The Eugenics Theme in J.G. Farrell’s ‘Troubles’
I’m usually loathe to read an Irish novel exclusively as a national allegory, having been drilled during my degree to avoid such lazy readings, but occasionally a novel will come along that absolutely begs a particular reading, along otherwise retrograde lines. J.G. Farrell’s novel Troubles is one such text. First, its deceptively simple title refuses to make the distinction between the troubles that are then beginning to take root across Ireland during the war of independence, and the more interior troubles of one Major Brendan Archer, a veteran of the first world war, journeying to and taking up residence in Killnalough, County Wexford.
It is there that he meets his fiancée, Angela, her father Edward, and a number of other old-aristocracy Protestant eccentrics, marooned in a disused hotel at a time when history, modernity and political upheaval looks to be deposing them into irrelevance. The house begins to crumble at its foundations, trees grow in under the floorboards, the young and old all seem to be afflicted with either cognitive or physical ailments, and worst of all, a statue of Queen Victoria is detonated by a local Shinner’s IED.
As we can see, the way is clear to see Troubles as a allegorical look at the fallen state of the Protestant, Anglo-Irish upper middle class. To accentuate this, Farrell intersperses the narrative with a number of newspaper reports and parliamentary exchanges, inviting us to see Archer’s attempts to maintain the Majestic hotel, the building and its inhabitants both in a state of disrepair in conjunction with the turmoil engulfing both Europe and Ireland, then under assault from the Black and Tans.
The effect of being faced with an existential threat posed to those of a certain class is one of the crucial facets of the novel, and that is the effect that it seems to have on the libidinal impulses of the men. It is clear from the outset that the Majestic is a synecdoche of a kind of a failed state, even only from a demographic point of view; most of the men and women are aged and beset by physical and mental ailments; with Angela’s death and Archer’s passivity, emotional isolation (a subtle by-product of his post-traumatic stress disorder) , it is fairly obvious that the Majestic will be, from the perspective of its population, non-viable fairly soon. This is highlighted in a scene in which Edward and Archer stage a social at the house, attempting to bring the Majestic back to its glory days. Archer takes a long, considered look at his guest’s appearances:
“This was the fact of Anglo-Ireland, the inbred Protestant aristocracy, the face, progressively refining itself into a separate, luxurious species, which had ruled Ireland for almost five hundred years: the wispy fair hair, the eyes too close together, the long nose and protruding teeth…”
Yet this does not prevent the fact that the primary dramatic conflict in the text is between Edward and Archer, essentially sparring one another for control over, and sexual access to, Sarah Devlin, a local Catholic girl.
This lack of viable options for the men, leads to a perpetuation of the sort of incestuous, (and, indeed, paedophilic, at times) practices alluded to in the above quotation. Angela has two younger sisters, the twins, Faith and Charity, who are nearing adolescence. At one stage in the novel, they recover some records, and convince Archer to dance with them, keen to practice their waltzes and suchlike. Finding himself unable, he decides to watch them, along with Mr Norton, who appears in the novel as a kind of comic-relief pervert, which might have been funny in the seventies, when the novel was published, but now reads as yuck:
“(the Major changed the needle and wound up the gramophone as quickly as he could, so that they would not stop this enjoyable display) they gradually became flushed and flirtatious. Their eyes sparkled. They flashed lingering smiles at the Major as they danced round. They licked their lips with delightful pink tongues”
etc. etc. etc, for about a page.
Mr. Norton’s attraction to, and flirtations with, the children are written off as the caprice of an older man trying to hold onto his youth, but it is not this, nor the fundamental weirdness of someone fancying the underage that slights the esteem in which Archer holds Norton. Rather, it is Norton’s mistaken belief that he, rather than Archer, who is the target of the girls’ affection. He allows the dance to proceed, confident in the knowledge that it is the girls who fancy him.
This is a synecdoche of the wider plot, wherein Archer believes himself to be a sure match for Sarah Devlin, only to find that she has been having an affair with Edward. Nothing lasting comes of the relationship, but the age-gap, in both contexts, twenty to thirty years at least, reveals the desperation at the heart of this segment of Irish society, and its bleak prospects for assuming the role of ‘the ruling class’ over the course of the next century.
The creepy habits of those in charge, of course, mostly remain intact going forward.