After the death of her mother and the loss of her family’s fortune, it falls to young Glen Westley to do what she can for herself and her ailing father. Determined to make her own way in the world, she moves from the West of Ireland to London and works tirelessly to succeed as a novelist, despite the limitations her sex and nationality represent. Having struggled so long for fame, it is at last thrust upon her – but fame always comes at a price. A Struggle for Fame is a brilliant novel of astute and observations, still relevant over a century after it was first published. Gender, class, affluence and ability are all laid bare under the author’s exacting eye.
For the past month I have been participating in Reading Ireland Month, also known as Begorrathon (hosted by Cathy at 746 Books and Niall at The Fluff is Raging). For my final book of the month I selected A Struggle for Fame by Charlotte Riddell, published as part of the Recovered Voices Series by Tramp Press, a small independent publisher based in Dublin.
Riddell was a once well known Irish Victorian writer. During a career which spanned nearly half a century she produced over 50 works including novels and short stories. However after her death her books fell out of fashion. I love reading the works of 19th century female authors, so when I came across this and discovered she was Irish, I knew it would be right up my street.
Within the world of classic literature, this book falls into the social novel genre. Riddell would have roughly been a contemporary of both George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell, though her style is quite different. It lacks the pastoral elements of Eliot or the social issues of Gaskell. Or more accurately it looks at different social issues to Gaskell. The closest comparison would be Anne Bronte, coincidentally the often overlooked Bronte sister – fitting for a long forgotten author. The broad themes are those familiar to readers of Victorian fiction; a young women forced to make her own way in the world, social aspiration, love, marriage, family and death. However Riddell introduces two new themes which I have never come across before in Victorian literature and indeed rarely in wider literature; the struggles of an aspiring writer and the view of the Irish in Britain.
Few writers write about the publishing industry or the struggles of an aspiring writer. Riddell follows the tale of two such aspiring writers – Bernard Kelly and Glen Westley, as they struggle to get published and establish a name for themselves. There is a clear commentary on the gender divide within this. Bernard Kelly, who has little talent, though hardly having an easy road has a much easier ride than Glen Westley, who despite having real talent, as a woman struggles to be taken seriously. We know that many female writers of the time, nearly all of whom published under a pseudonym, struggled to be taken seriously by the literary establishment and the public. I have little doubt that this was based on Riddell’s own experiences.
However for me the more interesting element was the portrayal of the prejudices faced by both characters, due to their Irish nationality. The book starts in 1855 and spans approximately 10 years. This is a period when there was high immigration by the Irish into British cities seeking work in the new factories and industries springing up. I was aware that the Irish often faced discrimination, however I generally considered that such discrimination was aimed at the poor, not the well educated middle and upper classes. Both Bernard and Glen are recipients of disparaging remarks about the Irish. Interestingly religion provides no protection. Bernard is Catholic, as far as I can gather, however Glen appears to be Protestant, yet this offers her no protection from casual Victorian Irish directed racism.
While exploring the “Irish issue“, Riddell also explores the wildly held Victorian belief that the Irish are lazy drunkards. There are a number of drunk Irish characters within the book, however they are more than balanced out by English characters with a similar weakness for the “demon drink“. However while Riddell appears to wish to disprove the idea of the Irish as drunks, she panders to the idea of Irish as lazy with a number of references to both Kelly’s and Glen’s inability to stay at the one task for long periods or with any dedication as it is alien to their Irish nature. It is my one compliant on this front, though I can understand within the social context of which the book was written why this was the case.It is certainly a less damaging stereotype to include then that all Irish are drunks.
I would highly recommend this book to lovers of Victorian fiction, looking for something a bit different. I look forward to further books in this series, and discovering long forgotten gems.