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Mary Lavin 1912–-1996

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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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

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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

Richard Burnham (essay date 1977)

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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 characterization of Miss Holland that Mary Lavin excelled. Although her story was not a tale of action so much as the development of a state of mind, it still used specific moments which helped to depict Miss Holland and made her into a credible character with whom it was easy to identify. When politics was the topic discussed at lunch, Miss Holland spent the rest of the day reading the newspaper, looking up politics in the Encyclopedia Britannica and even going to the British Museum to do some research. She then felt certain that she would be able to make a significant comment at supper:

All through supper she would sit in a tight, straight rigidity of nervousness, indifferent to the food, waiting for an opportunity to enter the conversation in a striking way. Those opportunities never came … She clung tightly to her little piece of potential conversation in case a chance would come to use it at the very last minute. Later she said it to herself, in the dark, in bed, with great success …

After the publication of “Miss Holland,” Mary Lavin continued to send her work to O'Sullivan. She apologized in June 1939 for sending him so much material, and hoped he would realize that it was “from under—and not over—confidence ….” Mary Lavin indicated that when she originally asked O'Sullivan to read ”Miss Holland” she had nothing to lose, but she might now forfeit his good opinion, if he did not enjoy her newly submitted work, and this made her terribly nervous.3 In September 1939 O'Sullivan indicated that he wanted to publish Mary Lavin's story “A Fable.”4 In “A Fable” (eventually published in the October 1940 Dublin Magazine) Mary Lavin attempted to elude and exploit the restrictions of length that were imposed upon her as a short story writer. In her use of the fable she telescoped a great deal of human experience into a situation in which she asked the reader to sacrifice his credulity. Although many short story writers before Mary Lavin, like Chekov in “The Bet” and Tolstoi in several of his shortest pieces, used the fable, it did not prove entirely sucessful as a literary device once realism began to dominate fiction in the second half of the nineteenth-century. The demand for verisimilitude seemed to deny its validity. “A Fable” developed a trite moral thesis—that too much beauty in a woman created jealousy—to which Mary Lavin also referred in subsequent short stories. In “The Inspector's Wife” (published in The Long Ago, [The Long Ago, and Other Stories] 1944) the realistic representation of envy and self-deception first advanced in “A Fable” was more elaborately and plausibly developed. And in “A Frail Vessel” (published in The Patriot Son, and Other Stories, 1956) the jealousy of one woman toward another, more beautiful, woman was more believably described. While some of the characters in “The Inspector's Wife” and “A Frail Vessel” assumed an identity of their own, in “A Fable” they remained flat and undeveloped: symbols of an attitude and nothing more.

In “A Fable” Mary Lavin, to some extent, reversed the situation found in Nathaniel Hawthorne's short story “The Birthmark” in which a scientist attempted to make his already beautiful wife even more perfect by removing a birthmark from her cheek. While Hawthorne's scientist desired perfect beauty and tried to make his wife's birthmark disappear so “that the world might possess one living specimen of ideal loveliness without the semblance of a flaw,”, the townspeople in Mary Lavin's fable were only content when the beautiful woman whose face “was like a bough of apricot blossoms” has the flesh on her face torn by the thorns of a bramble. In “A Fable” the perversity of human nature was such that if the villagers had been unable to bear the beauty of the woman's unscarred face, they seemed to long for her once her beauty was less than perfect. A beautiful face for them, as for the young boy in Chekov's “Beautiful Women,” aroused a heavy sense of melancholy—even hatred.

On the 7th of May 1941 O'Sullivan asked Mary Lavin if he might publish her short story “Say Could That Lad Be I,” instead of “Grief.” O'Sullivan had a space problem during the war years because of the paper shortage, and “Say Could That Lad Be I” was very much shorter than “Grief.” He also wanted to include in his July 1941 issue of the magazine “something cheerful—like your gay white prince episode, to cheer up the readers.”5 The issue already contained a melancholy short story. “A Woman from Leam Lara,” by Margaret O'Leary and a memorial notice to F. R. Higgins.6 In “Say Could That Lad Be I” Mary Lavin's white prince, a cross between a wire-haired terrier and a blood hound, was a rambunctious and fighting dog who continually got himself and his owner into difficulty. Mary Lavin's amusing tale was told in simple language and with evocative images. She captured the spirit of a past era while her narrator, an old man looking back on his boyhood, spoke with fond recollections. The reader was able to visualize the village shop with its plates of dried fruit on one side and yards of lace and ladies' bonnets on the other. Mary Lavin provided just enough detail to create an impression when she referred to “… the shopboys kneeling into the window spaces in every shop, trimming up the wick and striking matches and putting down the globes over the flame.” After they were lit, the lights swung back and forth on the ceiling and for a short time sent big unnatural shadows of the shopboys and items in the window out over the footpath.

In “Brigid,” published in the January 1944 issue of The Dublin Magazine, Mary Lavin made the attitudes of the characters in her short story dramatically justifiable. The irritable way Owen's wife spoke to him, her belittling and reprimanding tone, reflected the tension in their home:

“‘Listen to that rain’ said the woman to her buband, ‘will it never stop?’”

“‘What harm is a sup of rain?’ said the man.

“‘That's you all over again,’ she said. ‘What harm is there in anything, as long as it doesn't affect yourself’”

Owen's wife was annoyed not so much by the rain or her husband's attitude toward it as by his insistent desire to care for and keep his dim-witted sister on their property:

I won't let it be said that I had a hand or part in letting my own sister be put away … I won't give in. Poor Brigid. Didn't my mother make me promise her that I'd never have hand or part in putting the poor creature away.

According to Owen's wife, Brigid's presence made her daughters less marriageable. “Is any man going to marry a girl when he hears her own aunt is a poor, half-witted creature, soft in the head …” Owen's wife was jealous of the attention her husband devoted to his sister, and it was this, Mary Lavin suggested, which accounted for her ill nature. Owen, on the other hand, was perturbed by his wife's lack of tolerance, and this made him bitter:

I suppose one of our fine daughters would think it the end of the world if she was asked to go for a bit of a message? Let me tell you they'd get men for themselves quicker if they were seen doing a bit of work once in a while … Mind you now, anyone would think that you were anxious to get them off your hands, with the way every penny that comes into the house goes on bits of silks and ribbons for them.

The conflict and tension in “Brigid,” which often resulted from jealousy, was apparent in several other stories by Mary Lavin, noteably “A Single Lady,” “Frail Vessel” and “The Cemetery in the Demesne.” In each of these tales there was always one character who became obsessive in the belief that someone whom he or she loved was being thwarted by another, more dependent, individual. In later years the theme of dependency and emotional imprisonment continued to preoccupy Mary Lavin.

Like so many of Mary Lavin's early short stories, “Brigid” displayed characteristics of the inexperienced, but talented, writer. Although the story's first sentence was written in lyrical and highly alliterative poetic prose, it neither related to nor prepared one for the harsh and brutal world that Mary Lavin's characters inhabited and appeared curiously out of place. The second sentence, however, with its appropriate, homely image brought the reader back to reality:

The rain came sifting silently through the air, and settled silently on the fields giving them a downy look like the cheek of a lovely young woman. But under the trees the rain fell between the leaves in single, heavy drops; noisily, like cabbage-water running through the large holes of a colander.

Mary Lavin's use of symbolism in “Brigid” was too overt. Early in the tale the conversation between Owen and his wife assumed almost too much significance:

“‘Quit that,’ said the woman. ‘Can't you see you're raising ashes?’

“‘What harm are the ashes doing?’

“‘I show you what harm,’ she said, taking down a dish of cabbage and potato from the shelf over the fire, ‘there's your dinner destroyed with them.’ The yellow cabbage was slightly sprayed with ash.

“‘Ashes are healthy, I often heard it said.’”

Even when Owen went to see his dim-witted sister, he held an “ash plant in his hand.” It was therefore not surprising to learn that he had been burned to death on falling into his sister's hearth. Mary Lavin had ordered events too self-consciously. Everything was too contrived.

Although “Brigid” concluded melodramatically, it finished as it began, suspended in mid-air:

She wanted to scream and scream and to run out of the house, but first she tried to drop him out as far as she could from the ashy hearth, then, suddenly feeling the living eyes watching her from behind, and seeing the dead eyes staring up at her from the blistered red face, she sprang upright knocking out a chair, and ran out of the house and ran down the boreen. Her screams brought people running out from their doors, the light streaming out each side of them. She couldn't speak, but she pointed up the hill. And then she heard the sound of their feet running as they went in the way she had pointed. She sat down on the curbstone of the pump, and after sitting there a long time she put her hands to her face, but they smelled of burned hair. She looked at the pump as if she would wash them, but she didn't stand up, and then in the darkness the pale rain fell around her. She sat where she was.

In Mary Lavin's open-ended tale it was uncertain what would happen to Owen's wife or Brigid. The reader's imagination was aroused. Yet when Mary Lavin provided her tale with a longer and more detailed ending, on its publication in book form in 1959, the appeal and effect were lessened. The self-depreciating and self-pitying statements by Owen's wife, (“I failed him always … I never loved him like he loved me”) together with her gratuitous questions (“Oh, how had it happened? How could love be wasted, and go to loss like that?”), weakened the sketch. They violated the portrait of Owen's wife and were out of character.

Mary Lavin's debt to O'Sullivan extended through the years. In March 1954 she told her favourite editor that when a new volume of her stories appeared she hoped “to give it a little lustre by an acknowledgement to The Dublin Magazine.7 A few days later O'Sullivan said that he would be delighted to publish “An Akoulina of the Irish Midlands” in the July 1954 issue. He said that it was really kind of Mary Lavin to let him have it since his poverty-stricken magazine could not afford to pay anything like the amount which was customary with English and American magazines.8 In “An Akoulina of the Irish Midlands” Mary Lavin made her omniscient narrator, who was willing to acknowledge her miscalculations and misassumptions, believable and appealing. At first Mary Lavin's narrator assumed that Akoulina, the story's protagonist, was upset because of a tiff that she had had with her lover, Andy. Later, when the narrator discovered that religion was the problem, she again made an erroneous assumption, that Andy was a Protestant and Akoulina a Catholic:

“So they were not of the same religion? That was something I hadn't expected … Perhaps it was because the little Protestant church had a lonely look about it, that I jumped to the conclusion Andy was the Protestant, for he too always struck me as having a lonely air about him … ‘Oh, you'll convert him, Lena,’ I said complacently. And just how complacently I accepted the local interpretation of the word ‘conversion’ can be seen from the glib way I used the common colloquialism. ‘You'll make him turn with you,’ I said. But Lena looked at me sorrowfully. ‘Oh Miss, you don't understand,’ she said. ‘It's not Andy; it's me that's the Protestant.’ Why, of course! How could I have forgotten it? Didn't she live in the little church.”

It was the inquisitive, observant, yet retiring, narrator, and not Akoulina or Andy, whom Mary Lavin most carefully developed in her tale. Although the narrator never intruded, she possessed a definite personality and felt a strong sympathy with Lena.9 The narrator, almost obsessed by Lena, watched her constantly. On a few occasions she called her “my Lena,” and, when Andy reprimanded Lena, the narrator said that “it was a moment of intolerable pain” to her.

There was a marked resemblance between the narrator in “An Akoulina of the Irish Midlands” and Turgenev's short story “The Tryst.” In both stories the narrator, unnoticed, watched a pair of lovers in the woods, and in each instance she possessed excessive empathy toward the young woman. The remark made by Turgenev's narrator about the protagonist, Akoulina, when she said that she”was especially taken with the expression of her face; it was so simple and gentle, so sad and so full of childish wonder at its own sadness,” might have been made by Mary Lavin's narrator about Lena. Although Mary Lavin's narrator stated on several occasions that she had accidentally come upon the lovers, Lena and Andy, in the woods, her continual self-justification caused the reader to doubt her. The narrator's protective feeling toward Lena and obsessive desire to watch her every movement had implicit sexual connotations. While spying on Lena in the woods, the narrator could not turn her eyes away from Lena's glowing face. When the narrator saw that Lena was wet to the skin from the rain and had a frightened look on her face, she nearly betrayed herself in her desire to comfort Lena. The narrator noticed Lena look up at Andy with such intensity of feeling that the “realized, with a sinking heart, that such love could never be fully matched.” Only when the narrator sensed that Lena was about to give herself (physically) to Andy, did she stop spying. It was as though she could not bear to see or think of Lena and Andy making love:

“‘What will we do?’ he said, and looking forward into the leafy undergrowth where it thickened, until it was as close and secretive as a house, he began to breathe heavily, and something of the intensity so habitual to Lena, but rarer to him, animated his face and lit his eyes. ‘Let's see what it's like further on, in here … We never went further than this …’ His arm had tightened so convulsively around her waist that it was impossible to tell whether he led her, or whether of her own will she disappeared with him into the depths of that close and secretive copse.”

One never discovered, however, if Lena and Andy made love in the woods because Mary Lavin's narrator (probably in deference to Ireland's archaic censorship rules) conveniently passed over this a period of time and the next sentence read “A few minutes later I stood up from my cramped and unwilling position.”

Like all good short story writers, Mary Lavin used time with skill. She was always in control of her story, allowing her descriptive passages to proceed only so far. Although she frequently passed over a period of time, she did so without damaging her story's continuity. In fact, on occasion, Mary Lavin increased the immediacy of a situation and even heightened it by skipping from one moment to another. In “An Akoulina of the Irish Midlands” she ended a section of her tale with Lena saying to the narrator, “Don't be watching out for us to-night. To-day is my half-day, Miss. I'll be meeting him in Belinter Woods.” She began the next section of her story with the narrator's comment, “I had no idea of going near Belinter Woods that afternoon …. That I should happen to have been upon the scene at all was the merest accident.” The time Mary Lavin passed over was irrelevant. Because her desire was to show the effect that Lena had on the narrator, she did not care about those hours when the narrator was not in the company of Lena.

However, Mary Lavin was not so preoccupied with character portrayal and the handling of time as to neglect other facets of writing. In “An Akoulina of the Irish Midlands” she created an appealing atmosphere even it it was at times tinged with an excessively romantic ambience:

… the clouds began to break, and patches of blue showed through the beeches over my head. Soon it was in the wood alone that the rain still fell, dropping not only from the sky, but from the leafy branches, and even there, as if to show the attitude of all nature, at my feet a blade of grass that had been weighted down with a big raindrop, let fall its crystal drop and sprang upright. And soon, darting out of their green tunnels in the undergrowth, scattering rain from their glossy wings, the birds were beginning to sing again, while all the air breathed with a new sweetness, not the particular perfume of any single bush of tree, but the gentle exhalation of a million fresh-washed leaves.

Nature description in Mary Lavin's short stories seldom lasted for any length of time and in “An Akoulina of the Irish Midlands” pastoral interludes invariably gave way to thematic development. Mary Lavin was preoccupied with problems that religious differences inevitably brought to any relationship in Ireland; and much of the dramatic tension in her tale occured because her two lovers were of different religions. The reader wondered if Lena and Andy would encounter the same marital problems as Maime (a Catholic) and Elgar (a Protestant) did in another short story, “The Convert.” This was a mixed marriage, also of love, that disintegrated as the years passed. The religious differences of Maime and Elgar were never forgotten because in moments of stress Maime always taunted her husband for being a Protestant.

Between 1939 and 1954, while Mary Lavin published in The Dublin Magazine, she developed into a talented young writer. She created credible and dramatically justifiable characters, made relevant use of detail, employed evocative images, established meaningful themes and skilfully ordered events in her various tales. By 1954 Mary Lavin's style had become more sophisticated. She had begun, for example, to experiment with various narrative techniques in “An Akoulina of the Irish Mirlands,” something she had not done in 1939 when she wrote “Miss Holland.” If it had not been for Seumas O'Sullivan's encouragement, Mary Lavin might not have acquired the necessary self-confidence and Ireland might not have witnessed the development of one of its most readable and esteemed modern authors.


  1. State University of New-York at Binghamton Library, O'Sullivan to Lavin, 16 May, 1939.

  2. In the preface to her Selected Stories (1959) Mary Lavin said that this was what short story writting was for her.

  3. Trinity College, Dublin. Seumas O'Sullivan Correspondence, No. 1705. Hereafter, T.C.D., S.O.S. Correspondence.

  4. State University of New-York at Binghamton Library, O'Sullivan to Lavin, 7 September, 1939.

  5. State University of New-York at Binghamton Library, O'Sullivan to Lavin, 7 May, 1941.

  6. Margaret O'Leary was another short story writer indebted to O'Sullivan. In a letter written on the 14th of January, 1945 she said that she valued his”appreciation” of her work because he was “the only person … whose literary judgement she could rely on.” T.C.D., S.O.S. Correspondence, No. 2152.

  7. T.C.D., S.O.S. Correspondence, No. 2761.

  8. State University of New-York at Binghamton Library, O'Sullivan to Lavin, 28 March, 1954.

  9. When”An Akoulina of the Irish Midlands” was republished in volume one of Mary Lavin's. Collected Short Stories (1964), the narrator became a man.

Janet Egleson Dunleavy (essay date 1977)

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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 of observation and corroboration follows, while she ponders still another question: “under what circumstances does that sort of thing happen to that kind of person?” When she has the answer to that, she has the nucleus of her story: the universal truth that, particularized, grows into a work of fiction. From her storehouse of scenes, sounds, and conversations—bits and pieces of life, fragments of experience, that seem, according to Mary Lavin, to collect somewhere without her being aware that her magpie mind is retaining them for future use—come the houses, clothes, gardens, streets, people she needs to particularize the universal truth that, slowly and deliberately, she has compacted from those teasing questions that consciously and unconsciously focus her observations: as if, according to the author, having materialized out of the past, furnishings of life and embodiments of feelings become composite images that “sift through cracks” in her head into the story beginning to take shape.

At this point Mary Lavin is ready to commit a first draft to writing. It is scribbled out, in longhand, from beginning to end, as the pieces “sift through the cracks.” Pressured by an imagination that creates faster than she can write, the author rushes to keep pace. Words suggests paragraphs later to be constructed; dashes indicate connections later to be made; and parentheses mark omissions later to be filled in, as the skeletal prose outline expands within the pages of a copybook. She does not type her drafts because no typewriter can move as fast as her pen. She does not dictate into a recording machine because she writes kinesthetically, bearing down darkly here, underscoring there, forming large letters that dominate the page, small letters that work out details, reducing letters to their simplest forms, according to mood and subject.3 This is the part of the story-writing process when the author needs most to work alone and uninterrupted, for hours at a time—difficult hours to arrange for a naturally convivial woman with a wide circle of friends who gives generously of her time to young writers, teaches courses in creative writing, and participates actively on committees and boards of importance to the intellectual community.4

Revision and expansion of this skeleton follow, over periods measured sometimes in weeks, sometimes in months, sometimes in years, since subsequent drafts also are written out in longhand until the author feels that the story has progressed to a point at which she can view it more satisfactorily in typescript. At her instruction, a typist prepares an original and multiple carbon copies. These copies are worked on sequentially and simultaneously: at times, the author concentrates most of her revisions in one copy, then moves to another; at times she moves back and forth among several copies, trying different revisions in each. Those revisions she decides to retain are incorporated into the next typescript she orders—again, in an original and multiple carbon copies—and the process is repeated until a final version satisfactory to the author is achieved.

This is the process Mary Lavin followed throughout the writing of “A Memory,” a novella published in the United States in 1973 as the title story of a collection of short novels.5 “That happens”: human beings who suppress their feelings, denying themselves emotional lives, are deeply upset if another human being, for whatever reason, attempts to free their fettered feelings. The idea was not new to her when she began to commit the first skeletal draft of it to writing in January, 1970. Many years before, she had written “Love Is for Lovers,” a short story included in the early prize-winning Tales from Bective Bridge.6

“Love Is for Lovers” is the story of Mathew Simmins who “began to think about marriage” only when he had reached “the non-committal age of forty-four.” For 20 years he had worked in Mahaffy's Stores, gradually rising in this establishment as he assumed more and more responsibility from young Mahaffy, who “was said to be one of the best chess players in the world,” but who lacked his father's ability when it came to the family business. At 44, Mathew tells himself that working his way up in Mahaffy's had taken so much of his time and energies that he had had none left over for romance, even as a young man, except for occasional daydreams in which he imagined himself with beautiful girls on advertising posters. But, over the years, even the daydreams had been pushed aside as his mind was taken up more and more with inventories and orders to be filled. Thus when Rita Cooligan, a widowed customer, began her daily flirtations, Mathew allowed himself to be drawn into her age-old games, knowing the meaning of them, enjoying the possibility that at 44 he might let himself be caught, thinking in fact that he wanted to be caught—that marriage perhaps would introduce some welcome warmth and comfort into his cold, bare life. But one unusually warm Saturday afternoon in July, physically sickened by the inescapable heat and glare, seeking in the cool blue of the sky and green of the trees at least visual relief from the oppressive sun, Mathew suddenly felt that the warmth of the Widow Cooligan also was inescapable, and that marriage to her would mean day-after-unrelenting-day of the same oppressive and physically sickening warmth. Fleeing her orange curtains, orange dress, orange couch—Rita Cooligan was very fond of the color orange—he found relief outside in the street, under a cool blue sky, near black iron railings and gray buildings. Safe in his cold, bare room, he determined that, from that moment on, he would live as he lived in the past, avoiding the “hot rays of life.”

Similarities to “A Memory” are apparent. The agones structured in “Love Is for Lovers” by the triangular relationship of Mathew Simmins, Rita Cooligan, and the girl on the bicycle poster are analagous to those structured in “A Memory” by the James-Myra-Emmy triangle. Mathew and James seem to share significant characteristics. Both have rejected love, marriage—any semblance of emotional life—in their commitment to their work. Each is only dimly and imperfectly aware that some part of himself could respond or ever had responded emotionally to another. Just as Mathew is drawn to the Widow Cooligan, anticipating pleasure in the relationship, so James has enjoyed his close friendship with Myra. When Rita and Myra press for greater intimacy, Mathew and James flee. In his youth, Mathew's passions frequently had been stirred by a picture of a girl on a bicycle poster. As a young graduate student completing his Ph.D., James had loved Emmy for one brief, passionate, and deeply unsettling year. In one scene in “Love Is for Lovers,” the Widow Cooligan throws out her arms, playfully barring the door, rather than allow the timid and embarrassed Mathew to leave. In “A Memory,” Myra, in a very different mood, assumes the same posture before a very different James. The Widow Cooligan's Georgian house is “off the main street”; Mathew's lodgings are nearby. Myra's “charming little mews house” appears to be in the same neighborhood, in the lane “at the back of Fitzwilliam Square,” just off Dublin's busy Baggot Street, not far from the National Library. James used to live in the same area, before his friendship with Myra, before his research fellowship had freed him from daily university duties, allowing him to move to his cottage in the country.

