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Inhabiting a Character

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Years ago, travelling in Sri Lanka, I gave my copy of Mary Lavin’s Tales from Bective Bridge (1942), long out of print, to someone who had helped me, and immediately regretted it – where would I find another? Mary Lavin, once hugely admired and honoured, had been forgotten, as had almost all her work.

In the mid-twentieth century, two Irish writers of short stories were stars of the New Yorker. Mary Lavin and Maeve Brennan wrote from opposite sides of the Atlantic: their methods were different, and their own lives could hardly have been more dissimilar, but they shared themes of memory and home, of death and, above all, love. Now their reputations have dimmed, and their distinguished stories are to be found only second-hand and if you’re lucky.

My rash gift was Mary Lavin’s first collection of short stories, which won the James Tait Black Memorial prize. She went on to write another hundred stories and two novels, The House in Clewe Street (1945) and Mary O’Grady (1950). She was awarded many more prizes and honours, culminating in her election in old age to Saoi (literally ‘wise one’) in the Irish affiliation of artists Aosdána – one of Irish culture’s highest accolades.

She was born to Irish parents in Massachusetts in 1912. The family returned to Ireland when she was 10, living first in her mother’s home of Athenry (the Castlerampart of several stories), then in Dublin, and from 1925 in Bective, Co. Meath. Her story ‘Miss Holland’ (written on the back of a draft of her Ph.D. thesis on Virginia Woolf, we are told), appeared in the Dublin Review and was noticed by the influential Irish writer Lord Dunsany, who fostered her early career and wrote an introduction to Bective Bridge.

She soon abandoned academe, quickly established herself in a milieu largely dominated by men, and was published in many journals, notably the New Yorker. She lived with her hu

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Years ago, travelling in Sri Lanka, I gave my copy of Mary Lavin’s Tales from Bective Bridge (1942), long out of print, to someone who had helped me, and immediately regretted it – where would I find another? Mary Lavin, once hugely admired and honoured, had been forgotten, as had almost all her work.

In the mid-twentieth century, two Irish writers of short stories were stars of the New Yorker. Mary Lavin and Maeve Brennan wrote from opposite sides of the Atlantic: their methods were different, and their own lives could hardly have been more dissimilar, but they shared themes of memory and home, of death and, above all, love. Now their reputations have dimmed, and their distinguished stories are to be found only second-hand and if you’re lucky. My rash gift was Mary Lavin’s first collection of short stories, which won the James Tait Black Memorial prize. She went on to write another hundred stories and two novels, The House in Clewe Street (1945) and Mary O’Grady (1950). She was awarded many more prizes and honours, culminating in her election in old age to Saoi (literally ‘wise one’) in the Irish affiliation of artists Aosdána – one of Irish culture’s highest accolades. She was born to Irish parents in Massachusetts in 1912. The family returned to Ireland when she was 10, living first in her mother’s home of Athenry (the Castlerampart of several stories), then in Dublin, and from 1925 in Bective, Co. Meath. Her story ‘Miss Holland’ (written on the back of a draft of her Ph.D. thesis on Virginia Woolf, we are told), appeared in the Dublin Review and was noticed by the influential Irish writer Lord Dunsany, who fostered her early career and wrote an introduction to Bective Bridge. She soon abandoned academe, quickly established herself in a milieu largely dominated by men, and was published in many journals, notably the New Yorker. She lived with her husband and three daughters on their farm in Co. Meath, but William Walsh died in 1954, leaving her to rear their young family alone. In 1969 she married Michael Scott, a laicized Jesuit priest and a former friend from student days. Those fifteen years of widowhood informed several of her stories, the best of which is the marvellous ‘Happiness’ (Happiness and Other Stories, 1969), in which a widow tries to convey to her adult daughters a philosophy of life in which grief and loss are accepted and endured, but are interleaved with a persisting idea of happiness just as intrinsic to our existence. Mary Lavin said that Chekhov, James Joyce and Katherine Mansfield had been her great influences, and that is sometimes evident in the tone and construction of her stories. Her own influence has filtered down: ‘Miss Holland’, about a genteel lady newly reduced to boarding-house life, foreshadows Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955), that incisive portrait of a Belfast spinster’s bafflement in the face of careless unkindness around her. Colm Tóibín’s recent Brooklyn (2009), set in the 1950s, recounts in sober, penetrating detail an Irish girl’s reasons for emigration to America, her return and her changes of heart. It is unsentimental, swift and direct, as convincing as if it were biography. Mary Lavin’s novel Mary O’Grady is a somewhat unwieldy saga of a Dublin family, which she herself thought would have been better framed as several short stories. Nevertheless the reader is drawn, as with Brooklyn, into a detailed, patiently accumulated, intense picture of Irish experience, with a keen, steadily accruing portrait of a woman at the centre. The House in Clewe Street, Mary Lavin’s first novel, also spans several generations, and is also written in sections, each under the name of a principal character. It is a sharp picture of small-town conservatism, religiosity, materialism and snobbery, from which the central figure, Gabriel Galloway, seeks to escape in a doomed affair with a servant girl. It’s thoroughly readable, but not in the same league as the work that followed. The short story was Mary Lavin’s true métier. ‘A story is like an arrow in flight,’ she said, ‘or a flash of forked lightning, all there in the sky at once, beginning, middle and end.’ Her critics complained that her stories lacked plot, and their endings were too often inconclusive. ‘A Story with a Pattern’, which appeared in A Single Lady and Other Stories (1951), is her witty response, a story within a story in which she sets out her belief that the emotional truth of a character is reached by scrutiny, not by confinement in a frame – ‘In observing character you may see many small inner patterns below the large pattern of life.’ Lord Dunsany, writing in 1957, compared her with Evelyn Waugh, ‘who could make a credible story from the most unlikely plot, while Mary Lavin could make one out of no plot at all’. When she does settle for a tight, conventional plot, her wholly distinctive note is extinguished. The story ‘Posy’, which appeared in the same collection, where a mysterious young man arrives to enquire of an elderly shopkeeper about a lively girl driven out of the town in the past, is predictable and commonplace when compared with her usually subtle explorations of a situation. The stories, though full of reflection, often open at an arresting speed:

