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Pulling back the curtains

Emer Nolan

 

November 22nd, 2019 is the bicentenary of the birth of George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans, 1819-80). Eliot was the last in an extraordinary sequence of women novelists in nineteenth century England that included Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters and Elizabeth Gaskell. Her novel Middlemarch (1871-72) is generally considered to be the culminating achievement of the Victorian realist tradition. In transposing the ethical capital of Christianity to the secular world, she retained a fervent belief in the redemption offered by the expansion of human knowledge and a co-ordinate growth in sympathetic feeling. Most of her heroines yearn for education and a sense of social purpose as well as for love and marriage. How do such ambitions look in the globalised, information-saturated present, where many young women have far greater opportunities for specialised education? Can we still imagine that the novel could contribute to the redemption of the world? Sally Rooney’s allusions to Eliot, as well as to Austen, in her two best-selling campus-based novels, Conversations with Friends (2017) and Normal People (2018), offer an unexpected Irish millennial salute to this humanist line of ameliorative fiction by English women.

Late in Conversations with Friends, the narrator, Frances, who is studying English at Dublin’s Trinity College, is reading Middlemarch. She brings the book – the cover features a “lady from Victorian times doing something with flowers” – to a medical appointment during which she is told that she has endometriosis and may not be able to have children. It is a wretched time for Frances. She has split up with her married older boyfriend. Her ex-girlfriend and best friend, Bobbi, is furious that Frances was paid €800 for a story about her – Frances’s first work to be published – without her having given permission. Frances is working in a sandwich shop. Her dream of an “alternative life”, in which she might be paid just to talk about things or write, seems to be over. So although she is usually a diligent student, when her tutor asks her to say something about the character Will Ladislaw in Middlemarch, she cannot answer. “Eventually I managed to say: no. I’m sorry.”

The young people in Rooney’s two hit novels to date have ready access to culture in many forms. The novel is not for them as crucial a genre as it may have been for earlier generations of students or young readers. Nevertheless, each of the books features a central character who seems set to become a writer of fiction and they both reflect on the significance and value of such a vocation. Each also has an intimate relationship with a peer who is more interested in politics than literature.

In Normal People, Connell is the English student with a talent for writing. One evening in the college library, he is surprised to find himself completely absorbed by Austen’s Emma (1815): “It feels intellectually unserious to concern himself with fictional people marrying one another. But there it is: literature moves him.” Is enjoying fiction – in this instance a two-hundred-year-old novel mainly about romantic relationships between members of the English gentry – simply a matter of heart over head, pleasure over responsibility? Connell, the son of a working class single mother from a small town in the west of Ireland, is unsure.

Connell goes to a reading in college by a presumably local writer – “a youngish guy around thirty”. In Connell’s view, both the story the writer reads and the event itself typify “culture as class performance’. He concludes that the main point of the exercise is to sell books to the kind of people who enjoy attending such readings. Such works take “educated people on false emotional journeys, so that they might afterwards feel superior to the uneducated people whose emotional journeys they liked to read about”. Rooney’s fictional novelist is no latter-day Austen: he avoids depicting a world inhabited almost exclusively by wealthy people. But this comes at the cost of instead narrating the story of a limited (“uneducated”) consciousness, implicitly informed by a more enlightened perspective. The latter is a narrative mode found everywhere in Irish fiction since Joyce’s Dubliners (1914).

It is a rather inane commonplace of Irish literary criticism that there could never have been an Irish Middlemarch. Eliot’s liberal vision of gradual historical progress was, to say the least, not possible in or available to Irish society in the late nineteenth century. Twentieth century Irish novelists, Joyce above all, were not greatly interested in plots about young people finding out how they could contribute to what Eliot called in the final lines of Middlemarch “the growing good of the world”. Instead, most Irish writers were evidently compelled to deal with the realities of Irish life under the union – economic failure, political coercion and/or sexual repression. And from the 1880s, with George Moore leading the way, Irish novelists also became preoccupied with experimental ways to represent the excitement and chaos of modern conditions.

