PARNELL AND THE ENGLISHWOMAN

By Hugh Leonard

Atheneum. 265 pp. $19.95

By Gregory A. Schirmer

THE STORY of Charles Stewart Parnell, the Irish statesman who led his nation to the brink of home rule near the end of the 19th century, only to see all his political ambitions dissolve in a poisonous scandal about his relationship with a married woman, is almost too rich for the novelist.

The bare facts of the story -- Parnell's rapid rise to the leadership of the Irish Party in the 1870s; his consummate political skills, in part the product of an icy demeanor and an obsession for secrecy; his 10-year love affair with Katharine O'Shea, the wife of a ne'er-do-well politician whose divorce suit, filed in 1889, named Parnell as his wife's lover; his being subsequently abandoned by the English and many of the Irish, including the Catholic Church; his marriage to Katharine, followed by a last-ditch effort to take his story to the people, a desperate round of barnstorming that ended only in an early grave -- are inherently dramatic, and all lie comfortably within the province of the historian or biographer.

Hugh Leonard, the Irish dramatist best known for his award-winning play "Da," brings to the Parnell story what Virginia Woolf described as the one essential quality of the good novel: the ability to create convincing characters. By transforming the personages of history into memorable, complex human beings, Parnell and the Englishwoman, Leonard's first novel, manages to inject new vitality and significance into this almost legendary piece of the Irish past.

At the heart of the Parnell story, as Leonard recreates it, is the theme of betrayal -- not just the original betrayal of Katharine's marriage vows (which had little but legal standing by the time she first met Parnell), but, more broadly and perniciously, the betrayal of political ideals, moral principles and individual loyalties. This kind of corruption permeates Leonard's novel, but it is embodied most powerfully in two characters -- Willie O'Shea, the husband of Katharine, and a man perfectly willing to trade his wife for his own political fortunes; and Timothy Healy, one of Parnell's most ardent supporters, who eventually turns against him with all the ferocity of the forsaken lover, using every means within his grasp to destroy the man whom he sees as having betrayed the soul of Ireland for the flesh of a mere woman.

Against this background, the affair between Katharine and Parnell positively shines. In most historical accounts of the story, Katharine is a relatively dim figure. In Leonard's version, this daughter of an English clergyman (she never set foot in Ireland) emerges as a courageous, passionate woman crippled by the social conventions of her day. "Like any woman," she tells Parnell at one point, "I exist in my husband's shadow."

The real Parnell has long since disappeared in the mists of legend (he is at least the equal of George Washington or Abraham Lincoln) and controversy (it is still possible to start a fight in Ireland by asking whether the Irish should or should not have deserted Parnell). Leonard's Parnell is a paradox, a man whose famously cool exterior masks a heart capable of an extraordinary love and selfless passion.

Leonard shows us this passionate Parnell through the kind of imagined scenes that fall outside the purview of conventional history. Parnell and Katharine had three children, all of whom O'Shea believed to be his. The moment in which Parnell learns, in the presence of Katharine and Willie, that the first of these children had died in its cradle is the kind of scene that could come only from the hand of an accomplished novelist (and dramatist):

"Katharine, carrying a lamp, had come downstairs. When she was in the room, Willie stood up and said, 'It's over, then, is it?'

"She said, to Parnell: 'Yes.'

"Willie gave a fatalistic shrug . . . He stood, alone and shuddering in an ague of grief. Katharine made no move towards him. Horrified, Parnell forced himself to touch Willie on the shoulder.

"He said: 'I am extremely sorry.'

"Willie clutched his wrist. Unable to speak, he jerked his head up and down in a grotesque, unending nod. Parnell, held fast, looked at Katharine."

Yearning for Katharine but shackled to Willie and the world of moral bankruptcy that he represents, Leonard's Parnell stands as the classical figure of tragedy, sympathetic but doomed -- a man who literally wore himself to death trying to avoid betraying either his public principles or his private feelings, a hero precisely because, as W. B. Yeats insisted in his tribute to the man once known as the uncrowned king of Ireland, he would not compromise one for the other:

The Bishops and the Party

That tragic story made,

A husband that had sold his wife

And after that betrayed;

But stories that live longest

Are sung above the glass,

And Parnell loved his country,

And Parnell loved his lass. Gregory A. Schirmer is chairman of the English department at the University of Mississippi and the author of "William Trevor: A Study of His Fiction."