O’Toole’s intersectional approach culminates in her analysis of food-as-signifier, a recurrent trope in fin de siècle narratives of femininity which in Grand’s novel resonates with the Great Famine. The subtle yet appalling references to famine in The Beth Book further help O’Toole to substantiate her claim that Grand had a more complex understanding of the workings of imperial power than is often assumed.

5Chapter 2, ‘Empire Girls’, again bears testimony to O’Toole’s expertise in fin de siècle political and cultural practices. It features a comparative analysis of L. T. Meade’s schoolgirl fiction and her novel A Sister of the Red Cross. A Tale of the South African War (1901). Although Meade takes an imperialist feminist position, presenting the colonies as an opportunity to widen the horizon of her ‘New Girls’, the liberated Irish girls in her schoolgirl fiction do pose a potential threat to imperial values and to conventional class and gender relations. O’Toole convincingly connects the disruptive potential of the rebel Irish girl to Meade’s own hybrid Irish background. Chapter 3, ‘The New Woman and the Land War’, links Land War questions to women’s proto-feminist quest for autonomy. The chapter mainly focuses on Anna Parnell, who, as leader of the Ladies’ Land League, united anti-imperialist activism and feminism. O’Toole investigates how the figure of Parnell and her nationalist struggles reverberate in the fiction of Hannah Lynch, in various anti-imperialist discourses, and in the land war fiction of George Moore and Rosa Mulholland. She makes the valuable literary-historical point that Anna Parnell might have served as a blueprint for the emerging figure of the New Woman in the work of Hannah Lynch. As O’Toole contends, such fictional representations of women’s feminist and nationalist struggles provided role models for later generations of feminists.

6Chapters 4 to 6 further demonstrate O’Toole’s erudition and similarly stand out for their masterful combination of historical, biographical and textual approaches to the works under discussion. Compared to the first chapters, these three final chapters devote more space to detailed textual analyses. Chapter 5, ‘The New Woman and the Boy’ is particularly productive in this regard. Although the nexus between gender issues and the Irish context temporarily recedes to the background, the chapter features a cogent and innovative analysis of queer elements in Grand’s The Heavenly Twins (1893) and Katherine Cecil Thurston’s Max (1910). As O’Toole demonstrates, both writers figure the ‘boy’ as a transgressive role model for women, which challenges gender and sex binaries and points to the social construction of femininity. The chapter is ground-breaking in its novel reading of gender and sexual identities at the turn of the century.

7In chapters 4 and 6, O’Toole predominantly focuses on the fiction of George Egerton. O’Toole’s detailed familiarity with this author is evident from the meticulous analysis and clarity of exposition in these chapters. O’Toole dives into some of Egerton’s neglected work such as the short stories ‘Mammy’ (1905) and ‘At the Heart of the Apple’ (1897), and the semi-autobiographical novel The Wheel of God (1898). In Chapter 4, ‘The New Mother Ireland’, O’Toole shows that Egerton’s short fiction features ideas on motherhood, family, and sexuality that were radically opposed to Irish nationalist rhetoric and to the political and social hegemonic discourses of her time. While Egerton’s ideas on motherhood have already been extensively discussed in New Woman scholarship, O’Toole handles Egerton’s archival material with greater depth, and owing to her specific focus on the Irish Catholic context, O’Toole can offer finer readings of the stories. Chapter 6, ‘The Transnational New Woman’, elegantly incorporates diaspora studies and theories on nomadic subjectivity to demonstrate that, unlike other Irish emigrant writings, Egerton’s novel The Wheel of God features a modern nomadic protagonist who is not marked by a predefined, nostalgic relation to her homeland, nor tied to a fixed culture, religion, or class. In both chapters, the modernist subjectivity of Egerton’s female protagonists is shown to be reflected in the avant-garde aesthetics of her work.

8O’Toole’s The Irish New Woman is an engaging study that successfully reinserts fin de siècle Irish women’s writing in longstanding and often restricted narratives of Irish literary and political history. Through a variety of case studies, O’Toole convincingly demonstrates how the hybrid social position of Irish New Woman writers as both inside and outside the British imperial hegemony shapes their radical challenge to fixed gender identities and accounts for the generic innovations and avant-garde aesthetics of their work. In her conclusion, Tina O’Toole refers to women writers’ commitment to solidarity and collectivity on a global and local level, thus reasserting the relevance of their work for the feminist and political struggles that followed in the twentieth century and continue in the present. Similarly, it would seem that any future study on New Woman writing will have to take O’Toole’s book into account.

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Stephanie Eggermont, « Tina O’Toole, The Irish New Woman », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 81 Printemps | 2015, mis en ligne le 06 septembre 2015, consulté le 11 décembre 2017. URL :

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Stephanie Eggermont

University of Leuven

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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