For example, Rooney’s Connell could read about young people from a place much like his own home town in Sligo in a recent prize-winning collection of short stories, Colin Barrett’s Young Skins (2014). Connell has himself escaped the boredom, drinking and joyless sexual licence of small-town post-crash Ireland – as it is represented in stories such as Barrett’s – mainly by getting maximum points in his Leaving Certificate and a Trinity scholarship. But does such literature have the capacity, as Connell puts it, to be “a form of resistance to anything”? Can Rooney do any better by returning to some of the conventions of an earlier English realism and writing books that she has described as “nineteenth-century novels dressed up in contemporary clothing”?

Rooney’s Connell, reading in the library in Trinity, is especially impressed by Austen’s depiction of romantic encounters: “The feeling provoked in Connell when Mr Knightley kisses Emma’s hand is not completely asexual, though its relationship to sexuality is indirect. It suggests to Connell that the same imagination he uses as a reader is necessary to understand real people also, and to be intimate with them.”

In Emma, the heroine’s love for the right man eventually becomes clear to her. But Knightley’s kiss merely reveals something to her that was true all along: Emma just simply didn’t realise, at first, that she loved Knightley and that he loved her. She then attained a belated but profound understanding of herself, of him and of the people around them. The story concludes satisfyingly with their marriage as the exemplary union for the other marriages in their social circle.  

Austen does not refer explicitly in her novels to religion, politics or the condition of England during its wars with revolutionary France and Napoleon. But her Tory, counter-revolutionary beliefs are implicit in the successful courtships she dramatises between handsome gentlemen and spirited, smart and usually less wealthy women. Such marriages will renew the traditional ruling class as it is being challenged by new energy and ideas. Austen’s work suggests that in England there will be an alliance between landed wealth and industry, feudalism and capitalism – not a violent confrontation. (In some senses, history proved her right.) It helps – as Nancy Armstrong points out – that upper class men in the English novel often seem to be inherently sexier than middle class men. As Armstrong argued in Desire and Domestic Fiction (1989), Austen’s women will be happy to prop up the existing order of things, especially as they will claim in return new kinds of power for themselves in the private sphere of marriage and the home. But in Eliot’s novels, the relationship between marriage and politics, the private and the public, is more complicated. Many people fail to find the right people to marry and even when the marital plots – central to a myriad of popular literary genres as well as to realist fiction – work out reasonably well, this doesn’t foretell perfect worldly contentment for women such as Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch. However, Dorothea’s marriage to Will Ladislaw represents by far the happiest ending accorded to any of Eliot’s best-known heroines. So the question about Ladislaw, put to Frances by her English tutor in Conversations with Friends, is potentially a far-reaching one.

Eliot was already an important intellectual – the translator of the German agnostic theologians David Strauss and Ludwig Feuerbach, an editor of the leading liberal journal The Westminster Review – before turning to fiction in her late thirties. In a recent essay from the collection Coventry, Rachel Cusk has described how DH Lawrence, the first major English novelist of working class origin, recorded what he called the “commotion” of industrialisation as its effects swept over several generations of his family in Nottinghamshire. Eliot’s work too was shaped by this history. Her father was the manager of an estate in Warwickshire and her grandfather had been a carpenter. Her early fiction documents English rural experience during the early decades of the nineteenth century. There – like Lawrence, according to Cusk – she witnessed “the journey of man out of the fields and into the cities, his emancipation from physical labour by machines, the new forms of mental life this emancipation made possible, the new – often problematic – possibilities for relating it offered, the changes in relationship itself that it provoked”.

For Cusk, it was inevitable that gender would become a preoccupation for Lawrence, as he portrays how the figure of “woman” represents “the sempiternal life-giver who through time and change is finally driven to give birth to hersel”. The new opportunities of the modern era had already proved both enabling and agonising for the cerebral, heterodox Mary Ann Evans. Her early refusal to attend church, having lost her faith in Christianity, led to bitter disputes with her father. Her brother shunned her when she decided to live with George Lewes – this was a liaison scandalous to Victorian opinion because Lewes was already married. Similar conflicts lie at the heart of novels such as her The Mill on the Floss (1860). The central female character, Maggie Tulliver, whose father is an uneducated miller, eagerly eavesdrops on her brother’s Latin lessons – arranged by their father who desires for the boy (but not his sister) to acquire a knowledge of the classics. When she is older, the feisty, rebellious Maggie falls in love with the son of her family’s great local enemy. But in the end she spectacularly renounces any project of ambitious self-creation for herself. She cannot bear the pain of separating herself as an individual from her family or community. She dies in the arms of her brother as she tries to save him from a flood that has submerged and obliterated their home place of St Ogg’s. Simone de Beauvoir tells us in her memoirs that as a girl she was both grief-stricken and enraged by Maggie’s fate.

