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The Long Gaze Back

An Anthology of Irish Women Writers
Sinead Gleeson (ed)
New Island


From the Editor's Introduction

In 2001, I discovered a copy of Cutting the Night in Two: Short Stories by Irish Women Writers. Edited by Evelyn Conlon and Hans-Christian Oeser, it is a sizeable anthology of thirty-four writers, living and dead. I hadn't encountered many all-female anthologies (of Irish writers), so I was intrigued. In my first years of discovering books, I was frequently drawn to the short story. Here was a form whose brevity belied the scale of thoughts and ideas within it. Anthologies are something of a gift for a curious reader: a chance to sit down in the company of several writers within one volume.

Until Cutting the Night in Two, nearly every anthology I opened - and I include books from all around the world - was heavily weighted towards male writers. Irish offerings were no different: pick up any anthology of Irish short stories published between 1950 and 1990, and there was a certain amount of predictability when it came to who was included. Scanning down the list of contributors, a reader would usually find that there were rarely more than five stories by women. Many anthologies had none, others had just two female writers, and it was always the ubiquitous names, the female stalwarts of the form like Mary Lavin, Edna O'Brien, Somerville and Ross, and Elizabeth Bowen. (Although one notable exception is Modern Irish Stories, edited by Caroline Walsh and published by The Irish Times in 1985. Of the thirty writers, sixteen are women.)

It's only in the last three decades that we've seen a small number of collections focused solely on Irish women's writing, including Janet Madden-Simpson's A Woman's Part: An Anthology of Short Fiction By and About Irish Women 1890— 1960, The Female Line: Northern Irish Women's Writers edited by Ruth Hooley, Virgins and Hyacinths edited by Caroline Walsh, Ailbhe Smyth's Wildish Things: An Anthology of New Irish Women's Writing and Territories of the Voice: Contemporary Short Stories by Irish Women Writers edited by Louise DeSalvo, Kathleen Walsh D'Arcy and Katherine Hogan. Personal taste and bias sways the choices made by any anthology editor, but in the past, selecting a comparable number of women to feature alongside their male contemporaries often wasn't done, whatever the impetus for that was. The anthologies I mention prove that there wasn't a shortage of female writers, but collections published before 1980 simply didn't include them in large numbers. Visibility was once an issue, and in the last five years, regardless of gender, Irish writing has flourished and expanded. These writers are finding readers, winning prizes and creating a new collective: 2015 already feels like a very strong year for emerging Irish female voices, some of whom feature in this book. There is a palpable energy in Irish writing, and although many writers feel the pragmatic pull towards the novel, most are still enthusiastically committed to the shorter form.

Putting together an anthology can be construed as creating a canon, but many factors went into the selection of these stories. In choosing deceased writers, I tried to find stories that I both admired, and that hadn't already been heavily anthologised. With the exception of 'The Demon Lover' by Elizabeth Bowen, most of these stories do not regularly, if ever, appear in anthologies. For a long time Maeve Brennan's short stories were out of print, and "The Eldest Child' originally appeared in 1969's In and Out of Never Never Land. It wasn't until a new collection, The Springs of Affection was reissued by Counterpoint Press in the late 1990s, that the story was republished. It's even more difficult to locate the short stories of Norah Hoult -who appeared in Cutting the Night in Two - but London's Persephone Books have kept her novel There Were No Windows in print. The story that appears here, 'Miss Coles Makes the Tea, appears in Hoult's 1950 collection Cocktail Bar, which is out of print. Maria Edgeworth is better known for writing on social issues, and her novels, but she also wrote short stories. On the surface, 'The Purple Jar' is a cautionary tale of being careful what you wish for, or possibly the evils of capitalism, but one interpretation pitches it as a metaphor for menstruation.

I wanted this book to look back, as well as forward: to trace a line to the past when women publishing their writing was rare, and often discouraged. 'Frank's Response' comes from Charlotte Riddell's collection Frank Sinclair's Wife: And Other Stories, but even though Riddell was a prolific writer, she wrote under the androgynous pseudonym of F. G. Trafford until her eighth book was published. Before the start of the twentieth century, writing was often only accessible to those of a certain class. The formidable duo of Somerville and Ross wrote from a different, ascendency position, and the story here, 'Poisson d'Avril', offers both historical context of a bygone era, as well as much comedy. One of the best-known stories in this collection is Elizabeth Bowen's 'The Demon Lover'. Is it a ghost story or an account of psychological breakdown? It also references both World Wars and the long-lasting effect each had on individuals and on the physical make-up of a city.

Much of the early work included here shows women straining against the gendered roles of the time. The young widow in Mary Lavin's 'In the Middle of the Fields' tries to run the family farm while staving off grief and unwanted male attention. In Maeve Brennan's 'The Eldest Child', Mrs Bagot, the bereaved mother of a newborn, battles grief and is instructed to be stoic and move on.

In some ways this book is a triptych: deceased classic writers sit alongside the feted names of the last two decades and the next generation of new voices. This is why the stories are published chronologically. As the title suggests, the book is rooted in the present with emerging writers, and looks all the way back to the flag bearers of Irish women's writing. And it's a long arc: there are 218 years between the oldest and youngest writer in the collection (Maria Edgeworth and Eimear Ryan, respectively).

The writers were not given a theme or any guidance as to what they could, or should, write about. As with any anthology, the diversity and range of issues raised is very broad. Certainly, there are examinations of inner lives and of things that only affect women - pregnancy, miscarriage, sisterhood - but within these stories there are universal truths. In Lucy Caldwell's 'Multitudes', a new mother watches as her baby struggles to survive, while Eimear McBride s reluctant mother in "Through the Wall' handles maternity very differently. Siobhan Mannion's character in 'Somewhere to Be' has a jarring experience in the sea, which recalls another recent trauma. In the second of Anne Enright's 'Three Stories about Love', homesickness haunts a pregnant Irish woman living in Australia. 'You're not far away until you have a baby, and then you're really, really far away,' she says.