“From Egypt to Ireland: Lady Augusta Gregory and Cross-Cultural Nationalisms in Victorian Ireland” argues that Gregory promoted women’s political activism by adapting and exploiting the ways that nineteenth-century Irish nationalists drew upon African and Asian cultures to forge new understandings of Irishness. Gregory turned to representations of an Egyptian nationalist and his family to advocate links between domestic space and political action, a proposition that underscored Gregory’s elite class position, but also revealed the potential of the essay form to revise assumptions about gender that had calcified in other prevalent genres of Victorian Ireland.
Augusta Gregory’s first published work was an 1882 essay in the London Times that aimed to defend the reputation of the Egyptian nationalist Ahmed Arabi. This essay, published in pamphlet form as Arabi and His Household, introduced her to the reading public of England and Ireland as a nonfiction writer, a role that has received far less critical attention than her occupation as a playwright. The essay also launched a dominant thread in her writing of the next four decades: her gradual embrace—and revision—of Irish nationalism. I will suggest in the discussion to follow that Arabi and His Household reveals that Gregory first assessed the codes of gender and race in Irish nationalist thought through her engagement with a nationalist struggle outside of Ireland entirely. Gregory’s choice of the essay form, moreover, demonstrates her understanding of the ways that management of genre was central to the gender politics of nineteenth-century Ireland.
By imagining Irishness through a Middle Eastern setting, Gregory participated in what Joseph Lennon and Joep Leerssen have termed, respectively, Irish Orientalism (the title of Lennon’s recent book) and “self-orientalization” (Leerssen 167), two concepts that I will turn to in a moment. Gregory drew connections between Ireland and northeast Africa in her writing, and, in doing so, she joined a conversation about Ireland’s racial and cultural origins that had proliferated in Irish intellectual circles in the nineteenth century. Gregory co-opted this prevalent cultural discourse to argue for the necessity of women’s participation in nationalist politics. While Gregory has been well known for her patronage of male writers, and for composing, at least in part, many of the plays, essays, and letters attributed to men such as William Butler Yeats, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Douglas Hyde, and her husband Sir William Gregory, her interpretation of Irish nationalism was informed by her sense of the significance of women’s political voices. Arabi and His Household thus illustrates how Gregory exploited the presumed links between Ireland and the Middle East to forge a correspondence between maternal power and nationalist politics. This correspondence authorized Gregory’s own public voice, but her willingness to imagine political power for Egyptian women had limitations. Ultimately, Egyptian nationalists are confined to the domestic while Gregory, the Anglo-Irish landowner, speaks for them in the public sphere. Gregory avoids this division only when she allows Egyptian voices to be in dialogue with her own in her essay.
It is not surprising that Gregory turned to nonfiction to experiment with her ideas about gender and nationalism. By the time Gregory published her first essay, the ballad had established itself as one of the predominant forms used to express nationalist views in Ireland. The ballad tradition relied heavily on allegories in which the nation was imagined as a woman, and to the extent that these allegories became calcified they were disabling models for politically active Irish women. Nonfiction, however, due to its emphasis on the generation of argument rather than the manifestation of nationalist feeling, offered a genre relatively free from the prescriptive gender codes to which the ballad tradition was susceptible. Within the constructive space of Irish nonfiction, Gregory was able to experiment more boldly with the idea that transnational alliances could help authorize women’s political activism.