The epigraph in Rooney’s Normal People is taken from Eliot’s final novel, Daniel Deronda (1876). It states that: “It is one of the secrets in that change of mental poise which has been fitly named conversion, that to many among us neither heaven or earth has any revelation til some personality touches theirs with a peculiar influence, subduing them into receptiveness.” This encapsulates the belief of literary realists that readers are more moved by “people” than by abstract ideas or ideology. That is to say, we are more likely to be impressed by an individual’s principles or beliefs when we “get to know them”, whether in real life or on the page. Eliot depicts characters who influence each other in this way. But in her work – as Terry Eagleton puts it in The English Novel (2005) – realism also becomes self-conscious. As in the passage above, she offers a commentary on her plots that is in turn intended to guide and educate her readers. The narrator makes sense both of fictional individuals and the real history of which they are a part. Eliot tells stories about people who are filled with passion and ambition – young visionaries and radicals – but also dramatises her belief that the route to genuine collective progress is necessarily a long, slow one (a “middle march”).

In the chapter from which Rooney takes her epigraph, Eliot’s central female character, Gwendolen Harleth, recently married to the atrocious Henleigh Mallinger Grandcourt, is greatly consoled by her conversations with Daniel Deronda. While once she considered herself to be clever and accomplished, she is now in awe of Deronda’s wisdom and goodness. Eventually, it becomes clear that she is in love with him. But even after Grandcourt falls off a yacht and drowns in the Mediterranean (witnessed only by Gwendolen, who does not rush to help him), she is evidently not destined to find happiness with Deronda. For he has himself, in turn, been “converted” to Zionism and leaves England with his new Jewish bride. Deronda emigrates to the Middle East to find romantic and spiritual fulfilment. Like some of Eliot’s other female characters, including Maggie and Dorothea, Gwendolen has been prone to excessive pride and egoism. Ultimately, she must find the courage to endure her chastening private tragedies alone. But her lonely heroism goes unrewarded. In her mature work, especially Middlemarch, Eliot strove for synthesis and reconciliation – for a vision of how the modern individual could find a vocation that would embrace and contribute to improving a community or society. However, Deronda’s exile seems to suggests that the hope attributed to Dorothea in Middlemarch, that it might be possible to lead a “grand life here – now – in England”, was fading (it was later scornfully rejected by Lawrence, among other modernists, when he reinvented the English novel in the shadow of the Great War). Gwendolen’s dismal prospect of merely a long widowhood ahead also casts doubt on some of Eliot’s tentatively optimistic plots about how exceptional women such as Dorothea might participate, even as a wifely assistant, in such a “grand life”.

Ladislaw is certainly – as Mrs Cadwallader, the Middlemarch town gossip, notes – “a very pretty sprig”. But he is a dilettantish artist with no money and he can certainly at times be petulant and self-pitying. Eventually, thanks to Dorothea’s positive influence, he becomes a reforming MP. But is he good enough for her? Why could Eliot not imagine a more suitable partner for Dorothea? Surely this passionate, idealistic woman should at least have been paired with Middlemarch’s reforming scientist and physician, Dr Lydgate? For, as FR Leavis, in The Great Tradition (1948), dryly remarked: “Lydgate, unlike Ladislaw, is real and a man” (my emphases).

In the “Finale”, or afterword, of the book, Eliot reports that “many who knew [Dorothea], thought it a pity that so substantive and rare a creature should have been absorbed into the life of another, and be only known in a certain circle as a wife and mother. But no one stated exactly what else that was in her power she ought rather to have done.” Dorothea chooses companionship and love – although with a partner who is not quite respectable (she had been forbidden to marry Ladislaw, under pain of disinheritance, by her jealous first husband in his will). She has to leave her estate and go to live in a house on an ordinary London street. Her legacy will be one of “unhistoric acts” – but then the same is true, Eliot believes, of almost everyone – even the best among us, women and men.

