In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ireland

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Anthologies
  • Theater
  • Cultural Studies
  • Famine
  • Cultural Connections

Victorian Literature Ireland
James H. Murphy, Marguérite Corporaal
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 December 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 12 January 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0124


Irish Victorian literature is full of possibilities for research, and interest in it is growing continually. Long neglected, its time has apparently come at last. In the past it suffered from a number of disadvantages. First, it was largely ignored by British Victorianists. This was not only because 19th-century Ireland did not fit easily with the usual assumptions concerning Victorian literature, but also because Victorianists often work within the contours of the contemporary borders of the United Kingdom rather than their Victorian equivalents, which included Ireland. In Irish terms there has frequently been a certain nationalist suspicion of the Victorian Age as one of maximum cultural assimilation of Ireland to Britain. Though mostly for economic reasons, many Irish writers during the period lived, worked, and published in London. Then again, Irish Victorian literature has been seen to pale when compared with the intensity of the Irish literary revival, which followed it, and of Irish romanticism, which preceded it, and which has been the focus of much scholarly interest in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It was the policy of the Irish revivalists, most notably, W. B. Yeats, to denigrate what came before them, though they praised some writers, such as William Carleton, James Clarence Mangan, and Samuel Ferguson, as precursors of the revival. These writers, together with popular but often disparaged novelists, such as Samuel Lover and Charles Lever, emerged as a skeletal form of canon, whereas many hundreds of other writers were forgotten. The Irish revival also gave rise to a literary interest in the Anglo-Irish in the pursuit of such themes in fiction as the “big house” and, latterly, its dystopian equivalent, Protestant Gothic. The 1990s proved to be a particularly fertile time, with a debate about the nature of 19th-century Irish culture, fueled by postcolonial studies and other forms of literary theory and by the engagement of literary scholars with the Irish Famine, whose 150th anniversary commemoration occurred in that decade. Undoubtedly, the greatest impetus for the study of Irish Victorian literature has come from the interest in women’s literature generally. We also appear to be in the midst of a scholarly movement to recover to critical attention finally the lost legions of Irish Victorian writers, men as well as women. Although this article necessarily pays attention to authors from the traditional canon, it also gives examples of the newer scholarly attention. Interestingly, most of this work has been in the area of fiction. The division between Irish Victorian and Irish romantic literature is quite well established, and writers from the romantic period who continued into the Victorian period will, for the most part, not be dealt with here. The end point for the article’s interest is slightly more ragged. Large canonical figures with their own bibliographies, such as Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, and also the younger Yeats, are not included. The Irish revival is traditionally thought to begin in 1891, yet the article does attend to some aspects of fin de siècle fiction, such as the New Woman and Somerville and Ross. The principal topical mode for addressing Irish Victorian writing more recently has been that of women’s experience and writing. However, this has been so successful and pervasive, as evidenced throughout this article, as to render a particular focus on it unnecessary.

General Overviews

The study of Irish Victorian fiction has not been wanting in general surveys of the traditional, rudimentary canon. They remain good starting points for students new to the field. Authors usually dealt with include the poets Thomas Davis, of the Young Ireland movement; James Clarence Mangan; and Samuel Ferguson and the novelists William Carleton, Charles Lever, Samuel Lover, and Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. Occasionally, George Moore, Emily Lawless, and Somerville and Ross are included and sometimes Charles J. Kickham. Often, these surveys also took in the earlier part of the century and were dominated by Maria Edgeworth and Lady Morgan. The model for such surveys was Thomas Flanagan’s The Irish Novelists, 1800–1850. Moynahan 1995 is a good example of this traditional approach. So is Mercier 1994, though it also evinces an interest in wider cultural contexts, such as Gaelic scholarship. Vance 1990 adopts the traditional canon but pairs its members with Ulster writers of inclusive politics. Vance 2002 deals once more with the traditional canon but adds to it and attempts to approach the period from a thematic viewpoint. No general survey based on a large number of recovered authors is available, though Murphy 2011 (cited under History of Fiction) provides it for fiction, and most of the recovered writers have been novelists. Murphy 2003 presents a synthesis of literary research in the context of society and culture, whereas Ryder 2005 offers a guide to academic research for the period. Murphy 2011 gives an overview of the cognate field of book history. Two volumes in the recently launched Irish Literature in Transition series—Campbell 2020 and Howes 2020—significantly contribute to our understanding of the genres of Irish Victorian literature, the infrastructures in which it was produced and read, and its sociopolitical contexts.

