Esler, Erminda Rentoul (1860?–1924), author, was born Erminda Rentoul in Manorcunningham, Co. Donegal, to Alexander Rentoul, presbyterian minister, and his wife Erminda (née Chittick). She had five sisters and three brothers; her eldest brother was James Alexander Rentoul (qv), unionist MP and judge. Her date of birth is not certain and may have been as early as 1852. The Rentouls were an extensive clerical dynasty who came to Ireland in the eighteenth century to serve the seceder church and remained prominent in the reunited post-1841 presbyterian church. Her first cousin was John Laurence Rentoul (qv). Esler's mother's family claimed aristocratic descent but had come down in the world. Esler's 1896 novel The Wardlaws, which depicts descendents of an old but extravagant Norman-Irish gentry family coming to terms with their dispossession, appears to be based on her maternal grandmother's family, the Squires of Manorcunningham. They were crippled by a fraudulent agent in 1787–1805 and sold up in the encumbered estates court in 1854. In 1890 Esler (or possibly her mother) privately published separate pedigrees of her parents' families.
Her father Alexander Rentoul combined his pastoral work (including relief work during the famine) with campaigning for tenants' rights and held the position of county grand master of the Orange Order in Donegal, when few presbyterian ministers were Orangemen. After his sudden death in 1864 the congregation kept the position open for seven years until his eldest son qualified as a licentiate; for a decade thereafter, James Alexander concentrated on educating his younger siblings.
Esler was educated privately, with periods in Berlin and Nîmes – a character in her 1903 novel The trackless way, who is falsely suspected of converting to catholicism after studying at a continental convent school, may reflect this experience. She studied at QCB and graduated with honours from the RUI in 1879. In 1883 she married the prominent Belfast surgeon Robert Esler (1836–1919), president of the Ulster Medical Society 1887–8 and an advocate of women's entry to the professions. (She was his second wife; he was widowed while in Australia). Dr Esler put himself through medical school after working as a draper's assistant and developing a successful business career in Australia, where he had travelled during the gold rush; elements of his life-story occur in some of his wife's fiction. The Eslers had two sons; both became surgeons. (Dr Esler had a son by his first marriage, who became a doctor in Australia.)
Esler's first publication was Almost a pauper: a tale of trial and triumph, published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in 1888. In 1889 the Eslers moved to London, where Dr Esler built a new career as a police surgeon and Erminda became known as a writer. It may be relevant that her three-volume novel The way of transgressors (published 1890 in book form having previously been a magazine serial; wrongly described as short story collection in sources including Loebers') includes a scathing portrait of a wealthy shipbuilding and textile manufacturing city called Fordmouth (Belfast or Béal Feirste means mouth of the River Farset) inhabited by pretentious philistines and crooked businessmen.
She was correspondence editor and a columnist in the monthly journal The young woman from its foundation in November 1892, advocating intellectual and material self-sufficiency and welcoming the 'new woman' while defending sexual purity. (Other contributors included Sarah Grand (qv) and Katharine Tynan (qv)). She published stories in outlets such as Sunday at Home, the Quiver, the Cornhill Magazine and Chambers' Journal; her story 'Bessie' was republished in the New York Times on 7 May 1897. Her three short story collections are The way they loved at Grimpat (1894), Mid green pastures (1895) and Youth at the prow (1898). The last of these is misidentified by several secondary sources as 'a tale' (i.e. a novel), apparently following the British Library catalogue and reflecting the uneven state of research on Esler.
Many of Esler's short stories are set around the fictitious English village of 'Grimpat', a vaguely-sketched backdrop without the recurring characters or geographic specificity of Anthony Trollope's (qv) Barchester or Thomas Hardy's Wessex; the stories balance interestingly between the expectation of a happy ending and a sense that this is unlikely, or comes at great cost (for example the portrayal of the life of an ageing and impoverished governess in 'Her one investment').
Although her presbyterianism and use of Ulster-Scots settings in her novels The maid of the manse (1895), The Wardlaws (1896) and The trackless way (1903) often cause Esler to be described as a member of the Scottish 'kailyard' school which celebrated Scottish rural and small-town communitarianism and the displacement of Calvinist rigorism by more liberal forms of presbyterianism, most of her stories are set in England and she takes little interest in Ulster-Scots dialect. Reviewers generally compared her work with English exemplars such as Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford (1853) or Mary Russell Mitford's Our village (1824–32).
