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Hermione Lee

  • The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch by Anne Enright
    Cape, 230 pp, £12.99, September 2002, ISBN 0 224 06269 7
  • Clara by Janice Galloway
    Cape, 425 pp, £10.99, June 2002, ISBN 0 224 05049 4

Both these outstanding women novelists have decided, with deliberate and rewarding feminist intent, to resuscitate and make central the lives of women whose stories have been overshadowed by the men they spent their lives with. Both have placed so-called women’s subject-matter – domestic details, clothes, female bodies, sexuality and pleasure, pregnancy and childbirth – at the centre of their very physical narratives. Both have re-created a national culture and a history quite foreign to them, mid 19th-century Paraguay and Germany. In doing so, both have deliberately loosened their ties with their roots. Janice Galloway gets even further away from Glasgow than Rona and Cassie did in her very good novel Foreign Parts, and uses a quite different kind of prose here from her earlier work. Anne Enright moves out and away from Dublin, though Eliza Lynch’s Irishness, and her childhood in the ‘bitter town’ of Mallow, do call her home. Both take on the fiction writer’s tussle with history and biography, shaping these real lives to their own ends.

Here the resemblances end. The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch is half the length of the epic Clara, and a rich, flamboyant, mannered book, written with condensed, self-conscious stylishness, dazzling with images and sensations and violence, and daring you to resist it from its first outrageous sentence: ‘Francisco Solano López put his penis inside Eliza Lynch on a lovely spring day in Paris, in 1854.’ Clara is steady, heartfelt, massively detailed, sober, engrossing and slow. It begins with ‘containment’ and ends with the word ‘wait’. And the heroines couldn’t be more different. Eliza Lynch was a beautiful woman of dubious character, the mistress of Paraguay’s most notorious dictator. Clara Schumann was a virtuoso pianist and distinguished composer, married to a musical genius with terrible mental problems. They are both stories of female survival, but one is an adventure story with a racy, opportunist and obscure protagonist whose inner life has to be hypothesised, while the other investigates an artist’s well-documented imagination and creativity – an artist who is also identified as a daughter, a wife and a mother.

Anne Enright has much less to go on, though she is intervening, from afar, in a heated debate about Paraguayan history. At 19, Eliza Lynch became the mistress of López, travelled with him to claim his kingdom, became ‘the richest woman in the world’, had his children, spent several fortunes on their grandiose lifestyle, went with him to the battlefield, saw him die, and survived. Was she an Irish heroine who helped him create a heritage and sense of national pride for the future Paraguay, or was she a sadistic and ruthless companion – a Mrs Milosevic or a Mrs Ceaucescu – to a megalomaniac dictator, who encouraged him in his cruelties and his demands for total al-legiance? And was López a heroic defender of Paraguay, in the long war against the Triple Alliance of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, which ended with his defeat and death, or did he lead the country recklessly into catastrophe?

Enright isn’t concerned with making a political judgment, but with imagining the bizarre and extreme texture of their lives. For dour moral ballast, she has an alcoholic Scottish doctor, who travels with Eliza and López to Paraguay, is half in love with her and half-appalled, marries a Paraguayan woman and escapes back to Edinburgh from the wreck of López’s ambitions. Dr Stewart provides a moderating, rational point of view on López’s craziness and Eliza’s high style. His cynicism balances her sensuality.

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