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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 Tauton, England
Charles Trevelyan was born in 1807 in Taunton, England, the son of a clergyman. As a young man, he traveled to Bengal, where he worked as a writer for the East India Company, before becoming the assistant to the English commissioner in Delhi. During this time, “he made it his special work to improve the living conditions of the local population and to modernise trade” (“Charles Edward Trevelyan”). Throughout the 1830s, Trevelyan continued with his work in the colonization of India, which now focused on “providing Indians with schooling in European science and literature” (“Charles Edward Trevelyan”). He also married Hannah Moore during this time (“Charles Edward Trevelyan”).
“[The Famine] is a punishment from God for an idle, ungrateful, and rebellious country; an indolent and un-self-reliant people. The Irish are suffering from an affliction of God’s providence.
-Charles Trevelyan, Assistant Secretary to Her Majesty’s Treasury, 1847 (Knighted, 1848, for overseeing famine relief)” (qtd. in O’Connor IX)
Beginning in 1840, Trevelyan returned to England to work as assistant secretary to the Treasury, a position he would hold for the next nineteen years. One of the major duties of this job involved “administering relief during the famine in Ireland” (“Charles Edward Trevelyan”), which was an assignment he completely failed, due largely to his utter contempt for the Irish people, as the quote above demonstrates. To this day, Trevelyan represents “the British government's controversial policies of minimal intervention and attempting to encourage self-reliance,” during the famie, and he is still a “contentious figure,” to say the least, in Ireland (“Charles Edward Trevelyan”).
Later in life, Trevelyan returned to India, serving first as governor of Madras, and later as the finance minister of India. Returning to England for the last twenty years of his life, Trevelyan “was involved in various charitable enterprises and supported other important reforms regarding … the organization of the army” before his death on June 19, 1886 (“Charles Edward Trevelyan”).
Although Trevelyan does not appear as an actual character in Star of the Sea, his epigraph, one of four that front the novel, helps to set the scene. Along with Punch magazine, Trevelyan represents the attitude of the ruling English towards the Irish; his quote, which claims that the famine is a punishment from God, is particularly atrocious when one realizes that he was responsible for administering relief in Ireland during the famine, as noted above. As a further insult to the Irish people, he was knighted in 1848 “for overseeing famine relief,” as O’Connor notes in the epigraph (ix). The quote from Trevelyan serves the purpose of demonstrating the hostile contempt many elite English had for the Irish, and helps to explain why the Irish received so little aid from their colonizer during the famine.
“Charles Edward Trevelyan.” BBC History. British Broadcasting Corporation, 2014. Web. 28
O’Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea. Orlando: Harcourt, 2002. Print.
Researcher/Writer: Audrey GunnContinue to Other References to Historical Figures in Star of the Sea
Technical Designers: Lindsey Atchison and Sarah Liebig
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