Mary Lavin 1912–-1996
American-born Irish short story writer and novelist.
See also Mary Lavin Criticism (Volume 4) and Volumes 18, 99.
Considered one of the foremost Irish short story writers of the twentieth century, Lavin instilled her tales of the Irish middle class with insight into the dynamics of intimate relationships through her focus on the contrarieties of human emotions. Sometimes faulted for lacking plot in her stories, Lavin frequently fixed her attention on seemingly trivial occurrences, investing them with hidden meanings and revealing their emotional significance. Though she published works in several genres, Lavin's most important literary contributions have been in the short story form.
Lavin was born in East Walpole, Massachusetts. When she was nine years old, she moved with her parents to Ireland and lived in Dublin, where she attended the Loreto convent school. In 1925 the family relocated to the Bective estate in County Meath, and Lavin subsequently attended University College, Dublin, receiving her M.A. in English in 1936. In 1938 Lavin wrote her first short story, “Miss Holland,” on the back of a typed draft of her Ph.D. dissertation on Virginia Woolf. After several rejections, the story was accepted by editor Seumas O'Sullivan and published in the Dublin Magazine in 1939. O'Sullivan's agreement to seriously consider any other submissions that Lavin sent prompted Lavin to abandon her dissertation and pursue a career as a writer. In 1940 the publication of Lavin's story “The Green Grave and the Black Grave” in the Atlantic Monthly introduced her fiction to an American audience and garnered high praise from such prominent Irish writers as Lord Dunsany and Frank O'Connor. In 1942, with the help of Dunsany, Lavin published Tales from the Bective Bridge, her first collection of short fiction, and secured her status as a prominent literary figure. She received several awards for her work, including the Guggenheim fellowship and the Katherine Mansfield Prize, and her short stories often appeared in such prestigious periodicals as the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and the Kenyon Review. She died on March 24, 1996.
Major Works of Short Fiction
The central figures of Lavin's stories tend to be sensitive individuals from the Irish middle class who have repressed or abandoned their dreams and are ultimately forced to confront regrets over the uneasy compromises of their lives. These pieces explore the dynamics of personal relationships and focus on the emotional dilemmas of her characters. In “At Sallygap,” one of the most critically acclaimed stories in Tales from Bective Bridge, Manny Ryan's unrealized artistic dreams strain his relationship with his wife, Annie. Critics note that Manny is one of Lavin's more complex characters, and through his narration in “At Sallygap” readers witness his growing dissatisfaction with himself, his work, and his marriage. In her later collections, A Single Lady, and other Stories (1951) and The Patriot Son, and Other Stories (1956), Lavin evinced a new emphasis on plot. Her fiction during this period garnered mixed reviews, and such stories as “Posy,” “The Small Bequest,” and “The Long Ago” have generally been faulted for intrusive narration and unrealistic characterizations.
The tales collected in In the Middle of the Fields, and Other Stories (1967) and Happiness, and Other Stories (1969) reflect Lavin's interest in autobiographical fiction and mark a return to the impressionistic writing style that established her reputation. These collections include several pieces that center on the emotional challenges of widowhood through the character Vera Traske. Commentators agree that Lavin's “widow stories” are among her finest and note that Vera Traske is Lavin's most autobiographical character. The story “Happiness” is the last of the Vera Traske stories and has been referred to by critics as a representative capsule of Lavin's artistic and personal perspectives. In this story, Vera, like Lavin, endures the early death of her husband and is left to care for their three young children. Though Vera dies, this story reveals her enduring faith in the value of life.
Lavin's early stories were noted for a lack of plot structure as well as intrusive narration; but critics contend that from her earliest attempts, Lavin has been successful in developing characters that reflect the essence of Irish culture as well as the boundless nature of human tragedies and triumphs. Commentators assert that she has maintained a strong commitment to writing richly colored tales that test the emotional endurance of her characters, and though often pervasively despairing in the treatment of the tragic elements of human existence, Lavin's stories are considered poignant for their unwavering compassion and hopefulness. Her short stories have been compared to those of Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, and Henry James.
Tales from Bective Bridge 1942
The Long Ago, and Other Stories 1944
The Becker Wives, and Other Stories 1946; also published as Sallygap, and Other Stories, 1947
A Single Lady, and Other Stories 1951
The Patriot Son, and Other Stories 1956
Selected Stories 1959
The Great Wave, and Other Stories 1961
The Stories of Mary Lavin. 2 vols. 1964, 1974
In the Middle of the Fields, and Other Stories 1967
Happiness, and Other Stories 1969
Collected Stories 1971
A Memory, and Other Stories 1972
The Shrine, and Other Stories 1977
Mary Lavin: Selected Stories 1981
A Family Likeness, and Other Stories 1985
In a Café 1995
The House on Clewe Street (novel) 1945
Mary O'Grady (novel) 1950
A Likely Story (juvenilia) 1957
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SOURCE: Burnham, Richard. “Mary Lavin's Short Stories in The Dublin Magazine.” Cahiers du Centre d'Etudes Irlandaises 2 (1977): 103-10.
