Kate O’Brien’s career emerged and developed during a difficult time for Irish writing; indeed, models of Irish women novelists who might have provided her with beneficial influence and nurturing were virtually nonexistent. Despite these unpromising cultural origins, and despite the obvious struggle O’Brien experienced in order to express herself and command a responsive and sustaining audience, her career can be seen in historical retrospect to be marked with notable integrity, independence of mind and action, and devotion to her art.
In a literary culture where women have not always received sufficient critical attention and have not had their works readily incorporated into thecanon of a given generation’s achievements, critical responses to O’Brien’s life and work have belatedly been seen as manifestations of unwarranted narrowness. The belatedness of this view is perhaps a result of the author’s long years of exile, along with the fact that her one major popular success, That Lady, published when a fresh audience was ready for her work, is a historical romance rather than another in her sequence of novels about Irish family life. Yet the republication of many of her works during the 1980’s not only facilitated a reappraisal of her literary achievements but also had the effect of redrawing the map of Irish literary culture at a crucial period in its development.
The generation of Irish writers to which O’Brien belongs had the unenviable task of following in the pathbreaking footsteps of the principal artists of the Irish Literary Revival—the novelist George Moore, the poet William Butler Yeats, and the playwright John Millington Synge. O’Brien’s generation was as different in background and outlook from these three illustrious avatars as it is possible to be. Provincial in upbringing, nationalist in politics, unexperimental in art, and Catholic in cultural formation, this generation had at once a greater intimacy with the actual life of its fellow citizens and a more actively critical perception of the society in whose name it had elected to speak. It also had the not inconsiderable disadvantage of attempting to assert its cultural and artistic validity and viability while the star of the revival had not yet entirely waned, and while Yeats, for example, was willing to co-opt new voices to articulate the agenda of his cultural politics.
The most important writers of this generation—those who went on to establish a somewhat more populist orientation for Irish literature, or at least a more populist role for the Irish writer—have long been considered to be Seán O’Faoláin, Frank O’Connor, and Liam O’Flaherty. The different orientation that they represent may be initially discerned in the fact that they each espoused a form largely neglected by the revival—namely, prose fiction, in particular the short story—and implicitly rejected the formal and ideological explorations of their more modernist forebears. O’Brien is a member of this generation not merely by virtue of her provincial background and conventional education but also because her works reflect this generation’s concerns, a reflection that receives added point and importance from the fact of its feminist—or, to be historically accurate, protofeminist—perspectives.
The disillusion and disorientation that emerge as a resonant theme in Irish fiction during the 1930’s, the problematized rendering of the independence that the country secured in the late twentieth century in juridical and political terms, and the conflicts between tradition and individuality as the culture seeks not merely aesthetic but moral renewal, far from being neglected by O’Brien, are all the more authentically present in her work through being presented from the standpoint of already marginalized femaleprotagonists. (With the exception of Pray for the Wanderer, with its protagonist Matt Costello, all of O’Brien’s works feature female protagonists.)
Without My Cloak
O’Brien’s first novel, Without My Cloak, rehearses a number of the problems that arise from her heritage and anticipates the most important of her fiction’s preoccupations. A family saga, it brings to awareness, through the use of an essentially nineteenth century model, the social and psychological forces that gave cultural and moral legitimacy to O’Brien’s own class and ideological background. The novel traces the development of the Considine family through three generations from the late eighteenth century, plausibly detailing its establishment in an urban, mercantile setting, for which the author uses her native Limerick.
A major motif in the work is the question of security. The Considine ethos consists of a sublimation of development in consolidation, and the emotional claustrophobia that results from this mode of behavior within the family circle is memorably detailed. The security motif is tensely related to its obverse, a quest for independence; the dynamics of the novel enact the struggle familiar from nineteenth century fiction between individual and society, between the assertion of selfhood and institutional constraints, with the emphasis in this instance falling on the power of institutions.
In particular, the social and moral function of the Catholic Church receives special attention in Without My Cloak and retains a particularly important place throughout O’Brien’s fiction. Because of its status in her first novel, it is possible to refer to the Considine family as embodying an ethos, since the Church operates as a source of moral and social identity, and alternative sources of such security and self-awareness are nowhere to be found. The power of the Church to authorize selfhood as a tissue of constraints makes of it a second, larger, more absolute family, and the matter of the effect of its power on the individual conscience and consciousness, rather than being resolved in Without My Cloak, becomes an increasingly emphatic preoccupation in O’Brien’s fiction prior to the publication of That Lady. (The fact that O’Brien herself seems to have considered the conflicts of her first novel unresolved may be inferred from their...
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