Lawless, Emily (1845–1913), novelist, historian, and poet, was born at Lyons House, near Hazelhatch, Co. Kildare, fourth child and eldest daughter of Edward Lawless (1816–69), a wealthy landlord who in 1853 succeeded as 3rd Baron Cloncurry, and his wife Elizabeth (née Kirwan), a famous society beauty. The greater part of her childhood was spent at Lyons, and throughout the summers at her mother's family home, Castle Hackett, near Tuam, Co. Galway. Lawless was closer to the Kirwans than to her father's family; she draws on their memories of the Famine in some of her writings, and while her elder brother, Valentine, 4th Baron Cloncurry (1840–1928), engaged in large-scale conflict with the Land League on his Kildare estates, her portrayals of the land war and the landlords’ dilemma owe more to the Kirwans’ experience as improving landlords in Galway. A keen horsewoman, swimmer, and outdoor painter, from an early age she was also an avid reader. However, as her own recollections indicate, her initial passion was for science, particularly entomology and botany, and as a young woman she contributed articles on natural history to the Entomologist's Monthly Magazine (January 1867) and the Entomologist (April, May 1872), though her scientific activities were hindered by gender restrictions. After her father's suicide (1869) she became her mother's constant companion. The two women divided their time between the Lawless Dublin residence (Maretimo House, Blackrock, Co. Dublin), their rented London home, and numerous extended visits to the Continent.
She began writing fiction in the early 1880s, having received encouragement from the Scottish novelist Margaret Oliphant. Her earliest efforts – A Chelsea householder (1882), published anonymously, and A millionaire's cousin (1885) – failed to make any significant impression, and it was not till the appearance of her third novel, Hurrish (1886), that she won both critical and popular acclaim, particularly in Britain. Set in the west of Ireland, it derived its popularity in part from the widespread interest in Irish affairs that existed during the build-up to the first home rule bill. However, while the book established her reputation in Britain, and won her the admiration of W. E. Gladstone (with whom she had a sporadic correspondence), her depiction of the Irish peasantry came under attack from the Irish nationalist press, particularly the reviewers of the Nation, who accused her of exaggerating peasant violence, in terms reminiscent of later critiques of J. M. Synge's (qv) Playboy of the western world. Her friend Augusta Gregory (qv) expressed similar concerns on rereading the book in 1929. Critical of its ‘patronising tone’, she expressed regret that ‘it had been accepted in London as a picture of Irish life’ (Gregory journals, 419).
Lawless's own politics were always determined by her ascendancy background. She remained a unionist throughout, and consistently maintained that the Irish were unready for home rule. Nevertheless, she was critical of England's treatment of Ireland. After the upheaval of the land wars she was based primarily in London, where she became a well-known figure in artistic circles. Yet her continuing interest in Ireland was reflected in her subsequent literary output. Her work from the period includes a capable one-volume history of Ireland (1887), written as part of the ‘Story of the Nations’ series, and a documentary-style novel, With Essex in Ireland (1890). The latter, a fictionalised first-hand account of Essex's 1599 expedition to Ireland, which was initially thought by many (including Gladstone) to be an authentic historical document, was included by W. B. Yeats (qv) in 1895 on a list of the thirteen best works of Irish fiction. Her most popular book, Grania, a romantic tragedy set on the Aran Islands, appeared in 1892. Its admirers included W. E. H. Lecky (qv), who became a close friend, George Meredith, and Swinburne, who hailed it as ‘one of the most exquisite and perfect works of genius in the English language’. At the end of the twentieth century Grania attracted renewed attention because of its portrayal of a strong woman pushed by her restricted circumstances towards a destructive relationship with a weak, self-indulgent man. Lawless's views, however, cannot be straightforwardly equated with twentieth-century feminism; she shared the view of her friend and literary mentor, Mrs Humphrey Ward, that while women should be active in social work and education, they were unsuited to political careers, and in 1899 she signed the ‘Appeal against women's