Anne Enright

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Anne Enright burst onto the Irish literary scene in 1991 with her collection of short stories, The Portable Virgin. She was immediately hailed as “a new voice in Irish fiction” (The Irish Times, 25 February 1991) and The Portable Virgin won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature that year. Enright quickly established a reputation for a playful, innovative, postmodern, even post-feminist, style of writing. Distinguishing herself from the mimetic realism for which much Irish writing is noted, she was perceived, at least in the early days, as using parody, pastiche and satire in the tradition of Jonathan Swift and Flann O’Brien. She herself regards her work as at odds with much of Irish writing:

Irish prose tends to cling to the world in an unconfident way. This is a table, this is a chair … The world should be very ordinary and not to be doubted. Make fiction as close to fact as possible. But I don’t think that fiction is fact. I feel like saying, you made it up, admit that you made it up, and you can make anything up. (Moloney, 54)

Her international reputation was consolidated when her 2007 novel of a dysfunctional Irish family, The Gathering, won the Man Booker Prize for fiction.

Born in 1962, Anne Enright grew up in Dublin where her parents were civil servants. The youngest of five children, she attended St Louis High School in Rathmines and won an international scholarship to the Lester B. Pearson College in Canada where she studied for two years. On her return “Ireland”, she said in an interview in The Observer (1 May, 2011), “did not make so much sense” (35). It is tempting to date her sharp eye for the absurdities of Irish life from this period; her books are notable for their sudden flashes of dark humour.

Enright studied English and philosophy at Trinity College Dublin from where she graduated in 1985. She acted with Dublin’s Rough Magic Theatre and with the Abbey Theatre and wrote a play, Thank God, Fasting, for the Dublin Youth Theatre. Subsequently she won a scholarship to study creative writing at the University of East Anglia under Angela Carter. In England she went through a period of acute loneliness and depression. Returning to Dublin, she worked for six years as a television producer and director, involved with children’s programmes and the cutting-edge arts show, Nighthawks, on Radio Telefís Éireann (RTE). She always thought of herself as a writer, however, and she began working on The Portable Virgin during her time at RTE. After the book’s publication, Enright left television in 1993 to become a full-time author, supporting herself with radio work for RTE and BBC Radio 4 and also writing for The New Yorker and The London Review of Books. In the same year, she married actor and director Martin Murphy with whom she has two children.

The Portable Virgin has been described by critics as both elegant and shocking. Elegant for Enright’s play with language, shocking in the stories’ abrupt shifts of level between realism and surrealism, the serious and the absurd and in their unsparing interrogation both of sexuality and of the relations between the sexes. The characters in these stories are, in Enright’s words, “artefacts of language” (Bracken and Cahill, 16): Cathy, the handbag saleswoman in “(She Owns) Every Thing” who tries to get her customers to expand the possibilities of their lives, Billy the actor in “Juggling Oranges”, who falls embarrassingly in love at the age of forty-nine, Maeve Hanratty in “Luck be a Lady”, who lives her life through numbers. “The Brat” adopts the Joycean narrator’s mock-heroic tone to portray Mr O’Donnel, a drunken patriarchal bully who, like Finn MacCool, has a magic thumb. The story operates through bathos and parody: O’Donnel’s magic thumb is used to discern not the salmon of knowledge but “the music of a good pint” (160). He is an impotent patriarch full of empty bombast. His wife has left him and his daughter Clare, the eponymous brat, rejects the assumptions of her father and her brother that she will run the household. This is a Joycean story that frees the female protagonist: unlike Molly Bloom, identified with bodily pleasures, Clare puts her faith in her brains to educate herself out of this family situation.

Enright has described her use of postmodernist techniques as “an attempt to be more honest and not less” (Bracken and Cahill, 18) and The Portable Virgin is notable for its exploration of the constraints on women’s lives. In the title story, Enright picks apart Catholic idealizations of the Virgin Mary as a model for Irish women’s lives, the inescapability of the romance plot in shaping women’s lives and the pressures on women to keep up the feminine masquerade. “Men and Angels” explores historical idealizations of women as Angels in the House, the way in which the wives of famous men have been written out of history and what happens when a woman of genius starts to behave like a man. “Fatgirl Terrestrial” is a convincing and witty exploration of why educated and successful women nevertheless feel pressurized to conform to society’s expectations of femininity. Bridget has so internalized society’s expectations that it is not enough for her to be a successful businesswoman, she must be married and thin as well. However, as she becomes more appropriately feminine, she becomes reduced in every way until she fits the size and the life thought suitable for women. In this volume, Enright’s anarchic humour, her intertextuality, and her defamiliarizing style marked a new departure in Irish women’s writing.

