"My Heart Bleeds to Tell it":
Women, Domesticity and the American Ideal
in Mary Anne Sadlier's "Romance of Irish Immigration."

Liz Szabo
University of Virginia

"America is a bad place for young girls to go to, unless they have their father, or brothers, or somebody to look after them. . . . Take my advice, Mrs. O'Hare, and keep your girls at home . . . "

"The father and mother who suffer their young daughters to come out unprotected to America in search of imaginary goods, would rather see them laid in their graves than lose sight of them, did they know the dangers which best their path in the New World. ----- Mary Anne Sadlier, 1861

     For much of the twentieth century, critics regarded the frontier novel as the quintessential nineteenth-century American art form. The individual hero, traveling alone in a journey west, defined the American experience. More recently, feminist scholars such as Nina Baym and Mary Kelley have called that paradigm into question by reintroducing into circulation the domestic fiction of popular American women novelists, who more often stressed home over frontier and community over individualism. Yet the nineteenth century was witness to a second migration west, one in which single women often outnumbered men -- the journey west across the Atlantic by the millions of European immigrants who reshaped American society, and American literature, in countless ways.

     The novels of Irish-American immigrant writer Mary Anne Madden Sadlier offer a critical counterpoint to our standard methods of interpreting women's fiction, as well as the American immigrant experience. Sadlier, who is all but forgotten today, was an editor, publisher, businesswoman and prolific writer and translator -- authoring sixty volumes of novels, short stories, plays, children's texts and translations of French romances and religious works. The few critics who study Sadlier's work value her fiction primarily for its sociological insights, and dismiss -- as did many critics of her own day -- her fiction's artistic worth, labeling it sentimental and simplistic. Sadlier's novels, while politically conservative, are in fact anything but uncomplicated or naive; far from positing what some have called the uncomplicated "happy ending" of sentimental fiction, Sadlier harshly critiques many of the aspects of American society of which its citizens are most proud, and casts a dark shadow on the promise of immigration and assimilation for Irish immigrants. As Sadlier's writings are deeply invested in the values and issues of her day and culture, this critical introduction discusses the personal and cultural context in which she wrote -- her biography, some of the most important points in the history of Ireland and Irish immigration as well the dominant literary traditions of the mid- nineteenth century, before looking in depth at two of her most popular novels, The Blakes and Flanagans: A Tale, Illustrative of Irish Life in the United States (1850) and Bessy Conway; Or, The Irish Girl in America (1861). These novels both revolve around the central concerns of Sadlier's work and life -- the dangers of immigration and the plight of Irish women -- but, perhaps because of their very different historical moments, refract and translate these issues quite differently, in both didactic and literary terms.

     In the earlier novel, Sadlier presents the impossible double bind of Irish women, who must obey the orders of their church, as well as their husbands, even when those demands are in direct conflict. Sadlier, who was herself living under these very restrictions, does not present any solutions for her fellow women; instead, she merely describes their plight, perhaps giving voice to her own frustrations in the the process. Sadlier again presents a sympathetic portrayal of Irish women in the later novel, Bessy Conway , casting an even darker vision of immigrant life. In this novel, however, the impossible double bind of Catholic life for women is personified through the character of Bessy herself. In her scrupulous obedience to church and patriarchal law, Bessy is clearly no rebel akin to Emily Bronte's Cathy Earnshaw. As a heroine, Bessy often is conspicuously silent and restrained, showing none of the verbal wit of an Elizabeth Bennett or the smoldering anger of a Jane Eyre. Yet Bessy Conway embodies the inherent contradiction of domestic life for women writers such as Sadlier, who -- like her contemporary Harriet Beecher Stowe -- preached domestic passivity while leading a very active, very public, very non-traditional life. While ostensibly the heroine of a didactic novel, Bessy as a character is actually impossible to emulate; one cannot simultaneously imitate her bold, adventurous actions and also follow her advice to stay at home with oneÕs father and brothers. In the figure of Bessy Conway, Sadlier dramatizes both the contradictions inherent in a patriarchal Irish society, as well as the contradictions in the life of so many female domestic novelists.


     Sadlier's work suggests three primary, interrelated aims in writing: nationalistic; instructive/didactic; and feminist. This last might seem an odd purpose for a writer as conservative as Sadlier and, indeed, her work's feminist message is certainly not akin to twentieth-century notions of women's liberation or even the agenda of the nineteenth-century suffrage movement. Sadlier's feminism is closer to the domestic ideology of the century's popular female sentimental novelists, and it is certainly conveyed on the margins and as a subtext.

