Thomas (James Bonner) Flanagan

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Vivian Mercier

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 418

[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."…

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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, pastoral, defeatist Irish nationalism better than any other novelist…. The ironies of "Castle Rackrent" make Maria Edgeworth secure in her niche forever, but Carleton, the greatest writer dealt with, has yet to become even a minor classic outside Ireland. This is perhaps the just reward of his venality, for Mr. Flanagan shows that Carleton hired out his pen to any group that would pay him. In writing of Carleton's work, no one finds it easy to be original; Mr. Flanagan must echo Yeats' lavish praise and his great reservations. To be appreciated, Carleton must be read in bulk; each individual work is vitiated by some obvious blemish.

The more one knows about Mr. Flanagan's subject matter, the more exciting his book seems and the better one appreciates his originality. He is never afraid to discard the accepted view in either history or literary criticism; and where, as so often in Irish matters, there is no accepted view, he carves out an intelligent position for himself. "The Irish Novelists" is a remarkable pioneering survey.

Vivian Mercier, "The Reason Why They Wrote the Way They Did," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1959 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 20, 1959, p. 5.∗

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