The Portable Virgin was followed in 1995 by Enright's first novel, The Wig My Father Wore. The book, set in contemporary Dublin, explores love, sex, the family, religion and redemption against the background of Grace’s work on a tacky TV show, LoveQuiz, and her love for Stephen, an angel who turns up on her doorstep having committed suicide in 1934 in Ontario. Like her short story collection, Enright’s novel cuts across gender binaries, challenges notions of fixed personal and national identities, and blurs the borders between fantasy and reality, sanity and insanity.

In Christian theology Grace’s name denotes divine favour so it is ironic that the life Grace is leading is in every way inauthentic. The wig worn by her father, which cannot be mentioned in front of him, becomes a metaphor for the secrets at the heart of family life. After that, Grace says, misleading the public on television was easy. Television gives Grace access to money, power and sex but what she lacks, Stephen tells her, are purity, wisdom and grace. Under Stephen’s influence, the world-weary and cynical Grace gradually undergoes a purifying experience until her body starts to resemble an idealised girlish body, while Stephen becomes more fleshly so that at the end they make love in what has been described by Elke d’Hoker as Enright’s reworking of the Immaculate Conception, with Grace as an ironic Virgin Mary (188). Pregnant, Grace gives up her television job and moves to the West of Ireland to become an alternative Mother Ireland. In this way Enright not only deconstructs stereotypes of gender and Irish national identity, but also reclaims and reinvents myths around the Virgin Mary and Mother Ireland to embrace a multiplicity of identities. Enright explained of her early books: “They dealt with ideas of purity, because the chastity of Irish women was one of the founding myths of the Nation State” (Making Babies, 194).

In The Wig My Father Wore, Enright draws on her experience as a director to bring the conventions of television to fiction, the schedules, the credits, the camera angles, fast cutting and editing. In postmodernist manner the novel employs pastiche, parody, magic realism, incongruous juxtapositions, fractured narrative, fragmented history, and an anarchic humour that relies on puns, word play and inversion. When the book first appeared, reviewers used words like “clever”, “unsettling”, “unpredictable”, “immensely sophisticated” to describe it. Enright herself speaks of her writing process in the following way: “the words I put down provoke and demand further meanings – and my job is to find out what these might be” (Moloney, 53).

Enright’s second novel, What Are You Like? (2000), uses the subject of twins separated at birth to explore themes of loss, exile and the fragility of identity. Mirrored identities, or the lack of them, recur throughout the novel, lending it to analysis in terms of Lacan’s mirror stage. Both twins lack a maternal mirror to give them a solid sense of identity; they live with a vacuum at the centre of their lives and an uncanny sense of their lives being off kilter. Maria, raised in Dublin, “had always felt like someone else. She had always felt like the wrong girl” (37). In England, her twin sister, Rose, feels she was born with “a hole in her life” (140) and searches for the woman who gave her away. When the twins are reunited at the end, their individual identities become stronger and the novel has been interpreted as a comment on Irish emigration and the shadow cast by absent members on their families back home.

What Are You Like? is, as with much of Enright’s work, about the secrets at the heart of Irish life: “this incredible country” thinks Rose. “Where people did the most appalling things, and shut their mouths, and stayed put” (222). Enright has used the term “fragmented” to describe her early novels and she has linked this fragmentation to the political situation of Ireland in the 1980s: “I lived in an incoherent country. They were slightly surreal, because Ireland was unreal” (Making Babies, 194). The novel is also about motherhood split, in Maria’s case, between her dead mother, Anna, and her stepmother, Evelyn, who tries to make friends with her children but finds mothering “the loneliest job of them all” (76). What Are You Like? is a comment on the iconisation of the mother in Irish nationalism at the expense of the realities of mothers’ lives: Anna is sacrificed to a law, still written into the Irish Constitution, that values the life of an unborn child over that of the mother. The narrative is focalized through different voices and at the end the silenced mother, Anna, speaking from beyond the grave, tells her story.