‘He makes me sick,’ said the carter’s sister-in-law. ‘He never stops talking. I don’t know how you stick it, in the same room with him at night. He doesn’t shut his mouth for five minutes. I can hear him down through the boards in the floor. I’d go mad listening to him if I didn’t put my head under the bedclothes.’

Thus begins ‘The Cemetery in the Demesne’ (The Long Ago and Other Stories, 1944) which develops into a strange, haunting account of the rough carter’s reluctant sympathy for a poor woman and her sick child. Consistency in Mary Lavin’s work lies in her way of inhabiting a character, speaking in that voice, and seeing things as they develop from that person’s point of view. In ‘The Nun’s Mother’ (published in the same volume), Maud Lattimer tries to understand what she considers to be her daughter’s appalling decision to become a nun. She muses on the satisfaction she herself has found in marriage, but her thoughts carry her on to acknowledge that women have ‘a curious streak of chastity in them, no matter how long they were married, or how ardently they loved’. She will accept her role as the respected mother of a nun, but her conflict will not be resolved. In her personal, introspective style, Mary Lavin writes of an Ireland in which deep feelings and aspirations could be kept in check by religion, family obligations or social mores, a time when an individual could be controlled by the opinion of an entire village. She is interested in the contradictions of marriage and family life, stresses that develop between parents and children, the progress of friendships, and in love, flourishing or thwarted, inherent in all those things. She has been criticized for almost entirely ignoring the Troubles in her work. That period is background only in ‘The Patriot Son’ (The Patriot Son and Other Stories, 1956), an account of Matty Coherty’s fleeting, hopeless effort to escape his mother’s domination, with a sad attempt at heroism in the Fenian cause. But really that’s the point: while objective in mentioning the political issue, the writer makes straight for another matter, the truth of the person caught up in it. There is a particular latent humour in Mary Lavin’s work, flashing out when she nails a character or motive. Her one book for children is a whole chunk of it. The Second Best Children in the World (1972) is the excellent, demurely told story of two children and a baby who succeed in mending their parents’ fallen fortunes. They are the second best children because, well, to be the best children in the world would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it? Mary Lavin’s sixteen volumes of short stories are out of print, and her fame, like Maeve Brennan’s, has unaccountably vanished. Yet they are both the real thing. They are beyond fashion, but fashion decides. Perhaps Faber Finds, which rescues lost books by publishing on demand, will help restore Mary Lavin to her rightful place. The House in Clewe Street is on their list now, and – joy at last! – Tales from Bective Bridge is to follow.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 30 © Mary Sullivan 2011


About the contributor

Mary Sullivan is an English writer and reviewer particularly interested in the short-story form and in the contribution of Irish women writers to the genre. Her own story ‘Inishgill’, published in Encounter in the 1970s, observed a Connemara island as it was then – now as much a changed world as that of Mary Lavin.

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