in Dissolute characters


The twentieth century has seen an exponential growth in the production and consumption of fiction and (simultaneously) a great diversity of assaults upon a central feature of traditional fiction-character. This paradox, or even conflict, has been thought symptomatic of a modern condition. But suspicion, amounting at times to hostility and even outright rejection, of fictional character, was manifest in the work of novelists and short-story writers (consider D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce) long before the more abstract pronouncements of Roland Barthes. Behind the literary and critical exchanges lay the broader inquiries of psychologists, sociologists and political theorists whose sole common ground perhaps was their debunking of the supposedly autonomous human subject.

The history of literature has inevitably come under revisionist and deconstructive scrutiny in the light of these developments. Radical discontinuities and strategic contradictions have been discovered where earlier readers had presumed to identify Moll Flanders or Lemuel Gulliver. Yet the extensive and detailed examination of a body of fiction openly parading such features is rarely attempted, except of course where recent fiction indebted to such theories obliges with a practical conformity to them.

One area or period where the extra-literary dimensions of such an examination become immediately evident is Victorian Ireland, the forcing ground not only of Joyce (1882–1941) but also of Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), G. B. Shaw (1856–1950), W. B. Yeats (1865–1939), and other notable contributors to Anglophone modernism. (To these is added here that last-minute Irish Victorian, Elizabeth Bowen (1899–1973), for whom the ‘happy autumn fields’ of mid-nineteenth-century Ireland provided an agonising contrast to the anaestheticised decay of wartime and post-war England.) The period – and even the term – is still a newcomer in intellectual history, though I have previously explored it in a biography (Sheridan Le Fanu and Victorian Ireland, Oxford, 1980, revised edition Dublin, 1991) to which the present work acts as a critical and reflective counterpart.

Rejection of social norms had characterised much English romantic thinking about the relationships linking politics to cultural production. Such rebellion might be read in the broader context of the late-eighteenth-century revolutions, successful in America and France, manifestly unsuccessful in Ireland. But the mid-nineteenth-century emphasis on the artist as criminal and criminal as artist (familiar to readers of French literature) is a quite different matter, one which does not fully emerge in Anglophone literature before Wilde. It is, however, intriguingly implicit throughout the extensive and discontinuous career of a less well known Irish writer. As Sheridan Le Fanu (1814–73) set most of his stories and novels in England (and as his names declared both Gaelic and French Huguenot orgins), even his identity as English novelist becomes questionable.

For these reasons, Le Fanu plays a large part in the argument which follows. However, his uncertain place in what is uncertainly called an ‘Irish gothic tradition’ unexpectedly implicates the fiction of Honoré de Balzac and the quasi-mysticism of Emanuel Swedenborg. The mediated presence of all three of these (Le Fanu included) in the work of Yeats brings to a head political questions of the utmost gravity, the most notable being Yeats’s engagement with fascism. In the 1930s and after, the ethical, political and cultural crisis which fascism posed for Yeats and many of his contemporaries was interrogated by Elizabeth Bowen. A practitioner of the ghost story and an admirer of Le Fanu’s nervous literary style, Bowen produced during and immediately after the Second World War a body of fiction which serves to give coherence and depth to seemingly minor and finicking issues – Le Fanu’s interest in Dutch painting, his use of historically evocative proper names.

It is true that the visual arts pervade nineteenth-century fiction in English. Landscape is everywhere, and much attention is devoted to the ‘portrayal’ of character. Yet Le Fanu’s case is both curious and instructive. In his treatment of painting he might be placed equidistant from Charles Lever and George Eliot. In The Martins of Cro’ Martin (1856), the popular Irish novelist includes a historico-satirical painter who in turn might be placed midway between James Barry and Gully Jimson. In Adam Bede (1859), Eliot breaks off her realistic narrative to discourse lightly on the merits of Dutch art. Le Fanu is neither as heavy-handed as Lever nor as well-bred as Eliot. It is notable that she approves one little-known artist, Gerard Dou, whom Le Fanu had treated in an early story. And it should be said on Le Fanu’s part that he seems to have grasped instinctively something of the moral duplicity, the coded ambiguity and vestigial emblemism which latter-day art historians have rediscovered in genre painting.