     Sadlier tried to provide survival guides for displaced immigrants in an often hostile environment. She typically laid out her aim in her prefaces, such as that of Willie Burke: "This little work was written for the express purpose of being useful to the young sons of my native land, in their arduous struggle with the tempter, whose nefarious design of bearing them from the faith of their fathers, is so artfully concealed under every possible disguise." The "tempter," in this case, is not only the devil, but American secularism. A Catholic reviewer writing twenty years after Sadlier's death commented that Bessy Conway and The Blakes and Flanagans "offered no counsels of perfection, but suggested an acceptable via media between old and new ideas, tacitly urged the selection of the best, instead of the worst, American customs; and subtly reconciled the fine elements of American culture, and the theories of democracy and social equality with the faith and traditions of the Old World" (McGuire, 188). Sadlier also was rising to the challenge of Catholic editors such as Orestes Brownson, who in the July 1849 issue of the Quarterly called for a new kind of Catholic secular literature, one which would "amuse, interest, instruct, cultivate in accordance with truth the mind and the affections, elevate the tone of the community, and when they did not directly promote virtue, they would still be powerful to preserve and defend innocence, often a primary duty" (McGuire, 185-6). Brownson was not the first to advocate such a literature for "the great body of the laity living in the world and taking part in its affairs"; the clergy and Catholic press also had urged the same idea (McGuire, 186). Sadlier's moral tales of virtuous young people were seen as an alternative to the lurid sensation fiction popular in the mid- nineteenth century. "At that time the American market was flooded with trashy love stories, some of them immoral and many of them imbued with a virulent hostility to Catholicism. They constituted a real and serious danger to Catholic readers . . . That remedy, of course, took the form of Catholic romances" (McGuire, 186).

     Sadlier articulates explicit didactic goals in her prefaces to both The Blakes and Flanagans and Bessy Conway. The plot of the former is closer than the latter to that of the typical domestic novel or romance described by Nina Baym, with a young and vulnerable heroine out alone in the wide world, for all intents and purposes orphaned, if not actually parentless, striving to make a way for herself while protecting her virtue (Baym, 22-50). None of Sadlier's novels conform completely to Baym's model, as Sadlier was not concerned with individual heroines such as Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie or Susan Warner's Ellen Montgomery. Sadlier is concerned with classes of people -- Irish immigrants, and in particular Irish women in traditional Catholic homes. Even in a novel ostensibly about a single heroine, Sadlier does not limit herself to merely telling Bessy Conway's story; she peoples her novel with an entire village of Irish folk who immigrate together on the same boat. In Blakes and the Flanagans, Sadlier expands her scope beyond the families mentioned in the title to include an entire neighborhood. Sadlier is concerned with society in all of her novels, never with the quest of an individual self as is Augusta Evans in St. Elmo or Elizabeth Stoddard in The Morgesons. Sadlier's novels adhere to Baym's model of community orientation. Domestic novels, in her view, "were Victorian also in their perception of the self as a product, firmly and irrevocably embedded in a social construct that could destroy it but that also shaped it, constrained it, encouraged it, and ultimately fulfilled it" (Baym, 36). In a sense, Bessy Conway -- who follows "the dream of her young heart" (Bessy Conway, 7) to see America and so leave Ireland alone to emigrate to New York -- is an orphan figure. But in a larger sense, all of Ireland's immigrants are orphans, exiled from their country by fate and forever searching not for their mother, but their motherland. The entire first generation of immigrants in Sadlier's novels are all cast adrift on the shores of New York without their parents or support institutions. The only link with Ireland for these exiles is their Catholic faith. Being true to their faith is thus a way for these "orphans" to be true to their hearts and their values.

     In both novels, Sadlier negotiates Irish stereotypes as well as Irish social pathologies. The political climate at the time of publication, however, allows Sadlier to address these issues in very different ways. In The Blakes and Flanagans, Sadlier treats Irish social concerns in a backhanded way. In Bessy Conway, by contrast, Sadlier has much more freedom, and actually discusses social problems such as alcoholism, poverty and wife beating as they affect practicing Catholics, not just Protestants and fallen Catholics. The Blakes and Flanagan established a Manichean universe of Good Catholics and Fallen Catholics and Protestants. This superficially simplistic structure allows Sadlier to accomplish two major tasks. First, she is able to teach a very clear lesson about the evils of sending Catholic children to public schools. More subtly, it allows her to discuss Irish social pathologies without reinforcing dominant stereotypes by projecting the traditional evils of urban sensation fiction, as well as genuine problems of the Irish immigrant community, onto Protestants and fallen Catholics, while portraying faithful Catholics as perfect, idealized and rewarded for their piety and compliance in this world and the next. Sadlier finds the root of all Irish social problems in Protestant-dominated public schools, rather than Catholic doctrines that encourage large families and discourage married women from working, a tradition of Irish drinking, capitalist exploitation of urban workers or other sources. Poverty was indeed a real problem for Irish immigrants. Of the 45,000 people who accepted outdoor relief from the New York Association for Improving the Condition of the poor between 1854 and 1860, nearly 70 percent had been born in Ireland (Diner, 107). Sadlier's dominant text -- the propagandistic tale suggested by her male colleagues -- is thus clearly laid out. "The evils which I have faintly and imperfectly sketched in my opening chapters growing out of the iniquitous propagandism of the Common Schools, had continued to increase in magnitude with every passing year, until it was found absolutely necessary to keep Catholic children, at any cost, from being exposed to this pestiferous influence" (Blakes and the Flanagans, 249).

