Thomas (James Bonner) Flanagan Essay - Critical Essays

Flanagan, Thomas (James Bonner)


Thomas (James Bonner) Flanagan 1923–

American novelist, critic, and biographer.

Flanagan, whose four grandparents emigrated from Ireland to the United States, has a great interest in Irish history and literature. His nonfiction work The Irish Novelists: 1800–1850 demonstrates his mastery of both subjects. This critical study of five Irish novelists of the nineteenth century combines scholarship and creativity.

Flanagan's renown as a novelist derives from his critically acclaimed and popular historical novel, The Year of the French. This long, intricately plotted work recounts the abortive French-supported rebellion of Irish peasants against the British in 1798. It also draws parallels between the political and social problems of eighteenth-century Ireland and those of that country today. Flanagan's use of multiple narrative perspectives in The Year of the French has been both praised and faulted. Some critics believe that this technique makes the novel ponderous; while others hold that multiple points-of-view provide the reader with a sense of how the same event produces diverse effects. Most, however, praise Flanagan for presenting the events of the rebellion unsentimentally and thus "demythologizing" Irish history.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 108 and Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook: 1980.)

Vivian Mercier

[In "The Irish Novelists: 1800–1850," Thomas Flanagan] constantly discriminates among his five chosen authors—Maria Edgeworth, Lady Morgan, John Banim, Gerald Griffin and William Carleton—comparing and contrasting not only their artistic achievements, but also their differing social backgrounds and political viewpoints. The one thing that he sees as uniting them is their common attempt "to come to terms with the experience of life on their maddening island."…

The novelists' work is carefully related both to their social and economic status and to the political events of their lifetimes.

It would be very unfair to characterize Mr. Flanagan as merely a sociological critic, however. He proves himself equally skilled as a formal literary critic. Because of the furious political and religious partisanship of Irish life in the years 1800–1850, the novelists often dared to avow their true positions only by means of symbolism—both conscious and unconscious. Some of the most exciting pages in Mr. Flanagan's book contain his explorations of this devious symbolism.

Faced with the quantities of inept or escapist or meanly partisan writing produced in Ireland during the period, Mr. Flanagan wisely decided to be ruthlessly selective. Not that all his novelists are even competent. The appropriate response to Lady Morgan's more high-flown passages is a giggle, but she represents a certain kind of sentimental,...

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Julian Moynahan

The Year of the French, the first novel of Thomas Flanagan,… tells an astonishing and terrible story. It is certainly the finest historical novel by an American to appear in more than a decade.

The center of Flanagan's book is a combined French-Irish military venture, with a bright beginning and a deadly close, during a single summer in 1798. Around this Irish rebellion against the British he builds up a complex, brilliantly styled narrative that plays off omniscient survey against the partial views of no less than five contemporary witnesses—a Church of Ireland minister, a Catholic village schoolmaster, a youthful English aide to General Cornwallis, a solicitor member of the Society of United Irishmen, and the solicitor's English wife. Through these marvelously evoked and distinct voices the very complicated and conflicted social realities of late 18th-century Ireland come to life. Dozens of vividly conceived characters of both sexes—Protestant and Catholic fanatics, peasants and poets, landowners and militia men, the historically noted and the nameless obscure—take the stage in his epic drama.

In 1798 in counties Wexford, Carlow and Kilkenny, thousands of country-people, commanded by gentlemen republicans belonging to the United Irish movement of Wolfe Tone, and by some half-mad priests of charismatic character, fought British army regulars and well-armed bands of loyalist yeomenry. There were...

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Victoria Glendinning

Thomas Flanagan is no Tolstoy and he has not written a new "War and Peace"; but "The Year of the French" is sufficiently colored by his intense and informed obsession with place and period for the reader with plenty of time (this is a long, dense novel) to be drawn deep into County Mayo, on the west coast of Ireland, in the year 1798. (p. 12)

Mr. Flanagan's method is mainly documents-with-dialogue, and one of his problems has been that the [French invasion of Ireland in 1798] is fairly well documented. If he had used contemporary accounts verbatim, he would not have been writing a "novel." So he cooked the books a bit. For example, one of the chief sources for what went on in Killala is a manuscript narrative by Bishop Stock, the Protestant prelate whose palace in Killala was used as a headquarters by the French. Mr. Flanagan substitutes for Bishop Stock an imaginary clergyman named Broome, whose house is likewise taken over by the French, and who contributes a similar—but not too similar—narrative. Mr. Flanagan works largely through fictional journal entries of this kind, creating an illusion of authenticity by editorial mock-documentation. Anyone who wants to sift fact from fiction will find the story of 1798 well told in Thomas Pakenham's "The Year of Freedom."

Where Mr. Flanagan scores is in his overall historical vision. He has a concept of "mental maps" that is the key to his own perspective. The Mayo...

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I.M. Owen

Thomas Flanagan's book Louis 'David' Riel, though biographical in form, is not intended to replace George F.G. Stanley's standard biography, which remains indispensable though lamentably pedestrian. Flanagan does tell Riel's life-story, but with less political, military, and legal detail than Stanley gives, concentrating on what was clearly most important to Riel himself: his religion and his mission as "Prophet of the New World." It's a tragic story of a man who might have achieved much if it had not been for a fantasy-life that grew in scope and complexity until it became his only reality. (p. 53)

[In] his last chapter Flanagan attempts to show that Riel's religion is characteristic both of the millenarian Christian cults of the dispossessed that were frequent in the Middle Ages and have continued to appear ever since (as in Jonestown), and the nativistic resistance cults like the Rastafarians and the Black Muslims. For the author, this thesis is perhaps the main point of the book. For the reader, luckily, it isn't. It wouldn't be particularly arresting even if it were sound; but it really doesn't hold water….

