In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I figured I’d post a spoiler-heavy review of this forgotten book:
I picked this book up from a vintage bookseller on a whim. It’s inscribed as such:
Wishing Laura a Very Merry Xmas, Aunt Edith, 1909
It is definitely a book an Aunt Edith would give you for Christmas. On one hand, it’s sort of Austen for Tots… you know, all the recognizable bits from classic Austen novels but with all the sexual subtext, arch commentary, and interesting stuff removed. It’s basically about Nice Girls Acting Nicely for 300+ pages. But it falls flat, because the author’s imagination of what makes a Nice Girl is actually terrible, including unexamined laziness, oddly-placed racism and absurd classism. But it was kind of a wild ride…
Patricia, Dympna, and Finola, three realistically-named sisters, are the daughters of the last Lord Tyrconnell. The Tyrconnells are historically profligate Irish noblemen who have spent the family fortune on parties and hunts and whatever, and left these unfortunate girls with so little they’ve spent their whole life in poverty, just barely scraping by with only their nursemaid to look after them. “Granny” does what she can, however, such as taking Dympna to learn painting in Italy, and assuring Patricia is able to study the pianoforte in France. With such a barren, terrible existence, you can imagine the trials endured by these brave, unfortunate lasses.
Whilst living in London they hear that the girls’ last living relation has passed away, leaving their absentee brother the bulk of what remains, but for them, little beyond a few pounds to live on, and a mysterious, run-down castle in Ireland. They decide to save on rent by going to live in the castle, of course, and there their adventures begin.
Luckily for the lasses, Ireland is full of semi-mystical, half-wild, but still highly deferential poor folk who believe in fairies and bog-witches and whatever, but still know to tip their fucking hats to the quality. Perhaps most jaw-dropping of these side characters is “Lanty,” some local boy that comes to the castle eager to serve them. He is a quaint country lad full of notions, and at one point when the girls are staying over with some rustic country Irish because of a storm, he runs out into the lightning to tell their nurse where they are. He is wiling because:
“Why thin, many’s the time I go out in it just for the fun of it. I do be always longin’ to see the fairies caravandherin’ about in the lightnin’, for they do go off o’ their heads in it intirely, and it’s the greatest luck in the world to the mortial that catches them at it. People do say that wherever the lightnin’ shafts down into the ground there does grow gold-mines, and the fairies mark the places, and if ye seen them at it ye could be richer than Creosote!”
All the poor Irish are written like this.
Anyways, for about a thousand pages the girls alternate between working nicely together to make Banshee Castle a sweet dwelling for all (how sweet!) and paying calls on their impoverished neighbors, who, without a hint of resentment, stuff the quality ladies full of “potaties” and tea and other hard-earned foodstuffs.
Then there’s some biz where next to Banshee Castle some rich Americans who are of Irish descent have settled in to their estate, “Alabama,” to like, distribute largesse via a true Rich White Person Novel Scheme. Basically they’ve bought some godforsaken windblown island and built a town from scratch there, in order to terrorize their transplanted tenants to the tune of “we’ll rent you fishing boats and whatever at a good rate so you can live in not-as-abject poverty, but if you get drunk, carouse, or act in any way not like Worthy Poor, we’ll kick you off the island.” Patricia, who is the most affected by this move to the obscure country, makes sure to fall in love with the young man of the family with the quickness, of course.
Oh, I should note that after Patricia returns from Alabama to relate all this, the sisters have the following exchange:
“Have they a banjo?” asked Fin. “Americans always play the banjo, don’t they?”
“You don’t suppose they are niggers,” said Dympna.
“How can I tell? I haven’t seen them yet,” said Finola. “There are lots of free negroes now, going about the world, are there not, Granny?”
Dympna is the novel’s sweetheart Mary Sue, by the way. Such a nice girl, don’t you think?
Well. As all this is happening, Finola just does her thing, being an Extra Young Sister in the fashion of Margaret Dashwood, and Dympna, the middle child, tries to get her rotten poetry published in awful magazines of the day. As I mentioned, Dympna is more or less the focus of the novel; Ms. Mullholland clearly loves her best, and lavishes upon her writerly schemes, romantic nations, and “lively” personality. Dympna like… I dunno, dresses as a maid to fool some guests, ha ha, and gets to make herself a studio out of the perhaps-haunted tower where some former Lady Tyrconnell whose tragic tale I have already forgotten once also painted and wrote awful poetry. (The locals believe she still walks these moors, etc.)
The novel finally takes a turn for the slightly more interesting when it turns out that the actual Lord Tyrconnell, the Girls’ brother Hugh, has been found in America, and is coming to Banshee Castle to meet them. Some things about him are mysterious, of course. Anyways, he arrives, and is handsome and kind, and lives with them for months. He particularly enjoys Dympna’s company, not at all creepily, and spends hours with her in her tower, listening to her read her wretched poems and compose terrible stories based on the locals’ folk tales.
But when Christmastime comes, Hugh decides to put on a play, and invites over the Americans. Mansfield Park-style, it is a play that actually represents the characters’ relationships, and he plays some sort of mysterious stranger who claims to be someone he is not, for Reasons. Dympna is appalled by this element, and tells Hugh she could never forgive someone who pretended to be someone he wasn’t, for any reason, so of course that is what is actually happening. As revealed dramatically later in the novel, Hugh turns out to be not their brother at all, but their distant cousin who pretended to be their brother because of Reasons that make little sense except inside of novels like this.
He has also fallen in love with Dympna, and before leaving in disgrace, asks the 16 year old girl to be his wife:
Dympna sobbed and sobbed, and shook her head.
“What is the good of loving me when you are not my brother any longer?” she said. “Why need you have told? We could have gone on being happy. If our brother is dead, and you took our brother’s place, why need you have ever undeceived us?”
“Things could not have continued so for ever, Dympna, even if there had never been anything wrong in the deception.’
“Why; if it is true that you loved us?”
“Because I have been hoping for some time past that you would one day consent to be my wife,” said Hugh.
“Wife!” echoed Dympna with a start, and looking up with a bewildered glance in his face. “Have I not often told you that I should never marry, that I would always stick to my brother Hugh. And now I no longer have a brother.”
She declines, rather understandably creeped out, as apparently for months now he’s been hanging in her room with her, letching on her whilst pretending to be her loving brother. She and the rest of the family turn him out for being a dishonest cad, and he leaves, a defeated wretch.
So yeah, she declines, but years later—after she’s matured into a woman, barf—she decides she was harsh on him for being a creep and a liar. Hugh is rich, after all, so she marries him. A happy ending for young Dympna. And all the Girls of Banshee Castle, who deserve it, I’m sure. THE END!
Woof! So yeah, this book was incredibly idiotic. The worst part was how these girls were presented as worthy poor, helped to greatness by worthy poorer, but really they are all just loathsome creations of a mind untouched by reality. They just demand butter and folktales of working class people who live in peat huts and can’t read and whatever, and go back to their nice house and lament their poverty while taking it in stride, putting on a brave face, whatever. Never do they feel the need to work beyond painting and possibly light gardening, so others provide for them. Ughhhh.
Sorry, Laura. Your Christmas present kind of sucked.