It’s been a while since I’ve shared my thoughts on my favourite eighteenth-century Irish fiction, so I thought I’d offer a few more suggestions. Given the nature of my current research (a project called ‘The Gothic Novel in Ireland, 1760-1830’), I’ve been reading extensively in Irish Gothic fiction from the mid- to late-eighteenth century. As a result, my recommendations are drawn from this recent reading of now overlooked but no less interesting fiction. Unfortunately, these texts are so rare today as not to be available in modern editions – so you won’t be able to head out into the sunshine we’re having for a lazy though potentially sublime afternoon. That is, of course, unless you have a laptop, wifi, and remote access to Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO). Be that as it may, these are fascinating examples of eighteenth-century Irish literary production, all of which point to the need to re-assess current perspectives on Irish fiction of the period and its important contribution to the contemporary rise of Gothic fiction. So, without further ado….
- The Adventures of Miss Sophia Berkley (1760) by ‘A Young Lady’ has been identified in recent years as a Gothic novel predating Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) – the text now generally understood as the ‘first’ British Gothic novel. Set initially in Ireland, the novel follows the eponymous heroine as she meets and falls in love with the son of an ancient Irish family. On the eve of their marriage, however, Horatio is killed and taken away by pirates near Sophia’s coastal home, and she is left distraught. Worse is yet to come, however, when her father, falling fatally ill, reveals that his affairs are horribly compromised. Upon her father’s death, Sophia emigrates to London, where she endures a series of unfortunate mishaps, abductions, and daring escapes before…. Well, I won’t spoil the plot for you. Suffice it to say, there is a happy ending, but perhaps not the one you might expect. Only one volume long, The Adventures of Miss Sophia Berkley won’t require too much investment on your part and is well worth the read!
- Elizabeth Griffith’s The History of Lady Barton (1777) is another early Irish Gothic novel that bridges the gap between Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and the now well-known novels of the 1790s, including those of Ann Radcliffe and Matthew Lewis. Undoubtedly influenced by Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757), The History of Lady Barton tells of its English heroine’s first encounters with the wild and sublime scenery of Wales and Ireland as she travels to her new husband’s ancestral estate in Ireland. Justifying Lady Barton’s view of Ireland as a strange and enchanting place, she there experiences a series of catastrophic events and mysterious night-time visits that are only ‘solved’ in the final few pages of the novel, too late for the heroine to survive her fatal afflictions. While there are no supernatural events per se, the narrative nevertheless manages to draw the reader into the heroine’s disorienting experience of Ireland. Fantastic!
- If you don’t feel you have time for The History of Lady Barton’s three volumes, try Griffith’s intriguing short story, ‘Conjugal Fidelity: or, Female Fortitude’. Contained within a collection of tales entitled Novelletes, Selected for the Use of Young Ladies and Gentlemen (1780), the story starts off with an extended consideration of classical heroines. Finding them all somehow lacking, Griffith instead focuses on Elvina Butler, a close relation of the Ormond family, and her Anglo-Irish husband, Pansfield, in their Kilkenny home during the 1641 Rebellion. Pansfield has managed to inspire the particular hatred of the Irish rebels because of his harsh treatment of his (native Irish) wife; as a result, his home is set on fire and Pansfield himself murdered. Or so Elvina believes. As with The Adventures of Miss Sophia Berkley, all is not what it seems in ‘Conjugal Fidelity’, and the tale takes a couple of interesting turns before reaching a dramatic conclusion proving the author’s belief in the incomparable faithfulness of Irish wives. A fascinating read!