Writing is a tool of resistance and a signification of resilience; for this reason I am drawn to Irish writers. When Margaret Skinnider wrote “Doing my Bit for Ireland,” she knew that she was taking an extreme risk and that her version of the truth could make her a target. Today, I’m going to remain in that realm of female Irish resistance by talking about Christine Dwyer Hickey and the weight of abortion and female-ness in Irish culture. In many ways being born a woman is a prison sentence. Dwyer Hickey writes frankly about the experience of women in her books, and is unapologetic about her portrayal of Irish life. We might not think, being from a country where “Bear” by Marian Engel is required reading, that a book dealing with abortion is scandalous. However, only four years ago, a woman in Ireland died because she wasn’t able to abort her baby, when continuing the pregnancy was killing her. When we were told before this trip to be abstinent for three weeks, it wasn’t just because things can get awkward fast; it’s because the morning after pill is illegal here. These restrictions on reproductive rights are just one of the ways women are imprisoned.
Dr Murphy has said several times that “if you want the truth, you must look to art.” In The Lives of Women, the truth is there, and it is bleak. The novel reads as though it could take place anywhere, with anyone, but its silences are what make it such a poignant piece of uniquely Irish literature. The meat of the book lies in what remains unsaid. The protagonist is like a silent prisoner in Kilmainham Gaol, and her exile to New York reflects the philosophy of the early Gaol; Segregation, Supervision, and Silence. Elaine is removed from her home in Ireland and committed to the Diaspora of New York. She is young, traumatized, and shocked into silence. She is segregated in an apartment with a friend who no longer cares for her and a surrogate mother whose only purpose is to supervise the “wayward” girls; the apartment in New York becomes Elaine’s Gaol cell and though we barely see into this life during the novel, it hangs over everything Elaine does and remembers. We spend most of the novel in the suburbs of Dublin, where walls have been built between homes over the years and neighbours rarely talk anymore. The walls in the neighbourhood are not unlike the walls in Belfast, though they primarily exist to keep others out rather than the families in. In the beginning of the novel, Elaine remarks: “We are a house of no names— I am thinking this as I come back from the shop with my father’s newspaper, eyes to the ground so they don’t feel the need to meet the eyes of a neighbor— we were always that way, a house of no names.”
Women have long dominated the sphere of the suburban novel, and though suburbs took longer to arrive in Ireland than the rest of the developed world, Irish women writers are capable of an uncanny rendering of “Suburban Ennui.” The lives of Women is an suburban-gothic novel, but also reads like a murder mystery and a dark bildungsroman. As I just mentioned, it is the silence that gives the novel life. When I first read the novel, I knew little about Irish culture, but as I re-examined it for this talk I began to notice the ideas that bring it to the forefront of Irish culture. There is an urgency in Dwyer Hickey’s work, and a quiet tension that feeds on the reader.
“I’m terrified I’ll run out of time before I’ve written all the books I want to,” says Dwyer Hickey, who comes off as someone who desperately needs to tell their story. This is something we’ve seen time and again while on tours and encountering people here. This is why her writing is so genuine; each novel is her own story in some form. Her books about women have a desperation and their storytelling is almost claustrophobic; you feel that same sense of damp isolation while reading her work that you do when looking into the keyhole of Markewicz’s cell. Dwyer Hickey has stated that The Lives of Women has many autobiographical elements within it, and her 2004 novel, Tatty, also borrows from the author’s life.
‘By the time I was 18, I had almost died a couple of times. I suppose that’s why I’ve lived my life as somebody who consciously thinks they’re going to die.” Dwyer Hickey’s writing emphasizes her awareness of mortality; they present her world in a frank way, as it occurs. In Tatty, the story is told by a girl as she grows, and as you progress through the chapters, you can almost feel yourself growing, getting taller and taller as the protagonist stands at knee height at the pub, then stomach height, then stool height. In The Lives of Women, you feel this weight of the past pushing your shoulders down, even though you don’t quite know what this weight means. Dwyer Hickey has the ability to make the reader feel physically ill or see the world through a child’s eyes.
When discussing writing in interviews, Dwyer Hickey comes off as extremely busy; she does not sit idle writing by the fire while her husband works, she takes over entire rooms of her home with papers, and once remarked that after cleaning the dining room out after finishing a novel, that she found some snails had taken to her workspace. Dwyer Hickey lives in the world of her novels as she writes, much like a method actor, so it comes as no surprise that bits of her find their way into the characters and events.
