Research for the Royal Irish Academy’s ongoing Dictionary of Irish Biography often uncovers significant forgotten figures, writes Patrick Maume
Geraldine Penrose Fitzgerald – novelist, suffragist and Catholic convert who corresponded with the elderly John Henry Newman – is a forgotten person. (His surviving letters to her have been published; some of hers to him survive at the Birmingham Oratory.)
The brash and witty Penrose Fitzgerald came from a landlord family based at Corkbegg House near Cobh, on the site now occupied by Whitegate Oil Refinery. Her ancestors were 18th-Century Cork city Quaker merchants who acquired landed estates by purchase and marriage, moving to the Church of Ireland.
The local gentry socialised through yachting on Cork Harbour as gentry elsewhere did through foxhunting; their elegant sea-front demesnes contrasted with the inland hill farms which became a major battleground in the Land War.
Her novels’ boisterous descriptions of gentry daughters joining local women at harvest (including brief exchanges in Irish) and the stresses of yachting and swimming are mildly reminiscent of the physicality of Somerville and Ross.
One of her brothers, an admiral, originated the World War I practice of women presenting men in civilian clothes with white feathers as a mark of cowardice. Her two other brothers (a landlord/Conservative MP and a land agent) became prominent opponents of Parnell and the Land League.
The family moved in Dublin and London society, with a London residence on Norfolk Square near Paddington.
Geraldine encountered Newman’s writings in 1865; when her copy of Apologia pro Vita Sua was confiscated she pawned her brooch to buy another. The Penrose Fitzgeralds were acquainted with Charles Kingsley, the clergyman-novelist whose description of Newman as an effeminate liar provoked the Apologia.
After dabbling in Puseyite Anglo-Catholicism, she decided while praying in the newly-built University Church on St Stephen’s Green that Catholicism was true, but hesitated to convert.
Her novels play variations on the theme of an unreflective but fundamentally virtuous young woman resisting a more or less disreputable suitor
Early in 1868, she began corresponding with Newman, and formally converted in July 1868 in London.
There were stormy scenes with family members, but they soon accepted her decision and respected her beliefs; Newman supplied her with a letter formally denying rumours, which they had repeated to her, that he was about to revert to Anglicanism.
In 1876, Newman visited Norfolk Square, exercising his magnetic charm on her mother and sister – “I never saw anything like it”, she told the Jesuit photographer Fr Francis Browne in 1938.
When Geraldine took up novel-writing under the pseudonym ‘Naseby’, Newman commented on her texts and advised her on publication and marketing.
Her first novel Ereighda Castle (1870; a sprawling tale of true lovers parted by mercenary relatives, incorporating denunciations of Fenians, Radicals, and Kingsleyite Evangelical ‘muscular Christianity’) features two characters eulogising Newman – “the one redeeming point in the present generation”. Was She Tamed? (1875), where the vain, extroverted heroine dazzles a wealthy idiot into proposing marriage then falls in love with another man, attributes the heroine’s moral regeneration to a volume of Newman’s sermons.
Her novels play variations on the theme of an unreflective but fundamentally virtuous young woman resisting a more or less disreputable suitor; perhaps reflecting personal experience.
Shortly after completing her second novel, Only Three Weeks (1872) whose repentant protagonist becomes a Carmelite friar after his ladylove is shot by a disreputable tenant, Penrose ran away to join a Carmelite convent in Dublin.
Newman disapproved of her leaving her mother abruptly, and she returned within a few months. In 1881 she briefly studied at Somerville College (arguably the first Catholic Oxford woman student), enthusiastically visiting sites associated with Newman and describing for him the ongoing secularisation of the university.
Penrose Fitzgerald responded to the Land War by undertaking a novel in 1881 in which Parnell (alias ‘Snarlwell’) and his lieutenants were to be caricatured. Newman persuaded her this was contrary to Christian charity, though she provided him with a searing description of violence and intimidation by land campaigners (including priests) in east Cork, and described Cardinal Manning as given over to communism because of his support for the Land League.
A modified version of the novel appeared in 1885 as Oaks and Birches, with an American millionaire as villain and a weak-willed Irish landlord turned man of letters as antihero.
His witty defences of lying, reflecting the evil influence of an irreligious Oxford Professor, suggest he was modelled on Oscar Wilde.
In 1885, her correspondence with Newman ceased as the cardinal’s health declined. Penrose Fitzgerald returned to the Land League in her last novel, The Silver Whistle (1890), where ‘the Harvest Bug League’ are village gangsters associated with French revolutionary conspirators seeking to corrupt Ireland by undermining her religion.
Between 1889 and 1903 Penrose Fitzgerald published several books as ‘Frances A. Gerard’, including a guide to Dublin, two essay collections on famous Irishwomen, and works on German cultural subjects.
Her fervent admiration for the composer Richard Wagner – she published a guide to Bayreuth and a life of Wagner’s patron, the eccentric castle-builder Ludwig II of Bavaria – and her delight in boisterous though bowdlerised, 18th-Century comic drama displays a different side of her character from her correspondence with Newman.
Early in 1868, she began corresponding with Newman, and formally converted in July 1868 in London”
The 1901 and 1911, censuses show her living in Cobh. Several of her novels advocate women’s suffrage (albeit of a very conservative variety) and Dr Brian S. Murphy recently discovered that in 1911 she supported the moderate Munster Womens’ Franchise League.
This brought her into contact with the future Republican TD Mary MacSwiney (a MWFL member) and other women separatists such as Geraldine Neeson. During the War of Independence, Penrose Fitzgerald sympathised with Sinn Féin, and her house in Cobh was raided by Crown forces, but her eldest brother’s death (from natural causes) in 1920, the flight to Britain of her land agent brother after he was assaulted in 1922, and the family’s abandonment of Corkbegg House led her to move to Bournemouth, where she died in 1939.
Her relationship with Newman displays his concern for the individual soul interacting with her exercises in self-discovery through the spiritual and cultural resources available to an assertive ‘surplus daughter’ of the Victorian Big House.
Dr Patrick Maume is a researcher with the Dictionary of Irish Biography, which has just published two supplementary volumes.