Sado-Masochism in Clare Boylan's Home Rule and Holy Pictures

Article excerpt

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. …


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