      By the time Sadlier wrote Bessy Conway, the environment in which Irish immigrants lived was less openly hostile, as Nativism declined as a social movement and the controversy over slavery and the Civil War displaced Americans' fears about immigration. Her moral allegory is consequently more subtle; her writing is no longer filled with lengthy defenses of the Irish character and vilification of Protestant institutions. Irish immigrants who take up drinking and dancing do end badly, but the correlation between their errors and their fate is less forced. Furthermore, the Irish are not idealized as the Flanagans were, but depicted with more realistic flaws of pettiness or jealousy. British Protestant landlords are presented as unequivocally despicable, but the novel's Protestants are not finally responsible for the problems of the immigrants in the United States, and play relatively marginal roles. Sadlier stresses the importance of individual responsibility; there is no looming Protestant institution analogous to the public school system in Bessy Conway. "Let them be assured that it rests with themselves whether they do well or ill in America -- whether they do honor to their country and their faith, or bring shame and reproach to both" (Bessy Conway, iv). If Irish men go wrong by taking to the bottle, it is no one's fault but their own. Alcoholism does far more harm to the Irish-Americans than the British landlord's son, who looms in the margins as a perpetual temptation to Bessy's virtue.

     Sadlier's explicit purpose in writing Bessy Conway, as given in her preface, is to "point out to that numerous class whose lot it is to hire themselves out for work, the true and never-failing path to success in this world and happiness in the next" (Bessy Conway, iv). In addition, Bessy Conway is an exposŽ for Irish parents about the hidden evils facing their daughters "in these great Babylons of the West" (Bessy Conway, iv). "The fathers and mothers who suffer their young daughters to come out unprotected to America in search of imaginary goods, would rather see them laid in their graves than lose sight of them, did they know the dangers which beset their path in the New World" (Bessy Conway, iv). It is in this context that Sadlier introduces her heroine, who journeys to America in the company of her employer, a married couple for whom Bessy will work as a servant. While Bessy is without her parents, she is not without defenders. Indeed, Sadlier suggests that it takes everyone on board -- Bessy's employers Capt. and Mrs. Walters, her cousin Ned Finigan, Paul the hunchback, and the Murphy family -- to guard her from the lustful attentions of Henry Herbert, the landlord's son. Bessy's virtue protects her, however, and she thrives in America. Her hand work distinguishes her from the other Irish women working in the Walters household, and she is quickly promoted. When a Protestant employer dismisses Bessy for refusing to say her prayers with the rest of the family, she finds another position with a Catholic family within the week. With the one exception of asserting her religion, Bessy's obedience to her employers knows no bounds, and she gladly volunteers to do extra work during her free time and never ventures outside the house on her nights off, except to go to church or visit her Irish friends. Bessy quickly alienates most of her fellow servants with her zealous commitment to management and her constant admonishments to work harder: "I always feel as if I was serving God when I'm serving them" (Bessy Conway, 200). She encourages her fellow servants to attend weekly mass and refuses to go out dancing at night as the other women do. When she gets a raise, she wisely invests her money in a savings bank; rather than spending her wages on fashionable dresses, she makes do with those provided by her employer and saves her salary for her parents' future use.

     If Bessy displays inhuman levels of piety and obedience, she is also rewarded with a prize few other fictional heroines ever attain. She returns home triumphantly from America, her pockets full of cash, just in time to save her family from eviction in the midst of the Great Famine, providing for her family and the rest of the village in a way her unemployed father and brothers could not. Bessy even reforms society in miniature by "making" the Conways. Her simple piety and goodness have worked its effect on the rakish landlord's son Herbert, who converts to Catholicism, marries her and provides for her family in perpetuity. The potato blight and Famine disappear from the novel the minute Bessy returns to Ireland, and her virtue transforms the village landlord from a greedy, unscrupulous cad into a benevolent Catholic provider -- remaking her small corner of Irish society according her dearest fantasy. It is interesting that Bessy's greatest wish for her is the same as that of Tess D'Urbyfield's parents -- for their daughter to marry the rakish village squire and provide for the family in style.