Differences are evident. Mathew is consciously drawn to the Widow Cooligan for the physical comforts she can provide: at first he likes even the warmth of the orange color she favors for her wardrobe and the interior of her house. There is no hint of intellectual companionship in his perceptions of her or in their dull, empty conversations. James is attracted to Myra because she seems to offer a “marriage of minds,” with no threat of a physical relationship and all that is usually entails, including conventional marriage and children. At the same time, however, he recognizes that “a nice scent from her clothes … often bothered him, and was occasionally the cause of giving her the victory …” in their “really brilliant arguments. …” In Mathew's past, there was nothing but a fantasy relationship with a picture of a young woman. Preferring his own company, he did not know what it was to be lonely: he had no friends. James's youthful, year-long affair with Emmy had been very real; he is able to acknowledge, to himself and to Myra, that he is strongly drawn toward her, that he would be tempted to spend every evening with her if he lived in Dublin. He has sisters; he knows other people in Dublin; he is known to other people, including the porter at the National Library, who treats him with marked respect.

In sum, James is far more complex than Mathew. Consequently, he is much more interesting, more appropriately the main character of a novella, while Mathew is more appropriately the subject of a short story. Greater differences separate Rita Cooligan and Myra. Rita is not in love with Mathew: to her, his chief attraction is that he is a bachelor. Tired of widowhood, she has become the predator in a series of not-so-subtle games intended to help her catch a second husband. So she plays the helpless, scatterbrained incompetent and the competent motherly woman by turns, confident that she knows “what men like,” and that she will soon be Mathew's wife. Myra, by contrast, is both proud of and amused by her own singlar lack of domesticity. Indeed, it was this quality, and the “strong … intellectual climate of thought in which she lived,” that so attracted James. She, in turn, was pleased to find in him, when first they met, a man capable of appreciating intellectuality in a woman. Thus, their relationship had grown over a “solid phalanx of years” not only because of what it offered to each of them, but also because of what it did not offer, which both avowed they did not want. Yet moments of tenderness had crept into their regular meetings—brief kisses, cheek laid against cheek, hand laid within hand—and each longed to be with the other when they were apart. Understanding this deeper quality to their relationship, Myra endures “the little deprivations” of their separate lives for the joy she feels when they are together. Never would she attempt to trap James into marriage, as Rita Cooligan attempts to trap Mathew, not only for his sake but also because a conventional marriage would not suit her, either. Myra is far more complex than the lonely widow. Moreover, she introduces into “A Memory” a second universal truth absent from “Love Is for Lovers”: “that happens.” Human beings who suppress their feelings, denying themselves emotional lives, for one set of reasons, may seek to express their feelings and live more fully when those reasons no longer are valid.

Readers familiar with Mary Lavin's canon cannot help but note the similarities between “Love Is for Lovers” and “A Memory,” at the same time recognizing the differences. For the author, however, the similarities were not at all apparent in 1970, as “A Memory” began to take shape, perhaps because, as the composite image of James began to materialize, he seemed so clearly different from Mathew in intellect, education, and social and economic status; perhaps because, as Mary Lavin visualized him in a small cottage in County Meath, he seemed so far removed from the shops and shopkeepers of Baggot Street; perhaps because, as she first saw him, his thoughts were focused entirely on himself and the old woman from the village who did household chores for him, without those frequent recollections of Myra—originally Mona—that interrupted him and drew the author's attention to their relationship in later drafts.

James's cottage, as it is described in “A Memory,” is superimposed on the foundations of Mary Lavin's own actual and larger farmhouse in County Meath. It shares her views of surrounding farms. From Dublin, it is reached by the same bus routes, along the same roads, past the same landmarks familiar to the author. Myra's Dublin “flat”—not really a flat at all, as James notes, but a “charming little mews house”—is also taken from the author's life. With its “enormous window by which she had replaced the doors” of the original structure, it stands in the mews behind Dublin's Fitzwilliam Square, where Mary Lavin herself lives and writes when she stays in the city.

James and Myra were first established at their respective address in country and city during the first month of 1970, when the rough idea for “A Memory” began to take shape. From the beginning, like her other stories, the basic outline of the finished piece was apparent. James, content with his life as scholar-ascetic, lived in the country by choice seeking the opportunities it gave him to devote himself to his work without the interruptions and distractions of Dublin. Mona-Myra shared his intellectual interests; seemed to scorn the traditional roles of wife, mistress, and mother; and suggested, by the relationship she offered, what James never before had considered possible: “that a man and woman could enter into a marriage of minds.” In the background there was Emmy, the young girl of James's past, now married and middle-aged. She and her family had moved into neighboring Asigh House. By this act, unwittingly, she had moved back also, after many years of only occasional and fleeting recollection, into James's mind. These three characters remain essentially the same in relation to each other throughout the 26 dated versions and revisions of the story that separate the first rough draft from the final typescript. Synopsis does little to suggest the powerful psychological study that it becomes.

Mary Lavin's first handwritten manuscript of “A Memory” fills a 72-page copybook of the type called an Ink Paper Jotter. Nothing is fully presented in this version: it is but an outline in which some passages are sketched in by means of phrases punctuated by dashes with the word “develop” following them in parentheses; some sequences are merely indicated (e.g. “sewing incident” or “was he on the way to the bus? Very slight indication of the lay of the land here”); some notations are made of dialogue and of the way it is to be used to further the sequence of events in the story (e.g., “Telling it all obliquely through Myra's discussions with him about it”); and many descriptive passages are merely positioned in an impatient scrawl (e.g., “Dublin/the streets—the quays/the bookshops—the people,” the last word heavily underscored for emphasis). Curious notes appear in the margins: for example, some lines from “Bagpipe Music” by Louis MacNeice, which the author incorrectly identifies as “some lines from Eliot,” reminding herself to “look them up” and work them into a later draft.

Given such detailed and explicit notes for development and expansion, anyone unfamiliar with Mary Lavin's working method who examined this outline might well expect that a novel of at least 300 to 400 pages surely would grow out of such a 72-page draft. The expectation would be strengthened if, by chance, this same person were also to talk with Mary Lavin about the reception of the writer in contemporary society. For in such talks—about her own work and the work of others—Mary Lavin frankly and freely explains the advantages of writing novels, of which she has published but two, rather than novellas or short stories: novels are more attractive to book publishers; novels receive more serious consideration from reviewers and critics; novels receive more popular attention from readers; novels earn more income for their authors.

The second through seventh drafts of “A Memory,” dated between March and November, 1970, are indeed longer than the first. As the story is developed, it grows from one Ink Paper Jotter to three, from 72 pages to approximately 200 pages, with much of the skeleton still to be fleshed out. At this point, in fact, it seems as if a 400- or 500-page novel might be in progress. By November, 1970, however, the story has developed sufficiently for Mary Lavin to want to see it in typescript. And once typed copy is before her, the process of artistic reduction begins. For, aware as she is in theory of the practical aspects of novel writing, Mary Lavin approaches a work-in-progress with no practical or mundane considerations whatsoever. Her concern when she writes is for craft. For her, craft is artistic economy. To be able to suggest what is stated or explained, to replace with a single right word the ten previously used to describe an object or situation, to substitute gesture for action: these, to her, are the skills of the literary artist. Thus it is that subsequent drafts of “A Memory,” all 19 of them, are ruthlessly cut and compressed until a final version, satisfactory to the author, is achieved.

Close examination of the heavily edited November, 1970, draft of “A Memory” reveals the author's determination to excise every word that proves not entirely necessary to mood and content. Sometimes verbal compression is achieved slowly, word-by-word: for example, “Mrs. Nally had tried to persuade him to work on alternative days in his study and in his bedroom” becomes “Mrs. Nally suggested once that he work alternative days in his study and in his bedroom”: three words are dropped. Sometimes it moves more easily: in later versions, by a single stroke of the pen a line is condensed further. Sometimes entire lines are deleted: in the final version of the story the line quoted above is omitted altogether, what it says about James and his work habits having been worked into the text in other ways. In the November, 1970, draft Mary Lavin also focuses on propriety of diction and on sound and rhythm as they reveal mood and character, not only in dialogue but also in point-of-view narrative passages. In earlier versions, her concentration was on story, but at this stage of revision she concentrates on modulating diction, sound, and rhythm, altering them skillfully to reflect each shift in point of view without distracting the reader from narrative content. Thus, when the narrative focuses on James, it moves with rhythms the reader learns to associate with him, reflecting his personality also through characteristic sound patterns and through metaphors that mirror his mind. And when the narrative focuses on Myra, rhythm, sound, and diction are again modulated to reflect her personality and to indicate her mood. The MacNiece poem is first worked into the text; later, it is worked into dialogue before being abandoned altogether. Only its rhythms and its pictures of city life, flashing like neon signs, remaining in James's internal monologue to suggest why it had been hovering in the back of the author's creative consciousness. In this and subsequent drafts, more and more factual information necessary to an understanding of the story is presented discursively through each character's thoughts, the reader being left with the task of assembling them in chronological order and determining cause and effect. Revisions transfer this information, from Myra to James and back again, until it blends easily and naturally into point-of-view passages. In earlier versions, facts were presented and cause and effect were stated and explained in passages presented through a narrative voice.

As a result of these revisions, a story that seemed at first to be an objective recounting of a sequence of events in the lives of three characters, each of equal importance and each viewed from outside, begins to become, in November, 1970, an insightful study of James's denial of his emotional self and its effects upon him and on those who have tried to be close to him. By December 3, 1970,—this draft completed during a visit by the author to the United States—James had been enlarged and moved to the foreground; Mrs. Nally, a minor figure who had been presented in sharply focused detail in earlier versions, had been pushed into the background where, in the final version of the story, she is named only once, as the nullified Mrs. Nully, and thereafter is mentioned merely as “an old woman.”

At this stage of revision, in December, 1970, it becomes clear that as the text of the rest of the story had been focused, synthesized, polished, and refined, Mary Lavin had grown increasingly dissatisfied with its conclusion. The first, rough draft had ended with James getting off the bus near his cottage, having walked out on Myra's spontaneous attempt to express her feelings and establish a closer relationship—an attempt by which he is seriously threatened—followed by her accusations and anger. Emmy, remembered earlier, served only as a catalyst for this scene; she was not present, even in memory, in its last episode. In the second draft, the conclusion is developed: an agitated James, on his way home, gets off the bus one stop before he should, walks along the dark road reviewing the distressing events of his evening with Myra, has a moment's panic when he cannot get his bearings, regains control of himself and his world when he recognizes his position, and sets off diagonally across the demesne to reach his cottage by means of a short cut he triumphantly discovers. The implication, clearly, is that he was almost trapped by the illusion that between a man and a woman a kind of marriage could be confined to mind alone, but once more he has managed to avoid an entangling alliance. His suffering, what there is of it, seems minor and of little duration; compared to Myra, he gets off easily. The third draft ends with James on the bus, remembering his conversations about Myra with his sister, whose name changes from Edna to Nora, becoming Kay in the final draft. It is inconclusive, but he seems less unfeeling. The fourth through seventh versions put James on the road again, having gotten off the bus too soon, with no more serious discomfort than an extra mile to “slog on” and another woman to slough off. The eighth rewriting ends with James cursing Myra for having upset his life and having put him in such a state that he must now walk extra miles on an empty stomach before he can reach the comfort and security of his cottage. Still there is no recurrent mention of Emmy, nor of the memory responsible for the mood that began the sequence of events.

Emmy is reintroduced into the story as part of the conclusion in drafts of the end of the story only, not the complete text, dated December, 1970, to February, 1971. In these versions, James, agitated, angry, and weak from hunger, having inadvertently missed lunch and then walked out on Myra before dinner, strikes out through the woods to make up for the fact that he has gotten off the bus at the wrong stop and thereby has given himself extra miles to trudge. He becomes uneasy, however, when he realizes that this short cut takes him close to Asigh House, through land belonging to Emmy and her husband. He does not relish an encounter with either, nor does he wish to be challenged as a trespasser. In the woods he becomes confused and loses his way, adding to his distress. Physically exhausted and emotionally upset, he develops chest pains, which he tries to ignore until he collapses, unable to walk further. Myra and the events of the evening become confused in his mind with memories of Emmy as he sees a light shining from a window some undetermined distance away. Even though one part of him realizes that he is “raving,” to another part it seems as if Emmy is holding the light for him and that, if he can reach it, he will go back 20 years and become a “man of iron” again. In one draft, the light goes out, no one hears him, and James's mood alternates between anger and self-pity as he lies helpless in the woods. In another, his cries for help are heard by the occupants of the house, who are not Emmy and her husband, but who go to find them because James, nearly unconscious, keeps mumbling her name.

It is this last version that Mary Lavin used in a new revision of the complete text dated June 17, 1971, on which she wrote: “Absolutely final I hope.” By this draft, the opening scene had been painted and repainted until James stood out sharply against the background of the little three-room cottage in which he lived. His mind was revealed as so occupied first with Myra and then with Emmy that everything around him reminded him of one or the other, even as he congratulated himself on his ability to avoid emotional entanglements. His character was established not only in the rhythm of his thoughts—the rhythm of “Bagpipe Music”—and the metaphors they suggested, but also in the way he made a fire, sat down to breakfast, and regarded his work. Larger than anything around him, dominating the foreground, he had become, clearly, the central figure of the story. The sequence of events no longer was important in itself; it was merely the vehicle that moved the reader through a day in James's life, providing the opportunity to observe him from multiple points of view.

This version was, of course, not “absolutely final” at all. The end still did not satisfy the author. More drafts followed. But what had been established—what determined the way in which, ultimately, “A Memory” did end—was that the story had become a psychological study. Finally, in February, 1972, Mary Lavin completed “A Memory” in a form she was willing to release to the printer. In this, the published version, Myra, Emmy, the unhappy evening, and memories of the past jumble together in James's mind as he struggles to reach his cottage, through the dark woods, at the same time struggling to comprehend what has happened and what is happening to him. Flashes of insight are followed by a return to darkness as he rejects what he is unwilling to know or to feel. Face down in the wet leaves, “under the weight of bitterness too great to be borne,” his chest exploding with pain, hallucinating in his half-consciousness about the light, actual and symbolic, that he wants and yet does not want to reach, James burns with resentment. Confused images of Myra and Emmy, superimposed on each other, have failed him as, earlier in the day, his work failed him—as, indeed, his very body is beginning to fail him, forcing him to endure awareness of aging, of his own human nature and inevitable mortality, that he has tried to deny.

The psychological portrait completed, the story stripped of all but essential text, “A Memory,” an example of the literary craftsmanship that, years ago, first had admitted Mary Lavin, while still a young woman, to a circle of much older and more practiced literary artists, was ready for publication. Its final length: 62 printed pages, fewer than the pages of the Ink Paper Jotter in which it had had its origin.


  1. Cf. Lord Dunsany, “Preface” to Mary Lavin's Tales from Bective Bridge (London, 1943), p. 6; Frank O'Connor, The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story (Cleveland and New York, 1963), p. 212.

  2. The following outline of the way in which a story begins to form in Mary Lavin's mind before she commits it to writing has been taken from conversations with the author. It is included here not as an attempt to present the creative process as simplistic or formulaic but to suggest some of the origins of Mary Lavin's published fiction.

  3. I am grateful to Mary Lavin for the opportunity she has given me to examine and discuss with her unpublished drafts of her published work.

  4. For example, Mary Lavin recently completed a term of office as president of the Irish Academy of Letters; she serves on the Board of the National Library of Ireland; she frequently offers courses in creative writing through the School for Irish Studies, Dublin; in the past she often has joined American university faculties for limited terms as visiting writer-in-residence.

  5. Mary Lavin, A Memory, and Other Stories (Boston, 1973), pp. 162-223.

  6. Mary Lavin, Tales from Bective Bridge (London, 1945), pp. 100-121.

Richard F. Peterson (essay date 1978)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5168

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 “Prelude” and “At the Bay” and her criticism of “Bliss” and “Miss Brill” offer the possibility of reconciling the sharply contrasting views of Katherine Mansfield's stories found in the writings of Willa Cather and Virginia Woolf. In her essay on Mansfield, Willa Cather sees “Prelude” and “At the Bay” fulfilling the full measure of Mansfield's art: “I doubt whether any contemporary writer has made one feel more keenly the many kinds of personal relations which exist in an everyday ‘happy family’ who are merely going on living their daily lives with no crises or shocks or bewildering complications to try them.”3 Using the two New Zealand stories as a standard of excellence, Cather concludes that Mansfield's unique gift as a storyteller “lay in her interpretation of [the] secret accords and antipathies which lie hidden under our everyday behaviour, and which more than any outward events make our lives happy or unhappy.”4 Virginia Woolf, on the other hand, wrote in her diary that after reading “Bliss,” she concluded that Katherine Mansfield was “done for” as a writer:

Indeed I don't see how much faith in her as woman or writer can survive that sort of story. I shall have to accept the fact, I'm afraid, that her mind is a very thin soil, laid an inch or two deep upon very barren rock. For Bliss is long enough to give her a chance of going deeper. Instead she is content with superficial smartness; and the whole conception is poor, cheap, not the vision, however imperfect, of an interesting mind. She writes badly too.5

By using Katherine Mansfield's search for truth as a standard, Mary Lavin, in her notes for an essay, judges Mansfield's stories in a way that encompasses both Willa Cather's praise and Virginia Woolf's condemnation. She agrees with Cather that “Prelude” and “At the Bay” are perfect expressions of Mansfield's talent and vision; but she also agrees with Woolf that “Bliss,” as well as “Miss Brill,” falls far short of the truth. As to what determines whether or not a writer achieves this elusive goal, Lavin simply writes that in “Prelude” and “At the Bay” the reader experiences the everyday life of the Burnell family, while in “Bliss” and “Miss Brill” the reader learns the truth about Bertha Young and Miss Brill through a convenient and artificial climax. This distinction between experiencing the truth and being told the truth suggests that success or failure in Mansfield's short stories, and perhaps fiction in general, greatly depends upon narrative control. The more a story is dependent upon contrivance, the less successful it is as a truthful representation of life; the less intrusive the narrative of a story, the more it is capable of creating a direct impression of life.

The failing of “Bliss,” then, has nothing to do with what the reader learns about Bertha Young's character or marriage. The story falls short because the revelation of Bertha's truth comes about through the contrivance of her accidental discovery of her husband's affair with Pearl Fulton. Until this climactic moment, the narrative has closely followed the pattern of Bertha's giddy feeling of happiness and security and skillfully used the central symbol of the pear tree to unite Bertha's secret bliss, known to the reader because he shares Bertha's perspective, and Pearl Fulton's, which remains unknown until the fatal moment when Bertha sees Harry's passion for the no longer mysterious Pearl. Whatever “Bliss” reveals about Bertha's fragile illusions and her failure in the past to respond to her husband's desires is undercut by a climax better suited for melodrama than the delicate art of the modern short story.

“Miss Brill” creates a similar character and situation and, unfortunately, also reaches its climax in the same contrived way. Miss Brill compensates for her drab and lonely existence, suggested by her fondness for her shabby fur piece and her dependency upon her vicarious adventures in the Jardins Publiques, by creating the illusion that she is an actress in some wonderful drama of life played out upon the park benches. Her moment of truth, when her fragile illusion is forever shattered, comes to Miss Brill, and to the reader, in exactly the same manner as it does to Bertha Young. The beautifully dressed boy and girl, the newly arrived hero and heroine of Miss Brill's drama, “tell” the eavesdropping actress what her real role in life happens to be:

“No, not now,” said the girl. “Not here, I can't.”

“But why? Because of that stupid old thing at the end there?” asked the boy. “Why does she come here at all—who wants her? Why doesn't she keep her silly old mug at home?”

“It's her fu-fur which is so funny,” giggled the girl. “It's exactly like a fried whiting.”6

“Bliss” and “Miss Brill” are flawed stories, but not because the truth they reveal about their protagonists is too brutal or painful for the tastes of the common reader. In each story, the climax of the narrative suggests an arranged reality that leaves a lasting impression, not of life, but of the author's cleverness. This strategy of arrangement for dramatic effect or revelation, unfortunately, is common in Katherine Mansfield's fiction. Too often in her stories a dropped remark at the right or wrong moment, a chance meeting or discovery, an intrusive figure in the shape of a fat man at a ball or in the Café de Madrid, a convenient death of a hired man or a stranger dying aboard a ship, or a deus ex machina in the form of two doves, a dill pickle, or a fly plays too much of a role in creating a character's dilemma or deciding the outcome of the narrative. These stories carefully prepare the reader for a revelation of the loneliness of human existence, but, when the vision arrives, it is so contrived that the reader suspects that the lack of passion and loneliness belonged more to the author than the characters in her fiction. Perhaps this is the reason that Virginia Woolf, after reading “Bliss,” concluded that Katherine Mansfield's mind was “a very thin soil, laid an inch or two deep upon very barren rock.”

“Prelude” and “At the Bay” represent a different kind of story in the Mansfield canon. Through a carefully selected and more naturally arranged series of impressions, Katherine Mansfield creates, in each story, a true sense of the Burnells' family life and the hopes and frustrations of each member of the family. In “Prelude,” her choice of the major narrative event and her skillful use of the natural movement of time are critical in determining the success of the story. Moving day is a normal event in the history of a family, but it is uncommon enough in the life of an individual family, particularly if it means a dramatic change in life style, to draw out emotions that usually remain under the surface or are rarely brought into sharp focus. The disruption of the family routine and the shift from town to country living are normally not sufficient to drive deep wedges into family relationships or permanently impair the emotional life of the individual, but they are enough to create a temporary air of disturbance which, in turn, exposes the emotional truth behind each individual and each relationship in the Burnell family.

“Prelude,” cheating a bit on Ulysses and Mrs. Dalloway, covers about forty-eight hours in the lives of its characters. Twelve episodes are carefully drawn from this period, so that each one gives a brief impression of the emotional life of the Burnells. By beginning the sequence of impressions with the Burnells loading the last of their belongings on the family buggy, the narrative immediately creates an atmosphere of anticipation, mystery, frustration, and dread, which surrounds the family as it sets out for its new home. The narrative point of view, however, quickly draws the reader's attention away from the physical journey by focusing on the emotions of Kezia, who, with her sister Lottie, is left behind because there is no room on the buggy. Rather than the excitement and adventure of the journey to the new house, the key event in the opening sequence of “Prelude” eventually becomes Kezia's determination not to cry.

Narrative perspective is critical to the atmosphere of truth Katherine Mansfield creates in “Prelude.” By allowing the third person point of view to be controlled by the vision of one of the Burnells, rather than the author's vision, she offers a world in which impressions constitute reality. How each member of the Burnell family perceives the world gradually forms the fabric of truth in the story. No authorial bolt from the heavens is needed in “Prelude” to expose the real thing. The narrative skillfully and delicately supports Henry James's point, in “The Art of Fiction,” that if “experience consists of impressions, it may be said that impressions are experience, just as (have we not seen it?) they are the very air we breathe.”7

Katherine Mansfield weaves her fabric of truth out of the very air her characters breathe by expanding the perspective occasionally to include the Burnells' family life and by shifting the point of view from individual to individual. When Kezia and Lottie finally arrive at their new home, the narrative perspective, until this moment concerned primarily with Kezia's emotions, embraces the family roles and personalities of the adult Burnells. The father's proprietary and slightly defensive air, the mother's indifference and weariness, the grandmother's sense of responsibility, the aunt's frustrations, all become a part of Kezia's vision; and when the children are put to bed, the point of view narrows and shifts as character after character goes through the process of retiring for the evening. Father, mother, and aunt slowly take on individual identities and feelings as Stanley, Linda, and Beryl. Only Mrs. Fairchild, who discovers Kezia has not fallen asleep because she is waiting for her grandmother to come to bed, is not allowed a moment to return to her secret self.

