Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 February 2020
The accretion of Anglo-Irish identity around the symbolic locus of the ‘Big House’ is in many respects a distraction from any socio-economic reality, yet this tradition remains compelling within an Irish literary narrative. This chapter considers the deployment of the genre in relation to the work of Elizabeth Bowen, as it eventually becomes used as a motif through which to explore themes that could scarcely have been thought of when the original Ascendancy homes were built. It queries the accepted relationship between literary setting and social caste, and outlines fresh critical parameters for this recurrent idiom. Initially reviewing works such as Aidan Higgins’s Langrishe, Go Down, published in 1966, J. G. Farrell’s Troubles (1970) and John Banville’s Birchwood (1973), the first part of the chapter argues that these writers reinvigorated Big House fiction through stylish interventions in language and a thematic turn towards metafiction. It then discusses how in the 1970s, under the impact of revisionism, events in the North and the growth of feminism, Jennifer Johnston and Caroline Blackwood reinvented the Big House narrative of Anglo-Irish decline, subverting and parodying the conventions of a genre that until then had seemed stable and familiar.