suffrage’ organised by Ward and other prominent women. Among her other books are Major Lawrence, F.L.S. (1887); Plain Frances Mowbray and other tales (1889); her novel on the Desmond rebellion, Maelcho (1894); Traits and confidences (1898), which includes some childhood recollections; A garden diary (1901), which contains meditations on public and private affairs, with accounts of her horticultural experiences; a poorly received biography of Maria Edgeworth (qv) (1904); and her children's story, The book of Gilly (1906). Another historical novel, A soldier of the empire (1895), set in eighteenth-century Ireland, was published in America only. She also produced verse, in which traces of romantic nationalism, absent from her fiction, are often evident. Her first volume, Atlantic rhymes and rhythms (1898), was originally printed for circulation among her friends; however, she was encouraged by Stopford Augustus Brooke (qv) to reissue the poems in With the Wild Geese (1902). Some of her verses on the plight of eighteenth-century catholics in exile and under the penal laws became her best-remembered work, often included in anthologies and even in Irish school textbooks. With the Wild Geese was followed by A point of view (1909), published in aid of impoverished Galway fishermen, and The inalienable heritage (1914), which she was revising at the time of her death. Her body of work also includes contributions to numerous magazines and journals, such as the Living Age, Cornhill Magazine, Belgravia, the National Review, the Irish Homestead, and the Nineteenth Century.
Although Lawless's literary prominence and interest in the west of Ireland made her a significant figure for the writers of the early literary Revival, she is generally seen as peripheral to the Revival itself. This may reflect W. B. Yeats's presentation of the Revival as growing out of the fall of Charles Stewart Parnell (qv); she would be less dissonant in the alternative model, proposed by R. F. Foster, which sees it as a response to the Land War. Lawless was acquainted with Augusta Gregory and occasionally met Yeats at Coole Park, but their sensibilities clashed. Yeats was repelled by her scientism and post-Darwinian agnosticism, complaining that she attributed spiritual significance to the mere size of the universe; Lawless criticised Yeats for attaching more importance to the pursuit of literary perfection than to social responsibilities. (Irresponsible, destructive aesthetes are recurrent figures in Lawless's work; Gregory attributed this to a temperament inherited from the 1st Lord Cloncurry (qv) – a carpet merchant who bought his peerage – but it reflects a late Romantic anxiety found in such works as Tennyson's ‘Lady of Shalott’). Synge's portrayal of the Aran islands lays claim to an intimacy acquired through prolonged residence among the islanders, which is contrasted with Lawless's romanticised view based on distant observation. Lawless's literary cousin Lord Dunsany (qv), while more sympathetic to her unionism than the Revival writers, was equally unsympathetic to her scientific worldview; he fantasised that she was really a witch who reanimated fossils by magic, turning them back to stone when they bit her.
Lawless's mature years were blighted by the suicides of her sisters Mary (1885) and Rose (1891) and her own deteriorating health, drug addiction, and depression, described by her cousin and close friend Sir Horace Plunkett (qv) as ‘nervous torture’. She was tormented by her inability to accept orthodox Christianity or the Darwinian image of a coldly indifferent universe and became a stoic with pantheist tendencies. She also developed a fascination with devotional peasant Catholicism and occasionally corresponded with the catholic modernist George Tyrrell (qv). After the death of her mother (April 1895) she retired to Surrey, where she built a cottage and concentrated on gardening. The last eighteen years of her life were spent there in almost total seclusion with her companion – possibly her lover – Lady Sarah Spencer, sister of the former viceroy, Earl Spencer (qv). Her final novel, The race of Castlebar (1913), set during the United Irish rebellion, was completed by Shan Bullock (qv). She was awarded an honorary D.Litt (Dubl.) in 1905. She died 19 October 1913 at her residence, Hazelhatch, near Gomshall, Surrey. A collection of her papers (mostly newspaper cuttings of reviews, containing little correspondence and no literary manuscripts), was deposited in Marsh's Library, Dublin, by her brother, the 5th (and last) Lord Cloncurry (1847–1929).