During the next two days, the narrative continues its movement from character to character, from relationship to relationship, from private emotions to family activity, and from the innocent world of children to the more ominous adult world. From the morning hours, when Linda has her disturbing dream of a tiny bird that becomes a monstrous baby with a gaping bird-mouth, to the evening hours, when Beryl has her narcissistic visions of her romantic self, the Burnell world gradually forms itself into a delicate mosaic of hidden desires, frustrations, and fears.

Life becomes disturbing for the individual in “Prelude” when one character's private or ideal vision of self clashes with his or her perception of the physical world or when a private vision is threatened by the conventional duties demanded by a family role. Stanley's sense of propriety, once more closely observed, becomes an obsession with keeping up appearances for the sake of his public image of what a Stanley Burnell, family man and man of the world, should be. Linda's general weariness, brought into sharper focus, becomes her dread of her family's demands, particularized in her fear of bearing children and, obviously connected, her husband's overbearing attentiveness. Stanley's happiness, lacking only a son to become total joy, is Linda's nightmare. As for Beryl, the source of her frustrations is her conviction that no one in her family sees the true Beryl, that lovely young woman with the romantic readiness for an adventurous life that always seems alarmingly tardy.

Only Mrs. Fairchild, with her strong sense of order and responsibility, seems to have no conflict within herself or with any member of the family. While the aloe, for Linda, seems like an armed ship that will protect her and help her escape the demands of Stanley and her children, it remains, for Mrs. Fairchild, a plant that may or may not show signs of flowering this year. In the last, fleeting moments of “Prelude,” when Linda, emerging out of her dream-like existence, asks her mother for her thoughts, Mrs. Fairchild answers simply that she had been wondering if they would be able to make jam in the autumn. This natural response does far more than any deus ex machina to reveal the world of difference between the emotions and temperaments of mother and daughter—and that difference, as well as all the others that make up the Burnell family, becomes the truth of “Prelude.”

When the narrative of “Prelude” ends with Beryl puzzling over the problem of never quite being able to express her true feelings, the real life of the Burnell family is no longer a puzzle. Marvin Malanger's insight into Katherine Mansfield's intentions in this New Zealand story, to write an “annunciation of the birth of her brother,”8 should not be taken to mean that the narrative evades the life that is for the life to come. The sense of life as an ongoing process of perception and discovery, best exemplified in the open and receptive mind of the autobiographical Kezia, who sees everything, including the beheaded duck destined to become the family's dinner, becomes the real subject matter of “Prelude” and dictates its narrative form. At least in this one story, based on her own childhood experiences, her own process of becoming, Katherine Mansfield achieved what she prayed for but feared she might never accomplish: “Shall I be able to express one day my love of work—my desire to be a better writer—my longing to take greater pains. And the passion I feel. It takes the place of religion—it is my religion—of people—I create my people: of ‘life’—it is Life.”9

“At the Bay,” an intended sequel to “Prelude,” is not as successfully executed, but the similarities in content and form are striking. The episodic pattern is repeated—there are thirteen episodes rather than twelve, but the last is more of a symbolic gesture than an actual narrative episode—and the cyclical movement of the day again becomes the ordering principle of the narrative, though the time pattern is condensed to one day instead of two. The central narrative event, a day at the bay, is a natural one in the history of a family but, like moving day, unusual enough in itself to expose the secret emotional life of the individual members of the Burnell family.

Stanley Burnell is as obsessed as ever with his public image as a man among men; Linda, now with an infant son, holds an even greater grudge against life; Beryl still suffers from her Gatsby complex; Mrs. Fairchild continues to hold the family together, while her daughter imagines the forms of things unknown; the children, as always, act as children. The disruption or flaw in “At the Bay,” however, comes from outside the family circle. Katherine Mansfield's introduction of the Kembers into the Burnells' pattern of existence, more than any other element in the narrative, creates the dark and threatening atmosphere that pervades “At the Bay” and separates its vision of life from that in “Prelude.”

At times in “At the Bay” it appears as if the Kembers tamper with life, making everything small, mean, and disgusting. Even the children share this sense of a malevolent underworld which threatens their daylight fantasies and games in the form of the approaching dark and the “spectre” of Jonathan Trout. Linda's secret feeling of being broken and made weak by child-bearing, Kezia's insistence that her grandmother never die, and Beryl's fascination with the Kembers, including her dream-turned-nightmare encounter with Harry Kember, are a part of a dark pattern that seems artificially consistent when compared to the myriad visions and truths of “Prelude.” The last episode, devoid of humanity, reflects Beryl's plight, but it also captures in a symbolic moment the oppressive atmosphere of “At the Bay,” which gradually becomes the narrative's chief limitation: “A cloud, small, serene, floated across the moon. In that moment of darkness the sea sounded deep, troubled. Then the cloud sailed away, and the sound of the sea was a vague murmur, as though it waked out of a dark dream. All was still.”10

There are several Mansfield stories closer in conception and execution to “Prelude” and “At the Bay” than “Bliss” and “Miss Brill.” “The Daughters of the Late Colonel,” in a series of brief, comic episodes, reveals the emotional timidity of Josephine and Constantia and their ridiculous ineffectuality, which, in an incredible way, has become their defense against the coarse realities surrounding them. After contrived opening scenes, “Something Childish But Very Natural” and “Je ne Parle pas Français” eventually reveal the failure of one character to respond to the desperate needs of another. In each case, the lack of feeling, the inability to respond, damns the character. “The Little Girl,” “A Doll's House,” “Sun and Moon,” and “A Voyage” are finely drawn studies of the natural conflict between the innocent and receptive world of the child and the insensitive, socially conscious adult world. The latter two stories flawlessly portray this conflict from the uncorrupted perspective of the child. In all of these stories, Mansfield's purpose is more the revelation of the secret, emotional life of her characters than her own private vision of reality; but only in “Prelude” did she achieve that perfect blend of form and content that inspired Willa Cather and Mary Lavin to use the story as a standard for great fiction.

Mary Lavin's interest in Katherine Mansfield's stories extends beyond the matter of respect for craft or even influence. In her own career, Lavin has struggled with the same dilemma she encountered in Mansfield's fiction. Her concern with the success of “Prelude” and the failure of “Bliss” and “Miss Brill” reflects her own often agonizing decisions about the purpose and integrity of fiction and her successes and failures in executing her private vision of the art of the short story.

At the beginning of her career, because she was writing a Chekhovian short story in which nothing seems to happen but everything is revealed, Mary Lavin was being advised to get more plot into her stories. Lord Dunsany, one of her earliest admirers, even suggested that she use O. Henry as a model. Her answer to Dunsany was a short story she wrote in 1939 called “A Story with a Pattern.” The first person narrator of this story-within-a-story is a writer who is confronted at a party by a well-intentioned critic. Though he likes her stories, the critic warns her to put more substance into her stories by adding more interesting and well-rounded endings. When the writer resists this view and challenges the critic to produce a story with a pattern, she hears the tale of Murty Lockwood, a wealthy landowner born with clubfeet, who suspects his beautiful wife of infidelity. Only when she dies in the process of delivering a still-born child does Murty have his indisputable proof of her faithfulness—the dead child has clubfeet.

The artist-writer, still resisting the temptation to become the writer-entertainer, holds to her own belief that life “isn't rounded off like that at the edges, out into neat shapes.”11 Her decision reflects her creator's own determination to resist the well-meaning advice of Lord Dunsany and to write the kind of story she found and admired in the writings of Chekhov, James, Woolf, and Mansfield. By the time Mary Lavin wrote her comments on Mansfield's fiction in her notes for an essay on the short story, she had written several stories which, according to her own definition, are truthful because they invite the reader to share in the emotional life of her characters. Unfortunately, because her early fiction was not generally accepted even when it was praised by the critics, she had also written, particularly in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a number of stories which, like “Bliss” and “Miss Brill,” impose the truth upon the reader through some narrative contrivance.

In her notes, Mary Lavin singles out “Posy” and “A Small Bequest” as stories she now hates. The choice is significant because both were published in 1951 in the same collection with “A Story with a Pattern,” which she had written years earlier as a protest against the contrived writing “Posy” and “A Small Bequest” so well represent. “Posy” is the story of a well-to-do young man who returns to the village of his mother's youth to learn something about her past. A timid and lifeless shopkeeper, unaware that he is addressing her son, tells the young man about Posy, a high-spirited family servant he narrowly escaped marrying because his sisters practically drove her from the village. The reward for the attentive reader in this story with a pattern is gradually discovering, through the healthy and prosperous appearance of the young man, that Posy found happiness and wealth after she left the village, while the shopkeeper, missing his one chance for love, led an empty and insignificant life. The narrative strategy is clever, but the cleverness, as it usually does in this kind of story, draws attention more to the writer than to the life of the characters.

“A Small Bequest,” like “Posy” and, to a less obvious degree, “Bliss” and “Miss Brill,” relies heavily upon a clever resolution of the story's conflict. Its success is entirely dependent upon the diabolical and ingenious way in which Adeline Tate carries out her revenge against her female companion, Emma Blodgett. Resentful of Miss Blodgett's excessive familiarity in calling her by her family name, Aunt Adeline, Miss Tate returns from the grave to get back at her companion by leaving a small bequest in her will for her fond niece Emma. Since Miss Blodgett is not a blood relative, she loses her legacy on a legal technicality; and since Miss Tate's ever faithful companion believes her “Aunt Adeline” made an error in her will out of an excess of love, Miss Tate's revenge is accomplished with impunity.

In her notes, Mary Lavin, while rejecting “Posy” and “A Small Bequest” by the same standard she used to condemn “Bliss” and “Miss Brill,” also states her belief that in another story, “A Cup of Tea,” she succeeded in giving the reader the opportunity to experience the truth. Lavin's “A Cup of Tea” has little in common with a Katherine Mansfield story bearing the same title.12 Mansfield's “A Cup of Tea” is a patterned story of a young woman who befriends a starving young girl until her husband casually mentions that the girl is absolutely lovely. This single remark, the same contrivance used in “Bliss” and “Miss Brill,” changes Rosemary Fell's decision to take care of the girl. Instead of keeping the girl with her, she decides that a wiser course is to give her three five pound notes and a quick good-bye. The conclusion is clever, funny, but obviously contrived.

The key narrative event in Lavin's “A Cup of Tea” is deliberately and deceptively simple and insignificant—a mother and daughter fall into a heated argument over whether or not boiled milk spoils the taste of tea. The truth of “A Cup of Tea” exists in the emotional undercurrents in the family which briefly come to the surface during the incident of the boiled milk. The unspoken antagonism between Sophy and her mother, because of the mother's empty life with her husband and Sophy's desire to escape the emotional circle of her mother's failure, flares out into the open for a brief moment in spite of their efforts to avoid a confrontation. The fact that the daughter has been away at the university and has just returned home for a visit aggravates and intensifies the emotional conflict and sets the stage for any minor incident, even boiled milk, to provoke an outburst of pent-up emotions.

“A Cup of Tea” is told from the third person limited perspective of the mother and shifts to Sophy's perspective only in the last moments of the story. The narrative, then, focuses on the mother's desperate and futile efforts to keep her feelings of frustration and loneliness under control, while she tries to enjoy her daughter's visit. Her need for her daughter's affection and approval, however, is so strong that it is only a matter of the time it takes the milk to boil until mother and daughter release their mutual resentment and hostility. When Sophy is finally alone, she comes up with a simple solution to her family's emotional problems that, unfortunately, reveals only her own inexperience and her fragile hope that she will escape the mistakes of her father and mother: “People would all have to become alike. They would have to look alike and speak alike and feel and talk and think alike. It was so simple. It was so clear! She was surprised that no one had thought of it before.”13

One of Mary Lavin's finest stories, “A Cup of Tea” also has the basic characteristics of her fiction, the eternal conflict between individuals with naturally opposed interests and sensibilities and the brief revelation of one individual's lonely and bitter life when faced with a disturbing confrontation with its opposite self. Other early stories, like “At Sallygap” and “A Happy Death,” are carefully designed studies of the breakdown of the emotional relationship between husband and wife. In each story, Lavin skillfully uses a shifting perspective to expose the secret loneliness and buried hostility and frustration that have been festering over the years. Later in her career, after her brief and temporary interest in the story with a pattern, she converted her basic theme, primarily because of the tragic loss of her first husband, William Walsh, into the widow's painful and frightening search for self-identity.14 “In the Middle of the Fields,” “In a Café,” and “The Cuckoo-spit” are not only symbolic of her recovery from her own grief and despair; they also signal a return to the form of her early stories after a phase in which she gave her critics what they wanted. Each of her widow stories, narrated from the perspective of the widow, marks a phase in a long and difficult struggle to understand the relationship between past memories and the emotional pain of the present in finding a new life and identity.

The stories with a pattern in the fiction of Katherine Mansfield and Mary Lavin represent the lesser achievement of two artists of talent and vision. “Posy” and “A Small Bequest” are examples of a writer using more talent than vision, while “Bliss” and “Miss Brill” reveal a writer with a tendency to impose a dark vision on life from time to time. In “Prelude” and “A Cup of Tea,” however, Mansfield and Lavin achieved that moment in the career of an artist when vision blends perfectly with the execution of craft. Mary Lavin recognized this achievement when she read “Prelude” and felt that she had come close to the same goal in “A Cup of Tea.”

While obviously linking the visions and talents of Katherine Mansfield and Mary Lavin, “Prelude” and “A Cup of Tea” also form a circle of truth with other masterpieces of fiction by Flaubert, Chekhov, Henry James, James Joyce, and other modern short-story writers who tried to create a perfect balance between subject and form. When this balance is achieved in Un Coeur Simple, “The Kiss,” “The Beast in the Jungle,” “The Dead,” “Prelude,” and “A Cup of Tea,” the reader experiences a radiant moment of truth perhaps best expressed by Browning's monks, who gaze at the magnificence of Fra Lippo Lippi's painting and exclaim—“It's the life!” Mansfield described this experience, this mysterious relationship between writer and reader which she believed Dostoevsky best created, as the sense of sharing.15 And this blend of writer's and reader's talent and imagination, this process of sharing, is what makes the artist “a child of the sun16 and gives the reader the joy of knowing the truth about life—for a great work of art “takes upon itself a Life—bad work has death in it.”17


  1. Journal of Katherine Mansfield, ed. John Middleton Murry (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), p. 135.

  2. The notes are a part of the Mary Lavin collection in the rare book room at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.

  3. On Writing (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953), p. 108.

  4. On Writing, p. 110.

  5. A Writer's Diary, ed. Leonard Woolf (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953), p. 2.

  6. The Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1937), p. 553.

  7. The Portable Henry James, ed. Morton Dauwen Zabel (New York: Viking, 1962), p. 402.

  8. Katherine Mansfield (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1971), p. 31.

  9. Journal of Katherine Mansfield, p. 112.

  10. The Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield, p. 299.

  11. A Single Lady, and Other Stories (London: Michael Joseph, 1951), p. 103.

  12. Mansfield's “Her First Ball” and Lavin's “The Young Girls” are similar studies of young girls' unsettling initiation into the whirl and danger of the adult world and suggest influence. Lavin's “A Memory,” a study of the emotionless relationship between a man and woman who believe they are superior to life's gross passions, is also strikingly similar to Mansfield's “Psychology,” which features the same falsely superior types. The endings, however, are entirely different. The Mansfield couple, out of sheer cowardice, continues its anemic relationship, while Lavin's pair loses its perfect arrangement when the female unleashes her frustration on the hapless male.

  13. The Long Ago, and Other Stories (London: Michael Joseph, 1944), p. 37.

  14. A tragic coincidence of the careers of Mansfield and Lavin is the pivotal role in their art played by the death of a loved one: Mansfield's younger brother, Leslie Beauchamp, and Lavin's first husband, William Walsh.

  15. Novels and Novelists, ed. John Middleton Murry (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1930), p. 118.

  16. Journal of Katherine Mansfield, p. 254.

  17. The Letters of Katherine Mansfield, ed. John Middleton Murry (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1932), p. 363.

Catherine A. Murphy (essay date 1979)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5381

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. …

No great poet can be unaware of these and other planes of reality, and in one way or another he has to make his peace with them. … Perhaps the normal poetic method is to strive to give some sort of unity to whatever planes of reality are apprehended. …

But if the normal poetic method in dealing with different planes of reality is to try to unite them by referring them to a single norm, there is another method: that of communicating the sense of their existence without arranging them in any pattern of subordination. From modern literature Virginia Woolf is the obvious illustration.1

John Middleton Murry, in his study of William Blake, similarly suggests the existence of an “eternal Imagination,” the apprehension of which is the source of significance in art, and indicates that the symbolism used by the artist to describe this reality may proceed (as Miss Lavin's seems to do) from a love of the natural world:

If it [the infinite Imagination] is not an existence, it is a spiritual reality; a possibility inherent in the Imagination which I directly experience, which is, by its own nature, absolved from Time. This is the species aeternitatis, of which at this moment I, the struggling writer of these lines, am the temporary vehicle.

Imagination is … essentially, the vision of the world sub specie aeternitatis. And that vision, though it necessarily has mortal and perishable organizations for its temporary vehicle, is not of itself mortal and perishable. … The connection between the eternal Imagination and the imaginative activities of the poet or painter is not direct. The connection between them is this: that then only are the activities of the poet or painter (or the human being in all his works and ways) imaginatively significant, when they are ‘inspired’, consciously or unconsciously, by the vision of the world sub specie aeterni.

We may say then that all true Art is symbolical of the eternal Imagination: but that there are two kind of symbolism. One proceeds from a love of the natural world—le spectacle, si ordinaire qu'il soit, qu'on a sous les yeux—and this love may be conscious or unconscious of its implication of the species aeterni; the other applies itself, by means of a symbolism necessarily arbitrary, to awakening the mind to a knowledge of the species aeterni … of which some men have conscious experience, but of which no veridical report can possibly be given.2

Mary Lavin's own observation of the force of the “intuitive imagination” suggests that her apprehension of a “plane of reality” beyond that known merely by observation and experience is analogous to these views. For instance, in the Preface to Selected Stories, she has commented,

many of the things about which I wrote in the early years were not then experienced, and yet I think I wrote of them with greater ease and greater intensity than I did later. Intuitive imagination can focus more directly upon the object of its interest than memory or direct observation.3

Moreover, the characteristic action of her stories of ordinary experience, the synthesis of external perceptions as these are modified by an individual's habitual process of feeling, accords with Tillyard's description of normal poetic process: imagination, interacting with consciousness, establishes in the individual a unity of normal “planes of reality.”

However, the group of Miss Lavin's stories which involve experience encountered at a time of heightened imagination (in Tillyard's phrase, “when our normal equipoise is disturbed”) does a good deal more. These stories describe an individual's apprehension of an extended dimension of reality, the “spiritual reality” whose existence is noted in Murry and Tillyard; they not only reaffirm the existence of this reality but also (despite Murry's view that “no veridical report [of it] can be given”) suggest something of its precise link to the human imagination and its not always beneficient influence on human life. Primary suggestions include the views that this spiritual reality is the locus of the ongoing life force which fructifies the individual's imagination, enabling it to interact with his or her consciousness in the task of unifying individual experience; that under certain circumstances this force can so overcharge or intensify the process of imagination that the countering process of consciousness is overwhelmed; that with this overwhelming of consciousness comes a consequent blind and direct subjection to the dynamic of the extended dimension, a subjection which is ironically destructive, not vivifying, because individual human consciousness, the distinction of the species and the source of a person's active and evaluative comprehension of reality, has been replaced by a tyrannical life force quite indifferent to individual existence and to individual aspiration to complete development.

Miss Lavin's stories not only suggest these ideas but dramatize them with extraordinary imaginative, psychological, and artistic power. Her use of a dynamic developmental image or group of images to suggest the unifying of several planes of awareness in stories of ordinary existence such as “Lilacs” and “Brother Boniface”4 (Tillyard's “normal poetic method”) is also the method of those of her stories which involve the extended dimension; the difference is that in the latter stories Miss Lavin seeks to encompass in a single unity that further plane of reality perceived by the roused imagination—parallel to Murry's world sub specie aeterni. This pursuit of the connection between the reality perceived under normal conditions of consciousness, the structure of which the individual feels he comprehends (however partial that comprehension may seem from another perspective), and the reality perceived by “even the simplest and most normal people” in heightened states of imagination, the structure of which is not fully apprehended and which is not comprehended at all, is present from the very first collection of stories and increases in importance with each succeeding volume.

Its most extended representation in Miss Lavin's work occurs in the first four of the seven related stories involving a widowed protagonist, these stories being a significant part of Miss Lavin's more recent work: “In a Café,” “The Cuckoo-Spit,” “In the Middle of the Fields,” “The Lucky Pair,” “Villa Violetta,” “Trastevere,” and “Happiness.”5 The first four of these stories dramatize the protagonist's isolation and vulnerability before she is again returned to a more customary, structured life; in them the fundamental conflict lies between direct subjection to the forces of a larger cosmos apprehended by her roused imagination and a commitment to ordered conscious life and individual persons. The protagonist in these four stories, disoriented by her widowhood and intensely aware of death, is vulnerable to the apprehension of an extended dimension at almost every step.

In “In a Café,” the protagonist Mary, two years widowed and suffering from a sense of loss not only of her much-loved husband but also of her own identity, is drawn to a foreign artist, sensing in his art, manner, and socially dissociated life their similarity of position. Piqued by the judgment of an acquaintance that she is unlikely further to experience love, Mary impulsively seeks out the artist. She discovers, however, that her feeling is a specific loneliness for her husband Richard, not a longing for love in general—and her conscious recognition of the specificity of her emotion restores to wholeness her previously fragmented memory of Richard, her sense of association with her context, and her sense of her own particular identity.

The instrument of both the protagonist's dissociation from her normal awareness and its restoration is her roused imagination, the difference being that in the process of restoration, imaginative awareness is given form by consciousness. Both the protagonist's dissociation and restoration to normal life are reflected through her response to physical details. Dissociation is suggested literally in her preference for a café which seems disoriented or reversed from its normal purpose and process: it is run by two art students who often are not present; its patrons serve themselves; the paintings on the walls are strange forms of familiar objects (roses, treated abstractly). The loss of the protagonist's sense of identity apart from Richard is further revealed in her confusion over social forms and her inability to remain consistently attached to the concrete (looking in shop windows she notices, for example, that others “dart … their bright glances keenly, like birds. Their minds were all intent upon substantives; tangibles, while her mind was straying back to the student café, and the strange flower pictures on the walls; to the young man who was so vulnerable in his vanity: the legitimate vanity of his art”).6 The major indication of her sense of loss of both Richard's identity and her own, however, is her inability to imagine Richard at will.