However, Leavis (unlike many later feminist readers) is not criticicing Ladislaw here as an uncritical admirer of Dorothea either. He thought that Eliot sympathised excessively with this character and had assumed that her readers would do the same. He judged that Eliot dealt more subtly with poor Gwendolen Harleth; indeed, he claimed that Eliot understood the limitations of a flawed woman such as Gwendolen far better than did Henry James when he re-created her as Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady (1881). In an essay written on the occasion of Eliot’s centenary in 1919, Virginia Woolf also criticised Dorothea for talking too much. Woolf compared the wordy love scenes in Middlemarch unfavourably with Austen’s brilliant verbal economy in Emma

In Normal People, Connell hopes that reading fiction will help him to understand other people better – especially, we presume, his girlfriend Marianne. The character Bobbi, who is gay, jokes about marriage as an institution with Frances in Conversations with Friends (“Who even gets married? … It’s sinister. Who wants state apparatuses sustaining their relationship?”). Even so, enduring heterosexual relationships are central to the conclusions of both of Rooney’s novels so far. Unlike in Victorian novels, these young people sleep with each other and with other people. Marianne and Connell get to know each other over their formative years at school and university through conversation, writing (especially emails) and sex. It seems that together they can each find a way of exploring the “weird” parts of themselves and therefore they can both function more like the “normal” people around them. Reviewers have debated whether the ending of Normal People, with its focus on Connell and Marianne’s hard-won contentment, is too “normative” for contemporary readers. Isn’t this still a rather traditional relationship? He is physically strong and emotionally chivalrous and she is quite masochistic and inclined to subordinate herself to him. 

However, one central demand of George Eliot’s heroines, that young women should have access to knowledge, appears to a large extent to have been met. Connell and Marianne are peers in the educational system. In Ireland, it is actually fairly plausible that two people from such different class backgrounds might attend the same school and the same university. What if Cathy and Heathcliff could have taken a module on Freud together? If Dorothea had been able to do a degree in medicine?  

However, people will always remain opaque and to some degree “unknowable” to each other: Marianne and Connell debate this very issue in Normal People. This is part of the lasting appeal of the realist novel, its promise to show us both the individual social personality and the hidden private self in such profuse detail. For Marianne, reading Connell’s work is intensely intimate but also excludes her: “In a way she felt very close to him … as if she were witnessing his most private thoughts, but she also felt him turned away from her, focused on some complex task of his own, one she could never be part of”. There is another dimension to his consciousness – nothing to do with their relationship – that she lacks. Marianne’s reaction here has something in common with Gwendolen’s selfless admiration for Deronda’s vocation – although Deronda will help to create a new nation, not a work of art. Fortunately, Connell is leaving Marianne for just a year, to do an MFA in New York. For better or worse, such a training in creative writing is indeed likely to become as important a rite of passage for Irish writers as was the Catholic school in the past (although it is one which Rooney herself avoided). But will Connell be able to connect his literary efforts in any way to the political impulses that caused him to worry about his enjoyment of Emma and to be so frustrated with the young Irish writer whose reading he attends?

Rooney is no doubt drawn to the paradigm of the classic English realist novel because of its attention to the great dramas of Bildung. Franco Moretti’s The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture (1987) is perhaps the outstanding study of this genre. At the centre of such works (Bildungsromane) in the European tradition, whether by Goethe, Dickens, Stendhal or Flaubert, young people, in the midst of the unpredictable historical transformations brought about by capitalist modernity, battle with a range of complications that arise from their individual quests for meaningful work and satisfying relationships.  

Inevitably, George Eliot’s vision in Middlemarch is limited in all kinds of ways. She wants to give her readers a panoramic and inclusive picture of English society and so farmers and servants in her works have voices and names (though members of the lower classes often speak in “accents” and so their words have to be spelt in non-standard ways). She portrays a range of families, careers, marriages and social networks – all that she denotes in Middlemarch as “this particular web” – and charts with sympathetic insight how people suffer and evolve over a period of several years. She consistently contrasts people’s own initially rosy views of themselves with the views their neighbours have of them. The narrator constantly sifts and weighs these various opinions. But it is arguable, for example, that Eliot has hardly any interest in how developments in England are bound up with imperialism abroad. The “Catholic Question” is regularly discussed in Middlemarch (the novel is set in the aftermath of Catholic Emancipation in the early 1830s) without anyone ever mentioning Ireland. Possibly the only allusion to the country in the novel occurs when the report of a hostile journalist goes so far as to compare the ramshackle houses on Dorothea’s politician uncle’s neglected estate to those of “Irish cottiers”.