[Riel] did confer priesthood on the members of the Exovedate, as he called his provisional government, and they dutifully passed several resolutions on theological and ecclesiastical matters. Gabriel Dumont accepted Riel's military decisions against his own better judgement, in the belief that Riel was inspired by God. But the cult never became a true cult…. Hence I don't think Thomas Flanagan makes his point. But he has made a good, readable, funny, painfully sad book. (p. 54)

I. M. Owen, "Louis Riel As Religious Prophet" (copyright © 1979 by Saturday Night; reprinted by permission of the author), in Saturday Night, Vol. 94, No. 5, June, 1979, pp. 53-4.

Denis Donoghue

The first chapters of [The Year of the French] deal with conditions leading up to the [French invasion of Ireland in 1798]…. These chapters are recited by an impersonal narrator, the voice of history uttering its disinterested truth. Most of the later events are conveyed from different points of view and in suitably different styles. In certain chapters we hear the voice of history not in complete impersonality but as it yields itself to a particular character…. Still other chapters narrate the events through fictitious documents, such as An Impartial Narrative of What Passed at Killala in the Summer of 1798, by Arthur Vincent Broome, the local Protestant minister in the novel.

These devices make for variety in a long novel: the several points of view keep the reader sensitive to the proportions of ignorance and knowledge in any account of an experience. Another effect is that the characters and events in the novel are held at a certain distance, as if to prevent the reader from having only an immediate relation to them; he is to see them not only as they were but as they have become. I imagine, too, that Flanagan was reluctant to produce his characters when they had nothing to show for themselves but their bewilderment: he chose to let them stay in the shadow until they had come to understand the various forms of darkness in which they had lived.

I assume that this is what it means for Flanagan to be a historical novelist. Every event, every character, has a dual existence in which past and present are diversely engaged. The reader is not gripped by the events as they occur; his concern is drawn to the events as they have occurred and to the stain of outrage and desolation they have left upon the people who suffered them. Mostly we come upon the events when their form and consequence have already been assessed. There is a loss of immediacy, our interest is not allowed to fasten upon a character as distinct from his role in the story as a whole.

But there is a gain in the depth and resonance of the characters; when we meet them, they have already been changed by their experience. Broome, for instance, is given to us not when he is in the throes of his suffering but when he has survived it; his tone of bewildered care shows that he has been transformed, driven far beyond the range of qualities he would have produced as the local Protestant minister in a peaceful town. We are interested in him mainly for what he has been through, and for the generosity of his vision, flawed as it is…. Each event is seen not only in its immediate light but in the light of the idea it embodied or humiliated: the mediations issue from Flanagan's sense of modern Irish history, the shapes it has taken in his mind.

It is my impression that Flanagan organized the novel in this way not chiefly for the pleasure of managing several viewpoints and styles but to ensure that the conflicts of class, religion, tradition, and self-interest would be disclosed and interrogated. Impartiality is achieved by admitting to the narrative several different forms of partiality. If, as Walter Benjamin remarked, history is invariably recited in favor of those who have won, Flanagan is alert to...

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Desmond Morton

Of Riel as a symbol, enough has been written. Riel as a person remains a troubling enigma. One possible technique is to take him at his own valuation. That is almost exactly what Thomas Flanagan has done [in Louis 'David' Riel: Prophet of the New World]. Having edited Riel's diaries, collected his youthful poetry and explored the political theory behind the 1869 Declaration of the Red River colony Metis. Professor Flanagan has now explored the abundant collection of Riel's religious writings. Let us, he suggests, suspend the conventional judgment that the Metis leader was insane. Instead, why not see if he qualifies as a millenarian religious leader?

The resulting book is an impressive and...

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John Leonard

[Thomas Flanagan] has with one exuberant book abolished my prejudice against historical novels. I haven't so thoroughly enjoyed an historical novel since "The Charterhouse of Parma," and "War and Peace." "The Year of the French," consisting of straight narrative, snippets from journals, swatches of invented memoirs, scraps of song, sworn statements to magistrates and subalterns, hindsight and myth, is grand and sad, with ferocious sweep.

There is, necessarily, a poet—the red-haired, whisky-drinking, licentious Owen MacCarthy, a schoolmaster tormented by an image: "Moonlight falling on a hard, flat surface, scythe or sword or stone or spade." He is surrounded, whether he knows it or not, by other...

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Conor Cruise O'Brien

'The Year of the French' is a novel which does a great deal more than tell [the story of the French invasion at Killala in 1798], though it tells it very well indeed. Its main and absorbing interest is in its picture of the society, or societies, into which the French landed, like men from Mars….

[Mr. Flanagan's] special academic interest is Anglo-Irish literature and he puts this interest to good use in this novel, much of which is built out of brilliant pastiche extracts from various 'diaries' and 'work-books.' It is the work of a man learned in Irish history—as very few novelists are learned—but also emotionally involved in it, tied to it by a strange sardonic yearning….


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Tom Paulin

The Irish imagination is dominated by the idea of circles and it tends to view history passively as a pattern of cycles. Although this can be a dangerous view to take, it subtly informs Thomas Flanagan's remarkable historical novel [The Year of the French]. (p. 61)

Flanagan has an unerring sense of the parallels between the political situation in 1798 and the events in Ulster over the last ten years. Thus the Mayo yeomanry are the shadowy and bigoted forerunners of the "B" Specials, the secret society called the Whiteboys of Killala is the Provisional IRA, while the brief "Republic of Connaught" parallels Free Derry nearly two centuries later. Flanagan has considerable sympathy for the aims...

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