The full breadth and profundity of the protagonist's dissociation from herself and her surroundings is dramatized in the story's climatic scene, which shows her fragmented and intensified vision. Mary's heightened imagination likens the door of the artist's apartment to a fairy door, leading magically to the impossibly ample rooms and the fantasy adventures which are an escape from the miseries of actual life. The end of the quotation reveals, however, that this imaginative vision is rejected as fantasy by the protagonist's consciousness—the little room in a tree leads nowhere, and is itself its own end:

The little alley was a sort of cul-de-sac; except for the street behind her and the door in front of her, it had no outlet. There was not even a skylight or an aperture of any kind. As for the premises into which the door led, there was no way of telling its size or its extent, or anything at all about it, until the door opened.

Irresponsibly, she giggled. It was like the mystifying doors in the trunks of trees that beguiled her as a child in fairy-tales and fantasies. Did this door, too, like those fairy doors, lead into rooms of impossible amplitude, or would it be a cramped and poky place?

As she pondered what was within, seemingly so mysteriously sealed, she saw that—just as in a fairy tale—after all there was an aperture. The letter-box had lost its shutter, or lid, and it gaped open, a vacant hole in the wood, reminding her of a sleeping doll whose eyeballs had been poked back in its head, and creating an expression of vacancy and emptiness.

Impulsively, going down on one knee, she peered in through the slit.

At first she could see only segments of the objects within, but by moving her head, she was able to identify things: an unfinished canvas up against the splattered white wainscot, a bicycle-pump flat on the floor, the leg of a table, black iron bed-legs and, to her amusement, dangling down by the leg of the table, dripping their moisture in a pool on the floor, a pair of elongated, gray, wool socks. It was, of course, only possible to see the lower portion of the room, but it seemed enough to infer conclusively that this was indeed a little room in a tree, no bigger than the bulk of the outer trunk, leading nowhere, and—sufficient or not—itself its own end.7

Immediately after this imaginative recognition of the inappropriateness of this solution to her feelings (evidenced in her intensified and fragmented view of the artist's room), the otherness of the artist is graphically reinforced through the further process of Mary's imagination: she has a sudden sight of his two feet, “large feet, shoved into unlaced shoes, and … bare to the white ankles,”8 which contrasts to her memory of Richard's “… foot … in the finely worked leather shoes he always wore. …”9 This detail involves ironic reversal: earlier, in Mary's conscious search for something outside her sense of Richard, the sight of the artist's hands had led her to a tortured imaginative vision of Richard's hands; now, in the conscious search in the artist for a valid analogue of Richard, the sight of the artist's feet reveals his otherness. In both of these confrontations with the artist's physical reality, it is borne in on Mary—without conscious awareness in the earlier confrontation and consciously in the later one—that it is Richard whom she wants. The second, conscious confrontation with her feeling restores simultaneously Mary's consciousness of the outer world, her full consciousness of Richard, and her own sense of identity. Like her dissociation earlier in the story, Mary's restoration to conscious life is indicated by her response to physical detail and by her feeling and action; now, physical detail is seen steadily, feeling is defined, action is precise:

She had reached Grafton Street once more, and stepped into its crowded thoroughfare. It was only a few minutes since she had left it, but in the street the evasion of light had begun. Only the bustle of people, and the activity of traffic, made it seem that it was yet day. Away at the top of the street, in Stephen's Green, to which she turned, although the tops of the trees were still clear, branch for branch, in the last of the light, mist muted the outline of the bushes. If one were to put a hand between the railings now, it would be with a slight shock that the fingers would feel the little branches, like fine bones, under the feathers of mist. And in their secret nests the smaller birds were making faint avowals in the last of the day. It was the time when she used to meet Richard.

Oh Richard! she cried, almost out loud, as she walked along by the railings to where the car was parked. Oh Richard! it's you I want.

And as she cried out, her mind presented him to her, as she so often saw him, coming towards her. … She wanted to preserve that picture of him forever in an image, and only as she struggled to hold onto it did she realize there was no urgency in the search. She had a sense of having all the time in the world to look and look and look at him. …

Not till she had taken out the key of the car, and gone straight around to the driver's side, not stupidly, as so often, to the passenger seat—not till then did she realize what she had achieved. Yet she had no more than got back her rights. No more. It was not a subject for amazement. By what means exactly had she got them back though—in that little café? That was the wonder.10

“In a Café” portrays the rejection of a potential relationship based on similitudes—a rejection of a kind of substitute relationship—as the protagonist seeks a new relation to the world after the death of a loved husband. “The Cuckoo-Spit” describes the rejection of what would be a clearly different, second relationship between the protagonist, now widowed four years, and a younger man. The final lines of the story suggest the protagonist's sense that the force of passionate love exists apart from particular human consciousness, and her awareness of the ambivalent effect of this force on the human heart:

“I sometimes think love has nothing to do with people at all.” Her voice was tired. “It's like the weather!” Suddenly she turned to face [h]im [.] “But isn't it strange that a love that was unrealized should have—”

“Given such joy?” he said quietly.

“Yes, yes,” she said gratefully. Then she closed the door behind them. “And such pain.”

“Oh, Vera, Vera,” he said.

“Goodbye,” she said.


In this story as in earlier ones, the imagery of water, highly concentrated in the opening scenes, seems symbolic of a formless uncontrollable force whose source and purpose is beyond individual comprehension. Images of water incongruous with actual physical setting and the reversal of shadow and substance convey the susceptibility of the roused imagination to a direct encounter with the extended dimension.

Vera meets the young man Fergus on a moonlit night which is “a night in a thousand” which “lapped them round.” Instead of entering the house which is a tangible representation of the love she and Richard shared, the two remain outside. Images of water in unusual associations convey the strange quality of the night and the opposition of its atmosphere to normal awareness:

Drenched with light under the midsummer moon, the fields were as large as the fields of the sky. Hedges and ditches dissolved in mist, and down by the river the thorn-bushes floated loose like severed branches. Tall trees in the middle of the fields streamed on the air, rooted by long, dragging shadows.

Vera came to a stand and looked around. It was a strange night. All that was real and erect had become unreal. The unreal alone had shape. And when close beside her in the long grass a beast stirred, it was only by its shadow she could see where it lay. Unnerved, she turned back to the house. The house, too, had an insubstantial air, its white gable merging in the white of the sky. But on the bright ground its shadow fell black as iron.

It was when she reached the edge of this shadow that the young man stepped out and startled her.12

The second night, also a rare one, continues the reversal of normal perception and the emphasis on water imagery: moonlight adds color to the normal black and grey tones of night, and birds are unnaturally silent. “Houses weren't built for nights like this,” Fergus observes; and walking through grass grown tall with summer seems to him “like wading through water.”13 On the following morning, when Fergus comes to the house, “in the fields the cattle loomed dark, as if they swam in a fabulous sea.”14

Later in the story, the distance of Vera and Fergus from the influence of the extended dimension is conveyed through their now more usual awareness of water. The crisis past and normalcy returned, the protagonist, deciding against an involvement with Fergus, notices that the water under the bridge on which they stand talking “isn't flowing at all,” and is “dusty and stippled with pollen from an overhanging lime.” As they discuss the realistic fact of their age difference, Fergus “with a stony expression … look[s] down into the water.”15

In this story, the preponderance of water imagery attached to objects not normally felt as watery would seem to be an evidence of the emotionally disoriented protagonist's uneasy closeness to the world of the extended dimension, a world with no fixed shape, order, or boundary, the nearest concrete analogue of which is water. Her attempt is to balance at its edge: because the extended dimension is the source of felt life and at the same time in its pure state the seat of the painful chaos and instability of unmasterable feeling, its reality profoundly attracts and as profoundly repels.

Both imagery and plot render the conflicting attraction and repulsion of the forces of feeling for the protagonist. The story is perforce the ending of an episode rather than any final choice, perhaps because there can be no final choice for an aware human being between instinctive cognition and the mind's rational re-cognition, which structures meaning, discovers order, and makes choices: both are essential elements in the human (and artistic) process. Distanced from the ordinary reality of the social order by her widowhood, the protagonist in this story, as in “In a Café,” remains vulnerable to the larger universe beyond consciousness.

“In the Middle of the Fields” develops further the ambiguous conflict encompassed in “The Cuckoo-Spit.” The dramatic conflict of the story does not lie in the protagonist's temptation to yield to a passion opposed to her specific awareness, as in the earlier story; instead the oppositions, elaborated primarily in terms of light-dark imagery, lie in the power of a supra-human force to affect normal awareness even against one's will. The dead who had in life yielded to this force, the story implies, become one with that force, influencing the imaginations of those whom they have loved.

The protagonist's comforting of Bartley, who in passionate youth lost a passionate first wife and later married sensibly, is also an effort to get rid of him and of the conflicting realities which the encounter with him raises in her mind; it is a more explicit statement of the insight embodied in “The Cuckoo-Spit,” that passion is not a force within the human spirit but beyond it. She states this view in her comment about Bartley's long dead first wife Bridie, who was so totally swept up into her passion for Bartley that she abandoned common sense and self-awareness and died as a result of yielding to an impulse whose source was passion. “What are you blaming any of us for!” the protagonist cries as the now far older Bartley stands miserably before her, unable to understand his sudden yielding to the impulse to clasp the widowed protagonist, whom he knows is now suffering a deprivation similar to his own earlier one:

“It's got nothing to do with any of us—with you, or me, or the woman waiting at home for you. It was the other one! That girl—your first wife—Bridie! It was her! Blame her! She's the one did it! … You thought you could forget her … but see what she did to you when she got the chance!”16

The story thus implies that the loved who have died are a part of the ambiguous force of the extended dimension apprehended through imagination; and that for those who have experienced a profound love, the death of the beloved is never absolute, the beloved never wholly absent. As in the earlier “Loving Memory,” however, the power of love can extend beyond the grave, but is itself a force of death when it does so. Thus the heart of the protagonist's dilemma is that the vital source of life is also the source of the death of normal consciousness.

“The Lucky Pair,” evidently written in the same period, is also concerned with the ambiguous nature of the vital forces influencing conscious life. It juxtaposes two couples, one caught up in the anguish of passion (depicted through use of water imagery as “submerged” in their feeling, as most people are submerged in the dance at the opening of the story) and the central couple, who have, the feminine protagonist remarks, “kept [themselves] free in some way … that gives [them] the right of choice”; that is, the bulwark of their specific awareness has kept them from being mindlessly overwhelmed. Both the differentness from the other couples of “the lucky pair,” however, and the destructiveness of passion are called into question by the ending of the story.

“It must be anguish for them [the suffering couple],” she said aloud. But as she said the word, its meaning, which she would have thought immutable, began to change, and take on strange inflections that were not all of pain. There seemed even to be implications in it of something like exultation.

But it was absurd. Had he not said himself—and wasn't he right?—that they [the protagonist and Andrew, noting the reasonableness of their feeling for one another before passion had entered their relationship] were to be envied, a lucky pair?17

Intense and encompassing as the first four stories in this series are, “The Great Wave,” from the author's 1961 collection, most completely renders, in a single story, Miss Lavin's most extreme vision of the relation of the forces of the extended dimension to conscious life and feeling; more directly and explicitly than any other story, it posits realistically, as the early “The Green Grave and the Black Grave” posits poetically, the fully independent reality of a sensate cosmos apprehended by, and influencing, the individual imagination. “The Great Wave” makes clear that this cosmos is in purposeful motion related to man, but its motions are antipathetic to man's consciousness.

Significantly, the great wave which overwhelms all but two of the islanders in the story is not a plane of reality known only through imagination, as are the planes of reality apprehended by the characters in “In a Café,” “The Cuckoo-Spit,” and “In the Middle of the Fields”; the wave is an objective phenomenon, a tangible and dreadful intrusion into the normal world. Despite the fact that the motions of the human imagination are shown here to have specific and interacting relation to the powerful and ambiguous forces of the larger world beyond human comprehension, these larger forces seem in “The Great Wave” gratuitously malignant as well as inescapable. The response of the protagonist Jimeen to his experience of the great wave indicates his view that the wave is an embodiment of a sensate overwhelming power aware of individual human life, for he performs a propitiatory act: he becomes a bishop, a living shield and sacrifice for the normal life of his people. Though the seminarian Seoineen believes his hubris to be the cause of the death-dealing tidal wave which disrupts human order and proportion, and Jimeen's dedication of his life as a bishop implies a sharing of Seoineen's view, the facts of the story reflect a disruption and disproportion in all nature which far antedates Seoineen's blasphemous pride. A number of natural circumstances, far beyond individual power to incite or control, initiate, it would seem purposely, Seoineen's downfall. Seoineen's last visit among his island people before his ordination to the priesthood takes place at an unnaturally early time because of an unexplainable epidemic at the seminary—a disruption of normal human physical order; an unexpectedly early arrival of a school of the mackerel on which the islanders sustain their lives tempts Seoineen to defy human good sense by taking the family curragh out to sea before its caulking is dry. The huge size of the school of mackerel which Seoineen and the boy Jimeen discover in the strangely quiet waters is itself unnatural, and causes Seoineen, in his excitement, to swear—a defiance of the normal sensitivity of a priest which the shocked Jimeen decides is an obverse form of praise; and finally, Seoineen's destructive determination to prove the power of his manhood by refusing to cut free his nets is brought about because of the unnaturally large catch which the nets hold.

The catch, in its excess an ironic threat to his life and to Jimeen's, proves as destructive as an excessive passion has proved in other stories. Possessed by an inhumanly great ambition to keep the catch for the sake of pride, Seoineen defies laws both cosmic and human in his effort:

“Here goes,” he cried, and with one true cut of the knife he freed Jimeen's hands the two together at the same time, but, letting the knife drop into the water, he reached out wildly to catch the ends of the net before they slid into it, or shed any of their precious freight.

Not a single silver fish was lost.

“What a fool I'd be,” he gasped, “to let go. They think because of the collar I haven't a man's strength about me any more. Then I'll show them. I'll not let go this net, not if it pull me down to hell.” And he gave another wild laugh. “And you along with me!” he cried. “Murder?” he asked then, as if he had picked up the word from a voice on the wind. “Is it murder? Ah sure, I often think it's all one to God what a man's sin is, as long as it's sin at all. Isn't sin poison—any sin at all, even the smallest drop of it? Isn't it death to the soul that it touches at any time? Ah then! I'll not let go!”18

His hubris, as the passage shows, is fully conscious, an arrogant defiance of his own awareness of order and a blind yielding to forces of feeling; yet the series of unnatural events which induced pride seem the design of a powerful sensate force which seeks its triumph in an unequal conflict with Seoineen's awareness, the essential element of his humanity.

The punishment of the tidal wave which swiftly follows Seoineen's tragic abjuration of his humanity overwhelms all the islanders for whom he was to be prophet and spiritual leader. The wave is near to apocalyptic in intensity and in its function in the story's action. Seoineen and the boy wake alone on the island to a new and “terrible” dawn—not on the beach, but on a promontory high above the sea. It is Jimeen's espial of the chapel-spire on the promontory which restores his awareness of where he is. “It was my greed that was the cause of all,”19 Seoineen cries in the terrible cold aftermath of passionate pride; and Jimeen's eventually becoming a bishop is simultaneously an act of forgiveness of Seoineen, a sacrifice of amendment for him, a propitiation of potentially overwhelming forces, and a commitment to human awareness.

More directly and explicitly than any other story, then, “The Great Wave” implies the overwhelming power and inescapable relevance of the forces of some barely apprensible reality.

Thus, in “The Great Wave” as, indeed, throughout Miss Lavin's work, the fragility of the necessary partnership of imagination and consciousness is at its roots inescapable: to evade involvement with the ambiguous forces of the larger cosmos is to evade vital human life; to become involved with these forces is to risk being overwhelmed directly by them, drawn from the meaning and order of conscious life into a formless inhuman chaos. The human being of vital imagination exists, then, with an aware allegiance to conscious life in its fullness as his only bulwark; and that bulwark, “The Great Wave” implies, is arbitrarily subject to an unequal encounter with the ambiguous forces of a supra-human cosmos linked to his imagination. Miss Lavin's awareness of the power and indifference—even malignity—of this supra-human and influential cosmos would seem to be the foundation of her ironic vision, its existence casting into question the strength and pride of conscious human choice; her recognition of the courage of the men and women of vital imagination who live at risk in the face of it is her testament to human beauty and value.


  1. E.M.W. Tillyard, Shakespeare's Last Plays (London, 1962; first published 1938), pp 61-5.

  2. John Middleton Murry, William Blake (New York, 1964; first published London, 1933), pp 343-7.

  3. Mary Lavin, Preface, Selected Stories, (New York, 1959), p. vii.

  4. Lavin, collected in Tales From Bective Bridge (Boston, 1942).

  5. Lavin, in the following volumes: “In a Café”: The Great Wave (London, 1961); “The Cuckoo-Spit,” “In The Middle of the Fields,” and “The Lucky Pair”: In The Middle of the Fields (London, 1967); “Villa Violetta” and “Trastevere”; A Memory, and Other Stories (Boston, 1973); “Happiness”: Happiness, and Other Stories (Boston, 1970).

  6. “In a Café,” The Great Wave, pp. 64-65.

  7. Ibid., p. 66.

  8. Ibid., p. 67.

  9. Ibid., p. 53.

  10. Ibid., pp. 69-70.

  11. “The Cuckoo-Spit,” In The Middle of the Fields, p. 101.

  12. Ibid., p. 72.

  13. Ibid., p. 78-79.

  14. Ibid., p. 88.

  15. Ibid., p. 92.

  16. “In The Middle of the Fields,” In The Middle of the Fields, p. 27.

  17. “The Lucky Pair,” In The Middle of the Fields, p. 43.

  18. “The Great Wave,” The Great Wave, p. 19.

  19. Ibid., p. 28.

Janet Egleson Dunleavy (essay date autumn 1979)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3172

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 her; try as she would she could not always meet the standards set by her teachers; indeed, she could not always meet the standards she set for herself. One particularly difficult day she wept bitterly, stung by a scolding she had received, and by her own self-humiliation. The other children tried to comfort her. “It's all right,” she told them. “When I go home I will work in my garden with my little trowel.”

In the earliest attempts to commit “Happiness” to paper, the anecdote is recalled in a cryptic note from the author to herself, a reminder of motifs and images later to be coaxed into prose: “Home yard dry wall my little trowel last before sun falls.” Other notes refer to daffodils and “cohorts”; introduce all but one of the principal characters of the story (a mother and her children); and suggest, in “Uncle Frank”, the remaining character to be developed later.

Happiness—what it is, where to find it, how to know it—is the topic that occupies most of these early pages: the mother, identified as a widow and later given the name “Vera”, is its strongest proponent.4 Urging it on her children, she declares that it has nothing to do with externals, with incidents, with individuals; it is not to be confused with pleasure; sorrow is not its opposite; it cannot be given by one who has it to anyone else. Speaking for herself and her sisters, one daughter recalls how such declarations always had puzzled them when they were young: was happinness then ambition? Or luck? Or a conundrum? Or perhaps a feat? Their grandmother, they knew, had not experienced happiness; although their mother claimed to have had a “lion's share” of it, knowing how sad and lonely her widowed life had been, they had their doubts. Uncle Frank had doubts, too. In any case, he believed that putting too high a value on it simply was not right.

Attempting to move from this discussion to a description of the children's grandmother, Mary Lavin warned herself: “This will be a difficult transition.” “Mention a wasp perhaps,” she inserted, not indicating where or why. Sideways in the margin of one page she wrote: “Seeing him think of Hallie Óg might as well have been a little bird that flew in the window. When she moved all her hair fell over like a waterfall.” She began another page: “Well, whether you are suffering or not it has nothing to do with pleasure, or—, or—, or—.” The manuscript grew in bulk; the story did not develop. Finally, the author declared herself defeated: “I'm going to give up anyway. I don't know where this is going. I know where it came from—but that's not the point.” She could not give up, however; on the same page, in the same ink, just below these lines, she instructed herself in how the children were to be depicted: “I think they should know she was not—not happy?—most of the time anyway—mention—so that is why at—.” Incomplete, the thought broke off in mid-sentence. Yet work on the story went on. Manuscript dates establish this period of frustration as summer, 1965.

Mary Lavin does not recall the pains of this early labour: for her, “Happiness” emerged from her creative imagination to take shape on paper not during the summer but in the autumn of that year. Her memory of the event is clear: she was walking along the Strand, in London, “feeling wonderful.” She had booked into a pleasant hotel, the day was fine, she had the afternoon to herself, her children were safe in Dublin, under someone else's care. For one glorious afternoon she did not have to worry about who would take one of them to the soccer match, who would listen to another's chatter about a new boyfriend, whether or not they had clean stockings to wear or a skirt that was pressed or ribbons for their hair. She had nothing to do but stroll back to her hotel and read the new Vogue Magazine she had just purchased. Idly, she began to speculate: “I wonder what my children really think of me? What would they say if they were asked?” The answers came quickly (answers familiar to mothers of teenage daughters): “My mother talks too much.” “My mother never shuts up.” No, she assured herself, think what they would, they never would be so disloyal, so unkind. They would be—more tactful. They would say something like, “My mother always has a lot to say.”

“Mother always had a lot to say. This does not mean she was always talking but that we children felt the wells she drew upon were deep, deep, deep”: suddenly, there was the first line; there was the central figure; there was the story. Looking around, the author saw that she had come to Cadbury's Coffee Shop in Piccadilly. Into the shop she rushed, her leisurely afternoon forgotten. There, on pages 177-180 of her new November 1965 issue of Vogue, beginning in the open spaces of an advertisement for Bounce Hairsetting Gel, she scribbled what became, for her, the first satisfactory working outline of the story that had been eluding and frustrating her since the beginning of June.

Frustration and dismay did not disappear, however, at this point: on page after page of Ink Paper Jotter, the composition book in which she likes to work, Mary Lavin transformed images from her creative imagination into the fictional reality of words and phrases, but each image seemed to grow separately. The story did not take shape, it resisted the form she tried to impose on it. Again and again she seized fresh sheets of paper. Again and again she began her story anew, her hand racing across the page in the opening lines that seemed to come so easily, her mind hoping that they would be the impetus for the rest. When this method failed, she began separate sheets, heading them “Grandmother”, “Take me”, “Cohorts”, “Daffodils”, “Travel”, “Her Childhood”, “Birds”, “Her Marriage”, “Widow”, “Sorrow”, “Fatigue”, “Her incompetence”. Black-ink additions blossomed on blue-ink pages, blue-ink corrections in black-ink lines; red-ink notations appeared in margins; whole pages were criss-crossed in purple; suggestions (“develop this”), explanations (“flapped it open, I mean”), negative comments (“just silly”) were inked and pencilled in everywhere. Uncle Frank vanished; in his place emerged Father Hugh, a foil for Vera, larger and more distinct each time the author focused attention on him. Meanwhile, on inside and outside covers of her Ink Paper Jotters, the author returned frequently to the basic question of the story: What is happiness? “Was it a mystery?” “Was it a sham?” What did the children's mother mean when she urged something she called happiness on them? They had to be kept curious, puzzled—not knowing yet half-knowing yet not believing what they half knew. That, clearly, was essential to the story. The author knew the answer to the question, of course: it appeared in a bold, black hand on one of her manuscript drafts: Happiness was the “life force that burned out pain as fire burns out fire.” To make such a statement in the story, however, would have been inartistic. What Mary Lavin had to do was infuse it into everything Vera did, said, and thought, an immanence never expressed.

