Words To Shape My Name spotlights one of Irish history's lesser known figures in a tale of resilience, loyalty and freedom, writes Béibhinn Breathnach of Laura McKenna's debut novel - read an extract here.
Laura McKenna’s tale weaves together the story of Tony Small, servant to Irish revolutionary Lord Edward Fitzgerald, and his daughter, Harriet Small. On the anniversary of her father’s death, Harriet is met at his graveside by the executor of the will of Lady Lucy Fitzgerald, who is sister to Lord Edward.
She is notified of her most unusual inheritance, her father’s papers. Through his narrative, the reader and Harriet learn of Tony Small’s lives as an enslaved man, a dedicated servant, and a loving father.
This framing device of the novel allows for an engaging exploration into the nature of memory and truth in the creation of narratives. Words To Shape My Name is not simply a work of historical fiction, it is also a novel about how history is written.
The papers gifted to Harriet are predominantly the words of Tony as directed by the Fitzgerald family, eager to recuperate the traitorous reputation of Lord Edward as a result of his involvement with the United Irishmen. Tony is exploited as a sympathetic figure by the wealthier family to serve their own means. He is denied his truth, in favour of presenting Lord Edward as a man misled by revolutionary ideals but charitable in liberating Tony from slavery.
There are four voices in the text: the main narration of Harriet, the 'official' story of Tony’s life, the true voice of the man himself, and the contributions of the editor, Lady Lucy. This official narrative is indicative of power dynamics in telling history, given that Tony is effectively commissioned to tell a story which is complementary to the family’s desires.
Lady Lucy’s footnotes on Tony’s passages reveal the extent to which she is the one truly in control of his story. She discusses how certain ideas will not be palatable to the 'audience’ and admonishes Tony for political comments - ‘do not dwell on bloody history’.
Lady Lucy effectively acts as the censor of Tony’s truth, consistently favouring omission and selectivity in the santisised history presented of her brother and his most loyal servant. However, the irony cannot be ignored when it is considered that Laura McKenna is also a white woman shaping the legacy and words of this black man.
This fact perhaps reiterates the power dynamics in telling history in any form, and compounds the ever-increasing need to diversify the voices within Irish literature.
Disparity between the "official" narrative and the reality lived by Tony is emphasised by the inclusion of the man’s genuine experience. In these passages, Tony’s true feelings and opinions are expressed free from the editorial comments of Lady Lucy. The recovery of his voice plays a significant role in highlighting the unstable nature of history, reminding the reader that there is often more than one way to tell a story.
Research and historical awareness shine through the pages of McKenna’s novel, with attention to detail not simply limited to the history of the main figures nor to the location depictions.
McKenna is clearly cognisant of the complexities of Ireland’s relationship with the British Empire and the wider world during this time period, citing the work of historian Nini Rodgers in her sources. Her meticulous research is commendable and it enriches the reader’s experience considerably. For those not yet satiated by Tony’s story when they reach the concluding pages, McKenna helpfully includes a summary of further works on the topic.
Words To Shape My Name emulates slave narratives which were particularly popular during the abolitionist movement. McKenna’s conscious crafting of the novel in this way is hinted in Lady Lucy’s footnotes as she references the style of the abolitionist Olaudah Equiano which she wishes Tony would imitate to meet public expectations of slave narratives.
By allowing Tony’s voice to reveal the reality of his story, McKenna affords the character agency to circumvent this clichéd and inauthentic framework.
The novel additionally appears to draw inspiration from another popular form of writing: the travelogue. The scope of the narrative is incredibly broad and ambitious, following Tony from his first meeting with Lord Edward to his death and beyond, with Harriet’s own story.
Lord Edward’s appetite for adventure leads the plot through a range of exotic locations and those closer to home. The characters do not settle in one place for long, resulting in a segment of the narrative being dominated by fleeting and forgettable faces.
In a similar vein to some travelogues, the story has moments of aimlessness, remedied by the later chapters, which are more focused in detailing Lord Edward’s revolutionary activities.
This slow start further risks alienating the reader with both the hostile narrator of Harriet and the overly- reserved voice of her father. Harriet’s difficult life makes her an unwilling narrator, reluctant to divulge her emotions and thoughts, which in turn inhibits the reader from forming a sympathetic bond with the character.
Similarly, Tony’s early reluctance to confront his past as an enslaved man or to challenge his passivity, until an abrupt epiphany later in the narrative, further deprives the reader of an emotional connection. The novel improves as Tony begins to find his own voice and confidence in his own identity as his freedom is consolidated.
While the privacy of the character must be respected, particularly in relation to the processing of his traumatic past, this sluggish development leaves the character feeling distant and risks leaving the reader indifferent. Persistence will be key for the reader of this novel.
Readers expecting the romantic revolutionary ideal of Lord Edward will be surprised by McKenna’s characterisation of the United Irishman. Lord Edward is presented as a spoilt figure, naive to hardship by virtue of his birth.
In choosing to present the man in this way, McKenna subverts the hero worship of Irish nationalist hagiography and promotes the previously muted voice of his servant to disrupt the established narrative. To an extent, this characterisation of Lord Edward makes his bond with Tony Small more enigmatic, and the reader may ask just why the latter man would consider the privileged Lord Edward to be as a brother?
Words To Shape My Name serves as a challenge to reconsider the voices which tell our history whilst giving voice to a lesser-known figure of Ireland’s rich past. A recommended read for the curious historical fiction buff.