Politicizing the Demesne: Womanhood and Domestic Space in Irish "Big House" Literature

Deirdre Sheridan


The “big house novels” of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy are often regarded as regressive and anti-feminist narratives, paying tribute to British rule in Ireland. After the Irish Revolution, however, women writers continued to use big house novel themes to re-conceptualize Irish womanhood and critique patriarchy from within. Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September (1929) explores the impending death of the Anglo-Irish caste through a big house family, examining the faults that destroyed the caste from within. Kate O’Brien’s The Ante-Room (1934) adapts big house novel themes to a Catholic environment, revealing the political stagnation of the mid-century “de Valera years” in Ireland. Emma Donoghue’s Hood (1995) and Anne Enright’s The Gathering (2007) both examine the evolving nature of Irish culture during the “Celtic Tiger”—Hood examines the changing perspectives on LGBTQ rights in Ireland, and The Gathering examines the lingering effects of trauma on a family and a nation, all examined through the lens of domestic life. Narratives set in the domestic space can appear limiting in our modern conceptions of feminism, but adapting big house themes to contemporary works allow Irish women writers to radicalize their own existence, and politicize the “demesne” of Irish womanhood.