In Search of Lost Writers
By Julia Brodsky, Contributor
June / July 2017
The unexpected success of the efforts of Dublin’s Tramp Press to re-release out-of-print and forgotten books by Irish women writers.
In 2014, Sarah Davis-Goff and Lisa Coen founded Tramp Press, a small, independent publishing house with the aim of finding and showcasing extraordinary literary talent, whether publishing work from emerging writers, established authors, or writers whose work, though exceptional and important, has been forgotten. The two met as interns at Lilliput Press in Dublin, where Davis-Goff had discovered and pushed for the acquisition of Tipperary writer Donal Ryan’s debut The Spinning Heart. (Read an interview with Ryan, and an excerpt from his latest book, in Irish America’s October / November 2016 issue.)
They take their name from John Millington Synge’s tramp figure, the outsider introduced to disrupt and restructure society. The most famous of Synge’s tramps is Christy Mahon, the titular Playboy of the Western World and presumptive father-killer, and Coen and Davis-Goff take the connection one step further, noting that the tramp enters to “shake up a stale patriarchy.”
Once a year, Coen and Davis-Goff seek out and re-publish a book in their Recovered Voices series, which highlights out-of-print and underappreciated work that for whatever reason has fallen from public notice. As the pair wrote for the Irish Times upon the launch of the first book in the series in 2014, “New contexts can revive old plays; why can’t we do the same with books?”
The project was not without precedent; Persephone Books had been reprinting out-of-print work for some time, and in 2003, Vintage reissued John Williams’s 1965 novel, Stoner, with much success (in 2013, the New Yorker called it “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of”). For the series, Coen and Davis-Goff seek to demonstrate that “there is important work out there that’s well-written and entertaining, but that also offers a timeless critique of politics and hetero-patriarchy.”
Nor are they without aid in their quest – as the series has gained traction since its launch in 2014, many people have reached out to suggest titles for consideration. However, many suggested books are still in print despite being less easily accessible. Coen notes that she and Davis-Goff take special consideration for educators who are unable to track down copies of a book they consider important for teaching. Too often, such overlooked books have been written by women. Indeed, so far, all three of books published in the series are by women and were each suggested by Irish academics looking to make certain important texts more readily available.
The first Recovered Voices title, A Struggle for Fame by Charlotte Riddell – originally published in 1883 and reprinted by Tramp in the fall of 2014 – came at the suggestion of Trinity College Dublin professor Heather Ingman (Coen cites Ingman’s seminar on Maeve Kelly’s Orange Horses, the most recently printed book in the series, as one of the catalysts for Recovered Voices). The novel tells the story of a young woman in Victorian Ireland who remakes her life after her mother’s death, including becoming a successful writer under a male pseudonym, much like Riddell did herself. As serialized novels fell from popularity, so too did Riddell’s semi-autobiographical novel.
The second book in the series was Dorothy Macardle’s The Uninvited, initially published in 1942 in Ireland as Uneasy Freehold, a gothic novel in which a brother and sister purchase a suspiciously affordable house on the English coast, only to find their dream home is haunted by the spirit of one of the two women who died there mysteriously some years before. Maynooth University professor Luke Gibbons, who suggested the title and wrote the introduction for new edition, says, “I suppose you could say that recovered voices are always ghosts of a sort, and it is particularly appropriate that a ghost story about lost attachments should figure in the series.”
The novel was made into a critically-acclaimed film in 1944, with the Irish Times reviewer writing upon its release, “I doubt even Hitchcock could have made a better job of it.” The film’s success kept the book in popular circulation in the U.S. through the 1960s, when it merited inclusion in Corgi Books’s “selection of fine reading” – Catch-22 and Lolita among the novel’s peers on the list. Eventually, the book all but disappeared from print and the public eye.
Orange Horses, reprinted by Tramp last fall with an introduction by Maeve Kelly biographer Simon Workman, is the first Recovered Voices book by a still-living author. When it was initially published in 1990, Kelly’s collection of short stories about people at the margins of society, including travelers and abused women, was misogynistically dismissed as “piling on” the misery and it subsequently fell from the shelves and from print. Tramp relaunched Orange Horses at the Dublin Book Festival, coincidentally the same year that Arlen House published Kelly’s collected poems. The dual publications have renewed popular interest in her work and reopened the door for more nuanced critical attention to her short stories, despite having been previously disregarded for being “women’s stuff.” Even at the launch of the collection, Kelly’s genius asserted itself – Sinéad Gleeson read the opening lines of the title story:
“Elsie Martin’s husband beat her unconscious because she called him twice for dinner while he was talking to his brother. To be fair, she did not simply call him. She blew the horn of the Hiace van to summon him.”
It is an opener that “Raymond Carver would kill for,” as a friend of Coen’s noted at the launch party.
This fall, Tramp will reprint The Unforeseen – a follow-up to The Uninvited – as the fourth Recovered Voices book. The Uninvited’s success, particularly in the United States, was one of the reasons to turn attention to its sequel. Coen posits that readers here may have heard about the movie and encountered the novel via Amazon, or, it could be because “the idea of an Irish Shirley Jackson sounds too good to pass up.” However, the pair of gothic novels has a political resonance that cannot be ignored. Like The Uninvited, The Unforeseen “is about precognition and trying to anticipate catastrophe,” says Coen, and she cites Luke Gibbons’s assertion that “during times of fraught politics, writers become interested in fiction about predicting what will happen.” (Gibbons will also provide the introduction to The Unforeseen.)
Coen said that Irish readers have been incredibly receptive to the series, and book launches, especially for the work of dead writers, often lead to interesting meetings and conversations between people who have been quietly following the writers’ work for many years.
She also acknowledged that the series is not restricted to work solely by Irish women writers as a rule, but there is still very much a balance to be redressed, even in a literary climate that seems suffused with brilliant up-and-coming female authors, including Tramp’s own Sara Baume and Oona Frawley. Still, the unfortunate fact that the Abbey Theatre’s 2016 “Waking the Nation” season entirely ignored work by women playwrights – new or established – highlights just how far the gender balance in Irish arts and letters has to go.
And yet, though the Irish literary establishment has yet to catch up to more equitable treatment of male and female writers, the Irish book-buying public seems to have no hesitation in their demand for under-recognized female voices. Orange Horses sold so well in fact that Tramp had to reprint their edition, which Coen believes would make a perfect bookend to an Irish fiction course beginning with Joyce’s Dubliners:
“If Orange Horses had been written by a man, you may be sure it’d be on the Leaving Cert curriculum, not waved off as a woman’s book and allowed to fade from memory.” ♦
Julia Brodsky is working on an M.A. in Irish studies at NYU, focusing on modern and postmodern Irish literature. She is from Philadelphia and now lives in Brooklyn.
Tramp Press offers special discounts to teachers and students on Recovered Voices titles for coursework. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss. Suggestions for Recovered Voices titles are welcome.