Alumna Update: Julie Donovan

Julie Donovan completed her graduate studies at GW, and we’ve caught up with her to see what she’s been doing and how she’s been flexing her English degrees.

Since defending my dissertation in May 2007, I have been working as a part-time lecturer at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Last semester I taught a Victorian to Modern survey, and this semester I’m teaching a class in literary analysis and a seminar in Irish literature. I’ve also completed two essays for a forthcoming collection titled Irish Women Poets, due out this year from Alexander Street Press. The essays are on Catherine Gray (Lady Manners) and Charlotte Nooth, more or less forgotten now, but notable writers in their day. I also had articles published in periodicals such as Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies, Literature Compass, and Eire-Ireland.

I’m delighted about the forthcoming book, for which the working title is Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan) and the Politics of Style. It’s a contextualized study of a relatively neglected writer who was an important part of literary, cultural, and political life in nineteenth-century Britain and Ireland. A robust nationalist and feminist, Owenson’s most famous work was The Wild Irish Girl (1806), a significant work in the development of the novel and an unacknowledged inspiration for Walter Scott’s historical novel. Scott didn’t favour Owenson’s bombastic Whiggism and the fact that she was a bit of an exhibitionist. One of the interesting things about The Wild Irish Girl is how long before Harry Potter toothbrushes etc., Owenson’s heroine, Glorvina, spawned a fashion spin-off industry as upper-class women, wanting to emulate her Celtic chic, bought Glorvina bodkins and shawls on sale in Dublin shops. Owenson cashed in on the phenomenon, “becoming” her character by signing her letters as Glorvina, and appearing at parties as Glorvina, decked out in antique Irish costume, playing the harp, and being charmingly “Irish” to oder. She was perfectly aware that she was often trapped by the success of her own performance, and deployed her wit and ironic sense of self-parody to avoid being typecast as a sort of stage-Irish figure. As you can imagine, Owenson was a brilliant subject to write about.

My dissertation analyzes Owenson through the prism of what I call her politics of style. I cover her fashionista status, which was always politically charged, together with how text and textile intertwine in her work as she linked Irish self-determination with the history of Irish independence through textile manufacture and resistance to cultural imperialism that historically imposed edicts on Irish dress. Using the theoretical model of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, I read Owenson as a rhizomatic character, branching out in almost uncontrollable lines of flight (D&G do not address national identity directly, though their example of the ultimate rhizome, a potato, has intrinsic connections to Ireland and Irish writing). I also look at style as an affective disposition and as an important component of her politics of emblematic display, which she deployed through her working of material items to reappropriate images of English imperial might and Ireland’s backwardness. Owenson transported her politics of style abroad as she wrote travelogues about France and Italy, seeking a transnational identity for Ireland as a sophisticated European and world nation rather than a measly outlying province of Britain. (One of her proudest moments was being banned from Italy because of her lambasting of the Austrian Empire.)

I benefited from an English MA and Ph.D.–well, from the sheer joy of it–if that doesn’t sound too gushing. As an ex-lawyer, I found the abstract creativity of English much more rewarding, and it certainly made me a better writer and thinker. Every seminar took me into a different world. Looking back, they all became part of my dissertation.

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