     The fate of the straying Irish in America is as horrific as Bessy's is celestial. Bessy's cousin Ned Finigan, once the strongest man in Ardfinnan and a descendent of local Irish heroes, succumbs to the allure of money and opens a profitable tavern with his wife, Ally Murphy, whom he married aboard shop en route to New York. Ned's desire to acquire wealthy connections leads him to befriend the vile Henry Herbert, however, who encourages him to drink. Ned soon becomes an alcoholic and a wife beater, decaying in body as well as spirit. He dies a ghastly death of delirium tremens shortly before Bessy returns to Ireland: "It took four men to hold him in the bed, and he fancying he saw all kinds of horrible shapes, and fairly out of his sense" (Bessy Conway, 283). Ned's foolish sister-in-law Mary Murphy spends all her money trying to ape American fashions, and makes a bad marriage to the old village ragman, Luky Mulligan. He deserts her and their crippled daughter, forcing Mary to go to work and leave the baby at home, as her employer does not like her to bring the child to work. The tenement house burns down, however, while Mary is out one day, and her trapped child burns with it. Mary subsequently turns to drink and dies in prison. Another haughty female domestic, Sally, is fired from the best job she ever had for her pride, also makes a bad marriage to an unemployed drunkard who forces Sally and their child to beg from door to door for their money, which he waits in the shadows to steal in order to buy liquor. Sally's husband also beats her, and one night she collapses from exhaustion and abuse, never to rise again. Her child is adopted by a Protestant relief agency that turns him against his Catholic religion. In the end, Bessy and Paul the hunchback -- who saves enough money as a cobbler to open his own leather shop, and spends his free time preaching the Gospel to homeless newsboys -- are the only two to survive their immigrant experience in tact, leading Bessy to repudiate America and advises her neighbors to "keep your girls at home" (Bessy Conway, 296). Sadlier herself admits in her preface that "some may say that I have drawn too gloomy a picture" in her moralistic tale, but answers this challenge with, "Such persons know little about it. The reality exceeds my powers of description" (Bessy Conway, iv).

     Sadlier shares many of the didactic concerns on popular domestic novelists. For Sadlier, the home is the source of moral direction and protection, and the world outside it is corrupt and dangerous. The faithful Sheridan family cannot even walk home from the Flanagan household without being accosted by street thugs and passing by gin shops, taverns and brothels, "places wherein are perpetrated those 'deeds unholy' -- that might night hideous to contemplate" (Blakes and Flanagans, 177). Bessy faces the danger of sexual assault by one of Henry Herbert's drinking pals when she ventures out to visit Ned and Ally at their tavern (Bessy Conway , 89). The American work world is cold and industrial, and the iron workers that sit at Ned's bar are covered with grime and filth (Bessy Conway, 90). America becomes humanized only when domesticity is carried out of women's sphere into the outside world. The Flanagan men can enjoy their work because they operate a family business, one in which the home's nurturing qualities humanize American capitalism. "All three worked into each other's hands, and so nothing was paid to strangers" (Blakes and Flanagans). As Baym writes, "the domestic ideal meant not that woman was to be sequestered from the world in her place at home but that everybody was to be placed in the home, and hence home and the world would become one. Then, to the extent that woman dominated the home, the ideology implied an unprecedented historical expansion of her influence, and a tremendous advance over her lot in a world dominated by money and market considerations" (Baym, 27). The Blakes end their lives in despair because they had been "more anxious for making money than anything else (Blakes and Flanagans, 111)"; they had lost sight of the "Catholic" values of the home and hearth.

     While immigrant women shared many of the values of the American cult of domesticity, their religion prevented them from embracing it wholeheartedly. Sadlier and other Catholic journalists thus created a Catholic version of the Victorian ideal (McDannell, The Christian Home, 54-56). Catholics like Sadlier rejected materialism as much as Protestant writers, but rejected it because they associated it with Protestants and the American economic power structure. Miles Blake personifies this corrupt, soulless Protestant ethic. He forsakes his friends and family in the Irish community to foster business connections with Protestants who dismiss his son's truancy and disobedience (Blakes and Flanagans, 66). Sadlier points out that the Flanagans' family-run leather dressing business provides for them quite comfortably, and that their children are dressed in clothing just as fine, if not as showy, as the Blakes. Their wealth gives them comfort, but not snobbish airs and false values; they are securely middle class, but not nouveau riche like the social climbing Henry Blakes, who honeymoon at Saratoga. Sadlier's condemnation of materialism is always linked to Protestant institutions, including the Protestant-dominated United States. Ireland is "the old Christian land, where virtue and religion are the basis of society" (Bessy Conway, iv); it is only in the American city that honest country folks go bad. Sadlier thus combines the traditional sentimental critique of materialism with an attack on American society.

     Sadlier's novel also resembles the urban sensation fiction in many ways, yet again asserts one key difference. The "simple-hearted peasant girls" of Ireland who emigrate to New York are in the same position as the American country girls and boys who venture to the city in Maria Cummings's The Lamplighter (1854). In Sedgwick's The Poor Rich Man and the Rich Poor Man (1836), the immoral urbanites sprinkle their conversation with foreign phrases, suggesting that their link with the Old World has corrupted them. "The city, then, emerges as a place of artificiality, materialism, social injustice and other shortcomings including a tinge of un- Americanism" (Stout, 28-29). Sadlier reverses the equation, associating the ills of the city with America as a whole, as the United States even in the nineteenth century was more urban than most of Ireland.