From time to time the author stood back to study objectively what she had written. Using the working method of a composer, she determined its form:

1. The motifs and characters to be introduced were listed.

II. The methods of exposition to be used were outlined.

III. The elements to be fused were joined by dashes.

Like a painter, she arranged her values:

Sisters, etc.
Happiness—a list
A day of misgiving—finishes.
You can't give it
          only you owe.
Was that it? Wasp
End Euston?
Focus again: trowel? garden
One day
Fr. Hugh: when she last at confession
But she opened her eyes
Fr. Hugh—as I told
Was life SHAM?

Some scenes—studies, obviously, of aspects of the larger work—were sketched separately: “Begin Take Me—the daffodils and the nun, etc. And end with the daffodils.”

Once the author had established the way in which her separate images could be integrated into the story, as she had seen it so clearly the day she had outlined it on the pages of Vogue—once she had solved the artistic problem of its development—once again she was able to return to the opening lines, this time moving forward with confidence to the end of her story. From this point on her working methods were similar to those she employed in writing “A Memory”: a heavily-edited manuscript was sent to her typist; multiple typescripts were prepared; simultaneously, on different typescripts, the author experimented with new or reconsidered ideas, concepts, images and incidents; the revisions she chose to retain were incorporated into one typescript that was sent back to the typist; multiple typescripts of the new version of the story were prepared; these were then revised, and the process was continued until a final version, satisfactory to the author, was achieved.5

“Happiness”, however, seems to have been a more difficult story for the author to revise than “A Memory”: in between work on typescripts, the author returned to her Ink Paper Jotters, reworking images by hand, transmitting what she felt but could not yet put into words by the actual physical way in which she wrote the words that came to her: small, precise, dainty; large and looped and sprawling; swiftly, skimming the surface of the page, the dots of i's and the crossbars of t's flying above and beyond the letters to which they belonged; underlined once, twice, three times, in heavy black ink, for emphasis; slipped between lines and stored in corners of pages, as comments to herself, and suggestions for future consideration. Portions of these handwritten manuscripts were incorporated into the revised typescripts returned to the typist. Sometimes, in the new set of typescripts prepared, such changes and additions were retained; sometimes they were subjected to further revision; sometimes they were rejected, an angry X indicating how impatient the author felt that she had wasted time on them.

In the first stages of revision, after the first version of the completed story had been committed to paper, Mary Lavin's working method was to expand and develop. Using herself at times as model, often with tongue in cheek, she constructed a clear and carefully detailed image of the widowed mother, Vera, against a background precise in time, place and sequence of events. The author's own impatience with the paper paraphernalia of daily life, her own unwillingness to allot it the time it requires, was tranferred to Vera. An old fantasy was given to her to act out: sweeping bills and letters and notes and receipts and a hundred bits and pieces of miscellaneous memoranda into her suitcase, telling herself that Father Hugh was right—that she could take care of them on the ferry across the Irish Sea, Vera set off for London. On the ferry, however, she relaxed and enjoyed the voyage (because surely there would be time to work on the train); later, on the train, before she reached Euston Station, she discreetly emptied the suitcase out the window, watching the bills, letters, notes, receipts and hundred bits and pieces of memoranda fly off like birds. Then, free as a bird herself, she settled back for the rest of her journey, “because that's what holidays are for.” The author also gave Vera an extended trip through Europe: real places that had been visited by Mary Lavin and her daughters formed Vera's itinerary, while incidents that almost occurred to the author but did not, or might have occurred but differently, or did occur but not quite as described created and coloured Vera's experiences. In one manuscript the story of the little trowel was told by Vera to her children; in another, the little trowel belonged to Vera who, like the child of the anecdote, went out in the garden and worked with it when the pressures and disappointments of life threatened to overwhelm her. Vera continued to press her concept of happiness, explaining it again and again to her children through examples taken from her own life, from the life of their dead father, and from the lives of their grandmother and grandfather, all presented by Mary Lavin in careful detail. These examples also helped to develop and define Vera herself: for the children, they provided a view “through a telescope” that enabled them to look back along the years; they provided images caught in metaphoric photographs to which their mother, the photographer, “had applied a kind of fixative.” Happiness was for Vera like the trapeze of an acrobat which is caught and let go and caught again, just in time; sorrow was the oppressive kindness of bat-like men and women who, dressed always in black, were dispersed with a laugh. In the end Vera died, having collapsed in her garden where she had been working with her little trowel, in a scene adapted from one described to the author many years ago, an account of the death of a woman she never had met.

It is important to note that the real-life images and incidents that were coloured by the author's memory, embroidered by her creative imagination, and molded by her to fit “Happiness” were introduced into the story only after the author had the idea of it clear in her mind; they were not the source of the idea itself, that of writing a story about a woman for whom the life force “burned out pain as fire burns out fire”—a woman who called that life force happiness. A woman, however, is not a believable imitation of life; the craft of fiction requires the illusion of the woman: specific, identifiable, with a background, family relationships, friends, faults, virtues, pain and passions. To create the woman of “Happiness” Mary Lavin had to portray a particular person in a particular place at a particular time. Real-life images and incidents merely provided the details which she then modified, combined and adapted to fit her story.

Following her usual working method, Mary Lavin incorporated into “Happiness” incidents and details far in excess of what was needed to particularise person, place and time, and beyond what she intended to include in the final version of her story.6 Her reasons were sound: she herself had to know her subject thoroughly before she could apply the principles of artistic reduction—before she could sharpen and strengthen her portrait by selecting essential details and eliminating those that were not essential. The effect she sought, in her own word, was “analogous to a woodcut.”

Artistic reduction of “Happiness” was begun in February, 1967. In the nearly eighteen months since she had outlined it on pages from Vogue, the story had grown in manuscript to ninety-nine pages. By the end of the month it had been reduced to thirty-seven pages in typescript. Whole passages had been dropped: the analogy between holding on to happiness and performing on a trapeze; the anecdote of the child with the little trowel; an afternoon which Vera and her children had spent with another family; an episode involving lost tickets. Other passages had been compressed, reduced to half their former length and less. Still the author continued to edit her prose, seeking not so much at this point to reduce unnecessary detail, but to find the one right word that would serve in the place of three or five; to shorten sentences that, in context, she wanted to sound terse, emphatic, concise; to fuse description and dialogue.

By the end of March, 1967, the author was satisfied at last with her work; the manuscript was typed for publication. Twenty-seven dated versions of heavily edited manuscript and typescript—some of them studies, concentrating on parts of “Happiness”, some revisions of the whole story—plus one hundred and eleven pages of undated manuscript had gone into its making.


  1. Chosen for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories, ed. Martha Foley (Boston, 1969), the story was published also in Mary Lavin, Happiness, and Other Stories (Boston, 1970), pp. 9-33 and Mary Lavin, Collected Stories (Boston, 1971), pp. 401-17.

  2. For a fuller description of Mary Lavin's working methods, see Janet Egleson Dunleavy, “The Making of Mary Lavin's ‘A Memory’”, Eire-Ireland, XII: 3 (Fall, 1977), 90-92.

  3. I am grateful to Mary Lavin for the opportunities she has given me to examine and discuss with her unpublished drafts of her published work. Quotations from unpublished drafts of “Happiness” in this essay are from both dated and undated materials. Internal evidence in undated manuscripts establish that they belong to the same period of composition as dated manuscripts; i.e., June, 1965-March, 1967.

  4. Because Mary Lavin often gives this name to her widows, her readers will find it familiar. Each Vera, however, is developed independently; while resembling other Veras in some respects, she differs from others in significant details. The Vera stories, therefore, cannot be considered as episodes in the life of a single Mary Lavin character. At the same time, they invite comparison.

  5. Cf.”The Making of Mary Lavin's ‘A Memory,’” pp. 92-99.

  6. The manuscript evidence of the point in the creative process at which Mary Lavin particularizes person, place, and time, after her story otherwise has begun to reveal both form and meaning, establishes clearly that she is neither, as some critics have argued, following in the footsteps of the naturalists nor writing autobiographically. For a discussion of this as-aspect of Mary Lavin's work, see Janet Egleson Dunleavy, “The Fiction of Many Lavin: Universal Sensibility in a Particular Milieu”, Irish University Review, VII:2 (Autumn, 1977), 222-36.

Marianne Koenig (essay date autumn 1979)

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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 characteristic settings, people, preoccupations and attitudes undergo a fascinating metamorphosis when transplanted from the one form to the other.

Mary Lavin herself is not much concerned with academic speculations about genre. She is a “natural”, a spontaneous writer: the artfulness and craftiness of her technique come from an instinctive awareness of what is right for a story, as Janet Egleson Dunleavey's article on the revisions of “Happiness” shows.4 The novels show her to have been unwary of the demands of their form in her early days, and although since then she has said that she wished she could break them up “into the few short stories they ought to have been in the first place”,5 the interview printed in this issue shows her continuing defiant of the imposition of categories.6 “I don't see all that much difference between the short story and the novel, to tell you the truth”. And she may yet, in practice, confound all such distinctions. For the moment, however, the pernickety critic may still hope to gain insight into the nature of her craft by a comparison of her handling of the two forms.

The House in Clewe Street first appeared in serial form in Atlantic Monthly, in seven consecutive numbers between November 1944 and May 1945. Its provisional title at the time was Gabriel Galloway. The two titles in themselves indicate one of the basic uncertainties of the book: it hovers between being a family chronicle based on a house and place, on the one hand, and, on the other, a Bildungsroman about a young man, Gabriel Galloway, who is born and grows up in the house, and eventually leaves it for Dublin. Plainly, the two titles emphasise one or the other of these aspects, but the uncertainty is not so easily resolved. The sense of it pervades the book.

I have already said that the two novels are conventional. The House in Clewe Street opens with a leisurely scene-setting passage, placing the town of Castlerampart in its landscape, and Clewe Street in the town, and establishing the importance of Theodore Galloway (Gabriel's grandfather), in a manner reminiscent of The Mill on the Floss (the reading of which was a revelatory experience for Mary Lavin in her adolescence). The worrying thing is that the convention, like the setting, is entirely of the nineteenth century. There is, behind the seeming solidity both of the scene described and the manner of the description, a radical uncertainty of perspective. Is this book, written in 1944, really pretending to be a nineteenth-century novel, or is it a historical novel, a twentieth-century book about the nineteenth century?7 With George Eliot, the reader is told exactly (some would say, too explicitly) from what vantage point he is to view the events. Here, in spite of some authorial manhandling in the manner of George Eliot, there is disconcerting vagueness. For instance, it is never clear exactly when the action takes place: some time in the nineteenth century is indicated, but the reader has to clutch at details of dress and transport to orient himself historically. With this unspecific dating there is no sense of the consonance and counterpointing between the development of the individual and the movement of society in general which gives solidity to the nineteenth-century novelist's world.

Three quotations will illustrate this uncertainty. In the first chapter, Castlerampart is presented at a particular moment in its historical development:

Indeed, river and rampart, which once protected their ancestors from without, are now regarded by the people of Castlerampart as protecting them from dangers within.

[My italics]

The word “now”, coupled with the use of the present tense throughout this introductory section, is confusing since the “now” of the author and that of the story cannot be the same.

On the next page, Theodore is described in terms of dress and bearing: “a glance at his smooth white hands, however, made it clear that, whatever way his money was made, it has not been by manual labour.” No observer has been established, so we do not know whose “glance” is recording and drawing conclusions from this appearance. Further on the author offers a lengthy commentary:

To understand the sense of effrontery with which Theresa and Sara too … had suffered upon seeing the shoes and boots left outside the doors to be cleaned, it must be understood that in families of their class in almost every other town in the country, although there was always a servant, and often more than one, to do the services of the house, to cook, to clean, to serve the meals, and to do a thousand services in running from one room to another, from the attic to the cellar, it was the custom that these services must be in the communal interest, strictly dedicated to the running and ordering of the house, and that no personal services were to be expected by any member of the family as an individual … And as for expecting Mary Ellen to blacken their boots for them, not one of the Coniffes would have entertained such an extravagant thought.

This is an accurate amusing piece of social analysis; but is it there as historical background for twentieth-century readers, or does it still exist in the “now” of the story, whenever that is? The point I want to make, with all these examples, is that the techniques derived from nineteenth-century novels and presumably designed to reconstruct the foursquare solidity of such novels are in each case used only as decoration. In this mode, The House in Clewe Street is pastiche.

About half-way through, family chronicle gives way to Bildungsroman, although there is no definite moment at which the reader realises that such a shift is taking place. Gabriel is shown first as a sensitive child in a philistine environment, then as a woman-dominated adolescent, and eventually as a priggish young man on an earnest campaign of self-improvement and enlightenment among Dublin Bohemians. His liberation from Castlerampart takes place alongside that of Onny, the servant girl with whom he elopes. The contrast between his doubts and hesitations and her headlong flight into this new world, and the sardonic commentary on them both by his friend Sylvester, ensure that there is no lack of irony in the presentation of Gabriel. At the same time the value of his agonized effort to formulate a new and real moral code for himself to replace the one artificially imposed by Castlerampart is never minimized.

The creation of Onny is one of the book's achievements. She has a very solid presence. Her animal vitality, her spiritual crudeness, her cunning, her sure sense of her own identity and determination to find self-fulfilment, all point up the pathetic absurdity of Gabriel's possessive and pedagogical attitude towards her. Sylvester is a more mysterious figure, effectively ambiguous, whose cool ironic detachment throughout the story makes his concern for Gabriel in the final episode the more striking. A third figure who presides, more distantly, over Gabriel's progress is Helen, also somewhat mysterious, who has succeeded in achieving what Gabriel is striving for, formulating and maintaining her own independent moral code, in which convention and religion have a place accorded them after cool scrutiny of their values. As Onny says, she is somewhat bloodless, but she has an important place in the story as the representative of Gabriel's ideal of moral self-sufficiency. Between them, these four characters create a debate on the values of society and of “the externals of religion”, on responsibility and independence, self-determination and selfishness, idealism and common sense, which is complex and sustained.

But, in the end, The House in Clewe Street does not succeed as a Bildungsroman either. Confusion sets in: the control of perspective slackens. It becomes impossible to distinguish when irony, in the presentation of Gabriel, gives way to endorsement, though by the last pages it appears to have done so. Gabriel has broken away from his mentors, Sylvester and Helen, and has made a decision “to associate himself with Onny's dishonour” and “to face whatever punishment it should be decreed he deserved”. Zack Bowen interprets the ending as “a reflection of the morality and class-consciousness of his life in Clewe Street and a triumph of that morality which in turn provides Gabriel with an ultimate source of strength and energy”.8 This interpretation, however, seems to me to be wrong. A vision of Clewe Street does indeed rise up in Gabriel's mind as a kind of mirage of lost golden innocence, and he does feel the temptation to return there and carry on as if the whole Onny episode had never happened (doubtless he could have done, small towns have plenty of whitewash for returned black sheep)—but he rejects it as a mirage, a false vision, and turns instead to the real view of Dublin spread out before him in the dawn as an image of civitas, “[carrying] aloft her triumphant testimony of man's mighty struggle to cut through ignorance and doubt a path of sane philosophy”. Inspired by the newly-perceived image of the city, “He held up his head, and strode forward.” The grandiose tone clearly indicates the finality of his achievement.

To recognize is not necessarily to accept it, however. The passage in which Gabriel reaches his decision shows him being as priggish, condescending, and possessive towards Onny as he ever was in earlier episodes. He speaks of her having a “bad streak”, of her “weakness of character”. He blames himself for depriving her of her simple superstitious faith:

I begin to see some value in the externals of religion. I begin to see that for people of lesser moral fibre they are necessary … Poor, poor Onny! What an evil day it was for her when I first came into her life.”

The irony here might almost be considered too heavy—except that Helen looks at Gabriel “with an expression of admiration”, and, although Sylvester is not impressed, since the decision arrived at here is the one Gabriel strides off with in the last sentence of the book it seems the irony is unintentional. Such uncertainty results, in the end, in making the book pastiche as Bildungsroman as well.

If one wonders what Mary Lavin was trying to do in 1944 when she wrote The House in Clewe Street, one wonders even more about her intentions in 1950 when she wrote Mary O'Grady. It is the story of Mary's wifehood, motherhood, bereavement and death. She undergoes an inordinate amount of suffering: her whole life is with and for her family, which is decimated by blow after blow of ill-fortune. First her husband dies, then two of her daughters are killed; one son declines into permanent melancholia, another fails the priesthood as a result of the stigma of madness in the family. Significantly, Mary O'Grady is also set in the past, a past more clearly defined than in the previous novel; but, again, the passing of time in the world at large has little effect on the events of the book. In spite of a time-span of some forty years, the atmosphere remains turn-of-the-century. Maybe this is part of the book's meaning, that Mary so much creates her own world within her own family—maybe, but (and here we come to the fundamental criticism of the book) we cannot be sure, because there is again a basic uncertainty and lack of control of perspective. Mary herself so fills the book that there is no room to stand back from her and decide what attitude to take towards her. Is it the author's intention to show the obsessive singlemindedness of her motherhood as limiting to herself and stifling to her children? At the end, is Mary's dying vision of Heaven offered as a comment on the limiting simplicity of her piety? The fact that her intuition about Rosie's pregnancy is proved right may indicate that it is not. Similar uncertainty pervades the book. The fabulous freshness of Tom and Mary's early married years is touchingly portrayed, but is only diminished and tarnished by, rather than re-interpreted through, the passing years and successive chapters. The absence of a frame of reference to provide perspective for the story renders it, for all the effectiveness of individual scenes and episodes, almost meaningless as a whole.

Of course it is easy to point out the faults of “two bad novels”, but it is worth being specific about them because of the surprising fact that stories written more or less contemporaneously with the novels display so completely, so assuredly, those qualities which were to be Mary Lavin's hallmark for the next fifteen or twenty years.9 Moreover, the stories have much in common with the novels: they describe the same kinds of people in the same vagueness as to period, they share the concern with family, family history and family relationships. But in the stories, the omission of dates assumes the positive quality of timelessness; similar uncertainty of interpretation, so confusing to an attempt to assess Gabriel's achievement or the value of Mary's life, resolves itself in the stories into ambiguity and irony. Poise, balance, control, the very qualities the novels lack, the stories have to an astonishing degree; but most importantly, they have charm, glamour, “the extraordinary sense” as V. S. Pritchett put it, “that what we call real life is a veil.”10 Can all this be due to the use of one form rather than another? Charm and glamour are by their nature indefinable, a kind of magical illusion; all one can do is note the circumstances of their appearance, and note also that illusion has much to do with technique.

More than most short-story writers, Mary Lavin in her earlier stories both depends upon and exploits the envelope of silence which surrounds a story. It provides both distance and resonance. Within it irony and ambiguity remain intact, inviolable, inscrutable; it is in the enveloping silence that the “meaning” of the story echoes. Thus it is not the scale of the short story, but its isolation and discontinuity with the world outside itself, that is important. Many incidents from The House in Clewe Street and Mary O'Grady could be isolated with hardly any change and succeed as short stories. The story of Lily's birth, or of the lengthening of her dress in the garden, or of Cornelius' death (brought about by his presumption in trying to hunt with the gentry, a motif which is never re-introduced in the course of the book), or the black comedy of Theodore's funeral; or, in Mary O'Grady, Patrick's trip to the mountains as a child, or his return from America and retreat into melancholia, or even the account of Mary's death—any of these, isolated, would reverberate as the stories do. The account of Lily's marriage to Cornelius, for example, is reminiscent of the story “Frail Vessel”, which is haunting especially because of its ending, Liddy's whispered “Even so”, but Lily is followed through “the obscure days that were to make up the rest of her life.” Wedged into the continuity of the novels, all the incidents are deprived of resonance, their meaning either lost, or entangled in interpretation. “Frail Vessel” is typical of the stories in that it defies interpretation, raising questions which, not answering, it does not evade but suspends for our contemplation.

Within the framework of the short story Mary Lavin's technique is to convey insight in a flash, precision and economy working towards a luminous clarity of vision. A spectacular example is in “A Wet Day”, where the introduction of a single word alters our perspective and our perception of the meaning of the whole story. There are three people involved: a young girl who is the narrator, her aunt, and the parish priest. Half-way through the story we glimpse the aunt in the garden “as she busied herself flicking slugs off the lettuce with an elegant fore-finger.” “Elegant”! So the aunt is elegant! It makes all the difference; we revise our assessment of what is happening. Looking back over the story, we see that, yes, she has been elegant all along, in her appreciation of the fuchsia bush “so shaggy and unpretentious” in its prettiness, and in her tactful lining of her niece to prevent her saying “anything out of place”, but a certain condescension of tone on the niece's part has prevented us from realising it. Now, focussing on her elegance, we see that it, as much as lettuces, is what the priest comes for, some echo of the world of beauty experienced in Rome and from which he feels himself exiled. The revelation comes just in time not only to redeem the aunt from the image of dowdy parishioner exploited for her garden's sake, but also the priest from total paltriness before he reveals even greater depths of meanness in his own account of his treatment of the sick young man, his niece's fiance]. The adjustment of perception in mid-story emphasises the balance and the hair's-breadth control of the whole performance. It is a very sophisticated technique that can so suavely control our response with a single word.

Reviewing The Stories of Mary Lavin in this journal a few years ago, Seamus Deane11 found in her style “the address of someone who believes in innocence, but is not herself innocent”—the discrepancy between content and style adding to the charm. But I am not sure that the opposition is not more radical, that the innocence itself may not be more radical. In the interview (above) Mary Lavin says that all her characters, all her stories are seen against the background of “a small town in the West in which I spent a few months at age ten on first coming from America.” To a clever only child transplanted to an environment not just new to her but already fabled in the stories of her -parent's youth everything must have seemed both exotic and familiar, and on both counts worth observing minutely. That ten-year-old's piercing vision stayed with her into adulthood, adding to the deftness of the prose a quality of insight which, like a child's, measures and judges while remaining detached, and which also endows everything with an element of the fabulous. Reading these stories one is often surprised, so strong is the sense of the fabulous, to find that they are realistic at all, let alone as meticulous as they frequehntly are in their attachment to the mundane details of everyday Irish life.

Myth and folk-lore, fairy-tales, and ghost-stories, underlie Mary Lavin's work. Their presence is occasionally felt in the novels—in the conception of Mary O'Grady as the archetypal Good Wife and Poor Widow, and in many individual scenes and incidents in both novels, but sorts uneasily with the demands of social realism and psychological complexity. In the stories however the same combination is a factor in that effect of “double vision” which V. S. Pritchett noted.12 The timelessness of her settings—cottages, fields and graveyards, towns, villages and cities: not suburbs, motorways and parking lots—emphasises those aspects of twentieth-century Irish life which link it not only to Ireland's own past, but to the way of life familiar in Europe over centuries. Her characters are subordinate to pattern. There is very little description of any individual. Young girls are seen in terms of dresses, ribbons, hair, and the crisis of growing up in the “putting up” of the hair (“The Long Ago”); defiance of parental will is represented by “two little pale blue feathers” on a hat (“The Will”). Widows wear black. Men, when they are not priests, are shown in their capacity of husband, son, father: either feckless and extravagant or dutiful, either dominated or masterful to the point of being domineering. The characters are recognisable from everyday life, but our deeper sense of familiarity with them derives from the patterns of old tales: wicked destructive sisters, maids abandonned by lovers, widowed mothers of only sons, tyrannical fathers. Cruel stepmothers are absent, but a real, and not even cruel, mother can do the job of separating daughter from father equally well (“A Cup of Tea”).