[In the following essay, Burnham examines Lavin's stories published in The Dublin Magazine, including “Miss Holland,” “A Fable,” “Brigid,” and “An Akoulins of the Irish Midlands,” and discusses her relationship with editor Seumus O'Sullivan.]
Mary Lavin is among the most talented of Irish short story writers to appear in this century. As early as April 1939, when Mary Lavin was only twenty-seven years old, she published her first story, “Miss Holland,” in The Dublin Magazine. Seumas O'Sullivan, the editor of The Dublin Magazine, called it “a finished piece of work” and said that”its delicate restraint appealed greatly …” O'Sullivan, who was keen to encourage talented young Irish writers and provide them with a literary journal in which to publish their work, told Mary Lavin that he would be glad to consider anything that she submitted. However, he indicated that the space at his disposal for stories and sketches was very limited. Like all editors, he had a long waiting list of Irish writers.1 In “Miss Holland,” Mary Lavin developed her protagonist through interior monologue, rather than direct statement, “looking closer than normal into the human heart.”2 It was in her...
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SOURCE: Dunleavy, Janet Egleson. “The Making of Mary Lavin's ‘A Memory’.” Eire-Ireland 12, no. 3 (1977): 90-9.
[In the following essay, Dunleavy investigates the origins and development of Lavin's short story “A Memory.”]
Now in her early sixties with many awards behind her, including two Guggenheims and the prestigious Lady Gregory medal, Mary Lavin, best known to Americans through her short stories in The New Yorker, served her literary apprenticeship in Dublin in the days when Frank O'Connor, Sean O'Faolain, and Lord Dunsany were the major figures of a circle that helped develop the short story in English from mere tale to art form.1 The circle in which she served her literary apprenticeship has long since dissolved into history and heritage, but Mary Lavin is still dedicated to writing as her art, fiction as her craft.
A story begins in the artist's imagination, for Mary Lavin, when—suddenly—she is struck by the universality of a particular event.2 “That happens”: the truth of this observation sharpens and clarifies in the days, weeks, or months in which she finds corroboration for it in the life around her. Meanwhile, a related question begins to form, teasing her curious mind: “to what kind of person does that happen?” One day the answer comes: “that sort of thing happens to that kind of person.” Another period...
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SOURCE: Peterson, Richard F. “The Circle of Truth: The Stories of Katherine Mansfield and Mary Lavin.” Modern Fiction Studies 24, no. 3 (1978): 383-94.
[In the following essay, Peterson elucidates the influence of Katherine Mansfield's short stories on Lavin's short fiction.]
Katherine Mansfield wrote in her journal that honesty “is the only thing one seems to prize beyond life, love, death, everything. It alone remaineth. O you who come after me, will you believe it? At the end truth is the only thing worth having: it's more thrilling than love, more joyful and more passionate. It simply can not fail.”1 Mary Lavin, one of the short-story writers who came after Katherine Mansfield and became one of her admirers, found a standard for fiction in Mansfield's quest for the truth. In some unpublished and undated notes for an essay on the art of the short story,2 she states her own belief that, in writing, truth is the only thing worth having. Her only qualification of Mansfield's statement is that while truth simply cannot fail, the writer sometimes may fall short or fail in her search for the truth. More specifically, she finds that Katherine Mansfield did capture the truth in “Prelude” and “At the Bay,” but in “Bliss” and “Miss Brill,” stories often praised by critics, the prize eluded her.
Mary Lavin's admiration of...
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SOURCE: Murphy, Catherine A. “The Ironic Vision of Mary Lavin.” Mosaic 12, no. 3 (1979): 69-79.
[In the following essay, Murphy discusses Lavin's use of “intuitive imagination” in her short fiction.]
Frequently in Mary Lavin's stories the normal world view of an individual is suddenly transfigured by the awareness of an extended dimension of reality. This extended dimension, Miss Lavin implies, is a larger cosmos enveloping and consistently influencing the normal world, though its existence is not consistently perceived.
Other writers have suggested their awareness of a dimension of reality which exists beyond ordinary consciousness and which is apprehended in times of heightened imaginative activity. E. M. W. Tillyard speaks of a “kind of reality” known when the mind's equipoise is disturbed:
There are … times when in the realm of action even the simplest and most normal people find their scale of reality upset. Under the stress of war, or love, or strong disappointment, the things that seemed solid, the acts that seemed to proceed so naturally and without question from one's will, appear remote. … Once … [our normal] equipoise is disturbed, the real things are not everyday acts but passionate mental activities. Most people experience this kind of reality at certain moments of their lives. …
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SOURCE: Dunleavy, Janet Egleson. “The Making of Mary Lavin's ‘Happiness’.” Irish University Review 9, no. 2 (autumn 1979): 225-31.