Both Lennon and Leerssen trace the precedent of the Irish imagining their nation in relation to the Orient from the eighteenth century. Leerssen explains that
[s]peculative antiquarians in the eighteenth century, many among them highly respected members of the scholarly elite, tried to account for the uniqueness of this Gaelic language area on the fringe of the Atlantic by linking it back to other “mystery civilizations.” Thus, to the extent that Ireland was mysterious and exotic it was speculatively linked to other mysterious and exotic cultures: to the Phoenicians, to the Etruscans, and even to the Chinese.166
If Irish Orientalism burgeoned during the eighteenth century, it reached its pinnacle, Lennon claims, during the Celtic Revival, in which “Irish cultural nationalists wrote plays, essays, stories, poems, and novels with Oriental themes, ideas, and images woven as leitmotifs to Celtic themes” (xxi). Irish writers drew upon orientalized African and Asian cultures to understand and to create their notions of Irishness. For Lennon, “Celtic-Oriental comparisons allowed Irish writers to rhetorically assert both their proximity to the metropole, or center of Empire, and their proximity to the periphery, depending on the context, audience, and purpose of their argument or representation” (xxvi). Thus, on the one hand, Irish writers’ treatments of the East reinforced imperial culture by drawing upon Orientalist assumptions. On the other hand, as Lennon explains, Irish writers (especially those sympathetic to Irish nationalism) drew comparisons between the East and Ireland to distance their nation from England imaginatively, a practice that prompted these writers to reflect on their own depictions within the British Empire and their own Celtic identity (Lennon 147). The phenomenon of Irish Orientalism, then, exemplifies the complex position of the Irish in the nineteenth century—caught between the imperial metropolis and the colonized periphery; that is, part of the United Kingdom, but not an equal member.
Leerssen has criticized the tendency to make a case for Ireland’s colonial condition based on the nation’s imagined links to colonized spaces such as Egypt or India. Leerssen maintains that “[t]o see Ireland merely as an oppressed country in colonial bondage fails to do justice to the fact that Ireland, when all was said and done, was considered part of Europe; and that as such it was capable of adopting the European discourse of orientalism” (171). Yet Leerssen also finds salient the impulse which drove Irish thinkers to imagine their own culture by looking beyond their national borders. “To begin with,” Leerssen explains, “it is interesting to point out that there is at least the possibility of an attitude which drives orientalism [...] so far that one wills to be oriental oneself. Secondly, it is interesting that this type of speculation is more prominently represented in Ireland than in England” (167). Leerssen points to Ireland’s erased “native history” as one prominent reason why the nation would have been more tolerant of wide-ranging speculations about its cultural heritage (167). More particularly, Leerssen sees an “auto-exoticist” leaning in nineteenth-century Anglo-Irish literature, in which Anglo-Irish authors imagined Ireland “in terms of its strangeness, its foreignness” (169). To write about Ireland obliquely through a discussion of Egypt, for example, would not be unusual for an Anglo-Irish writer accustomed to deciphering Ireland for an English audience.
Arabi and His Household adopted this very approach. Writing for an English readership in the Times, Gregory sought to mollify public opinion about the Egyptian nationalist Ahmed Arabi. Dedicated to granting Egyptians greater control over their own government, Arabi (or Urabi) was a peasant who rose through the ranks of the military while expressing his uncertainties about the governing bodies of Egypt—the Turkish Sultan of Constantinople, as well as the English and the French, the two nations with the greatest financial investments in Egypt (Kohfeldt 57). Gregory became interested in Arabi’s political objectives while she lived in Egypt with her husband Sir William, who held the post of English Foreign Secretary. She and her husband joined a group of British officials living in Cairo, and it was there that she first met the English diplomat Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, whose critiques of the British Empire influenced her nascent interests as a writer.
In 1881 Arabi, then a colonel in the Egyptian army, began to promote the belief that Egypt’s debt to foreign powers should be overseen by an Egyptian council, not the Turkish khedive (Mayer 5-6). When the English and French governments endorsed the khedive, Arabi, who had by that time been promoted to the rank of Minister of War, accused the khedive of being a traitor and launched a military revolt with the backing of his soldiers (Mayer 6). The British army intervened and began to suppress the revolt in July 1882. Arabi and his army returned to Cairo to surrender, were captured on 15 September 1882, and were charged with treason.