     As in Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World, religion and piety obviously play major roles in women's lives. Yet unlike Protestant narratives such as Catharine Sedgwick's Hope Leslie or Harriet Beecher Stowe's Oldtown Folks, in which "functioning religious values are always subsumed by the domestic ideology," religion always supersedes all other loyalties and ties in Sadlier. Bessy Conway is as dedicated and loving a servant as any New York housewife could wish, but her loyalty to her Protestant employer stops when she orders Bessy to recite Methodist prayer with the family. Mrs. Blake earns her sad fate when she choose to side with her daughter over her priest, who refuses to bless Eliza's marriage to a Protestant.

     Bessy Conway appears to follow the traditional plot of a domestic novel -- the heroine makes her way in the world alone, but marries in the end. Yet Sadlier's novels are far from an uncritical endorsement of marriage. In fact, all of the young women who marry become miserable. Ally Murphy marries her shipboard sweetheart before landing in New York, but suffers the cruel fate of an abused wife when Ned Finigan begins to drink. Sally and Mary Murphy's husbands also become abusive, unemployed alcoholics. Many of Sadlier's characters never marry at all -- her Sister Mary Teresa the nun is a model of feminine virtue, and both the Flanagans and Sheridans have sons who become priests. Bessy herself marries fairly late, at about age 25, but we see nothing of her married life. If marriage proves fortuitous for Bessy, then she is the exception, rather than the rule. In this way Sadlier's novels reflect Irish-American cultural values, which de-emphasized romance. Most immigrants married late, if at all. Women could earn good wages and live very independent lives while single, but were expected to stay home after marriage. In Irish-Catholic culture, large families usually came shortly after marriage, so late marriage was the most effective means of birth control. A high percentage of post-Famine Irish remained celibate or married in their late twenties or early thirties (Diner, 58-59). Sadlier's sober, if not pessimistic, presentation of marriage is thus consistent with her culture, and quite different from the alleged "happy ending" many critics mistakenly ascribe to sentimental fiction.

     In addition to marriage and romance, Sadlier -- like other domestic writers -- critiques many of the social institutions taken for granted in American patriarchal culture. In The Blakes and the Flanagans, Sadlier attacks not just the public school system, but the social ills of urbanization and industrialization. John Dillon falls sick, and is immediately thrown in grinding poverty and the squalor of a tenement house. In Bessy Conway, most of the Irish also live in tenements, and Mary Murphy's daughter dies when her rickety old tenement burns down, in a fictionalization of an all- too-common actual event in the nineteenth century. Significantly, Mary's daughter is a cripple, as are a striking number of the inhabitants of the Irish slums and Ardfinnan cottages consumed by hunger, sickness and filth. The iron workers with "begrimed faces" who drink themselves into a stupor at Ned's bar recall the degrading, dangerously unhealthy labor many immigrants were forced to take (Bessy Conway, 91). Crime is everywhere: Mrs. Dillon falls down in shock when her grown daughter snubs her on the street, then considers herself lucky that no one stole the dirty laundry she was carrying while she was in a daze. Neither Bessy Conway nor Annie Sheridan can walk down the street at night without facing sexual predators. Henry Herbert is nearly stabbed to death before being rescued by two unlikely rescuers -- Paul, a dwarf, and Mike Milligan, the newsboy. The fact that two such physically unassuming people had to save Herbert suggests no one more able bodied was willing to volunteer. After being mugged on the street, Molly the apple vendor denounces American prosperity and liberty: "If that's what they call American freedom, I'd rather take the slavery we had at home. I'd be many a day an' year selling apples in ould Ireland before anybody 'id use me that way. Och! och! But it's the quare country all out; where fellows like them can ride roughshod over quiet, decent people that's mindin' their business and nothing else!" (Blakes and Flanagans, 263).

     American politics also are corrupt, with slick politicians exploiting their ethnic heritage to win the votes of masses for whom the have nothing but contempt. Henry Blake, who has been trained for politics by his American-born associates, rises to power because "he had a ready flow of words that passed for eloquence, and his voice often made the walls and floors of Old Tammany quiver" (Blakes and Flanagans, 243-4). Henry reflects that he has "made well of my Irish blood. It has brought me safe through many a hard-fought field, thanks to the gullibility of our worthy Irish citizens. They are always ready to swallow the bait" (Blakes and Flanagans, 365). Even men of God are biased against immigrants, demonstrated when a minister reprimands a Catholic at the dinner table for refusing to eat meat. "We need not wonder at the low and the vulgar doing these things when we see such men as you giving them an example" (Blakes and Flanagans, 302). Protestants, who also control most employment, commonly discriminate and abuse their working- class Catholic workers. Bessy's Protestant mistress disregards all her past service when Bessy refuses to convert to Methodism. The police are nowhere to be seen during any of the street crimes Sadlier portrays -- if people are rescued, it is by their watchful friends and relatives, not the police. The police show up only when they need to retrieve Hugh Dillon's body for an inquest after his murder, preventing his devastated mother from taking the corpse home. Again and again, Sadlier indicts the injustice and prejudice of an American power structure stacked against the immigrants.