[In the following essay, Dunleavy traces the origins and development of Lavin's story “Happiness.”]
Mysterious and fascinating to those who study the craft of fiction, the creative process is equally mysterious and fascinating to those who practice it.
When, for example, did the seeds of “Happiness”, first published in The New Yorker of 14 December 1968, begin to germinate?1 No one knows, not even the author of the story, for Mary Lavin's method of composition is to allow such seeds to grow at their own rate, in a conscious but untilled corner of her mind, until form and theme become evident. Only then is the first written draft committed to paper, after which the long and sometimes frustrating task of conscious development, pruning and cultivation is begun.2
The metaphor of writer as gardener (frequently used by Mary Lavin herself, in conversations about her work) is especially appropriate in a discussion of “Happiness”, for one of several early seeds of this story was a true anecdote about a child, brought home from school by one of the author's daughters.3 The subject of the anecdote, a little girl, was retarded: remembering all she was expected to remember was especially hard for...
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SOURCE: Koenig, Marianne. “Mary Lavin: The Novels and the Stories.” Irish University Review 9, no. 2 (autumn 1979): 244-61.
[In the following essay, Koenig compares Lavin's novels The House in Clewe Street and Mary O'Grady to Lavin's short stories contending that parts of the novels could easily succeed as short fiction.]
“Two bad novels” is Mary Lavin's dismissive description nowadays of The House in Clewe Street1 and Mary O'Grady,2 the only two novels she ever did write. She has wished that “novels could be torn down like houses”.3 But there they are; in fact they are neither all bad, nor all that bad; and they are both puzzling and revealing to the reader who is concerned to define and isolate the central, essential qualities of Mary Lavin's writing.
It is, indeed, difficult to see why she wrote them, what it was she was trying to do, when she had already launched two collections of short stories (Tales from Bective Bridge and The Long Ago [The Long Ago, and Other Stories]) fully-armed in all their accomplishment. It is not as if they were experimental, breaking new ground: they are very conventional. But it is illuminating to read them in conjunction with the stories. What they have in common with the stories, and the ways in which they differ, are of equal interest. Mary Lavin's...
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SOURCE: Scott, Bonnie Kime. “Mary Lavin and the Life of the Mind.” Irish University Review 9, no. 2 (autumn 1979): 262-78.
[In the following essay, Scott considers Lavin's fascination with the human mind, particularly the female mind, as evinced in her short fiction.]
In general treatments of Irish fiction and in articles more specifically on her own writing, Mary Lavin has been acclaimed as a “promising”, “skillful”, and even a “great” short story writer, the encomiums coming from such distinguished sources as Lord Dunsany, Seumas O'Sullivan, Frank O'Connor, Benedict Kiely and V. S. Pritchett. But, even though discovery of her dates back some thirty years, Mary Lavin's fiction has until very recently failed to receive the complex critical investigation which major writing deserves and must sustain. We have been provided initial characterisations of her writing: lists of her favoured themes, her typical stylistic traits and aspects of human experience that she handles well. This work provides useful indices, but is preliminary to the present task. We are only starting to move into more specialised investigations, and to examine Miss Lavin's sustained series of stories for growth and elaboration.
The idea for the subject matter of this study came indirectly from the author herself, as we chatted rather freely amid the controlled chaos of her Dublin mews in June 1977. Her...
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SOURCE: Mahlke, Regina. “Mary Lavin's ‘The Patriot Son’ and ‘The Face of Hate’.” In Studies in Anglo-Irish Literature, edited by Heinz Kosok, pp. 333-37. Bonn: Bouvier Verlag Herbert Grundmann, 1982.
[In the following essay, Mahlke discusses Lavin's brief foray into stories with political themes, focusing on “The Patriot Son” and “The Face of Hate.”]
Critics began to protest almost immediately after Mary Lavin's first story with a political theme had appeared in 1956. Elizabeth Bowen disliked The Patriot Son [The Patriot Son, and Other Stories] as a title for a short story collection as she thought that other stories in the book had “better-found” themes.1 Augustine Martin even called it “that irreverent footnote to Irish revolutionary literature”2 and Frank O'Connor in his otherwise enthusiastic article “The Girl at the Gaol Gate” wrote:
So an Irishman, reading the stories of Mary Lavin, is actually more at a loss than a foreigner would be. His not-so-distant political revolution seen through her eyes, practically disappears from view. She has written only one story about it—“The Patriot Son”—and from a patriotic point of view that is more than enough.3
These opinions probably arose from a feeling that Mary Lavin in writing this story had done...