In The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch (2002), Enright fictionalizes the extraordinary life of Eliza Lynch (1835-86) from County Cork who in the mid-nineteenth century became the mistress of Francisco Solano López, dictator of Paraguay, and mother of seven of his children. Historically, there have been two views of Eliza. She was either a national heroine who inspired Paraguayans during the devastating War of the Triple Alliance 1865-70 against Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay that wiped out 90 per cent of the male population or she was greedy and immoral, plundering Paraguay’s wealth for herself and her family. In her acknowledgements, Enright suggests that one aim of her book was to counter the kind of “sneering excess” that Eliza provoked in her English-speaking biographers. Towards the end of the novel, Enright reveals that Eliza fled Ireland during the “Great Hunger” of 1845-7, implying that memories of starvation in the Irish countryside are what drive her conspicuous consumption. This has led critics like Susan Cahill to suggest that the novel may be read as an oblique comment on the extravagances of Ireland’s Celtic Tiger years, the period between roughly 1995 and 2007 when Ireland enjoyed an unusually high level of economic growth and prosperity. In a recent interview, Enright confirmed this interpretation (Bracken and Cahill, 28). To date, the novel has attracted little critical comment though Patricia Coughlan has written an excellent account in which she points out that in this tale of acquisitiveness and excess only the Guaraní, the indigenous people of Paraguay, are exempt from Enright’s irony (369).

Eliza is another of Enright’s characters who constructs her identity through storytelling and the story Eliza tells about herself changes with every telling. This fluidity to be whatever circumstances demand is vital since her position as mistress, rather than wife, of Paraguay’s dictator leaves her vulnerable to his increasingly insane whims. Though she dazzles the males with her imported French fashions and French food, Eliza is regarded by the wives of Paraguay as a fallen woman, the abject. In one striking scene that vividly illuminates the Victorian division between the respectable and the fallen woman, the Paraguayan women prefer to risk sunstroke in the baking midday sun rather than sit beside Eliza in the shade. Eliza exists outside the respectable bourgeois social order. Her transformation into a national icon for whom men are willing to lay down their lives is, as Coughlan argues, an indirect comment on the Mother Ireland topos that allows women to embody power but not to act on it. With its emphasis on Eliza’s performance of femininity and its portrayal of the way in which the Victorian masculinity of the two male adventurers, Dr Stewart and the engineer, Whytehead, crumbles under pressure in Paraguay, the novel lends itself to being interpreted in the light of Judith Butler’s theories of gender performance.

Eliza’s story is told with virtuosity, full of luscious, almost surreal, descriptions of the food, clothes and domestic interiors by which she effects her transformation. “As if [Joseph Conrad’s] Nostromo had been told from a woman’s point of view”, Hermione Lee commented in the London Review of Books (17 October 2000). Alternating with Eliza’s story are the judgmental voice of an omniscient nineteenth-century narrator and the dry, detached third person account charting Dr Stewart’s collapse in the face of the South American other. Though the narrative is fractured, interweaving Eliza’s river journey with her time in Paraguay, the postmodern effects are more integral to the narrative than in Enright’s two previous novels.

The narrative structure of The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch foregrounds Eliza’s pregnant body and this may be interpreted as Enright’s deliberate attempt to make visible the subjectivity of the maternal body so often reduced to an object in discourses of the Irish nation. Enright herself had given birth to her first child and was pregnant with her second while writing her next work, the non-fiction Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood (2004). This book was an attempt to reintroduce what had traditionally been repressed in the Irish Catholic discourse of maternity, namely the physical realities of the pregnant female body. “Can mothers not hold a pen?” she asks (42). She points out that breast-feeding remains a hidden activity in Ireland and that “the closest the culture came to an image of actual nursing was in the icon of the Sacred Heart, endlessly offering his male breast, open and glowing, and crowned with thorns” (43). Enright’s determined focus on her personal experience of the physical realities of childbirth and early motherhood and the socio-cultural context in which they take place may be seen as a political strategy to counter the discourses prevalent in Irish nationalism and Irish Catholicism which idealized mothers through the figure of the Virgin Mary while censoring the female body and offering very little by way of practical help for Irish mothers. For Enright, given the lengthy silencing of maternal subjectivity in the life of the Irish nation, for a mother to speak out at all may be judged a selfish act but in this book she was determined “to say what it was like” (4).