Negative images of Arabi circulated in the Egyptian press and educational system (Mayer 7). Accounts of Arabi in England faired no better. A reporter for the Times on 4 July 1882 portrayed Arabi as ignorant and foolish: “Arabi showed himself what I have always deemed him—a simple fellah, of very small intelligence, labouring under the impression that he was supported by an omnipotent Sultan, and without the smallest notion as to the relative powers of Europe, Turkey, and Egypt” (5). Other English reports grant Arabi more intelligence, but this intelligence is represented as threatening. On 30 October 1882, a letter to the editor of the Times claims that “Arabi hangs at one end of the balance and the peace of Europe at the other” (8). Another letter describes Arabi as clever and ruthless (Berdine 127). When the Times featured a vociferous debate about the rule of Egypt, Blunt sent an open letter to Gladstone, arguing that the Suez Canal, nearly half of the stock shares owned by British and French investors, should be sold back to Egypt (Longford 86, 89). Blunt’s assertions earned him many enemies; one of his opponents claimed that “‘both Blunt and Arabi ought to be shot’” (qtd. in Longford 89).
Gregory, then, chose a volatile subject for her first publication. Already aware of the contentious environment surrounding the discussion of Arabi, she begins her essay carefully by first asserting what it is not: “I am not writing a history of Arabi,” Gregory tells her readers (Arabi 7). Ostensibly freeing herself from the dictates of historical detail, she nevertheless presents her argument about Arabi’s reputation in a logical and linear rhetorical structure. Her methodical style puts forward both documentary evidence and positive anecdotes to counter English anti-Arabi rumors. Rejecting hearsay that Arabi tortured Circassian prisoners, Gregory promises her readers that “having searched the Blue-book laid before Parliament” she finds little evidence of its veracity (Arabi 4). Against English propaganda aimed to discredit Arabi’s honor, Gregory pits stories that center on communal values such as faith, honesty, and devotion. For instance, when Said Pasha, a royal of Egypt, outlaws the fast of Ramadan, Arabi steps in to confront the ruler and re-establish the fast, quoting the Koran as his authority. Far from being punished, Arabi is promoted to the rank of corporal for his religious fidelity. While the English stress his role as a seditious character, Gregory offers an alternative set of scenes in which he plays a noble and principled part.
Gregory aims to revamp Arabi’s character by drawing a new portrait of the Egyptian nationalist. “[H]is smile is very pleasant,” Gregory assures her readers as a guarantee against circulating photographs of Arabi: “His photographs reproduce the sternness,” Gregory goes on to clarify, “but not the smile, and are, I believe, partly responsible for the ready belief which the absurd tales of his ferocity and bloodthirstiness have gained” (Arabi 4). Rather than ask her English readers to reinterpret Arabi’s serious physiognomy—he is a man of “immense influence,” Gregory later testifies—she aims to make him appear harmless, as demonstrated by the charm of his smile (Arabi 5). Gregory moves on to his eyes: “He speaks very earnestly, looking you straight in the face with honest eyes” (Arabi 5). Gregory eliminates complexity from his countenance and presents his honest eyes and pleasant smile as indicators of his virtuous nature. Gregory reiterates Arabi’s peaceful demeanor: “I believe him to be exceedingly gentle and humane,” she declares, while also offering testimony from an English official that Arabi is not the “brute” he is characterized as being (Arabi 4).
Gregory defends Arabi, but her methods seem at first to perpetuate the depictions she aims to counteract. Crafting him as a familiar and innocuous figure far removed from Victorian caricatures of the brutal Eastern tyrant, Gregory opts for a docile, uncomplicated portrayal of Arabi. She remains unapologetic for his political inclinations, but she also is at pains to make him more palatable to English tastes. Gregory confirms the notion that leaders such as Arabi must be defused before they can be accepted. Lennon claims that, although Gregory’s representation of Arabi
does not escape the “dominating frameworks” of Orientalism, she writes to subvert what she sees as the dominant representation of the Oriental in support of anticolonialism. Emphasizing the humanistic and cosmopolitan traits of Arabi, she points to the personal, ordinary, and familiar traits of his life, rather than categorical ones that have positioned him “exactly opposite to the European.”230
Gregory certainly both draws upon and challenges the broad underpinnings of imperialist representations, as Lennon suggests, but I propose that she had a more specific goal in mind when she portrayed the Egyptian nationalist as a non-threatening figure. Arabi allowed Gregory to confront a predicament closer to home for her. While she attempts to negate images of a violent Arabi, the essay also gives her an outlet to respond to English ideas of the inherent brutality of the Irish. On the evening of 6 May 1882, only months before the British army suppressed Arabi and his troops, the Chief Secretary of Ireland, Lord Frederick Cavendish, and his Under Secretary, T. H. Burke, were murdered in Dublin’s Phoenix Park by Irish republicans. For the English public, the murders produced deep distrust about the state of affairs in Ireland, especially the nation’s bid for self-rule, which was perceived by some as a doorway to increased chaos and violence.