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SOURCE: Dunleavy, Janet Egleson. “Mary Lavin, Elizabeth Bowen, and a New Generation: The Irish Short Story at Midcentury.” In The Irish Short Story: A Critical History, edited by James F. Kilroy, pp. 145-68. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984.
[In the following excerpt, Dunleavy traces Lavin's literary development and evaluates her contributions to the Irish short story.]
By the end of World War II, the Irish short story had become an established subgenre of twentieth-century literature. Its form and content, pioneered before World War I by George Moore and James Joyce, had been redefined by Frank O'Connor and Sean O'Faolain (“the Romulus and Remus of Irish short fiction,” in the words of Mary Lavin, whose later achievement drew praise from them both). In Irish and in English, Liam O'Flaherty had extended the range of models against which writers who began publishing in the thirties and forties might measure their own work. Continued experimentation as well as imitation characterized the early work of these younger writers who, following the example of O'Connor, O'Faolain, and O'Flaherty, imposed their own individual style on the subgenre, further contributing to expansion of its potential. They introduced new concepts of literary craft; they attracted new readers in Ireland, England, and the United States; they projected new images in literature. By the mid-1940s, periodicals dedicated to...
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SOURCE: Shumaker, Jeanette Roberts. “Sacrificial Women in Short Stories by Mary Lavin and Edna O'Brien.” Studies in Short Fiction 32, no. 2 (spring 1995): 185-97.
[In the following essay, Shumaker examines the use of sacrificial women characters in the short fiction of Lavin and Edna O'Brien.]
Edna O'Brien's “A Scandalous Woman” (1972) ends with the statement that Ireland is “a land of strange, sacrificial women” (33). Like O'Brien, Mary Lavin features sacrificial women in her short stories. The disturbing martyrdoms of the heroines created by both writers stem, in part, from Catholic notions of the Madonna. The two writers criticize their heroines' emulations of the suffering Virgin. Julia Kristeva's “Stabat Mater” (1977) and Marina Warner's Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (1976) scrutinize the impact of the Madonna myth on western European women. Their feminist scholarship illuminates short stories such as Lavin's “A Nun's Mother” (1944) and “Sarah” (1943), as well as O'Brien's “Sister Imelda” (1981) and “A Scandalous Woman.” In each story, female martyrdom (en)gendered by the Madonna myth takes different forms, from becoming a nun to becoming a wife, mother, or “fallen woman.”
Kristeva comments upon the fluidity of the Madonna, who encompasses diverse female roles, as do the Irish female characters who emulate her....
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SOURCE: Neary, Mary. “Flora's Answer to the Irish Question: A Study of Mary Lavin's ‘The Becker Wives’.” Twentieth Century Literature 42, no. 4 (winter 1996): 516-26.
[In the following essay, Neary asserts that “The Becker Wives” provides valuable inside into the “Irish quest for identity.”]
“What ish my nation?” is a question that surfaces time and again, and in various forms, throughout Irish literature. It most explicitly appears in Shakespeare's Henry V, with an answer that leaves much room for emendation, particularly considering that it originates in English, not Irish, literature. “What ish my nation?” asks an Irish captain named Macmorris. “Ish a villain, and a bastard, and a knave, and a rascal” (3.2.125-26). If this answer is not a compelling catalyst for the Irish imagination, the question is: It has driven Irish people back into the old mythology, the old language, or forward into a nation state—just as mythic—free from outside influence. The Irish poet Eavan Boland paints the tortuous Irish quest for an identity eloquently:
Across years of humiliation no people can hold their possessions intact and least of all their chief possession of identity. Sooner or later they begin to lose it by seeing themselves through the eyes of their oppressors, and to measure worth by that measure until pride becomes shame,...
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Hawthorne, Mark D. “Words That Do Not Speak Themselves: Mary Lavin's ‘Happiness’.” Studies in Short Fiction 31, no. 4 (fall 1994): 683-88.
Examines autobiographical aspects of “Happiness.”
Kelly, Angeline A. Mary Lavin, a Quiet Rebel: A Study of Her Short Stories. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1980, 200 p.
Full-length study of Lavin's short stories.
Levenson, Leah. The Four Seasons of Mary Lavin. Dublin: Marino, 1999, 368 p.
Critical evaluation of Lavin's work.
Peterson, Richard F. Mary Lavin. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978, 171 p.
Thematic and stylistic analysis of Lavin's short fiction.
Additional coverage of Lavin's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12R, 151; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 33; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 4, 18, 99; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 15; Feminist Writers; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 4.
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