The structure of the present essay might be represented by a straight line with two cross bars – a croix de Lorraine – in which the main trajectory attends to questions of fictional character and representation, while the two other lines follow out implications in relation to the invocation of visual imagery and to strategies of character-naming. This latter aspect implicates a good deal of Irish history, dissolved and distributed through fragmentary allusion and subversions of nominal authority. Naturally, any such structure has a crucial point of intersection, and this I would identify as the political domain, with specific reference to Yeats’s authoritarianism.

It is a central, if discretely placed, thesis that nineteenth-century Ireland went through a series of traumatic processes of modernisation which have been denied and repressed in their aftermath. In Bowen’s work a political transformation, by which the land of her birth changes from metropolitan colony to semi-independent nation-state, is acutely apprehended in the operations of fictional character. Notions of character, generally based on assumptions of male bourgeois rectitude and power, inevitably implicate notions of participatory citizenship which in turn raise questions about the ideological nature of the state and the operations of civil society.

The title of the present essay can be read literally in relation to the murderers, forgers, seducers, traitors and other ne’er-do-wells of Le Fanu and Bowen’s plots. But it should also be taken to characterise the underlying theme – of character itself being a process of dissolving, of being disjointed or disunited. And this at both the psychic and political levels.

I am conscious of proceeding much of the time without overt reference to the work of other critics and historians concerned with the authors, texts and themes which I examine. To a great extent, this feature of the book derives from my wish to keep close to the texts and, when theorising (or vaporising), to keep within my own intellectual experience. I readily agree that all thought about literature – or anything else – implicates theoretical questions, and personally acknowledge debts to the school of critical theory.

Frankfurt, however, is now distanced from us, not least by the unspeakable horrors of which it tried prophetically to speak. One must work from one’s actual locus and not some universalised ideal professional vantage point. I have had stimulating and helpful recourse to some work by American-based thinkers, especially Fredric Jameson, but also Jerome McGann who (like Edward Said) combines theoretical acuity with massive learning of a more traditional kind. (If other names appear very infrequently, it is because I have become suspicious of Weetabix Theory, incredibly dense and regular in structure, but lighter than its box.) It follows, regretfully, I am less convinced than the participants that recent theoretical debates in and about Irish culture have maintained any degree of self-critical and dialectical awareness. Too often they seem occasions when comrades either engage in violent agreement with each other, or pour the milk of human unkindness over ‘the other’.

In the lesser matter of references and ‘the secondary literature’, I also hope that I have not borrowed except where I have acknowledged a debt; beyond that I am reluctant to swell the body of notes with matter destined only for the citation indexes. It was intended that a list of names should follow here, acknowledging personal gratitude to many for the stimulation which their publications and conversations provided during a ten-year period when I dislocated myself from the academic world. But the list is too long, and I shall simply name Ciaran Brady in Dublin and Ferenc Tákacs in Budapest as two patient friends to whom I have talked at length when I should have listened more, and finally a third such, Seamus Deane, with whom it has been a valuable pleasure to dissent for nearly a quarter of the century.

More recently, I have benefited from the professional advice of Robert Towers, also Anita Roy, my editor in Manchester University Press, and the anonymous reader to whom she sent my original typescript. To these, to many unlisted friends and to my patient wife and son, a hearty word of thanks.

Lastly, may I record once more a sincere and warm debt of gratitude to William Le Fanu of Chelmsford, still answering queries after twenty years of my interrogating him, and also to his daughter Nicola whose music now adds further laurels to the name she bears?

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Dissolute characters

Irish literary history through Balzac, Sheridan Le Farm, Yeats and Bowen



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