I first promised a review of these Early Irish Fiction titles back in Easter and fully intended to deliver on that promise much earlier than now, but the best laid plans, etc., etc., etc. Working with the maxim, however, that it’s better late than never, I’m offering this belated piece with the caveat that its tardiness not be taken as a reflection on the relative worth of the editions themselves, which are, in fact, a long overdue and much anticipated addition to the body of currently available eighteenth-century novels by Irish authors. The first title, Vertue Rewarded; or, The Irish Princess (1693), is a fascinating piece of prose fiction in which the main narrative’s interruption by two interpolated tales serves to interweave the apparently disparate locations of late-seventeenth century Clonmel, during the Jacobite-Williamite Wars, pre-Norman Ireland, and sixteenth-century Peru. In each story, the same plotline repeats itself, with slight variation: man falls in love with woman; said woman becomes somehow tainted in his eyes, either morally or otherwise, and she must clear her name before their reconciliation and ensuing marriage can take place. With their attention to matters of love and honour and their deployment of folklore and, as the editors point out, ‘fakelore’, such narratives may seem the ambit of the heroic romance tradition then popular in literature. The author’s use of historical sources, however, and specifically, printed accounts of the Jacobite-Williamite Wars that appeared in the immediate aftermath of Williamite victory in 1691, creates a striking blend of fact and fiction. Moreover, the main narrative’s regional focus on a very specific Irish location – Clonmel – in the summer of 1690 points to the author’s desire to engage with contemporary social and political developments.
In a similar merging of fact and fiction, the second title in the Early Irish Fiction series, Irish Tales (1716), by Sarah Butler, draws extensively on existing historical records, including Geoffrey Keating’s then unpublished Foras feasa ar Éirinn, written c. 1634, to tell of the doomed love affair between the Irish princess, Dooneflaith, and the Irish prince, Murchoe, in the midst of continual warfare between native Irish forces and invading Vikings. Editors Ian Campbell Ross, Aileen Douglas, and Anne Markey ably trace the significance of Butler’s reliance on Foras feasa and the ways in which this betrays her desire to present a very specific account of Irish history – one that reveals definite Catholic sympathies and is incredibly significant given the text’s publication in London in the months following the Jacobite Rebellion of 1715. Likewise, in their introduction and footnotes to Vertue rewarded, Campbell Ross and Markey tease out in some detail not only the importance of the narrative’s repeated plotline but the likely intent of the anonymous author in his or her fictional deployment of historical fact.
Unfortunately, there’s no room to go into any of these issues here, but it seems clear that both of these texts invite, if not demand, further critical attention. Largely overlooked by scholars, especially in comparison to the works of more well known authors such as Swift and Goldsmith, these texts are undoubtedly central to the development of prose fiction in Ireland in the long eighteenth century. Sensitively and thoughtfully edited and annotated, both have been enhanced by the provision of a considerable amount of contextual information provided in introductions, footnotes, and appendices that enormously assist the reader’s full understanding of the narratives and their backgrounds. For their editors, these texts represent a significant opportunity to widen the scope of current critical attention to Irish prose fiction from the long eighteenth century while also making lesser known, but no less significant, texts available to as wide a reading audience as possible. Whether the series achieves the first of these objectives is a matter that only time will tell, but with both of these first titles now readily (and affordably!) available in bookshops around the country as well as from publisher Four Courts Press and on Amazon, I plan to keep an eye out for their distinctive red and green covers in my daily travels.