Gregory’s commitment to Arabi reveals her nascent sympathies for his nationalist cause, but it also exposes her deep ambivalence toward nationalist activity in her own country. The two men murdered in Phoenix Park, after all, were members of her elite class in Ireland. Gregory was considered a compassionate landlord, but she was a landlord nonetheless. She wrote her essay on Arabi while in Ireland, in the wake of the Phoenix Park murders and at the tail end of the Land War, which was marked by agrarian violence toward landlords. Gregory’s objective to neutralize portrayals of Arabi can therefore be viewed as a judgment against militant nationalist politics: Gregory prefers her nationalists to be non-threatening figures, especially in light of the actions of the “unruly” Irish. While Gregory’s loyalty to Egyptian nationalism may have planted the seed for her subsequent embrace of Irish nationalism, her pamphlet A Phantom’s Pilgrimage; Or, Home Ruin, which would come eleven years after Arabi and His Household, views transnational alliances between Ireland and other colonies from the perspective of their danger to England. In the pamphlet, Gregory imagines Ireland and India uniting to join Russia in an attack against England.
Yet Gregory’s sensitivity to the complicated reality of women’s political expression puts her characterization of both Arabi and nationalist politics in a different light. While she appears to domesticate and infantilize him at times, Gregory is also careful to document the obstacles he encounters when attempting to articulate his beliefs. A luminous leader who preaches and recites the Koran to his devoted soldiers, Arabi is harassed by Egyptian authorities who have suspicions of him as a “‘man with ideas’” (Arabi 6). His ideas are immediately identified as treacherous, confirming Gregory’s aphorism at the start of her essay that men’s speech holds more weight than women’s in the public sphere. But Gregory prefers to portray Arabi as a figure on the lower rung of power. Forced to work within structures over which he does not have control, he responds initially to the Egyptian authorities not by wielding his intimidating sword, which Gregory describes earlier in her essay, but rather through a petition that outlines the army’s grievances. Gregory once again may be crafting a more agreeable version of Arabi by downplaying the military power that he ultimately achieves, but her focus on his use of a written document to plead his case connects him to her own self-proclaimed use of the essay form to defend him. Arabi is a figure who, like Gregory and other women, must find resourceful ways to articulate political beliefs.
In this sense, “feminizing” Arabi does not connote rendering him passive and apolitical. Instead, it signifies a new vantage point on national politics. This alternative perspective on feminized national identity relates to Ireland’s political scene, too. Gregory offers a different understanding of representations of a feminized Ireland that had plagued other Irish nationalists. Responding to English characterizations of a vulnerable Erin or helpless Hibernia, nationalist organizations such as the Gaelic Athletic Association sought to masculinize the Irish so as to counteract notions of the colonial feminine. On the contrary, Gregory embraces and revises the portrayal of a feminized Ireland, rather than disowning it. This strategy refuses to associate feminization with political passivity and, in doing so, Gregory indirectly entitles Irish women to participate in nationalist activism. The Egypt-Ireland connection that emerges in Arabi and His Household thus provides Gregory with rich terrain for contemplating both women’s roles and the legitimacy of militancy within nationalist movements. Ultimately, she more readily accepts the former, perhaps viewing women’s increased activism as an antidote to political violence.