“A Likely Story” is an actual fairy story, tempered with a lot of everyday realism. The atmosphere is very matter-of-fact. “The Cemetery in the Demesne” reverses this. Nothing fey happens, but the atmosphere is so charged with strangeness that the sick child in the gothic lodge becomes a changeling as well as a sick child, the rites of the Catholic church reach back and entangle themselves with ancient magic, and it is hard to say, in the end, whether the carter is the victim of depression or whether he is bewitched. “The Long Ago” uses a pattern familiar from fairy tales: three young girls with similar sounding names live out histories in which two marry and are widowed and the third, jilted, feels no less bereaved when her ex-suitor dies. It is the story of Hallie's deprived embittered spinsterhood and neurotic dependance on the past, but it is also a tale of love faithful beyond the grave, of girlhood friendship preserved, suffused with all the pathos and nostalgia which the title implies.

Burials, cemeteries, wills, all the paraphernalia of death, figure largely in these stories. “Heaven and Hell [are] the familiars of everyday” (“Limbo”) impinging on ordinary life both with a frisson of the supernatural and with an awareness of judgment, of good and ill. The awareness of “last things” may be firmly put behind closed gates, as Liddy and Alice check the lock of the Old Cemetery (“A Visit to the Cemetery”) but is always adjacent. Liddy and Alice turn away in relief to walk in the wind and talk of boys, but the direction of their walk is the New Cemetery. The hilarity which often accompanies the procedure of death pervades several stories, “A Happy Death”, “The Living”, most of all, “Loving Memory”. In this story obsessional concern over the choice of a headstone for his dead wife provides Matthias with a motive to sustain his own life, but his children find that as a result of his continual haunting of the cemetery their mother's memory lives on in a different way: she becomes one of the “bogeys and bugbears with which exasperated parents scarified their offspring” to bring them in from play after dusk.

As for judgment of good and ill, “a kind of wild justice” rules. As in folk-tales, generosity of spirit is the prime virtue, meanness the worst vice. But in these stories it is not always easy to disentangle them, nor even to distinguish reward from punishment. It is impossible to say which is uppermost, self-interest or generosity, in the impulse that prompts the surgeon in “A Woman Friend” to propose to Bina, nor whether for himself or for her her acceptance is reward or punishment. The last paragraph moves from the one view to the other with perfect evenhandedness. Often, indeed, in these stories “Virtue is its own reward,” the gains and losses of which maxim can be interpreted with varying degrees of irony by idealist or cynic.

The longest and most sophisticated, most brilliant and perhaps most sombre, story to combine everyday life and fairy tale into moral fable is “The Becker Wives”. The effect of this story is rather like that of Flora herself on the Beckers at their first meeting. On taking a “good look” at her, Samuel

was surprised at a boyish quality about her, because … his first impression had been of quite extravagant girlishness … It was a bit of a shock to see that she was wearing a trim black suit and that her small black shoes had buckles, not bows. There was just one thing that was flowery, though: her perfume.13

Just so, the first impression the story makes is of something quite extravagantly magical. It comes as a bit of a surprise when a “godd look” shows it as a story about a well-off middle-class family, one of whose members, to show off, marries a clever beautiful girl with a talent for impersonation who is carried away, by her own brilliance and the intoxication of her audience, into madness. The high social comedy of the Beckers, galvanized, lumbering into new life (“‘They look as if they are playing some game,’ Flora whispered.”) Is heightened further by the pervading sense of the uncanny. As the pace increases and becomes hectic—charades, picnics, and impersonations “whenever there was a dull moment in a conversation, or even a lull”—and the Becker wives are observed jettisoning china dogs, vases, and other hitherto prized bric-a-brac under Flora's influence, thus bringing “more air, more colour, more light” to their lives, she seems a good fairy; as it slows again, with her fixation on pregnant Honoria as the only butt of her impersonations, she seems a witch, demonically possessed; and in the end she dissolves, Samuel feels, into a “wraith”, and is indeed, when it is “all over”, only an exhausted girl who will have to be “taken away somewhere … to try to restore the balance of her jangled mind.”

It is, as I said, a moral fable, and the moral is a very simple one: “Pride goes before a fall.” The Beckers “in their presumption” had come to regard Flora as “just another of the Becker wives”; in their hefty materialism they looked on her as a prize possession. Theobald, her husband, is the guiltiest. He of all the Beckers was the only one not to be smugly satisfied with the rightness of their choices—of furniture, china, houses, wives; the only one to feel the lack of spirit, style, verve. So to remedy the deficiency he imports Flora, as a superior commodity. Theodore is the only member of the family absent at the catastrophe. His reaction to finding out that he has after all, as Julia predicted, made “the worst mistake”, the most “disastrous marriage” of them all, is left to the imagination. Samuel's presumption is more sympathetic: he presumed to “understand” Flora. His punishment is accordingly more subtle, “a terrible, terrible sadness” which nevertheless carries the seeds of self-recognition and self-knowledge. Flora receives the worst punishment of all. Julia puts her mistake crudely after their first meeting: “she doesn't believe in hiding her light under a bushel” and “she carried it just a bit too far”. Drunk with admiration, she exploits her talent for inhabiting other people's personalities to the point where her own dissolves. The bleakness o the moral judgment, and the enchantment, the “airy brilliance” of the atmosphere, create a tension which make this story a magical performance of balance.

So far, I have been referring to Mary Lavin's earlier stories. Since In the Middle of the Fields, and Other Stories (which appeared in 1967, and in which the title story, the earliest, was written in 1961), several collections have appeared, and in these later stories taken as a group there is a change. Poise and balance are no longer the most outstanding characteristics. Not that they are less accomplished, but less obviously so. They are less impervious to the outside world, more fluid, more open-textured. The attitude to the characters is less detached and ironic, more sympathetic; among the characters, there are more people who inhabit the same world as Mary Lavin herself and her readers, educated, articulate, familiar with city life even if living in the country, travelling abroad (two stories have settings outside Ireland). In recent stories, Mary Lavin confronts issues, questions of values, social and religious, as she had not done since The House in Clewe Street—of course, doing so in a different manner.

The changing times are more apparent. “In the Middle of the Fields” is set like so many of Mary Lavin's stories in the countryside, but the countryside is not merely a setting, a given. It is examined in a new way.

The wife was with him, as usual, sitting up in front [of the car] the way people sat up in the well of little tub traps long ago, their knees pressed together, allowing no slump.

The continuity with the past accommodating change is exactly the sense pervading the earlier stories, but the articulation of it is new. The change that electricity has brought is described in this story too. “‘Look, that's electricity!’” her mother used to say as the blue spark sprang from her hair under the brush:

That was all they knew of electricity in those dim-lit days when valleys of shadow lay deep between one piece of furniture and another. Was it because rooms were so badly lit then that they saw it so often, that little blue star?

The story as a whole encloses another story, from the past, that of Bridie Logan “mad for love” and her sudden death; a story with the nostalgic bittersweet tone of many of Mary Lavin's earlier ones. “In the Middle of the Fields” frames it: the woman, a widow, is herself enough of an outsider to country life to reflect that “she envied the practical country way that made good the defaults of nature as readily as the broken sod knits back into the sward,” (a reflection that in the event is ironically a bit off the mark). Through her eyes the countryside, its life and its people, are reassessed, change and continuity balanced.

Another story that revisits and reassesses the territory of earlier stories is “Tom”. It is a very personal story, using “frankly biographical material”14 in which Tom (the author/narrator's father) returns from America and drives through the countryside of his childhood, meeting, though deliberately remaining unrecognised by, people he remembers. Even the name of his childhood sweetheart, Rose Magarry, is a memory of one of Mary Lavin's earliest stories (“Lilacs”).

The changing times inform the central theme in “The Shrine”, a debate between a young geologist interested in developing the land for its minerals to give new economic life to a rural community, and his fiancée's uncle, the Canon, who is exploiting a Shrine, supposedly on the site of a miraculous Apparition, for its commercial potential in order to achieve the same end. In one aspect “The Shrine” is a reworking of the incident in “A Wet Day”: a priest, obsessed with his own concerns, in each case being prepared on their behalf to ruin the happiness of a beloved niece and her young man. The analysis of motive in the later story is much more complex and more explicit. Though the concerns of “The Shrine” are as much as ever in Mary Lavin's work the eternal verities—youth and age, growing up, the conflict of the world and the spirit—they are articulated in relation to an intensely topical issue in modern Ireland, and this gives a greater density and solidity to the story, in contrast to the delicately-achieved precision of “A Wet Day”.

Folk-lore and fairy-tale as a pattern impinge on these stories less, but there is an awareness of ancient atavistic power in the countryside. “A Mug of Water” is about a young English woman, Esmay, on her honeymoon in Ireland. (Incidentally, there is a lapse of Mary Lavin's usually perfect ear when she has Esmay say, of a bee, “Mind would it sting you,” an Irish locution if ever there was one.) Her husband, a doctor, Irish but working in England, is fascinated by the dolmens, burial mounds and passage-graves all over the country, and as he enthusiastically explores them Esmay feels the landscape becoming haunted by the memory of the people who had built them. In the end the story reveals itself as literally a fairy story—a story about fairies; not “little people” but the Old Ones—but not before it has established itself as an exploration of the tensions, the minute shiftings of mood, the heightened sensitivity of the newly-married couple, and set this against a sense of the present day as one moment only in the history of man.

Similarly, in “The Lost Child”, an old disused cemetery for unbaptised children haunts the mind of a modern young woman, Renée, and surfaces when she herself has a miscarriage; she has just become a Catholic after some years of marriage to Mick, a “born Catholic”. As in “The Cemetery in the Demesne” ancient superstition and Catholicism (“a barbarous religion” in the eyes of Renée's sister Iris) link; but whereas in the early story the issue remains latent and ambiguous, here it is confronted and examined.

Esmay and Renée are representatives of a type of person that hardly appears in the world of the earlier stories: a woman who is neither destructive nor pathetic. The widow in “In the Middle of the Fields” is of this type, and so is “Vera”, or rather all the women who go by that name, in “The Cuckoo-Spit”, “One Summer”, “Happiness”, “Trastevere”, and “Villa Violetta”. (In the three last, Vera, whose surname is Traske and who has three daughters, does in fact seem to be the same person, and to have much in common with Mary Lavin herself.)

These characters are treated with more sympathy and inwardness than any in the earlier stories. Even in those stories in the later collections that return to earlier subject-matter—“Asigh”, “Tomb of an Ancestor”, “Heart of Gold”—do not return entirely to the earlier manner. The injured, jilted girl of “Asigh” (and this is true of Vera in “One Summer” as well) shows a self-awareness which rescues and dignifies her. Both “Heart of Gold” and “Tomb of an Ancestor” end happily; “happiness”, a concept hardly granted admittance in the earlier stories except when lost or illusory, is a positive force not only in the story of that name, but in all the recent collections. Moreover the characters are seen to achieve their happiness.

For Mary Lavin in these later stories is as much a moralist as ever. Happiness is no arbitrary gift. “A Memory” is a reworking of the basic situation in “A Woman Friend”, and, in contrast to the masterly ambiguity with which reward and punishment are handled in that story, there is no doubt at all here that James is punished for his meanness of spirit. He is criminal in his rejection of the generous offer of happiness that is held out to him, and his death is the direct result of his behaviour. Although James is incapable of achieving or even recognising it, the possibility of happiness exists even in this austere story, and in this there is a contrast with another early story about a cautious bachelor and a woman friend, “Love is for Lovers”, where the choice seems to be only between the stifling plushy cosiness offered by the woman and the cold-feet-in-bed of continued solitude.

What I have been saying about the later stories amounts in effect to announcing the end of “double vision”, to recur to V. S. Pritchett comments in the passage I have already quoted from. “What we call real life” is no longer “a veil” over “the smoldering of a hidden life”; gone too is the opposition of innocence and sophistication that Seamus Deane noted, which is so largely responsible for the magical aura of the earlier stories. Characteristically in the later stories, surface and depth are unified: where there are depths they are confronted and, delicately of course, tentatively rather than exhaustively, explored. They are brought to light by a technique which combines a structure seemingly casual and open, in fact complex and suggestive, and a style dense with imagery.

This imagery informs, rather than reinforcing or standing for, the meaning. A comparison between “A Memory” and the early “Lilacs” may illustrate what I mean. Stacy, in “Lilacs”, like James in the later story, rejects what she thinks of as the ugly, sordid aspect of life, symbolised for her by the dung-hill from which her family makes its money, (“filthy lucre”), and in the end is trapped by it, because she too depends on it for her livelihood. “Lilacs” achieves its effect through the neatness of the opposition between lilacs and dunghill, the smartness of the reversal in the last line of the story, the diagrammatic simplicity of the parallel, and the way the meaning can lie unvoiced but quite plain behind the metaphor.

In “A Memory” the natural organic life which James rejects, finds messy, is indicated by a whole range of images. There is the fire which he kindles in the first section, references to which ironically punctuate his complacent reverie on the cool “uniquely undemanding quality” of his relationship with Myra. There are the fields which he looks out on “with hatred”; physical fatness; cooking and all domesticity; the process of ageing; children and nappies; the brambles and briars of the wood. The strip of daylight sky by which at the end he tries to orient himself as he stumbles through the wood is both natural and, on the other hand, cool, green and distant. The dense and complicated imagery reaches its climax in the central scene in which James and Myra uncharacteristically quarrel. She flings herself against the door “in an outrageous gesture of crucifixion” to prevent him from leaving; “‘This nailing of yourself to the door like a stoat’,” James says. The image is brutal, and at the same time intimately countrified. Merged as it is with the idea of the crucifixion, nothing could be more shocking. At the end of the story, the image is picked up again when James, like a hunted animal himself, stumbles about in the wood: the same pattern is re-enacted, first the gesture of crucifixion—“If he raised his arms and thrashed about …”—and then the pathetic immobility, “his face pressed into the wet leaves … the rotted leaves were sucked into his mouth.”

The most characteristically recurring imagery in the later stories is that of natural growth, and the power of the earth, the soil. In “A Mug of Water” the tumuli and passage-graves are frightening not only for their association with death but even more because they are womb-like, representing beginnings as much as ends. Esmay, just married, is conscious of her own womb and the possibility of pregnancy; she falls back onto the springy heather as onto a bed, but Mike points out the dangers of hidden rocks; everywhere generation, birth and death are intertwined. The number of gardeners in these stories is striking: the eponymous “New Gardener”, Vera in “Happiness”, Ada in “Senility”, Renée in “The Lost Child”. The central, long passage about Renée's gardening in the last-named story illustrates how casually, unforcedly, the imagery embodies and focusses the theme.

Renée has just returned exhausted (she is in the first, as yet unconfirmed, stage of pregnancy) from the ceremony in which she was received into the Catholic Church, and finds, before she even gets into the house, that the springtime garden is demanding her attention from every quarter. Every detail in this passage (it is six pages long) expresses some aspect of the story's main concerns. The spring weather is full of promise, but “everywhere too there was evidence of the damage done by winter.” The stone dropped in the middle of the field, “roughly chiselled, perhaps by one of the old monks to whom the land had once belonged,” refers us back to those other rocks on Dugort Strand, which, appearing at first glance to be a natural formation, turn out to be a disused cemetery for unbaptised children; an incident which exarcerbates the tension between Renée's sister Iris and her Catholic husband Mike, and leads to a discussion of the question of baptism for a still-born baby or a foetus—“That word!” Renée shudders. Here, however, the rock emphasises the emotional rightness of Renée's decision to “turn”, since even the land she lives on once belonged to the Church: it is “as firmly rooted as a tree”, like a living thing, and Renée plans to bring it even more into the context of ongoing life by moving it into the garden and planting bulbs around it. Next she sees the bulbs which have bolted into premature life “in such a frenzy of growth they had shot out of the ground altogether and lay upended on top of the clay” in an absurd, grotesque and comically touching foreshadowing of the miscarriage. The crocus bulbs have to be reburied to complete their growth. This image recurs movingly in Renée's dream later in hospital, in which men try, but fail, to bury a baby among the crocuses under the elm tree. The roses too, Renée finds, have put out new early shoots which endanger their lives and demand another bout of protective activity; and finally she sees that a load of manure has been dumped on the lawn and “almost smothered her beautiful Chinese peonies that were due to flower for the first time this summer, their leaf-buds already unfurling.” The whole garden thus becomes a metaphor for Renée's condition, physical, psychological, and spiritual, and the metaphor reflects precisely the moment of crisis in her own condition. When she gets to work on the manure her activity changes from. being joyously, maternally benevolent and becomes grimly determined; hating “the filthy stuff”, she reminds herself “that in the ground this too would be transformed”—the connotations of the last word need not be stressed. She endures the dunghill, and all it represents, with fortitude, until she encounters the “mess of worms” and impales one. As traditional denizens of graves the worms have their obvious place in the metaphor, but here they speak of life more explicitly than of death: “how could anyone—above all one in her condition—deny any creature—even a disgusting thing like that—its right to life!” That there can be such explicitness without loss of subtlety is the measure of the successful merging of theme and metaphor. The easy, intimate relation between the two is made possible by Renée herself being sensitive and self-aware enough to appreciate that relation.

The most endearing, to my mind, of Mary Lavin's later stories is “Villa Violetta”. Discursive, almost anecdotal, it tells how Vera, a young widow, a writer, arrives in Florence with her three little girls and finds herself daunted by the task of finding accommodation and organising their lives. The descriptions of her inefficiency and impracticality are very realistic and very funny, with an undercurrent of panic. Her children cope better than she does with the language, and she is constantly getting lost. The first half of the story is dominated by the image of Florence as a maze, alien and forbidding and full of icy marble staircases. In the second half, the maze sorts itself out under the guidance of Father Tom and his touring bus, and becomes benevolent and beautiful, “printed on her mind as a starry map.”

Vera's regaining of her sense of direction, and her emergence from fear and loneliness, is paralleled by the emergence of the little girl Peggy from a prolongued attack of vertigo, her recovery being due to the companionship of Vera's youngest daughter, Linda. The story is all concerned with the surface of life, the demands of the children, their clothes; streets, furniture, money; food, above all, food—and these domestic impedimenta perfectly represent the world of things which Vera must control and make home for herself and her children. A final quotation from this story sums up what seems to be, despite all their acknowledgment of “the weight of living” and “onslaughts upon happiness” (“Happiness”), and all their “intimations of mortality” (“Senility”), the prevailing mood of the later volumes.

Below lay Florence, the late sunlight still gilding its domes and cupolas but in the gardens and public parks the blue of evening was gathering into pools.

But it is of course impossible really to sum up, and maybe misleading to speak of any mood as “prevailing” in a group of stories so dedicated in their awareness of moment-to-moment variability. Mentioning “Senility” alongside “Villa Violetta”, I have stressed by implication Ada's acceptance of age, her concern for Laura, and the dream of past happiness which (perhaps) “having been must ever be”. But “Senility” is a grim story too, and the current of bitterness that runs through it emerges in the story published in this issue—“A Family Likeness”—in which Ada and Laura appear again: Ada shrunken and enfolded like a scarecrow in a too-big coat of Laura's, Laura's hardness emphasised by the exhaustion of early motherhood, both of them strained by their relationship and pinched by the cold wind of a treacherous spring day. The imagery of this recent story, dung and flowers juxtaposed, recalls that of the very early “Lilacs”, used, however, with the dense complexity and subtlety which characterizes the later stories rather than with the transparent clarity of “Lilacs”. Indeed the same imagery is adumbrated in “Senility” where the flowery dream causes Ada humiliatingly to wet her bed.

In this essay I have charted fairly minutely the relationship of the author to her form: the catalytic effect that form had on her material (basically, as I showed, the same as in the novels) and its development. I stressed the distinction between early and later stories, such distinctions being necessary when confronting a body of work so consistent as Mary Lavin's, and one which bears so clearly the author's stamp. “A Mary Lavin story”—the concept is as recognisable as “a Graham Greene novel”, therefore the differences between individual stories are vital, but so too are the links between them, and the qualities that enable us to group them. But “later” is a relative term. “A Family Likeness” demonstrates very clearly both the continuity of Mary Lavin's work, and its direction: towards, that is, a full transcription of everyday life, no longer as an insubstantial veil, but accepted in all its gravity.


  1. The House in Clewe Street (London: Michael Joseph, 1945).

  2. Mary O'Grady (London: Michael Joseph, 1950).

  3. Interview with Maev Kennedy, The Irish Times, 13 March 1976.

  4. See above.

  5. Zack Bowen, Mary Lavin (London: Associated University Presses, 1975), p. 43.

  6. See p. 207ff.

  7. On the lines of Kate O'Brien's Without My Cloak (London: Heinemann, 1931). A comparison between the two books reveals striking similarities. However, Without My Cloak is definitely a historical novel, with a sure grasp of historical perspective.

  8. Op. cit., p. 65.

  9. Until about 1961. For convenience, I am taking the last story to be included in The Stories of Mary Lavin, Vol. II, (i.e. “The Yellow Beret”) as the last of her “earlier” stories, and “In the Middle of the Fields” as the first of the “later” ones, although “In a Café” really belongs with the “later” group.

  10. Introduction to Mary Lavin, Collected Stories (Boston: Houghton Miflin Co., 1971), p. ix.

  11. Irish University Review, IV:2 (Autumn 1974), 285.

  12. Op. cit., p. x.

  13. Earlier, Flora's clothes are described as “an assortment of light colours [that] seemed to cling to her like feathers.” This can be taken as further evidence of Flora's illusory appearance or, churlishly, cited as one of those mistakes which Mary Lavin has admitted are to be found in her early stories (see Interview with Maev Kennedy, quoted above).

  14. Interview, see Note 3.

Works Cited

All quotations from Mary Lavin's stories are taken from the following:

The Stories of Mary Lavin, Vol. I (London: Constable, 1964);

The Stories of Mary Lavin, Vol. II (London: Constable, 1974);

In the Middle of the Fields, and Other Stories (London: Constable, 1967);

Happiness, and Other Stories (London: Constable, 1969);

A Memory, and Other Stories (London: Constable, 1972);

The Shrine, and Other Stories (London: Constable, 1977);

Tales from Bective Bridge (London: Michael Joseph, 1943; re-issued Dublin: Poolbeg Press, 1978).