And in some ways Rooney is not deeply interested in the history of events in Ireland either. For Marianne her native Sligo is a place she sees mainly through the window of her mother’s car. People at a party at Monkstown consider whether Frances is a “culchie” and ask her who she supports in the All Ireland. She quips: “As a woman I have no county.” And while both central female characters in Rooney have, for example, inadequate and damaging fathers – one violent, the other an alcoholic – Rooney does fully embrace the viewpoint of confused female victim prevalent in much Irish fiction. The first allusion to specifically Irish history or conditions in Conversations with Friends (apart from place names or references to such matters as the Leaving Cert) is when Frances is told in hospital that she is not ill due to any pregnancy and so she realises that she will not, after all, have to contend with questions such as “Irish constitutional law, the right to travel, my current bank balance”. In Ordinary People, Marianne is writing her undergraduate dissertation on “Irish carceral institutions after independence”. But despite these topical references to current Irish controversies about the legacies of some of the worst aspects of the country’s twentieth century history, Rooney also looks beyond this moment in her politics. Hers is not the self-conscious anti-nationalism, or “post-nationalism”, of a 1980s generation of Irish novelists – the protest of the “individual” against tradition. Indeed, describing how her own political awakening began with the question of gender, Rooney has gone on to say that she is nevertheless now more doubtful about individualist forms of feminism: “To believe in myself as an individual, as an ‘independent person’, seems delusional” (see “Sally Rooney: Writing with Marxism”, https://vimeo.com/319463872).

Rooney and her characters are most interested in left-wing politics. She is evidently uncomfortably aware of the inherently bourgeois viewpoint and history of the novel as a form. Rather than “solving” this issue through depicting less privileged or even abject characters, her concerns are mainly registered at the level of content, especially through the figures of the aspiring writers and politically aware students. Like the character Marianne – as Connell observes – Rooney is herself committed to “forensic attentiveness” in language. Clarity, observation, empathy – these things bring rewards in love and in the practices of self-expression central to contemporary creative writing. In Middlemarch, romance is the panacea extended to some young women who could not hope to change the world. But scarcely any more is offered to even clever, principled young men such as Connell in present-day Irish society as Rooney depicts it. Marianne, for example, is amusingly dubious about whether Connell gets that much fun from his “male privilege” under patriarchy. And now that the long struggle to overcome the exclusion of women from higher education (supported so eloquently by Woolf in A Room of One’s Own [1929]) has achieved significant success, what are the rewards? Rooney’s characters mainly come from relatively privileged middle class backgrounds. In general, they do not confront a specifically national sense of either historical darkness or collective failure. Nevertheless, they take it largely for granted that their chances of attaining – for example – stable employment or secure housing have been drastically undermined by broader developments in the global capitalist system in the twenty-first century. Ireland is not “special” in this regard. They are sometimes keenly aware of horrifying suffering around the world but feel politically helpless. After taking part in a protest about the war in Gaza, Connell’s girlfriend Marianne reflects that she has already lost some of the optimism that goes with being young and gifted. She realises that “she wasn’t at all powerful, and she would live and die in a world of extreme violence against the innocent, and at most she could only help a few people”.

In Middlemarch, Dorothea’s darkest moment comes when, due to a housemaid’s error, she accidentally witnesses what she takes to be a love scene between Ladislaw and Rosamond Vincy, the town beauty and discontented wife of Lydgate. Dorothea has reconciled herself at this point to enjoying only a deep friendship with Ladislaw. The terms of her late husband Casaubon’s will have become the subject of hostile gossip in the town – Casaubon’s stipulations about her remarriage suggest that he had reason to suspect her of some infidelity or Ladislaw of being likely to prey on a wealthy widow. But now she believes she has been mistaken about her bond with Ladislaw. She spends the night on the floor of her room weeping.  