The final chapter of the memoir gives an insight into Enright’s suicide attempt during the 1980s and a link is made between childbirth and death, the former feeling, she says, “like dying, pulled inside out” (3). The memoir lends itself to being read in the light of Julia Kristeva’s reconceiving of motherhood in “Stabat Mater” and her coupling of both the maternal body and death as aspects of the abject in Powers of Horror. For both writers, maternity is one way of canceling out the death wish. At the end, Enright explains: “I had got into such a habit of gratitude, and a mother’s worry for the future, that I didn’t, I found, want to die at all, not for a very long time” (195-6).

In The Gathering (2007), the secrets of four generations of the dysfunctional Hegarty family are filtered through the unreliable memory of Veronica Hegarty. As the family assembles for the funeral of Veronica’s brother, Liam, Veronica reconstructs her memories of their shared past. Alcoholism, violence, gambling, mental illness and child abuse have become standard themes in contemporary Irish fiction and this may be one of the reasons why, of all Enright’s works, The Gathering has attracted most attention outside Ireland, winning the Man Booker prize and finding an international readership. Before the novel won the Booker, reviewers complained of the book’s lack of consolation, its “exhilarating bleakness” and “savage humour”.

The main interest of the book lies not so much in Veronica’s story but in her telling of it. Veronica’s unreliability as narrator is related to her weak sense of self, passed down to her through several generations of Hegarty women. Uncertainty and doubt are the hallmarks of her narrative, together with the tricks memory plays: “I would like to write down what happened in my grandmother’s house the summer I was eight or nine, but I am not sure if it really did happen” (1). Some of her uncertainty, however, is willed, a deliberate suppression of horror: “If I am looking for the point when I betrayed my brother, then it must be here, too. I looked at the raised flesh on his cheek and I decided not to believe him, if there was any ‘believing’ to be done. That was all. I decided that he did not deserve to be believed” (166). One of the themes of The Gathering is the way in which history is written on the body. At the heart of Veronica’s narrative lies the childhood sexual abuse of her brother Liam by a family friend and Liam’s subsequent suicide years later. Veronica’s self-questioning in 1998 stands in for the entire Irish nation’s anguish in the 1990s at the revelations of child abuse carried out over decades in state and church run orphanages. The 1960s, Veronica reminds us, was still a time when it was perfectly acceptable to tell children “you’re in the way” and to administer a few slaps. In the 1990s, Veronica may live a comfortable middle class life with a husband who works in corporate finance, a convertible Saab, and daughters who go to private schools, but the old Ireland continues to haunt her, as it haunted her compatriots throughout the Celtic Tiger years. She thinks: “This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family – a whole fucking country – drowning in shame” (168).

In 2008, Enright published her second collection of short stories, Taking Pictures. These move away from the postmodernism of The Portable Virgin into longer, more reflective mood pieces that enter into the consciousness of their protagonists and explore themes such as madness, motherhood, anorexia, sex and death. They are mainly set against the background of the constraints of life in lower middle class Ireland where “‘up and down’ is Irish for anything at all – from crying into the dishes to full-blown psychosis” (165). Many stories examine the small griefs of family life, the tensions in a marriage or, as in “Della”, a story that bears traces of Maeve Brennan’s influence, relations with a neighbour. “It’s the little things that get to you”, remarks the narrator of “Green” (117). The collection retains the unpredictability that is a hallmark of all Enright’s work and a note of dark lyricism is common to most of the stories, together with last lines that twist like a knife. “Every one of these stories takes you to a place you might rather not be in, but which you are drawn in to explore, allured by their dark brilliance”, Hermione Lee observed in The Guardian (1 March, 2008). In comparison with the stories in The Portable Virgin, Enright allows a certain hard-won tenderness to break out, particularly in stories like “Honey”, which won the first Davy Byrne Award, about a daughter’s grief on the death of her mother, or “Little Sister”, narrated by the sister of an anorexic. Pregnancy and early motherhood continue to be vividly and accurately evoked. “Was this enough? Was this the way you loved a baby?” wonders Hazel in “Yesterday’s Weather” (147) while in “Caravan”, Michelle wishes that “she was a different kind of mother – if there was a different kind of mother” (184).

In 2009 Enright published Yesterday’s Weather, incorporating stories from her previous two collections; and uncollected stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review and Granta. Enright has also written many essays for the London Review of Books, including in 2007 one on the disappearance in Portugal of four-year old Madeleine McCann that aroused a storm of protest over her perceived criticism of the girl’s parents, Kate and Gerry McCann. In 2010 she edited The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story.