Nowhere is this view more apparent than in Gregory’s portrayals of Arabi’s wife and mother in the essay. Gregory’s valorization of the role of the domestic and maternal in nationalist politics finds its fullest articulation in her attitudes toward these two women. While ostensibly focusing only on Arabi’s reputation, Gregory’s essay shifts its emphasis to the plight of his wife and mother. Accompanied by Lady Anne, wife of Blunt and a fluent speaker of Arabic, Gregory recounts her visit to Arabi’s home to visit these two women—a visit that serves as the moral and political centerpiece of the essay. For Gregory, the modesty of Arabi’s home conveys the humility of his character. It is significant that his wife and mother, and not Arabi himself, welcome Gregory into their home. Looking “rather overcome with the cares of maternity,” Arabi’s wife is humble, hospitable, and kind, all the traits that Gregory aims to associate with the nationalist himself (Arabi 9).
Her description of Arabi’s mother, dressed in “common country fashion—a woollen [sic] petticoat and blue cotton jacket,” comes across as a portrait of a humble Irish peasant, like those that Gregory and other Revivalists were apt to imagine as representing an ideal Ireland (Arabi 9). Gregory refits the Irish allegories of the nation as a peasant and a mother by envisioning the Irish peasant figure through an Egyptian mother. Not only does this new figure represent shared female experience, it also constructs that experience in the form of an ideal nationalist subject, which suggests that Gregory’s repurposing of the allegory of nation as mother relies more on a change of context than of intent. Yet the women Gregory describes here engage in nationalist politics, even if from the domain of the domestic. Arabi’s wife appeals on her husband’s behalf to the wife of another high-ranking official and offers her perspective on his political imprisonment, explaining that the moment she hears news of his release from prison, she gives birth to a daughter, whom she names “‘Bushra’ (good tidings)” (Arabi 9). She also provides her own temperate outlook on political relations between Egyptians and the British: “‘We can’t get on without the Christians, or they without us’” (Arabi 10).
The wife’s story draws attention back to Gregory’s own political narrative. Gregory insists boldly at the beginning of her essay that her words may change public opinion about Arabi, but she subsequently downplays this ambitious claim by distancing her writing from historical fact. She also acknowledges that her inability to understand Arabic hinders her knowledge of Arabi, and she confesses that her opinion is clouded by his personal kindness toward her family. Gregory displays a mix of self-effacement and self-importance in her writing, discrediting her story just as she emphasizes its significance. Calling attention to her role as writer by using a highly self-reflexive mode of representation, Gregory ultimately advertises the effectiveness for women writers of this type of rhetoric, which fuses the domestic and the political. Gregory introduces her essay, after all, by examining the theory that women possess greater latitude in political expression because of their supposed detachment from politics. “‘A lady,’” one of Gregory’s English friends tells her, “‘may say what she likes, but a man is called unpatriotic who ventures to say a word that is good of’” Arabi (Arabi 3). Gregory seems to sense that this verbal power is of little use to a woman if her political voice is ignored in the public arena. Yet Gregory also understands that political influence happens through a number of different outlets and that approaching activism through domesticity is a legitimate tactic for women. “I, like Master Shadow,” Gregory wryly asserts about her role as an allegedly apolitical woman, “present no mark to the enemy” (Arabi 3).
Gregory’s initial claim that her essay does not aspire to historical accuracy seems less tentative when it becomes clear that she also aims to redefine the parameters of the historical. She admits that Arabi’s tarnished reputation was not what chiefly inspired her to seek publication of her essay, long after she had written it. Instead, Gregory’s emotions are galvanized when she hears news of his wife and mother fleeing from danger of arrest, forced to find refuge in another woman’s home. Gregory treats her act of publishing as a political undertaking, one grounded in one woman’s empathy for two women who are expelled from the sanctity of their hearth.
