A well-known Dublin journalist who died in 2006, Clare Boylan published several novels and short story collections, including a completion of Charlotte Bronte's unfinished novel Emma Brown in 2003. (1) Boylan's first novel, Holy Pictures (1983), concerns Daisy Devlin Cantwell and her family of Dubliners during the 1920s; its prequel, Home Rule (1993) covers Daisy's family during the 1890s through 1920. Boylan meticulously researched the eras of Home Rule and Holy Pictures to portray them accurately, including "the preoccupations of daily life" (St. Peter 2000a: 49). Boylan deconstructs the family dynamics of urban Ireland from 1890-1930, by portraying mothers who violate the Irish ideal of maternal selflessness. (2)
As well as the changes to women's roles that industrialization brought to Ireland during the latter part of the nineteenth century, a devotional revolution occurred in the Irish Church that resulted in more rigid gender roles and a glorification of asexual maternity in the style of the Virgin (Gibbons 1996: 85). "The cult of the Virgin Mary, which flourished from the late nineteenth century--asserted in part in opposition to the Protestantism of the colonial rulers--strengthened the construction of asexual, maternal and domestic femininity upon which hyper-masculinity and socio- economic and sexual regulation depended" (Nash 1997: 115). Not only sexual regulation but self-sacrifice was required of women: "The cult of the Virgin endorsed not merely chastity and motherhood as womanly ideals, but also humility, obedience and passive suffering" (Innes 1993: 40). Jenny Beale (1986: 52) contends that even non-religious Irish mothers from the second half of the twentieth century felt guilty about their inability to reach the ideal of motherhood that the Virgin personifies. Yet Home Rule and Holy Pictures contain disturbing (though at times humorous) portrayals of mothers mistreating their daughters without feeling guilty.
Focusing upon the Madonna's influence upon women, Julia Kristeva's "Stabat Mater" helps explain mothers' aggressiveness towards their daughters in Boylan's works, along with the daughters' acceptance of such mistreatment. The worship of the Virgin common in Catholic nations like Ireland can encourage women to long to become unique among women, as the Madonna is (Kristeva 1986: 181). The urge to outdo other women may be shown through "exacerbated masochism . . . the highest sublimation alien to the body" that is associated with nuns and martyrs (181). Boylan's daughters embrace such masochism.
Like Kristeva's, Michelle Masse's ideas about female masochism in gothic novels shed light on the daughters' toleration of their mothers' cruelty in Home Rule and Holy Pictures. Masse analyzes Freud's beating drama that she contends underlies sado- masochistic relationships in the heterosexual family. "In dealing with others, the masochist replicates the interpersonal relations she knows: she may appropriate the power of the sadist and, in so doing, reproduces masochism" (1992: 51). Though Home Rule and Holy Pictures are not gothic novels per se, they do contain entrapment, abuse, suicide attempts, and molestation. With a cold eye, Boylan reveals that the viciousness of some mothers towards their daughters may have continued, generation after generation, in late-Victorian and early twentieth-century Dublin.
Masse explains the logic through which women may act cruelly whenever they can: "There is in such cases a basic conservative identification with the very system that assures their [women's] oppression: their limited status and power are asserted within such a system by damaging other women, children, and servants, for example" (1992: 62). Following Masse's model, Elinore Devlin of Home Rule makes her eldest daughter, Lena, into a household drudge as soon as she turns fourteen. Later, Elinore sends Lena away from her beloved suitor to work as an unpaid companion against her will. At the turn of the twentieth century, Elinore treats her other daughters with similar callousness, taking some of them out of school to put them to work at an earlier age than she did Lena. Elinore even drives her child Weenie to attempt suicide by repeatedly cutting off the girl's hair to punish her for allowing her baby brother to fall into a canal and drown.
According to Masse, a woman's "abuse may even be used to justify her own abusing of others" (1992: 48). Elinore suffers due to Weenie's negligence that resulted in her beloved son's death. However, Elinore does not take into account that Weenie was a little girl being asked to do an adult's job of watching a toddler. Instead, Elinore torments Weenie for decades. Another reason why Elinore feels victimized is that she is a mother of numerous children in a working-class household: "Until Lena was old enough to take over, she [Elinore] felt like someone set upon by a mob" (Boylan, HR 36). Elinore reveals her lasting resentment when she advises her daughter Janey to abandon her paternal grandmother to starvation, refusing to aid the old woman herself. "'I have been there,' she [Elinore] said in a piteous little voice. 'Now you can find out what it's like to have your youth go sour as mine did while you expend yourself on people who cannot possibly appreciate it'" (109). Elinore here implies that she wants her daughters to suffer for using up her youth.
Elinore's easy dismissal of her working- class, Irish Catholic daughters' rights comes in part from her sense of superiority to them as a middle-class, English Protestant. British cartoons of the 1800s portray Irish Catholics as degenerates (Greenslade 1994: 77). Elinore voices similar prejudices of religion and class when she says to Lena, whom she has just separated from her suitor: "Say your prayers or cross your fingers or whatever you people do" (HR 82). Boylan criticizes the workings of prejudice within a family, particularly the self- deception that lets Elinore regard her daughters as her husband's Irish Catholic offspring, not hers.
Boylan's novel's depiction of social history is shown by the similarity between her characters' circumstances and those fin de siecle historians describe. For example, Elinore's exploitation of her daughters is not unusual for her era. In a study of British women's labor and domestic patterns from 1850-1914, Jane Lewis (1986: 18) notes that servants were often related to their employers--for example, servants might be the widows of their employers' cousins. In accord with this trend, Elinore appropriates a different daughter as the family servant whenever she needs one. Daisy becomes a nun to avoid becoming the household slave when her mother determines it is her turn. Daisy does not believe that housework is as important as it was conventionally regarded. In her study of housework in Ireland between 1890 and 1914, Joanna Bourke reports that "the basis of domestic bliss was good housekeeping, and bad housekeeping was criminal" (1993: 267). In line with this view, Elinore has her daughters keep up her drawing-room to such a standard that the nuns in the orphanage across the street regard it as a glimpse of heaven. Ironically, the nuns give Elinore all the credit for producing this domestic achievement, and none to her daughters.
Elinore's mistreatment of her daughters occurred during a period when few options were open to women for working outside of the home. The predicament of the unmarried daughter worsened after the Famine of the 1840s; as Ireland became increasingly male- dominated, the percentage of women working outside the home decreased from …