However, it was not in Dorothea’s nature, we are told, “to sit in the narrow cell of her calamity”. In the morning she opens the curtains and sees a man with a bundle on his back and a woman carrying a child. Human figures are stirring in the fields. She takes in “the largeness of the world and the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance. She was part of that involuntary, palpitating life, and could neither look out on it from her luxurious shelter as a mere spectator, nor hide her eyes in selfish complaining”. She is inspired to undertake several altruistic actions – although these, indirectly, bring about a sequence of happy events which culminate in her and Ladislaw’s resolution to ignore Casaubon’s prohibition and run away together. Dorothea standing at her window is, or so she believes, only an ignorant, rich and misguided woman. But she will not accept that she is condemned to passivity or to being imprisoned (as Casaubon was) in “a small shivering hungry self”.

In Conversations with Friends, Frances has a similarly abysmal experience. She sees a jokey Christmas video on Facebook of Nick and his wife singing and acting out the song “Baby it’s cold outside” in their kitchen. The room is decorated with fairy lights and all their friends are laughing. Feeling lonely and sick, she starts to neglect her college work. A few weeks later, she finds herself in a church in Thomas Street. Trying to calm herself by concentrating on small details, she thinks about how “each brick was placed by human hands, each hinge fitted on each door, every road surface outside, every bulb in every streetlight … And human beings themselves, made by other humans, struggling to create happy children and families. And me, all the clothing I wear, all the language I know.” She wants to live free of the pain that she shares with others – “the pain which is mine and therefore also theirs, yes, yes”. It is characteristic of Rooney’s work that this insight in based on an apprehension of the world that has been created by collective human work (all that Eliot calls “the manifold wakings of men to labour and endurance”), rather than on any specific national or gender identity. Local contexts such as Catholicism – even as Frances sits in an Irish Catholic church – do not appear to be urgently relevant. When Frances opens her eyes, “the cells of my body seemed to light up like millions of glowing points of contact, and I was aware of something profound”. She faints. But then shortly afterwards she gets re-involved with Nick. She is absorbed again in the complications of her own life.  

In the preface to The Portrait of a Lady, Henry James quotes George Eliot’s remark from Daniel Deronda about young women being the “frail vessels” in which is “borne onwards through the ages the treasure of human affection”. (In fact, James slightly misquotes her – Eliot refers to “delicate vessels”, which is not exactly the same thing.) Eliot’s own line is a secularisation of St Paul’s declaration about the body and the soul: “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us” (2 Cor 4:7). But these women, Eliot’s and Rooney’s, are not merely, as James puts it, making an “ado” of “affronting their destinies”. They are confronting human destiny against, among much else, this kindly Jamesian gendering of their experience as specifically feminine.

The novel is, according to Georg Lukács, the epic of a world abandoned by God. Both writers could be understood as attempting in the scenes discussed above to make fiction stand in for a lost religion. Yet it seems appropriate then that Rooney should quote Eliot. It was she who opened the novel so decisively to women writers that after her it became inevitable to think of the woman novelist as deploying “feminine” qualities, such as sensitivity and tenderness, to then be “superadded” to universal values (to paraphrase Eliot’s description of the achievement of the poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning). For Eliot, novelists needed to find an ethical and political stance not identical with the vocation of being an intellectual (a scholar or scientist like Casaubon or Lydgate) or an ideologue (like Deronda, who becomes a sort of racial or national expert for a single community, the Jews). This project was especially appealing for women, because of the impediments to such vocations that they faced in any case. Eliot’s fiction is driven by a faith that women are potentially more “Gentile” (in St Paul’s sense of “generically human”) than “Jew”.

Rooney’s recourse to realism and the Bildungsroman, while inevitably hesitant and perhaps even anachronistic, attest to our persistent interest as readers in the questions of self-knowledge and interiority, even in an age when people post so much of their lives online and when surface replaces depth psychology. However, these fictional modes are themselves perhaps flimsy craft in a data-driven age when the broader conditions which enabled such interrogations of the self and the world by curious, sensitive young people may have been dissolved. Still, that writing has certainly struck a chord with people of her own generation, the firstborn of the digital age, and not just in Ireland but across much of the Anglophone world. We can look forward to discovering whether she or the realist novel of the kind she practises can press further some of those big questions about politics and class, intimacy and engagement, caring for the few we love and the many around the world who could do with our care, in her career to come.

1/11/2019

Emer Nolan is Professor of English at Maynooth University. Her book Five Irish Women: The Second Republic, 1960-2016 (a study of Edna O’Brien, Nuala O’Faolain, Sinéad O’Connor, Bernadette McAliskey and Anne Enright) was published by Manchester University Press in September 2019.

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