In The Forgotten Waltz (2011), Enright’s challenge is to write in an original way about something as banal as a love affair with a married man. The novel retains postmodern traits: we know from the outset the course the love affair will take; the narrator is, not so much unreliable, as uncertain about her feelings at any given moment; and the chapter titles teasingly echo popular love songs. “Still”, reflects Gina, “I can’t be too bothered here, with chronology. The idea that if you tell it, one thing after another, then everything will make sense. It doesn’t make sense” (46). In keeping with Enright’s most recent short stories, however, there is less flaunting of stylistic techniques, more moments of piercing tenderness, and Enright has called this move towards her readers “a more generous impulse” (Bracken and Cahill, 17).

The Forgotten Waltz echoes the themes and setting of stories in Taking Photographs: Gina’s love affair with Seán takes place against the background of the lives of Dublin middle class married thirty-somethings with children. During the course of the novel Gina’s mother dies and, as Gina shifts through her memories, Enright explores relationships between parents and children and sibling tensions between Gina and her pretty sister, Fiona, whose life fits perfectly into the expected female trajectory of marriage, house and children. The novel is set between the years 2002 and 2009 and the marriages of Gina and Seán unravel in tandem with the Celtic Tiger economy about which there are some caustic observations. At a pre-recession New Year’s Day party, “The Enniskerry husbands stood about and talked property: a three-pool complex in Bulgaria, a whole Irish block in Berlin” (85). Post Celtic Tiger: “If you listened to the car radio, all the money in the country had just evaporated, you could almost see it, rising off the rooftops like steam” (207).

The chief focus of the novel however is inward, on the details of the ebb and flow of the passion between Gina and Seán. The power of the book lies in its precise observations of the details of ordinary life that often go unnoticed and its impact on the reader is as much at the level of individual sentences as in the overall narrative. The novel writes beyond the romantic ending to the point where Gina finds herself taking responsibility for Seán’s fragile young daughter, Evie, while Seán is away, possibly embarking on yet another affair. The real truth of the story, signaled in the preface, only emerges at the end as Gina realises that neither she nor Seán but Evie has been the most important character all the way through and in many ways may be said to have dictated the progress of her father’s love affair. Childless, Gina has underestimated the bond between father and daughter about which Enright writes with sensitivity and perception. The novel ends as Gina finds herself falling in love a second time, with Evie.

Anne Enright has established a solid reputation as one of the leading contemporary Irish writers, noted for her clear eye for the truths about families, lovers, bodies, death and parenting that most people shy away from, for her voicing of the repressions of Irish culture and for the precision, humour and lyrical beauty of her language.

Works Cited

Coughlan, Patricia. “‘Without a blink of her lovely eye’: The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch and Visionary Scepticism”, Irish University Review 35, 2 (2005): 349-73.
Enright, Anne. The Portable Virgin. London: Vintage. 2002.
Enright, Anne. What Are You Like? London: Vintage. 2001.
Enright, Anne. Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood. London: Jonathan Cape. 2004.
Enright, Anne. The Gathering. London: Jonathan Cape. 2007.
Enright, Anne. Taking Pictures. London: Jonathan Cape. 2008.
Enright, Anne. The Forgotten Waltz. London: Jonathan Cape. 2011.
d’Hoker, Elke. “Reclaiming Feminine Identities: Anne Enright’s The Wig My Father Wore” in Irish Literature: Feminist Perspectives eds. Patricia Coughlan and Tina O’Toole. Dublin: Carysfort Press. 2008: 185-201.
Lee, Hermione, “All Reputation”, London Review of Books, 17 October 2000: 19-20.
Lee, Hermione, “Pawed, used, loved and lonely”, The Guardian, 1 March 2008: 6.
Moloney, Caitriona and Thompson, Helen (eds). “Anne Enright interviewed by Caitriona Moloney”, Irish Women Speak Out: Voices from the Field. New York: Syracuse University Press. 2003: 51-64.
O’Hagan, Sean, “I was always on the side. Like a salad.” The Observer, ‘The New Review’, 1 May, 2011: 35.

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Citation: Ingman, Heather. "Anne Enright". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 18 May 2011 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=12065, accessed 08 February 2023.]

12065 Anne Enright 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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