Emily Lawless (1845-1913) was born at Lyons Castle, co. Kildare, Ireland, the fourth child of the third Baron Cloncurry and his wife, a famous society beauty and sportswoman. Her grandfather, Valentine Browne Lawless, had been an Irish patriot and was imprisoned for protesting against the Act of Union. Although Emily inherited his interest in Irish history and politics, she was never a supporter of Home Rule, a position viewed by some as insufficiently patriotic.
Her autobiographical collection Traits and Confidences (1897) suggests that Lawless enjoyed an idyllic and privileged childhood on the family’s large country estate, but this came to an end with her father’s suicide (two of her sisters committed suicide, also). Thereafter, Lawless divided her time between England, Dublin and Galway.
Lawless’s first two novels failed to make any impact, but she found recognition with Hurrish (1886), a story of the land leaguers, Irish farmers who resisted eviction and fought to control their own land. Her subsequent fiction also engaged with aspect of Irish history, such as colonial invasions and the potato famine.
One of her greatest successes was Grania: the Story of an Island (1892), a novel about peasant life in the Aran Islands during the mid-nineteenth century. In this story, Lawless pays particular attention to the island’s geology and its flora and fauna, and she went on to publish non-fiction on those subjects.
Lawless’s fiction attracted many and diverse admirers, including William Gladstone, Margaret Oliphant and Algernon Swinburne. Her achievements were also recognised in 1905 by an honorary degree from the University of Dublin.
Ultimately disillusioned with Irish politics, Lawless moved to the English county of Surrey, pursuing there her twin loves of literature and nature. Her final years were marred by poor physical and mental health, and she died at home in 1913.
Victorian Secrets will publish Grania in Autumn 2012.