“Where’s Nora?” Reclaiming the Irish Girl’s Presence in New England literature

Call for papers


“Where’s Nora?” Reclaiming the Irish Girl’s Presence in New England literature
A panel organized by Cécile Roudeau (Université Paris Diderot) and Stephanie Palmer (Nottingham Trent University) and sponsored by the Mary E. Wilkins Freeman Society for submission to the Transatlantic Women 3: Women of the Green Atlantic Conference at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, Ireland, June 21-22, 2018.

Taking the title of one of Sarah Orne Jewett’s story as its tagline, this panel starts with a simple constatation: in nineteenth century New England literature, Nora, Bridget, Erin and other Irish girls were an ubiquitous presence. They popped in and out of New England sketches— from Louisa May Alcott’s “Work” (1873) to Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s “The Tenth of January” (1868) to Sarah Orne Jewett’s “A Little Captive Maid” (1893) or “Elleneen” (1901). And yet, ubiquitous as she is, the Irish girl is also conspicuously absent in major scholarly studies of New England literature. If “Bridget” or “Peggy” has received much-needed attention from historians and is central to discussions of diasporic identity in recent studies of Irish-American history and culture (Making the Irish American: History and Heritage of the Irish in the United States, 2006; The Irish Bridget, Irish Immigrant Women in Domestic Service in America, 2009, among others), she has remained a shadow in literary studies. Paradoxically so.

For more than two decades, following the pathbreaking work of Judith Fetterley, June Howard, Marjorie Pryse, Susan Gillman, Sandra Zagarell, and more recently Patrick Gleason and Rebecca Walsh, questions of gender, race, and empire have redesigned the approaches to American letters, and the corpus of New England women’s literature in particular. As a “problem,” the Irish girl sits at the center of questions of political and poetical representation, of transactions of gender, race and class. But where’s Nora in our readings of New England women writers? Nourishing nativist fears and religious anxieties while being also praised as “a valuable element in the new race” (Margaret Fuller, “The Irish Character,” 1845), the Irish girl, whose propensity to serve was both an asset and a liability to her becoming American, proved a challenge to the mystique of American democracy and a symptom of its colonialist penchants. Racialized, minoritized as an unfortunate victim of a belated feudalism, she was a foil to the “mistress”‘s femininity, a threat to the household’s racial homogeneity, and a constant challenge to domestic government. She was also key to a forbidden imaginery, that of Catholicism, of the illicit realm of poetry (Harriet Prescott Spofford, The Servant Girl Question, 1881). It is high time to acknowledge her stubborn, disquieting, and terribly appealing, presence.

This panel argues that the Irish girl is part of the shadows that matter in American literature. Papers may inquire into:

– reading well-known or lesser known texts by New England women writers from the perspective of the Irish girl, however marginal a character she may seem to be. (Catharine Beecher, Lydia Sigourney, Louisa May Alcott, Louise Imogen Guiney, Rose Terry Cooke, Harriet Prescott Spofford, Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Sarah Orne Jewett….)
– Tracing the presence of the Irish girl as a problem, or a question, across genres (essays, poems, domestic manuals, political pamphlets, labor novels, diaries, travel narratives, but also vaudeville, plays, caricatures…); the Irish girl in New England periodicals (Boston Transcript, The Atlantic Monthly…).
– “Avenging Bridget”: contemporary subversive rewritings of the stereotype; giving back a voice, a gaze, to the absentee (Aife Murray, Maid as Muse: How Servants Changed Emily Dickinson’s Life and Language, 2010; Nuala O’Connor, Miss Emily, 2015; Maeve Brennan’s The Rose Garden, 2001…)

Leah Blatt Glasser (Mount Holyoke College) will chair the panel.

Please send 300-word abstracts for papers and a short bio to Cécile Roudeau and Stephanie Palmer at cecile.roudeau@gmail.com and stephanie.palmer@ntu.ac.uk by November 27. The conference abstract deadline is December 1, 2017.