Bonnie Kime Scott (essay date autumn 1979)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7774

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 fascination with the human mind asserted itself repeatedly. It is a broad interest, incorporating the eccentric, the very young, the very old and both sexes. “The nearly intact mind is very interesting. I am very interested in geriatrics, senility and indeed in madness. Also in the dawning mind.”1 Evidence of recent interest in the minds of the old and the young is found in Mary Lavin's latest collection, A Memory, and Other Stories and The Shrine, and Other Stories, as well as in scattered earlier works. “Senility”, from the latest collection, treats the troubled relationship of a mother and daughter as the first symptoms of the mother's ageing appear, and “Tom” goes back over the author's childhood interpretations of her parents. Miss Lavin revealed that she plans soon to delve further into her own past by writing about her earliest years in East Walpole, Massachusetts. Also apropos of the “dawning mind”, she recalls the “imaginative” things her daughters said as children and the “purity of perception” children have despite “a world … so full of fact.” Concerning the other extremes of life, Mary Lavin talked movingly about her relationship with her mother, Nora Lavin, who lived to be eighty-eight. She regretted not having detected her “early erosion”, seen in instants of confusion which started some ten years before her death, but rejected the term “senile” in describing her parent. Nora Lavin's momentary mental lapses could be compared to the “momentary stoppage in memory” described by the mother in “Senility”, a story which, like parts of “Happiness” and “The Dead Soldier”, must have been inspired by the author's relationship to her aged mother.2 “Somehow I feel I may have disappointed her … I worry about my mother but my husband sees no point in going back over it. He says I did not fail her, that his view is objective.”

This topic led us to some possible distinctions between men's and women's minds and to a more direct focus on the female mind. “The female mind does go back more over emotional issues.” When asked whether women were more prone to pettiness and nasty behaviour than men, Miss Lavin responded, “Maybe. Being a woman I don't like to admit it, but I also feel the female mind is more volatile. Nasty? Maybe, but fleeter—not the downright stubborn persisting nastiness of a male mind—a walling-up of the tomb sort of thing.” Mary Lavin also disclosed that, over the years, she “came to have a greater appreciation of the female mind. Their minds have a flexibility and subtlety not in men's minds. The female mind is more flexible, especially in emotional matters.” Although they do not make a special connection between the emotions and the female mind, both Benedict Kiely and V. S. Pritchett have appreciated Mary Lavin's interest in and ability to portray the emotions. Kiely states that the “main merit” of her first three collections of short stories was their “ability to prise open delicately the lid of appearance covering emotions,”3 a remark echoed in Pritchett's praise of Miss Lavin's “controlled revelation of untidy, powerful emotion.”4

Mary Lavin's increased appreciation of the female mind is matched by an increased interest in the company of at least some women. She noted that, as a girl in convent school, her friends were necessarily mostly girls, but she expressed no particular interest in them as companions. At University College, Dublin, she preferred male friends. “The men seemed to have better minds than the girls, who seemed only interested in the men … The men knew about Paris and the contemporary writers and about the American classics.” Later, her attitude changed. “Contact with the minds of my daughters [Valentine, Elizabeth and Caroline, born between 1943 and 1953] gave me more sheer pleasure than contact with any other mind, male or female.”

It also seems worth remarking that Mary Lavin spoke at greatest length and with most complexity about the women, not the men in her life, a tendency which may have carried over into her writing on the two genders. Strong concern and affection for her first husband, William Walsh, who died in 1954, her present husband, Michael Scott, and her father, Thomas Lavin, were evident. But aside from remarking with respect tinged by amusement on the “discipline” of Michael Scott's lifestyle as contrasted to hers, and providing factual details about his career and interests, Miss Lavin was not eager to go on. She was enthusiastic but brief about Tom Lavin. “My father was an incredible genius.” In autobiographical fiction like “A Cup of Tea,” “Say Could that Lad be I” and “Tom”, he is shown as a devoted father, a favoured parent or a freewheeling boy in his native Roscommon,5 a place Mary Lavin only knew vaguely and could easily idealise. In contrast, the author broods over her mother. Having lived in her native village, among her shopkeeping relatives, and having had years longer to observe her, Mary Lavin has more critical and varied impressions that seem to contribute to the creation of many of her dissatisfied wife, sister and mother figures. Ultimately, Nora has a more interesting presence than Tom in Mary Lavin's fiction as well as her talk. To a limited extent, the author's maternal grandmother, Delia Mahon, has had a comparable effect. Like Nora, she contributes to troubled, frustrated female characters, but is also brooded over and re-evaluated. Mary Lavin revealed that her grandmother provided part of the pattern for Bedelia Grimes, a cranky, domineering village woman in “The Little Prince”. Looking at a youthful photograph of Delia Mahon recently, Miss Lavin felt badly about the role in which she had cast her. “There was a general sweetness in her face and a sadness” that are lacking in Bedelia, who is described by a stranger in the story as having a “conniving” face and an appearance “like a cold fish.”6 Revising her own reactions, she finds the hard-looking later portraits of her grandmother “not surprising after she had had twelve children and I'd say a pretty difficult life.”

It is apparent that Mary Lavin's daughters have been a great source of daily satisfaction and stimulation as well as a rich resource for her writing. As children, they helped her understand youthful perception; as adults, they may challenge her opinions. “Happiness” even employs a point of view identifiable with the daughters to comment on a mother strongly resembling the author. Mary Lavin's daughters would seem to provide lively models of active young Irish women, pursuing careers ranging from journalism to homemaking, not only in the antiquated rural communities where Mary Lavin's fiction first situated itself, but in modern Dublin as well.

Occasionally Mary Lavin spoke of herself as a woman writer and a veteran of female experience. The appearance of the entrance to the mews cottage the day of our interview provided a limited but representative introduction to Mary Lavin's outer life: a large space heater, a dog bed, some sleds and other debris formed a barricade, not to me, but to the overgrown family dog who is regrettably fond of swimming in the nearby canal and then drying-off inside. Mary Lavin was preceded by her own lusty cries from upstairs, bidding me welcome as she finished donning a well-worn grey skirt and blouse. Later, the distant, good-natured shouting of opinions would be exchanged between the author and her daughter Caroline in the midst of our interview. Mary Lavin appeared, tucking in loose ends of grey hair; she quickly whisked away some overblown roses, offered me something for my cold and launched us into a brief tour of her attractive Dublin residence. She commented like a busy homemaker on her efforts to preserve the original character of the place and her selection of black material for curtains—a choice which, she remarked, confirms some people's feelings that she is preoccupied with death. Actually she had a black and white colour motif in mind, and hoped to provide a dark frame for the greenery outside. “I do care about appearances, although the circumstances of my life make it very difficult to do much about the matter … I am a one-armed writer. I am not ‘professional.’ I am interrupted fifty times an hour. I am disorganised, all held together with safety pins … I live a life of the mind. That is where it is together.” The juxtaposition of outer chaos and an attempt for internal mental order are shared by many of Lavin's recently created female characters, exemplified in “The Cuckoo-Spit,” “In a Café” and “The Lost Child” as we shall see later.

The trials and discoveries of her widowhood were another topic that the author spoke about openly and one that she incorporates into works written since the early nineteen-sixties: the fifteen years in which she raised her children, travelled in Europe on a shoestring, and wrote seriously, finding new insights into herself, experiences fictionalized in “Happiness”. Zack Bowen has noted the more frequent appearance of widows in Mary Lavin's later work.7 Bowen has actually found something far more significant than a switch in subject preference. For widowhood has become one of Mary Lavin's best vehicles for communicating her subtle appreciation of the female mind, which should be seen as a major aspect of her growth as a writer.

In the fiction written during her widowed and remarried years, Mary Lavin builds upon early, primarily critical views of the female mind, attaining the subtlety and balance which became possible only after years of experience, study and careful revision. She recalled, “For years I wrote for fun. I dashed off stories without any sense of responsibility. I would get an idea and frame it up. “The Nun's Mother,” an early story, was probably written in one day. “Brother Boniface” and “A Small Bequest” were just a tour de force … After my first husband, William Walsh, died, I finished all my manuscripts in some kind of feeling the past should die with him. I was wrong but the damage was done.” But, although she did not define in detail her reasons for sensing a more serious turn in her writing, Mary Lavin did identify a story critical to her development and mentined other satisfying works that followed. She spoke of “The Will” with more enthusiasm than any other story. “I like it because it was, I think, a fine story in which I said something serious I wanted to say—maybe that I didn't know I knew till I formulated it. Before that, I was playing at writing—seeing if I could do it and quite capable of chucking it. After “The Will” I knew I'd go on. I perhaps knew instinctively that it would lead on to “In a Café”, “The Cuckoo-Spit”, “The Lost Child”, “Senility.”” The last-named stories can be taken as mature, satisfying work, at least to the author. In them, the female mind receives full, diverse, structured treatment worthy of our careful examination.

In much of the early writing that she now calls “apprenticeship” work, Mary Lavin learned to depict troubled, frustrated, embittered women whose emotional natures became dessicated or hardened from years of denial or misuse. Pritchett feels that “women dominate her stories” and his list of her typical portraitures is itself dominated by women to whom he assigns negative or depressing labels like “power-loving,” “downtrodden,” “lonely” and “bickering”.8 Women characters are the most tyrannical and rigid enforcers of the social-class distinctions, the sanctions and rules of narrow village society identified by Bowen as basic to Mary Lavin's vision.9 Prompted by anxieties about money, fears about public opinon, fatigue from hard work, ennui or lack of self-respect, women precipitate their own defeat and/or the torment of others. Often, in a structurally-important central incident, they unleash vituperative tongues to say things that they should have held back and may even have intended to keep inside. Consequently, they miss the emotional fulfillment found in the exchange of love, and also fail to know freedom, happiness and internal peace. It is a pattern that describes many major or minor female characters in early Mary Lavin works. A very brief list includes such well-known stories as “At Sallygap”, “Brigid”, “A Happy Death” “The Widow's Son”, “The Long Ago”, “A Gentle Soul”, “Posy”, “Loving Memory”, “Frail Vessel”, “The Small Bequest”, “Sarah” and “The Becker Wives”. The pattern also admits interesting counterplays between the realistic external details that Mary Lavin describes so scrupulously and internal mental turmoil which seems a primary subject of her fiction. Bedelia Grimes, already mentioned as the central female figure of “The Little Prince” (first published 1964), and Sophy's mother in “A Cup of Tea” (first published 1944) are central characters who can demonstrate these patterns for us in detail. The important transitional story, “The Will” (first published in 1944), mixes this early type of character and the involving structure with new, more positive human forces.

Worries about money and appearances lead Bedelia Grimes into the persecutions which ultimately deprive her of Tom, the younger brother, she had raised and once considered her “Little Prince”.10 Bedelia's mind is a beehive of conniving and self-justification. The way she sees it, Tom had lost his last chance to redeem himself when he broke a vow not to drink. She would confront him and insist that he get a fresh start—perhaps even a fortune—in America, away from the dangerous influence of the “good-for-nothing companions” he had been treating to drinks at the family shop (“LP” [“Little Prince”], p. 297). She justifies, “If the business came into his hands, he'd make short work of the profits” (“LP,” p. 297) and ensures her future with her fiancé. “Bedelia had her pride to safeguard, or better perhaps it would be more correct to say she had Daniel's pride to safeguard” (“LP,” p. 305). To Tom, she reasons that he is “one of those people who have to be protected from themselves” (“LP,” p. 301). Mary Lavin makes good use of external details in combination with this mental drama. As Bedelia takes Tom from the dinner table, she “felt bad when he put his saucer over the cup of tea … as if he thought he'd be back in a minute.” The darkness of the shuttered shop where they talk is appropriate to the mood, and “as she heard him stumbling against one thing after another, it was with difficulty that she restrained herself from commenting on his unfamiliarity with his surroundings” (“LP,” p. 299). The only patch of light enters through a heart-shaped vent cut by “someone in a flight of fancy,” and this is referred to with dramatic, ironic effect several times in the course of the drama (“LP,” pp. 299, 305). Although she is proven wrong about Tom's drinking, Bedelia's love of connivance takes over. She detects a “loophole” (“LP,” p. 300) to provide new justification for her intervention—Tom is wasting money by pouring his drinks away. She ignores all of Tom's reactions, including a witty and appropriate parable he uses to comment on the situation.

We never know exactly what becomes of Tom Grimes after he goes to America. Throughout the rest of the story, Bedelia is left to go back over her actions, still devoting much of her mental effort and her conversation to self-justification. She still displays shortness of temper, now ironically directed toward people who are trying to help her recover her brother. She ends a thoroughly disappointed woman, her marriage and the family business failing to meet her expectations, her search for Tom proving inconclusive. Her heart has become “too old and cracked a vessel to hold any emotion at all, however precious, however small a drop” (“LP,” p. 329).

A milder form of self-assisted defeat is represented in “A Cup of Tea,” a story in which a young woman's return from the university is elaborately prepared for by her mother, but then goes awry emotionally. With single-mindedness resembling Bedelia's, the mother had readied the house for Sophy, not caring that she has figuratively “broken the back” of her young servant with unreasonable cleaning demands. Sophy's mother is probably patterned in part on Nora Lavin in the era when the author was herself a student at UCD. She displays many of the weaknesses of character Mary Lavin attributes to her parent, whom she says was “faddy and finicky, and may have been shallow.” Sophy's mother has a troubled marital relationship. One imagines from scattered evidence that the couple quarrels over her family, which may not have approved of the match. The father, who never appears, spends much of his time pursuing his hobby of entomology in his upstairs study, and apparently very little time with his critical, quarrelsome wife. If the father isn't based on Tom Lavin, he certainly fits into the disciplined, rational patterns Mary Lavin ascribes to the male mind, and Sophy clearly gets along well with him, spending an hour in his study while her mother waits, at loose ends, to share some tea. To avoid conflict in conversations with her mother, Sophy downplays her positive relationship with her father. The mother knows the extent of Sophy's affection but cannot resist making little complaints about him throughout their talk. Sophy tries hard to keep the evening pleasant. She even attempts to empathise with her mother, whose shallow family reminiscences about family picture session, “beaux and bouquets”, larks, and parlour entertainments clearly bore her. Sophy “tried to feel sorry for her mother, all alone now, sitting here in the evenings filled with bitterness of those unfulfilled and foolish dreams.” Yet “instead of a feeling of pity, Sophy felt an impatience and irritability—why did she marry the wrong man?”11 Despite the energy she has put into preparations for her daughter's return, Sophy's mother has unconsciously and unavoidably been leading toward an argument with criticisms of the father and nagging remarks about Sophy's loss of weight. The crisis is precipitated by the mother's unnecessarily scalding the milk for Sophy's cup of tea—a measure she knows her daughter will dislike. Like Bedelia, the mother thinks, and rationalises:

Why did she boil the milk? She tried to remember. It wasn't sour. And even if it was beginning to turn it would have kept until Sophy had come down; a matter of thirty or forty minutes. Suddenly she remembered the way she had walked from room to room during those minutes, moving the kettle, stirring the fire, and filling in the time with aimless actions.

Her real reason is flung out in uncautious haste: “Perhaps if you hadn't stayed so long upstairs I might not have had time to boil it!” (“CT” [“A Cup of Tea”], p. 154). The final remark is fatal to the evening. It brings to the surface the mother's hostility for and jealousy of her husband. It also breaks down the daughter's own restraints. She unleases bitter remarks about the “queer” practices of her mother's family and about her mother's inability to admit making a mistake. Hopes for a few pleasant moments together and, more than that, for a warm mother-daughter relationship are lost; the two women return to apparently longstanding habits of bickering and slamming doors. For the isolated, self-pitying mother, “The whole week of preparation was spolied … Everything was spoiled.” (“CT,” p. 154). The only hopeful element is that Sophy lies in bed afterwards trying to figure out human differences and how they can be handled. She is woefully naive, but not yet embittered.

“The Will” offers a varied trio of women characters and an enriched thematic pattern that includes ageing, religion and death, making it the strongest and most interesting of the stories discussed so far, and worthy of Mary Lavin's own liking. The first notable female character in the story is the mother, who has just died, deliberately leaving her daughter Lally out of her will. Despite her physical absence and the circumscribed nature of the references to her, this character's manifestations of extreme rage and embitterment are well evoked. We are told that, as a bedridden old woman, she was sufficiently angered by the mention of Lally's name to hurl a stick at a nearby lamp, nearly setting the house aflame. Still, in her aged, wandering mind, she apparently went back over her final scene with her daughter, rambling on about the blue feathers Lally had worn in her hat on the day of her banishment for the crime of wishing to marry beneath the family.

In addition to this interesting study in geriatrics and alienation, there is Miss Lavin's consideration of the domineering, eldest sister in Matthew with speeches offering Lally a share in the inheritance if she bles that of Bedelia Grimes in “The Little Prince”. Kate has made elaborate plans with the family in order to reform Lally's supposedly undignified behaviour. She has primed her thin, weak-minded brother Matthew with speeches offering Lally a share in the inheritance if she will stop unseemly practices like taking in boarders. Like others of Mary Lavin's more tempestuous female characters, Kate cannot harness her tongue well enough to carry out the controlled, invisibly manipulative role she has planned. When Lally refused the offer noting that it would go against the mother's eliciting wishes, Kate snaps, “‘It's late in the day you let the thought of going against her wishes trouble you.’ … with an involuntary flash of impatience for which she hurried to atone in the next remark.”12 But Kate soon grows visibly impatient again, this time with Matthew's poorly-played patriarchal role. Kate drives a poker “among the blazing coals and rattle[s] them up and down with unusual violence.” Having gained Matthew's attention, she asks insultingly if he has to be “prompted at every word” (“W” [“The Will”], p. 135). Her agitation is also shown by her awkward rising from the fireside: “Her stiff new mourning suit got in her way,” and it, “combined with rheumatism made her list forward absurdly, with the jerky movement of a camel” (“W.” p. 135). Soon she says more things she hadn't intended to utter. She worries about appearances, “It's not a very nice thing for us to feel that our sister is a common landlady in the city” (“W,” p. 135), and exaggerates, “It's not a nice thing for my children to feel that their first cousins are going to free schools in the city and mixing with the lowest of the low, and running messages for your dirty lodgers” (“W,” p. 135). She attacks Lally for such things as the appearance of her teeth and the shabby dark coat she has borrowed for the funeral (“W,” p. 139). The story shifts to a new dimension when she realises that Lally agitates more than her family's sense of pride. With her thin battered hands and lined face, this younger sister chills them, making them “read their own decay in hers.” The author summarises, “A grudge against her gnawed at them” (“W,” p. 137). Refusing to stay with them longer, Lally runs into the darkness, her footsteps sounding the pavement, her “sleeves dangling,” and the door left wide, as in the days of her childhood (“W,” p. 139). Only when Lally is beyond her eldest sister's reach do the emotions Kate once felt for her find expression. The situation is very similar to Bedelia's tardy recollections of her “Little Prince”. Kate begins to “to cry awkwardly.” She explains, “None of you remember her as well as I do. I made a dress for her first dance. It was white muslin with blue bows all down the front. Her hair was like light” (“W.” p. 139).

Lally is a refreshingly different female type whose own mental crisis is studied with interest and subtlety by the author. Unlike the brothers and sisters who had “used up their emotional energy in anticipating grief,” Lally cries openly over her mother's death (“W,” p. 133). She eagerly questions them about her mother's final days. She is a widow and, despite her hard life, is confident that she did not make a mistake in her marriage. Without her husband to share the benefits, she sees no reason to improve the prestige of her rooming house with the late offer of family help. Mary Lavin has Lally's memory flash frequently back to youth; and these visions, combined with the brief insights of Kate and Matthew, build for the reader a profile of a wild, bright, natural creature. Matthew tells the others, “You might as well try to catch a falling leaf as try to find out what's at the back of Lally's mind” (“W,” p. 139). When he tells Lally that her mother had complained that she was “obstinate as a tree”, Lally seems pleased with the image:

“Did she say that?” said Lally, and her face lit up for a moment with the sunlight of youth, as her mind opened wide in a wilful vision of tall trees, leafy, and glossy with light, against a sky as blue as the feathers in a young girl's hat.

(“W,” p. 137)

Lally does not respond to offers of money, nor does she share her family's concern with appearances. Her mind is preoccupied with a spiritual concern that counterbalances her siblings' dark fear of death. She tells the town's Canon that she wants to buy masses for her mother's soul, which is endangered by her failure to forgive Lally. Now her questions about her mother's final attitudes toward her make unselfish sense. The fire imagery that has accompanied her mother's rage and Kate's impatience characterises Lally as well.

The eyes that stared into the flaming heart of the fire were indeed filled with fear, and as a coal fell, revealing a gaping abyss of fire, those eyes filled with absolute horror. The reflection of the flames leaped in them.

(“W,” p. 142)

Finally, in the train, Lally's mind moves feverishly over the cost of masses and holy lamps, seeking peace:

She tried to comfort herself by these calculations, but as the dark train rushed through the darkness she sat more upright on the red-carpeted seats that smelled of dust, and clenched her hands tightly as she thought of the torments of Purgatory. Bright red sparks from the engine flew past the carriage window, and she began to pray with rapid unformed words that jostled themselves in her mind like sheafs of burning sparks.

(“W,” p. 143)

We see in the final passage how Mary Lavin has been able to combine imagery, theme and the intricate depiction of the mental lives of varied female characters with assurance and beauty.

Many of the strengths manifested in “The Will” are sustained and elaborated in “In a Café”, “The Cuckoo-Spit”, “The Lost Child” and “Senility”. The first two of these focus more exclusively on the mental life of the widow as she attempts to resolve her former married life and move on to an independent identity. In “In a Café” (first published 1960), autobiographical elements are obvious. The main character is named “Mary”, she and her husband had been students together and they had lived on a farm in Meath. Mary has a long wait in the café for her friend Maudie, a young woman more recently widowed, and this occasions a revealing internal monologue. Mary derives a satisfying sense of independence from the discovery of a café that might not have suited her husband's tastes. She knows what Richard would have thought of the experimental paintings on the wall, “But she and Richard were no longer one. So what would she say about them?” she askes without answering.13 It is apparent that she has not yet managed a complete, new identity for herself—a problem oddly mirrored by the fact that, since her husband's death, she has been unable to build up an image of the whole man in her mind. She can construct only parts of Richard's person. On this occasion, Richard's hands seem visible in those of the café's only other customer. Richard's living face has been lost to her since the moment she looked down at the strange dead one in the hospital, an incident she flashes back to in vivid detail.

Like many of Mary Lavin's early female characters, Mary is capable of self-inspired irritability. Although she has initiated the meeting with Maudie, she has misgivings. Again, her identity is threatened, and Mary, like the women treated earlier, is bothered by what people may think or say: “Two widows! It was like two magpipes: one for sorrow, two for joy. The absurdity of it was all at once so great she had an impulse to get up and make off out of the place. She felt herself vibrating all over with resentment at being coupled with anyone and urgently she began to sever them, seeking their disparities” (“C” [“In a Café”], p. 348). Her thoughts have by now worked her into irritation at Maudie's being fifteen minutes late. When her friend does arrive, however, Mary is at first able to use her own experience as a widow to make the younger woman comfortable. She deliberately refrains from the usual expressions of sympathy which, Maudie notes, are so hard to respond to and so cheapening. In spite of herself, Mary begins to resent the perceptiveness and mental similarity of this young, supposedly “simple” girl. She draws back from their building “complicity” and utters a typically tactless remark, “Of course, you were more or less expecting it, weren't you.” They trade verbal indiscretions, Mary responding “with deliberate malice,” choosing “words that had lacerated her” (“C,” p. 351). Jealousy of Maudie's youth and people's assumptions that she would have a better chance of remarrying also flicker through Mary's thoughts. Like Bedelia and Kate, Mary does care about social appearances; she is acutely aware of the rules as they apply to women of differing ages. After leaving Maudie, she daringly takes up an artist's invitation to visit his studio, but runs guiltily at the last moment. Though troubling, the experiences are liberating. Mary's mental defenses are set in disarray, and she admits, “O Richard! it's you I want.” Finally, her mind forms and effortlessly holds his full, living image (“C.” p. 359). She goes competently to the driver's side of her car (not to the passenger's position she occupied with Richard), realising the significance of her achievement in mental reconstruction. She knows that “she had no more than got back her rights” (“C,” p. 360ff.) Despite the meanness and panic displayed in the story, she has emerged whole and peaceful by its conclusion.

