Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 812
Mary Lavin has an illustrious place among the handful of Irish women writers of short stories. Unlike other members of that group—for example, Elizabeth Bowen and Edna O’Brien—Lavin has devoted virtually all of her creative energies to short fiction, her novels having little to contribute to an overall assessment of her artistic achievement.
At the age of nine, Lavin was brought by her Irish emigrant parents from her native America back to Ireland. For a time the family settled in Athenry, County Galway, in circumstances which have haunted the author’s work. The special place occupied by houses in her fiction and the stolidly repressive conformity they connote reflect this place and time. Stories such as “The Becker Wives,” the Grimes family sequence, and the novel The House in Clewe Street have their origins in these formative experiences. In 1922, the family moved to Dublin, where the author was educated. Four years later, her father began to work as the manager of Bective House, an estate in County Meath, north of Dublin. This position and locale had a number of important consequences for Lavin, not least for providing the landscape of many of her stories—“In the Middle of the Fields” is a noteworthy example.
In 1936, after completing an M.A. thesis on Jane Austen, Lavin left Dublin’s University College and took a teaching position. She later began to study for a Ph.D. but abandoned a thesis on Virginia Woolf in favor of creative work. Her first story, “Miss Holland,” was published in 1939. Marriage to a university classmate, William Walsh, a lawyer, followed in 1942, the same year that her first book of stories, Tales from Bective Bridge, was published. The book came with a preface by a famous Bective neighbor, the author Lord Dunsany, and in 1943 Lavin received the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
In 1946, following the death of her father (see the story “Tom” in The Shrine, and Other Stories), Lavin and her family purchased a farm at Bective. This property is at the root of much of Lavin’s work, not only because it remained her main place of residence but also because, after the premature death of her husband in 1954, it became the site of those emotional uncertainties with which so many of her stories deal. These uncertainties have as their external circumstances some of the fundamental designations of a woman’s life—wife, mother, and widow. It would not be accurate to think of Lavin as a feminist writer in the contemporary sense of the term. On the other hand, her stories recognize clearly the socially determined nature of women’s roles, and many of her invariably female protagonists find themselves engaged in implicit critiques of those roles at an emotional level.
These critiques do not directly address the social status of women but are linked to a more permanent set of preoccupations concerning memory, loss, the challenge of autonomy, and the problematic power of one’s inner life. The loss of her husband left Lavin alone to maintain the farm and to raise her three young children, and initially she doubted that she could continue to write. In 1958 her stories began to appear regularly in The New Yorker. Such exposure, together with the publication in 1959 of Selected Stories, which has for a preface Lavin’s only published comments on her work, laid the basis for her enduring reputation as a practitioner of short fiction. Prominent achievements of this second phase of her career such as “The Great Wave,” “In a Café,” “The Cuckoo-spit,” and “Happiness,” substantiate that reputation.
In addition to their intrinsic artistic interest, many of Lavin’s later stories may be regarded as episodes in psychological autobiography. Such a view applies in particular to “Happiness.” Its female protagonist confuses her daughters by her genial acceptance of death; moreover, she does so in the presence of a priest who is a family friend. The publication of the volume to which the story gives its title coincided with Lavin’s remarriage. Her husband, Michael Scott, was an old friend from college days who had become a priest. His laicization enabled him to marry. The unsettlingly naïve courage and faith displayed by the protagonist of “Happiness” is the high point of Lavin’s recurrent thematic emphasis on perseverance, inimitability, and the difficult necessity of emotional directness.
Although Lavin typically concentrated on the mores and mentalities of the Irish middle class, her stories are not as narrow as their subject. Formally, they reveal her mastery of both the epiphanic approach to the short story perfected by James Joyce and the more loosely constructed novella, with Ivan Turgenev as perhaps the main influence. Stylistically, Lavin’s fiction is verbally plain and direct though tonally varied and complex. She received a number of prestigious awards, including the Katherine Mansfield-Menton Prize in 1962. She died on March 25, 1996.
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