Gregory’s intervention is charged with empathy, but it is still important to note that she cannot imagine Arabi’s wife and mother as joining her in exceeding their domestic roles. At almost every turn Gregory speaks for these Egyptian women. Reina Lewis has considered how the “gendered agency” of women intellectuals like Gregory both “contributed to and drew on the imperial project” (12). Lewis argues that during the height of the British Empire in the late-nineteenth century, the “proto-feminist concern for ‘native’ women was itself frequently structured by the same assumptions of white superiority and civilization [...] that drove imperial policy” (22). At the same time, Lewis reminds us that European women were marginalized at home because of their gender, and thus their relationship to Orientalism was necessarily fractured (Lewis 18). Because Western women could employ Orientalist beliefs while experiencing “otherness” themselves, they revealed that “the representation of the Orientalized other is never one of a secure and absolute difference, although it may evidence a will to be just that” (Lewis 43). Lewis further suggests that we view “women’s relationship to Orientalism and imperialism as a series of identifications that did not have to be either simply supportive or simply oppositional, but that could be partial, fragmented and contradictory” (237). These contradictions mark Gregory’s essay: she politicizes domestic space, but she is the only one who claims a public voice from this arrangement.
Gregory, however, offers a glimpse of how she might envision sharing that public voice in her portrayal of Arabi’s mother. The last portion of Arabi and His Household suggests that Gregory could in fact imagine Egyptian voices in dialogue with, rather than dictated by, her own. The final paragraphs of the essay consist of reported quotations from the mother. This “old mother” tells Gregory that her son’s political position impacts his family. “‘We were happier in the old days,’” the mother explains, before Arabi became the Minister of War in Egypt (Arabi 11). Worried about the physical and emotional toil that her son endures, Arabi’s mother takes issue with his oft-repeated belief: “God will preserve me” (Arabi 12). “‘God will preserve me!’” his mother responds, offering her revision of his axiom: “‘It is not the will of God that we should perish” (Arabi 12). Learning that he petitions for the abolition of slavery in Egypt, she exclaims,
He ought not to do it [... .] He does not see the consequences as I do. All the slaves will leave as soon as they are freed, and European women will take their places, and they will seduce their masters, and their children will be stronger than ours, and we shall be driven out of the country.Arabi 12
Shifting the home to the center of political relevance, his mother predicts that the issues surrounding the public debate about slavery, particularly those of racial purity, begin in the home and expand outward. Arabi’s mother suggests that women’s bodies are valuable for their ability to produce future heirs to a nation. The maternal body becomes the bearer of national and racial purity, a powerful responsibility, but one in which negligent motherhood can be blamed for the inferior racial makeup of its citizens and the failures of the nation.
To the mother’s speech, Gregory responds, “Poor old soul!” (Arabi 12). This brief and ambiguous response is notable in an essay that spells out in elaborate detail its defense of Arabi. The fact that Gregory does not respond more directly may reveal that she has misgivings about the idea of the maternal body as bearer of national tradition. Yet later in her career Gregory found utility in the figure of Ireland as a woman in the play Cathleen ni Houlihan, which she co-wrote with Yeats. Gregory may or may not share the beliefs of Arabi’s mother, but it is significant that these beliefs occupy the final paragraphs of Gregory’s essay. Indeed, it is quite striking in the context of Gregory’s careful and studied rhetorical style that she would devote the final portions of her essay to another’s voice. Rather than editorialize at length, Gregory allows the opinions of Arabi’s mother to stand without hindrance, and, in doing so, Gregory acknowledges the different realities of women from distinct national backgrounds. Her approach is grounded in practicality, and reflects how, as Lennon suggests, Gregory’s “vision of the Orient did not emerge from Theosophical borrowings from India,” but rather “upon firsthand knowledge and experience” of Eastern life (232). “One cannot help wondering,” Lennon goes on, “if her political involvement in Asian and West Asian politics kept her from overly romanticizing the mystical East the way so many of her fellow Revivalists did” (232). Gregory’s knowledge of Arabi’s mother is based on their actual encounters. While Gregory checks Egyptian women’s political power elsewhere in her essay, here she proposes that sympathies between women of different nations are rooted in dialogic interaction.
