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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 Southampton, England
“She co-edited The Higher Education of Women by Emily Davies (1866) of whom she was a close friend.”
-Star of the Sea, 103
Sarah Emily Davies, the fourth of five children born to an Evangelical minister, was born in Southampton, England in 1830. As a female, she received no formal education, though her mother and older sister helped her to learn Latin. Although two of Davies’s brothers were educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and the third employed as a lawyer, Davies herself was expected to stay with her parents in Gateshead, England, where she “busied herself with parish work” (Rosen 101-102).
While abroad visiting her brother in Algiers, Davies met outspoken feminist Barbara Bodichon, who inspired Davies to form the Northumberland and Durham Branch of the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women in 1861. After her father’s death in 1862, Davies and her mother moved to London, where Davies, along with others, began to petition first the University of London, then Oxford and Cambridge, to allow women to take the university exams (Rosen 102-105).
In 1864, Cambridge University agreed to open the Local Examinations to women, although they were still barred from taking Cambridge’s degree examinations. During this time, Davies and others founded the Kensington Society, which “provided an opportunity for articulate women, barred from university education, to present considered opinions on topics of mutual interest” (Rosen 107). This group led to the founding of the Extension of the Suffrage to Women Society in 1866; Davies acted as the society’s secretary (Rosen 113-116).
1866 was an important year for Davies; in addition to her role in founding London’s first permanent society advocating for women’s suffrage, she published her first book, The Higher Education of Women, which “explores the contemporary differences between male and female education and advocates women’s entry into higher education” (“Higher Education”). The education of women quickly became her primary focus, and Davies, along with friends, opened a women’s college in 1869, which became Girton College, a school of Cambridge University, in 1873. Davies served as mistress of Girton College, which was “Britain’s first residential college for women offering an education at degree level” (“Girton’s Past”) until 1875, and continued to write and advocate on behalf of women until her death on July 13, 1921 (“Emily Davies”).
The brief reference to Emily Davies which occurs in Star of the Sea serves a few different purposes. First of all, by linking David Merridith’s sister Natasha with such an important advocate of women’s rights, we learn that Natasha, at least, is quite revolutionary in her beliefs regarding women’s rights and access to education; it also hints that the other siblings, David and Emily, may be similarly progressive, given the siblings’ close relationships. Second of all, O’Connor’s reference to Emily Davies, along with a few other historical English people involved in social movements, such as Angela Burdett-Coutts and Charles Dickens, helps to keep the novel from portraying all English as cruel and contemptuous.
"Emily Davies.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online.Encyclopædia
Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 24 Feb. 2016
"Girton's Past." Girton College. Girton College, 2016. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.
"The Higher Education of Women." Cambridge University Press. Cambridge University Press,
2016. Web. 21 Jan. 2016.
O’Connor, Joseph. Star of the Sea. Orlando: Harcourt, 2002. Print.
Rosen, Andrew. “Emily Davies and the Women's Movement, 1862-1867.”Journal of British
Studies 19.1 (1979): 101–121. JSTOR. Web. 24 February, 2016.
Researcher/Writer: Audrey Gunn
Technical Designers: Lindsey Atchison and Sarah Liebig