A lot of Anne Enright’s critics opine the supposed lack of interiority in her novels. James Wood, writing on What Are You Like?, says that the characters appear as “neurasthenic clowns” and in a review of The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch, Julie Myerson writes that the protagonist, “doesn’t feel so much like a person as a collection of brilliantly dashed off observations, arch comments and frayed titbits of Celto-Latin nymphomania.”
Yes, if you are in pursuit of the Cartesian notion of a human mind, a whirring cog in a clockwork universe, don’t read Enright. Eliza Lynch is not necessarily present in The Pleasure of Eliza Lynch in the way that the title, a very sensual, individually focalised and suggestive one, might lead you to believe. I like to think that Enright might be writing against a particular strain in historical novels which could be evident in novelisations of the life of say, Marie Antoinette, adverb-heavy, YA novelism-laden.
One thing that I think a lot of historical novels which take women as their subjects leave out, probably for commercial reasons, are just how grim, to put it mildly, the past was for women. What we often have is a largely sanitised protagonist and milieu, with one eye to the BBC mini-series, who often tells us more about our contemporary concerns than those of the past. Though I can’t really speak on the exact differences between the two, being alive now, and not having read very many commercially successful historical novels.
Enright does not go in for such sentimentalising of female subjects lost in the mists of time; instead, we have frequent suggestions that none of what we are reading is real. And I don’t mean that in the old-standard postmodernist way, where the author-prosthesis footnotes a text and makes frequent references to how tiresome the endless re-hashing of discordant signifiers are, Enright’s use of this technique is far more radical. At one point the narrator states (with contextual clarifiers, admittedly) that “she cannot relax, because she is not real.” This itching at the reality of Lynch persists with: “Eliza was never alone.” (the tree falling in the forest with no one to perceive it argument) or in the following bald riposte to a narrative event, which appears in parentheses “it was not true.”
This is because in order to survive in the time in which she did, Lynch was forced to ceaselessly reinvent and outfit her self relative to the caprices of male power. A key component of this theme is Lynch’s intermittent descriptions of particular outfits, given witty names such as ‘The Bluebottle,’ (“a grey so dark it is black. Tablier of dull peacock sheen.”) ‘The Housey Housey,’ (“otter-coloured taffeta trimmed with black silk moss”) and ‘The Medea’ (“to be worn with diamonds, when I get them.”).
This awareness of how fraught her life with the Francisco Solano López, president of Paraguay is, how required she is to be always ‘on the move,’ exhausts her, at one point she becomes convinced that there has been a mutiny on the ship on which she is travelling and walks from her cabin “to see who the new masters of my fate might be.” It stands to reason that few reviewers would appreciate the ‘lack’ of Eliza’s identity. Apart from the spectacular language, it is a historical novel that reads like actual an actual history book, where the personages therein have no free will and are determined wholly by circumstance.