     Sadlier's social critique of Americans and Protestants is direct and unalloyed. Her exploration of the difficult double bind of Catholic women in traditional Irish households, however, is more subtle. Although Sadlier establishes a Catholic model of true womanhood, she also demonstrates how difficult, if not impossible, that model is to uphold. Sadlier foregrounds this issue of divided duties in the very first chapter of The Blakes and Flanagans when she introduces the characters of Mary Blake and Nelly Flanagan. Catholic tradition expected women to be at once submissive to their husbands; yet they also were supposed to influence them in matters of morality and insure the piety and virtue of the family. The Irish World was typically conservative on woman's duty: "In all the vicissitudes of fortune an Irish man clings to his wife and the wife clings to her husband, and is the joy of his life and the light of his day. If he turns out bad and comes home drunk, she says, 'I've made a bad bargain and must make the best of it'" (Diner, 43). According to Cardinal Gibbons, women were "angels of expiation" who by their "prayers and mortifications" atoned for the sins of "fathers, husbands, sons and brothers" (McDannell, 140).

     To Sadlier, the true Catholic woman was more acutely sensitive to religion than her husband, and was therefore expected to lead the family in its religious duty. It is significant that it is Mary Blake, not her husband, who foresees the dangers of public schools. Likewise, Eliza Blake attempts to teach Henry about obedience, but is rebuked with, "Keep your advice till you're asked for it, Miss Prim" (Blakes and Flanagans, 97). In Bessy Conway, it is Ned who is ruined by alcohol, while his wife tries to mend his ways. Catholic women perserver because they are rewarded with their children's loyalty and devotion when they succeed in inculcating the correct values. Long after his mother's death, Willie Burke remembers her spiritual guidance and their visits to daily mass together.

     Irish-Catholic women owe two allegiances in life: to God and to their husband. The woman lucky enough to marry a virtuous husband has little trouble obeying both patriarchs. Nelly Flanagan and her husband both have the same ambition -- to bring up their children in the faith. For Nelly, there is no conflict. On the other hand, the first conversation Mary Blake has with her husband is a dispute over the education of their children. She argues that Nelly Flanagan worries less about her children because they go to a Catholic school, but eventually agrees to be ruled by her husband. "'Well, well, Miles, you know best,' was the submissive answer'" (Blakes and Flanagans, 17). In this area, Tim Flanagan notes, Mary is obliged to assert herself: "I know she's at bottom, as much against sending the children to the Ward School as you or , but she hasn't the pluck in her to say so. She's so submissive, and so willing to leave it all in Miles's hands, just as if she hadn't as good a right to the children as he has!" (Blakes and Flanagans, 21). Nelly Flanagan also recognizes the Mary Blake is failing in her duty: "'God direct you for the best! I wish I could assist you, but you see I can't. Pray to God and the Blessed Virgin to keep you out of harm's way. . . . Poor Mary! its the hard fate that he's preparing for you with his wild notions; he's breaking the staff that would support you in your old age and his!" (Blakes and Flanagans, 53). When Mary Blake does speak out against her husband, he becomes infuriated. Mary's friends pity her while she resists her foolish husband, recognizing that she is in an impossible position, but have lost all respect for Miles, who is regarded as a sell-out by his former friends. Mary Blake only loses the respect of her friends when she stops trying to change Miles's mind and begins to enjoy her new-found wealth. It is when she ceases to struggle and submits to her husband's judgment that her friends realized she is lost. Later, Mary pays for her submission, when her grandson dies unbaptized -- she knows she should have baptized him privately even without the consent of his parents. When her daughter Eliza dies in childbirth after repenting too late to send for a priest to administer the last rights, Mary again blames herself; and rightly so, Sadlier implies. "Mrs. Blake never over the effect of that shock. She died of a broken heart a few months after her daughter, leaving Miles lonelier and sadder than ever" (Blakes and Flanagans, 384).

     Sadlier's fiction is filled with suffering women, usually wives and mothers. In The Blakes and Flanagans, written during the height of Nativist tensions, Sadlier refuses to reinscribe anti-Irish stereotypes and thus discusses Irish social pathologies only in the context of fallen Catholics. It is the delinquent Hugh Dillon, not Tim Flanagan, who terrorizes shopkeepers and street vendors all over town while on a drunken spree, then is shot to death in a brawl with German immigrants in another Lower East Side neighborhood. Sadlier indicates that discussing inter-ethnic tensions and violence is acceptable only when dealing with the deviant Irish; practicing Catholics have no contact with such a world.