Her novels also reflect different publishing contexts; The way of transgressors (1890) is a three-volume novel, a genre which became outmoded within a few years; A maid of the manse (1895) and The Wardlaws (1896) are series of sketches combined as novels, probably reflecting magazine serialisation; while The awakening of Helena Thorpe (1901) and The trackless way (1903) seem conceived as single-volume novels. Helena Thorpe is of interest as a riposte to the idea held by certain Victorian writers such as Anthony Trollope (apparently entertained by Esler herself in The way of transgressors) that a woman is permanently bound by a first engagement even if the man neglects her or breaks it off, while the novel's older hero explicitly suggests that George Eliot's treatment of Casaubon's marriage to Dorothea in Middlemarch (1871–2), and Rhoda Broughton's similar portrayal of Professor Forth's marriage to the heroine of Belinda (1883) are unjust to the men.
Recurring themes in her work include social tension between commercial and leisured classes and the pressures on women forced to earn their living; the relative isolation of educated individuals, especially in poor rural areas (this is explored in The Wardlaws through the characters of a Church of Ireland clergyman loosely based on William Archer Butler (qv) and a Roman-educated catholic priest based on one stationed in Manorcunningham during Esler's youth, and in The maid of the manse through a presbyterian minister based on her father); the tension between honest commerce, especially in small-town settings, and speculative fraud enabled by the more impersonal conditions of large cities; and the cruelty and obsolescence of classical Calvinism, however worthy some of its adherents may be. (The belief that suicides necessarily go to hell is a recurring concern.)
The trackless way: the story of a man's search for god (1903) depicts the unhappy marriage and deposition for heresy (in a trial unsubtly equated with that of Jesus before the Sanhedrin) of a rural presbyterian minister eventually recruited as a land agent by an enlightened landlord who has spent several years living as a stonebreaker on his own estate in order to study its social problems and work out his religious beliefs. The reforms instigated on the estate owe something to Standish James O'Grady's (qv) views of how landlords might become community leaders; O'Grady's All Ireland Review reviewed The trackless way favourably (31 Dec. 1904, 633) and subsequently published a letter from Esler praising O'Grady.
The trackless way's portrayal of the disastrous attempt of the minister's wife to establish herself as an artist suggests Esler had come to regard her literary interests as futile in comparison to moral and social reform (though Esler's 1906 letter to O'Grady declares 'The Celtic mind accepts readily the mental and spiritual partnership of women. That race is best fitted to endure, and to revive, when defeated or cast down, which recognises how all existence, physical and spiritual, has a dual origin, and that the two sources are equal'). Her portrayal in the same novel of Sir William Robertson Nicoll (1851–1923), whose British Weekly was the foremost vehicle for kailyard and other nonconformist fiction, as a calculating opportunist who profits financially by publicising religiously controversial authors and allowing them to be harassed to death while he himself remains just within the bounds of orthodoxy in his published statements, also suggests a deliberate burning of Esler's bridges with former literary outlets.
Although Esler is not known to have published after The trackless way, she remained active in Irish literary circles in London, and was a prominent member of the Irish Circle of the Lyceum Club. In 1913 she addressed the Irish Literary Society on the writings of Somerville (qv) and Ross (qv), maintaining that their best works were the novels The real charlotte and Naboth's vineyard, which she compared with some of her own memories of Donegal. She died at her home in Hither Green, Kent, on 1 March 1924.
Rentoul has entries in several guides, including the Feminist companion to English literature, but these contain factual errors, and detailed discussion has generally centred on those novels with Donegal settings. Her combination of familiar story-magazine plots with both explicit and implicit examinations of women's social roles in a commercialising society, and her unobtrusive critiques of other writers, would repay further exploration, as would her publishing history in the magazine world, but the impression remains that Esler, as she herself suggested about Emily Lawless (qv) 'might have been a supreme literary artist had not the soft touch of easy things relaxed those muscles of steel that are needed for the ascent of the remote, cold, solitary peak where genius sits' (The trackless way, 83).