Feminist Fancy in the National Tale: Edgeworth, Owenson, and Sarah Isdell’s The Irish Recluse (1809)

Colleen Taylor, Boston College
Vol. 37, No. 2 (Fall 2018), 295-323

This article presents a new method for characterizing the Irish national tale genre based on female union rather than the typical marriage allegory. It introduces a little-known feminist text, Sarah Isdell’s The Irish Recluse (1809), then uses this text to re-examine the novels of Sydney Owenson and Maria Edgeworth, the history of absenteeism, and the Act of Union. Through its radical imagination, or fancy, The Irish Recluse idealizes feminocentric societies in order to reconceive Irish nationalism, exposing the patriarchal social order as antithetical to good governance in Ireland. Unlike other political narratives at the time, Isdell’s novel argues that the problem with Ireland is its paternal, imperial structures and that women’s influence would foster the best relationship between Ireland and Great Britain amidst debates on if and how they should be unified. Isdell’s fictive, microcosmic Ireland envisions the perfect union through female social support rather than heterosexual marriage, resulting in a definition of Irish national identity that thrives on a matriarchal structure—a concept reiterated in Edgeworth’s and Owenson’s later novels. Criticism might better classify the national tale as a feminist dialectic, which emerged much earlier in history than is typically imagined.

Mary Wollstonecraft Sojourner Truth Margaret Atwood Abigail Adams Amy Tan H.D. Simone de Beauvoir Zora Neale Hurston Frances Burney Virginia Woolf

"The white saxifrage with the indented leafe is moste commended for the breakinge of the Stone."

— Turner, Herbal, III, 68 [1568]