     As always, it is the women who suffer most and pay for their men folk's crimes. For Mrs. Dillon, as for the women in Bessy Conway -- Ally Finigan, Mary Murphy and Sally -- the majority of their sufferings stem from alcohol. Sadlier downplays Dillon's drunkenness in The Blakes and Flanagans to avoid vilifying her community, but fully and harshly castigates Irish men who spend a family's grocery money on liquor in Bessy Conway. Sally's marriage to Jim is depicted as a portrait from hell. Sally tries to assert herself when her reprobate husband Jim tries to steal the bread and cold meat she has begged for herself and their child, but he answers by "applying his foot and gave her a kick which almost threw her to the ground, then, before she recovered her balance, followed it up with a kick that would certainly have left its mark had it reached its destination. But the uplifted arm was caught by an M.P. passing at the moment, and the valorous Jim was hauled away to the lodging provided by the State for such contumacious lieges. The elder child renewed its cries on seeing its father so roughly handled, but Sally, absorbed in her own misery, paid little attention to one or the other. Jim's brutal assault coming at such a moment, completely paralyzed her" (Bessy Conway, 228). In such scenes Sadlier discusses the double- layered oppression of the Irish community -- disempowered men who reinscribe the brutality they face in a hostile environment on the bodies of their wives and children -- but shows no sympathy for the men.

     Sadlier, arch Catholic that she was, in this way graphically illustrates how Irish-Catholic tradition gives women an untenable position. The only avenue for agency an Irish wife can have is to exert her moral influence on the men and children around her. When she is successful, like Nelly Flanagan, her children grow up to serve the community and make their parents proud. But when mothers fail, all of society collapses: men like Ned drink themselves to death; husbands like Jim land in jail; Sally's children are left orphaned; Mary Murphy's daughter is born crippled and dies in a tenement fire; Mrs. Dillon's son becomes a criminal who wreaks havoc and mayhem wherever he goes, stealing, vandalizing, instigating fights, terrorizing passersby, endangering the purity of young women on the street; Henry Blake's unbaptized infant son is condemned to limbo, forever shut out from God's grace; Eliza dies without benefit of a priest, her children brought up to despise their Irish relations; children lose respect for their parents, tradition and authority; the family breaks down or is thrown into poverty; women are forced to endure backbreaking labor or to beg on the street; the Irish community loses its national heritage that gives it group unity and makes life meaningful; materialism becomes rampant. An Irish woman may "only" have influence over the household, but in doing so she influences the entire world. Sadlier's obituary described the writer in the same terms: "So long as she was assured that her books were being productive of good among the people for whom they were principally written, and as long as she knew that the purposes she had in view in writing them were being attained through their influence, she cared very little for the accidents of literary fame or reputation" (Kelly, 1). Sadlier here shared Baym's portrayal of women's power in the cult of true womanhood: "Women could change others by changing themselves and the phrase 'woman's sphere is in the home' could appear to mean 'woman's sphere is to reform the world" (Baym, 49).

     When Sadlier's women have little agency, they rely on female community. Bessy Conway is almost mythic in stature at times -- racing above deck during a hurricane to rescue Henry Herbert, saving her family from ruin. As an isolated woman, Bessy has tremendous power, which she later rejects by repudiating America and returning forever to Ireland. Yet Bessy, for all her power, has no female community or support network. Her preachy piety alienates most of the other domestics, and she has no close women friends. In The Blakes and Flanagan, women demonstrate a loyalty and kindness for each other that must compensate for the cruelty inflicted by male relations and the outside world. Nelly Flanagan ministers to the impoverished Dillons when Mr. Dillon falls ill, bringing a fresh chicken for soup and tending to their needs. After Hugh Dillon is shot, Molly the apple vendor -- whom Hugh had recently assaulted and robbed -- agrees to bear his body home, out of loyalty to "the poor sorrowful mother, that was always a dacent, God-fearing woman" (Blakes and Flanagans, 266). Sadlier creates the most moving scene in the novel when she describes the scene at Molly's flat, where the Irish women gather to wash the body and wait for Mrs. Dillon to arrive:

     "The women sat around the stove, talking over the dreadful occurrence which had brought them together. Ever and anon they wouldcast a fearful glance towards the pallet whereon lay the dead body, carefully covered up. One gave it her opinion, that they should go to work at once and wash the body, so as to get it over, but the others dissented, on the ground that it took three hours or so 'to cool the corpse' . . . The door was slowly opened, very slowly, and Mrs. Dillon appeared, leaning on Molly's arm. Not a tear was in her eye, but her face was ashy pale, and the only visible symptom of unusual emotion was a sort of asthmatic breathing, or rather gasping. It was quite plain hat she could hardly support herself, and still, Molly kept encouraging her with, "Come, now, dear Mrs. Dillon, dear! . . . we're at the end of our journey now! Sit down dear and an' draw your breath a moment!" Mrs. Dillon mechanically obeyed; her eye was fixed on the spot where the outlines of the dead body were but too plainly discernible under the clothes thrown over there to hide it. A convulsive sudden crept over her; her lips trembled and grew white as a cheeks. She leaned back against the wall . . . No, no, she was strong enough -- as strong as ever she expected to be in this world. She wanted to see her son -- her son -- why shouldn't she see him? . . . With a trembling hand, Mrs. Dillon removed the covering from off the body, and there she stood face to face with the dead -- with all that remained of her wretched son. There he lay weltering in his blood, his eyes wide open, and the dark scowl of hatred and revenge still lowering on his brow. The women covered their eyes in horror, but the poor mother stood her ground. Gradually she sunk to a kneeling posture, and her head fell heavily on her bosom. After a pause of awful silence, she was heard to whisper, "He was good once, an' sure we all loved him." . . . Molly's answer, whatever it might have been, was cut short, or rather prevented, by the sound of heavy feet on the stairway outside. "It's Jerry Dempsey with the cart," observed one of the women. But it was not. It was two Constables, sent to keep the body in status quo till the Coroner could find it convenient to hold the inquest. . . . The women were all awed in silence by the dread presence of death, and by such horrifying death. The policemen smoked, and chatted, and even laughed, as though nothing strange had happened. . . . They began at one time to discuss certain notorious passages in the life of the deceased, which had brought him under the public eye in anything but a favorable light. Molly hastily interposed, and begged them for God's sake to spare the poor heart-broken mother. The men laughed.
--- Blakes and Flanagans, 271-6

     In this long passage, Sadlier describes the world of grief as specifically female. The men who arrive, whether Jerry Dempsey or the gruff, insensitive policemen, are clearly intruders into this world of suffering and mourning. Support belongs to the women, as does the pain. Women in Sadlier's immigrant fictions consistently shoulder the burden of suffering, shown here in its most graphic form.

     Sadlier's novels of immigration, while dismissed by the few critics who read her works as sentimental, are clearly anything but light or delicate. They literally look death in the face, depicting the cruelty and pain of immigrant life. Edward James observed that "running through her stories is a strain of irascibility and violence," noting the satisfaction Sadlier takes when the Sheridan men administer a beating to Hugh Dillon and his companions (James, 220). The novel is indeed filled with violence from the first chapter, when Henry Blake defends his faith at public school through daily fights with the native-born boys. Sadlier allegedly wrote her novels as advice books for young Irish; yet the message running through all of her works is that "America is a bad place for young girls" or any other immigrant. Historians Kerby Miller and Paul Wagner have noted the ironic homesickness characteristic of most Irish "exiles," yet Sadlier's fiction are more than homesick. They express a profound pessimism about the future and skepticism about the promise of America. Half the Irish in The Blakes and Flanagans die spiritual or physical death. Bessy and Paul Branigan are the only two Ardfinnan townsfolk to escape harm in Bessy Conway and in the end Bessy advises mothers to keep their daughters at home, in spite of the way she rescued her family, agreeing with Sadlier's preface that parents would rather see their daughters dead than debauched in America. The main character in Sadlier's Confessions of an Apostate (1864) returns to Ireland ruing the day he ever left home. Elinor Preston dies alone in a remote Canadian village, her youth wasted away, pining for a return to Ireland she will never make. Sadlier never returned to Ireland, and led a successful life in the New World -- the deaths of her husband, sons and McGee, and the ruin of the publishing company, had not yet taken place when she wrote any of these novels. While nostalgic for home, she is clearly aware of the poverty, hunger, disease and oppression of nineteenth-century Ireland. In the end, we can only read her fiction as a scathing indictment of American society.

     In conclusion, it easy to see that Mary Anne Madden Sadlier's fiction, for all its superficial simplicity, is in actuality vastly complex -- both structurally and psychologically. Her characters lack the psychological depth of realists like George Eliot or Henry James; indeed, her characters are types rather than individuals. Even her female characters are merely variations on the theme of the suffering woman. Her focus is consistently socially oriented -- interested not in the consciousness of any one person, but in the journey of a society. Sadlier's writing lacks much of what critics generally use to evaluate canonical literature. Yet her writing and her work contain the elements to which canonical writers would later return: Sadlier was writing "national poetry" about Irish history and mythology and painting dryly humorous scenes of Irish peasant life decades before Yeats wrote The Wanderings of Oisin or The Celtic Twilight. Although Sadlier ostensibly wrote moral allegories on command, her fiction in fact reveals buried layers and subtexts in which she pursues her own agenda. Beneath every tale of immigrant hardship is the eternal story of the suffering woman; no matter what trial this orphan or that daughter is undergoing at the hands of an insensitive American society, Catholic women are shouldering the burden of work, pain and heartache, forever praying and debating how to maneuver through the impossible double bind of Irish Catholic womanhood. 


Sadlier Home Page 

Sadlier Biography 

Another AS Hypertext