“The Lives of Women is my ninth book, but my seventh novel. It is set in the suburbs. When I was a child and a teenager, I noticed that everybody lived in the exact same house in the suburbs in Dublin. None of the women worked and very few of them drove. Respectability was a huge issue. A lot of people had moved from less salubrious, working-class places, and they were worried in their new homes. They didn’t know which women were the same as them. Very few of them forged friendships. After 30 years living beside each other, they were still calling each other ‘missus’. There was a certain isolation in the suburbs. I wanted to look at the different kinds of loneliness in women. I’m very interested in people and why they turn out the way they do. I noticed in women’s company there was a lot of smoking at tables and a sense of sadness. I picked up entrapment and a kind of frustration amongst the women I knew well, but the principal thing that I sensed amongst the neighbours was loneliness. Being middle class, I think, was harder than for working class women. They were keeping up this show of respectability and weren’t always in each other’s houses.” The Lives of Women portrays the loneliness of women who are legally confined to their homes. Since this book is only about a year old, it is difficult to find criticism of it beyond a rating on Goodreads. An earlier novel, Tatty, also lacks criticism but is an equally important piece of work.
Sent back to boarding school a day too soon, the young narrator of Tatty displays this same loneliness and frustration: “Walking around in the empty school, counting the steps on the stairs. Looking through glass panels on doors that are locked. Peeping through keyholes into silent rooms. Then the dark started coming. First it just sneaked in slow, Then it got thicker inside. Faster and faster, she could see it doing tumbles in front of her up the long corridors, filling up corners, blocking off stairs. All dark then, and still no one else in the school. She tried to turn on a light. Then she tried to turn on another one. But the electricity must have been switched off. That’s when she really started to get afraid.” Hickey employs darkness as a literary technique to display the isolation of the character: though her family is present, she is truly alone. She uses another literary device in the Lives of Women; the character of Agatha is blind. She is Elaine’s best friend, and Elaine’s parents don’t approve of the friendship. Agatha’s mother is absent, and she’s shuffled between relatives. Elaine’s mother is a functioning alcoholic, and the two friends rely on each other for support and affection. Elaine reflects on a time in her teenage years when she was bedridden with illness for months and unable to see her only friend often. Her isolation is what opens the book, and what ends it. In most novels where a blind character appears, they function as a seer. They hold an elevated intuition and “see” what other characters cannot. In The Lives of Women, Agatha functions slightly differently. She is a warning and a prison sentence. She falls pregnant, and shows the other young women the consequences of being a woman in Ireland.
At the end of the novel, the carefully constructed silence unravels in a fit of screams.
“That night, I am asleep when I hear the sound of stones on my window. I look down and there is Michael Shillman on his bike, scooping his hand over his head and pointing over to the Hanley house. I look across the driveway and see Ted Hanley’s car is still absent. My bedside clock says half-one in the morning. When I left, a couple of hours before, Agatha was already in bed. I throw on some clothes and go out to Michael. “Rachel told me to get you,” he says, “i think something awful must have happened.” I go round to the side of Hanleys’ house and find rachel coming out, chalk faced and shaking all over. Half-shouting, and half-whispering, she says: “She’s done i herself, she’s only gone and and done it herself. She’s fucking gone and done it herself.” I push past rachel and find agatha lying on the bed, a large spread of blood beneath her, the shape of a tree. Her legs are smeared, her arms, even her face and her hair. There are handprints of blood everywhere, on the floor, on the wall, on the bedside locker. Rachel behind me says: “I don’t know what made me call round, I couldn’t sleep thinking about tomorrow and thought she might be nervous and so i— Jesus, what are we going to do> Oh god, what are we going to do? Why did she do it, Elaine, why would she have to go and do it on her own?”
“To stop us from getting in trouble,” I say.
Agatha dies as a martyr. The makeshift abortion was supposed to be carried out in secret with the help of her friends, but she kills herself trying it alone. As agatha lies dying in her bed, the young people are terrified and in shock. there is so much blood and they are so alone. Nobody is willing to help and they know that their lives will never be the same. As Elaine narrates the event in her 50s, there is a sense that no one ever recovered. Agatha died with a crude metal tool inside her, and an unwanted fetus. Elaine and her friend Patty are shipped off to New York shortly after and Elaine’s family never recovers; she barely speaks to her mother before she dies. In Bergeson’s theory of art, he discusses the ways in which artists convey their experiences, ideas, and thoughts. He states that some artists “get at emotions which have nothing in common with language; certain rhythms of life at the centre of our minds.” This comes across in Irish literature in the silences; Dwyer Hickey uses silences and space in er novel to convey the weight of being a woman in 1970s and 2000s ireland. Art, as Bergeson says, “is not an imitation but a discovery of reality.” In reading The Lives of Women, we come closer to understanding the sacrifices of women, and the weight of isolation and emptiness.