This type of interaction demanded a new form. In her essay “The Felons of Our Land,” published in 1900 in Cornhill Magazine, Gregory stresses the importance of finding original forms to express Ireland’s political aspirations. Characteristically, she advocates this idea with an exceedingly cooperative spirit, spending much of the essay praising the tendency of Irish literature to be preoccupied with the past, even the inglorious moments of the past. After a long tribute to Irish emotionalism, she quietly reminds her readers that “[s]ome of us are inclined to reproach our younger poets with a departure from the old tradition because they no longer write patriotic and memorial ballads” (“Felons” 268). Gregory suggests her personal involvement through her diction (“us,” “our younger poets”), and she uses this intimate language to propose change. Defending the literary innovations of a new generation of Irish writers, she promises that “they have not departed from” traditional forms such as the ballad, but rather that “they have only travelled a little further on the road that leads from things seen to things unseen” (“Felons” 268). Gregory closes her essay by stressing that the poet “must be left to his own growth, like the tree that clings to its own hillside, that sends down its roots to find hidden waters, that sends out its branches to the winds and to the stars” (“Felons” 268-69). Using language that evokes both the occult and literary strategies beyond realism, Gregory above all insists that a young poet must not be trapped in old forms.
Rather than revise the ballad form or experiment with new poetic designs, Gregory’s quest for formal innovation led her to nonfiction. Like many women of the nineteenth century in both England and Ireland, Gregory found in nonfiction a space in which to challenge rigid gender prescriptions. As Alexis Easley has explained, nonfiction was a genre that offered Victorian women freedom from gender norms because of its history of anonymous publishing, which “provided women with effective cover for exploring a variety of conventionally ‘masculine’ social issues” and “allowed them to evade essentialized notions of ‘feminine’ voice and identity” (1). Anonymous publishing allowed women “to appear and disappear in their work” (Easley 7) and, although Gregory chose to sign Arabi and His Household, her evasions about her own authorial persona in the essay suggest the same desire to experiment with the degree to which the authorial “I” intruded or retreated in the story. Even after Victorian women like Gregory began signing their essays, “they often returned to the periodical press as a medium for expressing their most controversial viewpoints, for retaliating against their critics, and for playfully spoofing the gendering of the author position in their society” (Easley 1-2).
After the revival of Irish periodicals in the 1830s, nonfiction was also a space for Irish writers to work through the controversies of their nation. As in England, both signed and unsigned essays were standard in journals and newspapers of nineteenth-century Ireland. Forums such as the United Irishman and The Nation provided anonymous authors with a chance to write collaboratively, promote ideas incognito, and, like the spirit behind many anonymous nationalist ballads, contribute to the sense of the Irish nation speaking as one. Indeed, the Dublin University Magazine during the peak of its circulation claimed that “‘Ireland has now her own literature, her own vehicle of thought, her own exponent of feeling. Whatever may happen of one thing we feel assured, that she will never again lapse into silence’” (qtd. in Hall 17-18). Irish writers such as Maria Edgeworth, Lady Jane Wilde, Thomas Davis, and Aubrey Thomas De Vere all turned to the periodical press to contemplate Ireland’s precarious national dilemma and in some cases, to proclaim a solution.
Nonfiction was thus a fitting form for Gregory to take up questions about both gender and nation. Unlike more expressive forms such as the ballad and the novel, nonfiction provided an argumentative framework in which to work through these questions. Seamus Deane has explained that fiction was one of the primary genres in Irish literature that struggled to represent Ireland, a condition that changed tack in the work of Joyce when “the idea of representing an already existing national character was replaced by that of forging the national identity through the act of writing” (57). Before this stylistic revolution took hold, fiction of the nineteenth century, Deane argues, had been characterized by a “strangeness” that was a result of the nation’s inability to represent itself politically (150). In other words: how could nineteenth-century Irish fiction claim the ubiquitous third-person omniscient narrator of the Victorian novel when, as he claims, its national identity had yet to consolidate (146)? While fiction may have shouldered this fundamental problem of representation within Irish discourse, especially during the years of Ireland’s union with Great Britain between 1801 and 1922, nonfiction did not necessarily operate under the same obligations to epitomize Irishness. As evident from the range of perspectives that emerged within the essays of Irish journals and newspapers, nonfiction provided opportunities for authors to work through and debate issues of political identity. The essay form offered a forum for arguments and for counter-arguments as well. It was the ideal genre to rework positions about Irishness and women’s political roles.
