In Persuasion, Jane Austen’s Anne Elliot reminds us how we came by the age-old tradition that women are fickle: ‘the pen has been in [men’s] hands’ (1279). In real life, influential academics like Ian Watt convinced us all that the novel was begun by Defoe, Richardson and Fielding. By a simple sleight of hand, he established realism as the backbone of the genre, and attributed its genesis to Defoe. That disposed of the eighteenth-century writers of romances at a stroke, and we forget all about best-selling Eliza Haywood (1693-1756), whose voice can be heard in some of Austen’s most popular scenes.
Just as the powerful sex has written the weaker out of the history of art, literature, and indeed history itself, so has the ruling class established its superiority through its grip on the English language. How is it that to be noble is, by definition of the adjective, to be possessed of the finest virtues? And despite all the evidence that the nobility have, in the course of history, committed every crime known to human nature, sometimes on an industrial scale, the epithet has lost none of its lustre.
This mechanism, which enables those in charge to ‘have their cake and eat it’, works well on all forms of the downtrodden. Whoever first disparaged someone else as ‘a poor sort of fellow’ was probably all signed-up to the Beatitudes, and untroubled by the inconsistency. The coloniser’s discourse which attributed all England’s most-feared attributes to the Irish is another form of this cultural tyranny, one which has proved stubbornly resilient, despite all the academic light cast upon it in recent decades.
Along with a birthright to virtue, tradition has it that the aristocracy has more than its fair share of physical beauty; this is less unreasonable, given the pool of mates available to the powerful. However, the association of rank and pulchritude is another ideé fixe that defies all evidence to the contrary. Even in our own enlightened times, there are those who swear that royal crows are swans. This is now harmless silliness, but in the nineteenth century, when physiognomy was considered a reputable science, and an ugly face was evidence of a criminal personality, appearance could be a matter of guilt or innocence, life or death.
Since delving into the history of the Irish people, I have been fascinated by the representation of one despised group in particular: those referred to by Seán O’Faoláin as the ‘helots’. O’Faoláin holds that there was a suffering underclass in Ireland before the Anglo-Norman invasions, and were it not so, Ireland would indeed have been the antique Utopia of some romantic imaginations. There are those who believe that the dispossession of Ireland’s nobility resulted in a peasant class of unusual beauty, but this is possible neither to prove nor disprove, given what we know of the ‘eye of the beholder’.
Gerald of Wales (1147-1223), for example, alleged in the one account both that Irish people were beautiful and that they looked like hideous savages, and given the practice, dating back at least to Herodotus, of entertaining one’s readership with fanciful accounts of exotic folk, it’s easy to discount his early reports. Centuries later, Queen Victoria was struck by the beauty of ordinary Irish women when she visited Cork in 1849, though she found the people of Ulster an unprepossessing lot by contrast. Her account, because recorded as diary entries, is perhaps a little more credible than that of Gerald.
Had I not been studying in Ireland, I doubt whether I would have come across the novel, Glenanaar (1905). The author, Canon Sheehan, is interested in the peasantry of early nineteenth-century Ireland, and his presentation is striking. Unsurprisingly for a churchman, Sheehan’s nationalism is of the ‘faith and fatherland’ variety, and his peasant hero, Edmond Connors, is romanticised, though no more than George Eliot’s eponymous Silas Marner, with whom comparison is inevitable, given the emotional riches each finds in the companionship of a foundling. However, while Eliot’s gaze is on universal human nature, Sheehan is telling us about a class.
Sheehan’s Connors is ‘a superb type of a very noble class of peasants, now, alas under modern influences, dying away slowly in the land’. The novel, while welcoming many changes in Irish life between the 1890s of the framing narrative, and the core story which begins in 1830, is also a lament for the millions lost to starvation, disease and emigration in the 1840s. He describes Connors as ‘a man of Herculean strength, broad-shouldered, deep chested, strong-limbed’ with a natural gentleness evident from his ‘calm, clear face, and those mild blue eyes’. He is presented as representative of a class of ‘gentle giants’:
They were all giants, largely formed, strongly believed. They rarely touched meat. […] Their dietary was simple and ascetic meal, milk, and potatoes. But their constant exposure to rough weather, their incessant labour, and the iron constitution they inherited from their forefathers and conserved by the purity and temperance of their lives, were better adapted than the feeble helps civilisation gives to create a hardy and iron race.
The people eulogised here are an anti-type to the image of the Irish labouring man promulgated by the nineteenth- and twentieth-century British press. For ‘strongly believed’, it would substitute ‘superstitious’; the milk-and-potato diet it would deride as a miserable alternative to John Bull’s bread and beef. To the British, temperance was a Protestant virtue, and whereas Kipling’s theory of ‘muscular Christianity’ made it probable that the English race was ‘hardy and iron’, any sign of strength in the Catholic Irish peasantry was characterised as savagery and aggression.
We meet, in Glenanaar, ‘the innocent, and law-abiding, and inoffensive population’, caught between the ‘yeomanry, who, under the protection of the law, wrought murder and havoc among the innocent; and outlaws, who, against the law, took a fearful and an appalling revenge’. We learn that it is the law itself, ‘so utterly hated by the Irish peasant, as synonymous with every kind of injustice and brutality, [which] set his cold blood aflame’.
Glenanaar gives life to an Irish peasant who is neither brutal nor fawning. He is no stage-Irishman, nor is he a whimsical Paddy. Connors is a believable character who, ironically enough, is best defined by what we mean when we say ‘noble’. Sheehan tells us that ‘no Wordsworth has yet sung the praises of these Irish dales men; but this, too, will come in the intellectual upheaval that we are witnessing just now’. Has this even in the twenty-first century been achieved? I wonder. Sheehan at least made a memorable start.
Austen, Jane. ‘Persuasion’. The Complete Novels of Jane Austen. London: Penguin, 1983. Print.
Gerald of Wales. The History and Topography of Ireland. London: Penguin Classics, 1982. Print.
O’Faoláin, Seán. King of the Beggars: a life of Daniel O’Connell, the liberator, in a study of the rise of modern Irish democracy, 1775-1847. Dublin: Figgis, 1970. Print.
Sheehan, P.A. Glenanaar. U.S.A: First Rate Publishers, 2016. Print (no page numbers).
Watt, Ian. The Rise of the Novel. London: Pimlico, 2000. Print.