  • Campbell, Matthew, ed. Irish Literature in Transition. Vol. 3, 1830–1880. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781108634977

    This collection of scholarly essays explores the rich dimensions of Irish Victorian literature, from poetry to fiction, and from travel writing to theater, against the background of British politics, the rise of the woman writer, Young Ireland, and the Great Famine. The contributions engage with the genres of Irish Victorian literature, including the ballad, the Gothic novel, and satire; with Victorian literature in Gaelic; and with its publishing markets in Dublin, London, Edinburgh, and the United States. Furthermore, various essays examine the global dimensions of Irish Victorian literature, in particular Irish-American literature from the era as well as Irish writers’ reflections on empire.

  • Howes, Marjorie, ed. Irish Literature in Transition. Vol. 4, 1880–1940. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

    The essays included in Sections 1, 2, and 3 in this collection research late Victorian literature, ranging from print cultures to poetry and from revival theater to the genre of the Ascendancy novel. New women’s drama and fiction by George Egerton, George Moore, and L. T. Meade are also addressed.

  • Mercier, Vivian. Modern Irish Literature: Sources and Founders. Edited by Eilís Dillon. Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.

    This study deals with antiquarian endeavors in Gaelic scholarship, including the Victorian scholarly societies. It treats Carleton, Young Ireland, and the Nation and pays particular attention to Ferguson, as the Irish revivalist. The monograph provides interesting, detailed accounts, of authors and their work, though from a traditional viewpoint.

  • Moynahan, Julian. Anglo-Irish: The Literary Imagination in a Hyphenated Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

    This is an introduction to the traditional canon of Irish Victorian authors through a number of texts. It sees Carleton as linked with Edgeworth, deals with a selection of Lever’s novels, and provides readings of Moore’s A Drama in Muslin and Somerville and Ross’s The Real Charlotte. Moreover, it views Irish Gothic fiction, particularly Le Fanu’s Uncle Silas, in terms of the psychopathology of the Anglo-Irish, offering their children as a sacrifice to their loneliness.

  • Murphy, James H. Ireland: A Social, Cultural and Literary History, 1791–1891. Dublin: Four Courts, 2003.

    This study presents an introduction to the area and a synthesis of research and is suitable for undergraduates. The text intersperses accounts of literature and cultural movements with sections on social and political development to provide a context for literature.

  • Murphy, James H., ed. The Oxford History of the Irish Book. Vol. 4, The Irish Book in English, 1800–1891. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

    Various chapters cover book production; publishers; reading and libraries; and publishing in the genres, including literature. Book history has been a developing area, with scholars drawn from literary studies, history, and the nascent discipline of book history.

  • Ryder, Seán. “Literature in English.” In Nineteenth-Century Ireland: A Guide to Recent Research. Edited by Laurence M. Geary and Margaret Kelleher, 118–135. Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2005.

    This is a concise and detailed account, for more advanced scholars, of the history of criticism, as it relates to 19th-century Irish literature, though within the century Irish Victorian literature has been the junior partner to Irish romantic literature. This piece initially gives reason for the historical neglect of Irish Victorian literature and then synthesizes the cultural theories of Joep Leerssen, Luke Gibbons, Declan Kiberd, and W. J. McCormack.

  • Vance, Norman. Irish Literature: A Social History; Tradition, Identity and Difference. Oxford: Blackwell, 1990.

    This study modifies the traditional canon by pairing canonical authors with less expected figures, often from Ulster and said to represent an inclusive nationalism. In the Victorian chapter, Carleton is paired with Thomas D’Arcy McGee, a Catholic from the border with Ulster, though much of the chapter deals with Ulster poets, such as Francis Davis (the “Belfastman”) and William McComb.

  • Vance, Norman. Irish Literature since 1800. Longman Literature in English. London: Longman, 2002.

    This monograph discusses the literary careers of a large list of canonical writers, adding some extra figures, such as Cecil Frances Alexander. It analyzes Irish Victorian literature through the theme of reform.

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