When Gregory thinks beyond the ballad form in “The Felons of Our Land,” she may be envisioning the dramatic tradition in which she was soon to take a commanding role. But she was also heading toward nonfiction, a form that predated her play-writing and launched her literary career. Within nonfiction Gregory found greater potential for women’s authority, which continued to inform her national politics. Gregory became a prolific playwright, but within the dramatic movement she also frequently relinquished her literary voice to the men around her. It is in the nonfiction that she wrote throughout her career that Gregory reclaimed her individual authorship.
Gregory’s entrance into national politics was decidedly unconventional for an Anglo-Irish woman. Her identification with an English audience for Arabi and His Household paradoxically set the stage for her growing support of Irish Home Rule. She tentatively hovered between endorsing transnational alliances among Egypt and Ireland and recoiling from what she perceived as their shared colonial tendency toward violence. She drew connections between domestic power and nationalist power, but on the whole she was inclined to accept Orientalist assumptions about the limited political voice of Egyptian women. An experiment in multiple points-of-view, Gregory’s essay is an exemplar of the kinds of cross-cultural mingling that informed even the most rigid pursuits of national character in Victorian Ireland.
Andrea Bobotis recently completed her Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia. She is now at work on a book manuscript based on her dissertation, tentatively titled Maternity, Nationalism, and the Power of Allegory in Nineteenth-Century Ireland.
As Elizabeth Coxhead notes, “All literary collaboration is a mystery; but in the case of the Abbey dramatists it is less mysterious than usual because they—and particularly Lady Gregory—have left clear indications of the ways in which they helped and were helped” (98). Coxhead devotes two chapters of her biography to clarify Gregory’s authorial presence in plays by Yeats, Douglas Hyde, and J. M. Synge. Colin Smythe’s “Lady Gregory’s Contributions to Periodicals: A Checklist” offers a catalog of articles, letters, and plays that Gregory co-authored.
For an argument about the negative consequences of the image of Ireland as a woman in Irish poetry, see Elizabeth Butler Cullingford.
While he was detained under British arrest, Arabi received money from the Gregory family for his trial. Ultimately, William Gregory’s political stature and his public sympathy for Arabi influenced the British decision to exile the rebel leader rather than execute him. William Gregory arranged for Arabi to be exiled to Ceylon, where Gregory had once acted as Governor and still had friendly connections.
Born into a wealthy Anglo-Irish family on the estate known as Roxborough in Galway, Gregory’s marriage to the eligible older bachelor Sir William Gregory, who had been member of Parliament for years and was a former Governor of Ceylon, made her a joint landlord (and after his death, sole landlord) of the impressive estate of Coole.
Elizabeth Coxhead claims that “Arabi and His Household” is “not a political tract” because Gregory’s “aim is to present the human and personal side of Arabi’s history” (25-26). I suggest on the contrary that Gregory’s objective is to elevate the domestic details of Arabi’s life to the level of political importance.
- Berdine, Michael D. The Accidental Tourist, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, and the British Invasion of Egypt in 1882. New York: Routledge, 2005.
- Coxhead, Elizabeth. Lady Gregory: A Literary Portrait. 2nd ed. London: Secker & Warburg, 1966.
- Cullingford, Elizabeth Butler. “‘Thinking of her ... as... Ireland’: Yeats, Pearse and Heaney.” Textual Practice 4 (1990): 1-21.
- Deane, Seamus. Strange Country: Modernity and Nationhood in Irish Writing Since 1790. Oxford: Clarendon, 1997.
- Easley, Alexis. First-Person Anonymous: Women Writers and Victorian Print Media, 1830-70. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.
- Gregory, Lady Augusta. “The Felons of Our Land.” 1900. Rpt. in Lady Gregory: Selected Writings. Ed. Lucy McDiarmid and Maureen Waters. London: Penguin, 1995. 254-69.
- Gregory, Lady Augusta. A Phantom’s Pilgrimage; Or, Home Ruin. London: W. Ridgway, 1893.
- Gregory, Lady Augusta. Arabi and His Household. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, & Co., 1882.
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