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Political Figures in Star of the Sea
The Role of Historical Political Figures in Star of the Sea
The historical political figures featured by Joseph O’Connor in Star of the Sea serve several roles in the novel. Functioning as a postmodern questioning of objective reality, an allusion to the continuing Irish struggle long after the events in Star of the Sea conclude, or a reminder that many English and Protestants did, in fact, fight for the rights of deeply oppressed Irish Catholics, the political figures of the novel serve diverse but important roles throughout Star of the Sea.
Although this theme is more prominent among O’Connor’s artistic figures, a postmodernist questioning of objective reality through the use of historical people also exists among the political figures. Naomi Jacobs writes in The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction that “The presence of the historical figure signifies our questioning of the artificial boundaries between truth and lie, history and fiction, reality and imagination” (xxi). Perhaps the best example of this questioning occurs with women’s education reform advocate and suffragist Emily Davies, who in the world of Star of the Sea is good friends with David Merridith’s sister Natasha; Natasha is even said to have edited Davies’s real-life work The Higher Education of Women (O’Connor 103). This mixing of the historical and the fictional aids O’Connor in the questioning of any one objective history, which is a particularly important examination to make in the context of a postcolonial novel, due to the colonizing country’s suppression of the atrocities it has committed against the colonized.
Other political historical figures are used by O’Connor to remind readers that the Irish struggle for independence continued long after the end of the potato famine. John Mitchel and James Connolly are both quoted in epigraphs decrying Irish oppression, Mitchel in 1856 and Connolly in 1916; prefacing the novel with these quotations reminds or informs readers before the novel even begins that the struggle for Irish independence and horrors committed by the English continued long after the potato famine. The third historical figure serving as a reminder of the continuing struggle, Charles Parnell, who advocated for Ireland in Parliament during the 1870s and 80s, is alluded to in the novel’s epilogue as a final reminder of the post-novel fight for independence (O’Connor 366).
Finally, O’Connor works in Star of the Sea to paint a nuanced portrayal of the English by mentioning political figures who supported the Irish cause. Angela Burdett-Coutts, for example, along with Charles Dickens, runs a safehouse for prostitutes, many of whom were poverty-stricken, starving Irish women, as we see in the novel. Additionally, we are reminded that Theobald Wolfe Tone, Irish but not Catholic, nonetheless “fought and died for Ireland as captain of the revolutionaries in ’98” (O’Connor 67).
O’Connor’s use of historical political figures in Star of the Sea clearly serves a diverse set of purposes throughout the course of the novel. However, what these diverse purposes all have in common is that they demonstrate the complexity and deftness with which O’Connor weaves his tale.
Jacobs, Naomi. The Character of Truth: Historical Figures in Contemporary Fiction. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. Print.
O’Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea. Orlando: Harcourt Books, 2002. Print.
Researcher/Writer: Audrey GunnBack to Historical Figures
Technical Designers: Lindsey Atchison and Sarah Liebig
Political Figure from 80 Piccadilly, London, England
Angela Burdett-Coutts was born in 1814 in London, the daughter of “celebrated radical MP” Sir Francis Burdett and banking heiress Sophia Coutts. After Burdett-Coutts’s grandfather died in 1822, he left his vast fortune to his second wife, Harriet Mellon, who in turn left the fortune to Burdett-Coutts, to the shock of everyone, after she died in 1837. Burdett-Coutts purchased a home in London where she lived with her former governess, and the two “staved off the many men who wanted to marry Angela for her money” (Cavendish).
“[David Merridith] appears to have made regular financial contributions to one [such body]: a society established by Dickens and his friend Angela Burdett-Coutts (of the banking family) 'to rescue betrayed and unfortunate girls'.”
-Star of the Sea, 225
Rather than marrying, Burdett-Coutts immediately began to spend her time putting her enormous fortune to good use. She worked with Charles Dickens to set up a safe house for former prostitutes, donated money to a variety of causes in London’s poverty-stricken East End, and acted as a patroness for artists, actors, and explorers. Furthermore, she was “a leading figure in the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals” and donated money to “humanitarian causes in Turkey, the Balkans and Africa” (Cavendish).
Throughout her extraordinary life, Burdett-Coutts met with a variety of important historical figures; in addition to her work with Dickens, she was visited in her home by both Queen Victoria (who named her a baroness in honor of her philanthropic work) ("Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts) and the future Queen Mary. In 1881, Burdett-Coutts, age 67, married William Ashmead Bartlett, her 29-year-old American secretary; he took her last name. She died in 1906 and was buried in Westminster Abbey “at a service attended by Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, as well as pearly kings from the East End” (Cavendish).
O’Connor’s decision to mention the safe house run by Angela Burdett-Coutts (and Charles Dickens) primarily serves the purpose of rooting the novel in its historical setting, adding realism to a story that is, at times, rather fantastic. His mention that David Merridith donated to this specific charity demonstrates David’s contradictions as a person; at the same time he visits prostitutes, David is donating to a charity that works to save them from men like himself.
"Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.
Cavendish, Richard. “Angela Burdett-Coutts Born in London.” History Today64.4 (2014).
History Today. Web. 24 February 2016.
O’Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea. Orlando: Harcourt, 2002. Print.
Researcher/Writer: Audrey Gunn
Technical Designers: Lindsey Atchison and Sarah Liebig
Back to Political Figures in Star of the Sea