Vera, of “The Cuckoo-Spit” (first published 1964), has experienced some of the same problems as Mary. She has achieved the complete image of her husband that Mary sought, and has encountered comparable difficulties with well-intended condolences. She has tried to get back to herself and to start again on new terms. She contrasts her identity to that of a younger person (a man in this case) and resists his efforts to define the situation for her. Vera controls “irritation”, which she too feels, better than Mary. She goes farther than Mary in her interactions with another man, although, for reasons she seeks to define throughout the story, she flees from the relationship when she realises that love is offered. Vera has found a measure of mental peace in her country life, a state she pessimistically but calmly connects to her age, “… there is, after all, a kind of peace at last when you face up to life's defeats. It's not a question of getting stronger, as people think, or being better able to bear things; it's that you get weaker and stop trying. I think I couldn't bear anything now—even happiness … There is a strange peace about knowing that the best in life is gone forever.”14 Later, she is still groping in her own mind:

… she thought of what she had said about happiness, and not being able now to bear it. That was so absurd, but surely he understood that she meant a certain kind of happiness, possible only to the young. Indeed, it might well be that it was when one let go all hope of ever knowing that again the heart was emptied and ready for the simpler relationships—those without tie, without pain. But when she put out the light and turned back the white counterpane … she felt vaguely depressed. Would there not always be something purposeless in such attachments?

(“C-S” [“The Cuckoo-Spit”], p. 379)

After she has allowed her “attachment” to Fergus to develop, Vera feels emotional stirring and is tormented by the beauty of the rural scene outside her window, a feeling she had experienced in a similar situation as a girl, “her heart torn by a longing to share the feelings that welled up in her” (“C-S,” p. 387). She decides that she wants to gather “the moonlit fields and the high cobbled sky and shove it into Fergus' arms. To give it and be done with it” (“C-S,” p. 388). Vera could be said to be running from a new life. It is probably more appropriate to say that she is mentally defining a new kind of existence that takes into account the verities of growing older, that achieves peace, self-definition and a mature form of happiness, a phenomenon that Mary Lavin further defines in another widow's story, “Happiness”.

With “The Lost Child” (first published in 1970), Mary Lavin presents a younger, more troubled female mind with depth and precision. Renée is not a widow, but a married woman and a modern university graduate. She is keyed up by two momentous events, her formal conversion to her husband's religion and the early stages of pregnancy. At the Catholic church where her conversion takes place, she maintains external control, but is irritated within. She is distracted by the presences of her sister Iris, her two young children and even her husband Mike, and feels “entitled to a little separateness after a nerve-racking drive up to town.”15 Iris's presence sets off memories of Vera's Protestant family, their misgivings about the mixed marriage, and arguments with Iris and Mike concerning Catholic doctrines. Renée broods over individual statements made long ago and has especially vivid memories about a discussion of the burial of unbaptised infants in unconsecrated, useless pieces of ground. As Renée goes back over her spiritual training, one senses that the decision to convert has been a long and troubled one. It is interesting that she is bothered internally by the Church's assumption of “male superiority,” but then finally is “hooked” by the “the maleness of the Church,” meaning its provision of something to lean on (“LC,” [“The Lost Child”] pp. 111-112).

After she goes home alone, however, Renée is recharged with energy and immediately launches herself into heavy gardening tasks. Like many of Mary Lavin's early heroines, Renée brings down her world upon herself largely through her own actions. Her brief contentment in her beloved garden ends when she uncovers a nauseating mess of worms and inadvertantly slashes one into two living parts with her pitchfork. Her family returns to find her hysterical. Having lost control of her mind and tongue, Renée shouts out justifications for her heavy work and responses to old arguments, especially with her most active critic, Iris. Finally, “as if the whole world were made of crockery and she had let it fall, her ears were filled with sounds of clatter and breakage” (“LC,” p. 132). Particularly skilful is the author's handling of Renée's “nearly-intact” mind in this hysteria and later in the throes of a miscarriage and the troubled dream that follows. A remarkable passage describes her mental detachment and delusions as she experiences the grotesque passage of blood and pulp from her body:

A dazzling thought came into her mind, although where it came from she could not say. Had she read it? Had someone told it to her? Or was it possible that she was the first to think it? A feeling of great excitement came over her. Was it really possible that she was the first to make so great a discovery—the discovery that, quite simply, one could go on living when one had been emptied of all things that were supposed to matter, lungs, liver, kidney, heart. And yet she was still living.

… What an amazing discovery to make just by intuition alone. But that was the way Newton had discovered gravity—oh, she'd have to tell someone oh, but not this stupid nurse. And anyway she was tired, so tired. First she must sleep.

(“LC” pp. 143-44)

Later, Renée's dream reveals concern for her lost, unbaptised child's fate. A baby is seen alive and naked, but unsubstantial as a soap bubble. To Renée's relief, workers cannot lift it to bury it in a dark hole in her lawn. At the conclusion of the story, Renée is able to fall into a peaceful sleep only when she sees promise of harmonising the personal and doctrinal disputes among Mike, Iris, herself and her new Church, which have plagued her and affected her behaviour throughout the story. This happens when Father Hugh, with frank admiration for Iris's point of view, promises to have it out with Renée and Iris about the Church dogma concerning the unborn child, and Renée herself comes to an appreciation of her relationship with Mike. The harmony promised for the husband-wife-sister triangle in this story is unusual in Mary Lavin's fiction, where characters more often have been unable to surmount petty prejudices or to resolve divisions in loyalty, as in “A Tragedy.” The reader of “The Lost Child” is left with a hopeful impression of a female character who has vented her emotion but in an episode of personal loss, has also discovered important truths about herself that can be used in the future. The taking on of ugly and controversial subject matters is a demonstration of Mary Lavin's thematic growth, especially as related to complex representation of the female mind.

“Senility” (first published 1977) returns to the mother-daughter familial relationship explored in “A Cup of Tea” and “The Will”, but develops more than previously Mary Lavin's interest in geriatrics. Undoubtedly, she borrows heavily on her experiences with her aged mother. Once again, a sense of peace is arrived at, if only in the ageing widow's comprehension of the deadly process that once involved her own mother and now is upon her. Ada has recognised the advantages of entering a new stage of life by going to live with her daughter Laura and her husband John. Ada senses some loss of freedom, but finds her new setting physically comfortable. Her humiliating problem, brought on by age and anxiety, is bed-wetting. Laura compounds its psychological effects by making it difficult for her mother to change her own sheets, by nagging her about seeing a doctor, and by reviving old frictions. Laura is not a blatant conniver in Bedelia Grimes's pattern, but she is guilty of making careless and upsetting statements, a typical crime among Mary Lavin's characters. When she first learns of the bedwetting, she says tactlessly, “Oh, Mummy, I don't believe it! You must be getting senile!” (“S” [“Senility”], p. 114). Ada is “rattled” by this: “Laura ought to know how she felt about the word senile” (“S,” p. 115). Indeed, it had been a “source of friction between them” dating back to the placement of Ada's own mother, then in her late eighties, in a nursing home. Laura had then insisted on calling her grandmother “mentally disturbed”. Now Laura mixes real concern for her mother with hurtful jabs: “Keep well and look after yourself, Mummy. You wouldn't want to be a burden on everyone like poor Grandmother, would you?” (“S,” p. 116). Laura encourages her mother to keep busy with gardening—a common tranquiliser for Mary Lavin's characters (“Happiness,” “In the Middle of the Fields” and “The Cuckoo-Spit” also feature gardeners) and for the author herself. Laura even defers to Ada's expertise in this area. But she is insensitive about the bedwetting problem, and fails to heed Ada's lessons about human dignity, carefully offered with stories about the indelicate, humiliating way her own mother had been handled in the nursing home. Throughout the story, Ada exercises admirable restraint, reacting to most of her daughter's tactless remarks only internally. Only when pressed to the extreme, late in the story, does she get personal and sharp. Told to see a doctor, Ada counters, “‘If your husband is so fond of doctors,’ she said, enunciating each syllable with deadly precision, ‘then why doesn't he get his antrums cleaned out? … I'd say it would be worth it … if it put a stop to that ugly sniffling and snuffling of his …’ Ada's venom shamed even herself and inwardly she collapsed. Outwardly she kept up a good front,” declining to share dinner with them that evening (“S,” p. 132). As was the case in “The Lost Child”, Mary Lavin uses a dream for further exploration of her character's mind. Ada's anxieties about bedwetting, her concern for personal dignity, and her memories of the happy first days of her marriage are suggested amid a natural landscape appropriate to Ada's love of flower gardens. At first the forest setting is rich with flowers and laurels, but its trees grow “sparse and spindly” when she seeks their shelter to urinate. The urination in the dream becomes a horrible reality in Ada's bed. But Ada's amended prayer shows the maturity, grace and unselfishness of her mind:

“Lord, Lord,” she prayed. “Don't make it too hard on me.” Then suddenly, uncovering her face, she got to her feet and went over to the window. Drawing back the curtains, she stood looking down into the garden. Then, without kneeling, she amended her prayer. “Don't make it too hard on Laura, I mean.”

(“S.” pp. 136-37)

In “Happiness”, Mary Lavin creates more understanding daughters whose disagreements with their ageing mother have a more good-natured tone, setting a noisy, happy household rhythm. This mother is given an unexpected, quick death as she works in her own garden—perhaps a final achievement of the “happiness” that is so elusive and yet so desirable in the author's interpretation of life.

In her mature fiction, Mary Lavin evokes the life of the female mind with diversity and depth. She moves effortlessly from realistic setting and dialogue to mental reaction and even the preconscious depths of semi-consciousness and dream. She ventures into the depiction of modern, educated women and varies old themes like loneliness and death with more daring subjects like Church authority, abortion and treatment of the elderly. Still sensitive to people's tendencies to betray themselves in careless speech and action, she now also presents women who balance and control internal as well as external chaos, offering a measure of peace to themselves and the very necessary person, both living and dead, whom they love.


  1. Interview with Mary Lavin, Dublin, Ireland, 19 June 1977. Subsequent quotations not otherwise identified come from this source plus the author's clarifications of her remarks, contained in letters to Bonnie K. Scott, dated 2 August 1977 and 1 December 1977.

  2. Mary Lavin, “Senility” in The Shrine, and Other Stories (London: Constable, 1977), p. 129. Subsequent citations of this story refer to this edition and are included parenthetically in the text, using the abbreviation “S”.

  3. Benedict Kiely, Modern Irish Fiction: A Critique (Dublin: Golden Eagle Books, 1950), p. 57.

  4. V. S. Pritchett, “Introduction”, Mary Lavin: Collected Stories (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), p. xii.

  5. Mary Lavin, “The Little Prince” in The Stories of Mary Lavin, Vol. I (London: Constable, 1974), p. 321. Subsequent citations of this story refer to this edition and are included parenthetically in the text, using the abbreviation “LP.”

  6. Zack Bowen describes Mary Lavin's devotion to her father as “obsessive,” which probably overstates the case. See Zack Bowen, Mary Lavin (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1975), p. 18. In her taped interview with Professor Bowen (April 1974) Miss Lavin did talk at greater length about her father than anyone else. The emphasis on Tom Lavin did not occur in an earlier interview with Catherine Murphy (1968). I am indebted to Special Collections, State University of New York at Binghamton Library, for supplying a tape of Professor Bowen's interview.

  7. Ibid., p. 16 Elsewhere in his study, Bowen notes the unique ability of widows and widowers to surmount obstacles and emerge victorious. See p. 40.

  8. Pritchett, pp. xiii, x.

  9. Bowen, pp. 23-31.

  10. Mary Lavin's selection of her father's name for this character may be a token of his innocence. Perhaps, too, it recalls some persecution of Tom Lavin at the hands of his mother-in-law, Delia Mahon.

  11. Mary Lavin, “A Cup of Tea” in The Stories of Mary Lavin, Vol. I, p. 152. Subsequent citations of the story refer to this edition and are included parenthetically in the text, using the abbreviation “CT.”

  12. Mary Lavin, “The Will” in The Stories of Mary Lavin, Vol. I, p. 134. Subsequent citations of the story refer to this edition and are included parenthetically in the text, using the abbreviation “W.”

  13. Mary Lavin, “In a Café” in The Stories of Mary Lavin, Vol. I, p. 347. Subsequent citations of this story refer to this edition and are included parenthetically in the text using the abbreviation “C.”

  14. Mary Lavin, “The Cuckoo-Spit” in Mary Lavin: Collected Stories (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971), p. 377. Subsequent citations of the story refer to this edition and are included parenthetically in the text, using the abbreviation “C-S.”

  15. Mary Lavin, “The Lost Child” in Happiness, and Other Stories (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970), p. 101. Subsequent citations of this story refer to this edition and are included parenthetically in the text, using the abbreviation “LC.”

Regina Mahlke (essay date 1982)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3135

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 something unusual for her and had stepped into territory better left to other writers with more personal experience either of the political climate or in writing stories about it. Indeed, for a long time “The Patriot Son” remained her only story with a political background, for more than twenty years elapsed before she wrote another such story, “The Face of Hate” (1979). This time it is about the troubles in ‘The North’, and, again, the reader might ask why she chose a political background. Since she has done so in only two stories of her more than one hundred, this suggests that she must have had other reasons and other aims than merely to give an impression of the present political situation in Ireland. There is another ground for this possibility: both stories deal not with the present but with times that had long since passed when the stories were written.

“The Patriot Son” was first published in a volume with the same title in 1956 and after that appeared in The Stories of Mary Lavin: Volume I in 1964 and in the Georgia Review. It also was collected in Tears of the Shamrock and in a Longman Structural Reader.4 The story is set at least 35 years before its publication in a small town somewhere in Ireland. Although it is nowhere said explicitly, it must have been before the Civil War, probably in the years when people came more and more to dislike the Royal Irish Constabulary as the direct arm of British rule and attacks on the R.I.C. became common. Mary Lavin mentions in the story that the family of one of the protagonists, Sean, still owned the uniform of their Fenian grandfather (242), another hint to that period.

“The Face of Hate” is a more recent story and was published in 1979 in the Southern Review.5 Here, too, Mary Lavin went back in time to find the background for her story. She even gives a definite date that marks the beginning: It is in 1957 and the place is Belfast. Later in the story she moves on in time to July 12, 1958. At that time both Northern Ireland and the Republik introduced Internment to stop the IRA from their planned and in some cases active campaigns.6 This setting has a place in “The Face of Hate”.

In both stories the political situation forms only the stage on which the protagonists act. It therefore seems necessary to analyse the two stories and compare their plot with those in her other tales to discover their real meaning.

In “The Patriot Son” there is a young man, Matty, in a small town in Ireland whose mother owns a shop just across from the Barracks. Matty helps her when one day a former friend of his, Sean, appears in the shop and wants him to display a poster. Matty is not quite sure about what this poster shows but he is afraid it might offend the police as he knows that Sean's family has been connected with the Fenians and that probably Sean himself is involved in some sort of organization. Matty, however, is even more afraid of his mother than of the R.I.C. He displays the poster showing the Colleen Bawn and a Gaelic inscription that he cannot read until Sean leaves. Soon after his mother discovers it and tears it to pieces. She does not want to provoke the R.I.C. as the constables are her best customers. Matty does not meet Sean for some time until one evening he tries to go to the schoolhouse where the local Gaelic classes are supposed to be held. He never has had enough time to go there and so has missed the courses as well as the dancing and singing of folksongs. He discovers the place is empty, and the schoolhouse locked. Next morning he is up early and by chance meets Sean near an old castle. He appears to be worn out. The organization apparently has been drilling in the hills. Matty wants to escape from his mother's regime and tells Sean that he wishes he, too, were involved. Sean seems to trust in him. When Matty returns home he wonders what an old man with a cart full of straw is doing in front of the Barracks. One wheel of the cart has come off, and so the man leaves the straw in the middle of the street. Later that day Sean again visits Matty's shop and asks him for a few cans of paraffin oil. Only when Sean tells him to leave them in the hall until he will come to get them in the evening does Matty suspect that the Sinn Fein people plan to burn down the Barracks. He feels honored to be trusted by Sean and promises not to tell his mother. In the evening, however, something goes wrong: his mother discovers the paraffin oil in the hall, the police smell the smoke from the damp straw and Sean has to flee. For once in his life Matty is courageous and wants to help Sean, despite his mother's lamentation. When Sean comes to the house and hides behind the door to the yard, Matty's mother—thinking he has left the house by the back door—betrays him to the constabulary telling them that “He's gone out the back way” (253). Matty seizes Sean's coat to distract the police from him. He flees into the garden and up a shed when suddenly he hears shots behind him. In a feeling of elation he believes he is shot as there is a sharp pain in his stomach. Only when noon comes and he looks back to see them all standing around Sean's body does he realise that it was not a shot that hit him but a piece of rusted iron. His mother after a while is to be heard saying:

“He's up there on the top of the pig-shed!” … and her voice was wheedling. “He must have been frightened out of his wits!” she said. And coming nearer, she called up to him: “Come down out of that, you gom!”


Matty is a mother's boy and tries to rebel against his mother's constant domination. When the other youths had their evening classes he was working and was late on the few occasions when he could manage to go to the schoolhouse at all. When finally he tries to find out what really happened he finds the schoolhouse locked. The organization is no longer harmless. Even when he tries to help Sean his indecision and hesitation in the end cost Sean's life. For Matty, there is something inexplicable, something mysterious in the actions of Sean and the others. He wants to take part and be involved; however, he remains locked out—in the literal sense of the word locked out of the schoolhouse and in a figurative sense locked out from the language and the thoughts of the others. His rebellion fails. Unlike Synge's Playboy of the Western World where Christy's and his father's rôles are reversed in the end, Matty's and his mother's remain unchanged: his mother will go on dominating his life.

This is, however, only one of the rebellions in the “Patriot Son”. Sean on his part rebels against the English. He is shown as a fanatic young man who knows that he has to be careful if he wants to help his movement, otherwise his affiliation with it might become dangerous. His trust in Matty is more of necessity than of conviction. This becomes evident when he tells him what their plans are and ends with “He that is not against me is with me.” (251)7 He knows that once he started being involved there was no way back. His death in the end does not change the situation and is absolutely senseless. The rebellion against the Constabulary was doomed to fail from the very beginning. Matty's mother despite her negative character-traits is the only one in the story who shows common sense and warns of a new outbreak of violence, telling her son: “Oh, you know nothing of what people suffered in those days, son!” (242). She seems to know that there is an atmosphere of hatred that is uncontrollable. Sean and his group did not want to attack the Constabulary because the policemen had wronged them but because hatred had poisoned their hearts. Their means to attack the R.I.C. were childish and insufficient. So neither Sean's political rebellion nor Matty's private one liberate the protagonists. Mary Lavin thus condemns any uprising that only brings sorrow, and grief, and pain, and death.

The title “The Patriot Son” has an ironic meaning. Matty is a would-be-patriot whose actions do more harm than good. Sean—the grandson of a patriot—wants to be one himself but does not succeed either. Again, as in all Mary Lavin's stories, man and his actions are in the focus. The political situation forms only the background in front of which the protagonists act.8

“The Face of Hate” takes us into more modern times. Johnny, a sixteen-year-old Catholic in Belfast in 1957/58 is preparing for a scholarship. His weekends are somewhat different from those of the other boys he meets every morning. As a Catholic he belongs to a minority. The Protestant boys he normally meets on weekdays are still at home when he serves Mass and does a paper round early on Saturday.

Nothing much happens in the story but we learn a great deal about the family background. Johnny's father is out-of-work. He is an untidy and careless man who likes drinking and is prejudiced against Protestants. When his wife tries to convince him that there are poor Protestants in Belfast as well as poor Catholics, except that they are a bit more careful and more orderly, he ignores this with the remark “Have sense! What's poverty in a Catholic is parsimony in a Protestant.” (149) Johnny's mother is a different character. She is a decent, religious woman who tries to make the best of the situation. She does not look for faults in other people and is able to forgive, if not to forget. There is no hatred in her heart though she has seen a lot of sorrow and has a son—Johnny's brother Sheamus—who belongs to an illegal organization. Sometimes her eagerness to preserve peace in her own family leads her to react so harshly that she makes them all miserable instead. There is a trait of near-bigotry in her, too, when for example she prays for forgiveness when her son has used bad words. On the whole, however, she is a peacemaker and tries to influence her family in that direction.

Johnny, on the 12th July, wants to go to watch the parade of the Orangemen. He knows that his mother will not allow him to go because she is afraid that trouble might arise. By chance he meets a neighbour's daughter just after he has quarreled with his mother. They go for a walk. Even their flirtation is influenced by the political situation. Johnny like his father is full of prejudice against Protestants. He thinks that they hold all the decent jobs, hates their faces, and believes that they “are too bigoted to mix with us” (162). Eileen, the girl, shares his mother's views and asks him “How do we know what hate is if we don't have it in our own hearts?” (162) She longs for a time when hatred will no longer rule life in Belfast. On their way back to their families they meet a group of three Protestant youths returning from the parade. When they do not make any attempt to let them pass Johnny gets more and more angry. They allow Eileen to pass and one of them wants to let Johnny pass, too, but Johnny does not know what he is doing any more. He lets loose his anger and strikes one of the youths. Then he starts running to catch up with Eileen. She, however, has returned to help the boy. Johnny is angry and cannot understand why she does it. Eileen tells him to go home. When the Protestant boys start sniggering she brings them all down to earth again:

“What's so funny?” she demanded. She stared at the three youths in turn, including the fellow on the ground who was getting to his feet with a grin on his face. “You were sneering at us, weren't you?” she said. She pointed to Johnny. “You were out to provoke him. You stupid fools! You think you're great, don't you? With your drums and sashes and your Union Jacks!” Then she swung toward Johnny. “And you! You, with your Green, White, and Gold! Soon there'll be only one flag in Belfast. Here, give me that!” she cried, and reaching forward, she pulled the blood-stained handkerchief out of Johnny's pocket and spiked it on the railings. “This will be your flag,” she cried, and without another look at any of them, she walked away, going as steadily as was possible in her cheap papery shoes.


Both sides have behaved like mad; they have only seen hatred in each other's faces. Sooner or later there will be no winner and violence will reign. This is the discouraging outcome of the story. Every single person is reponsible for his or her own deeds and for the hatred in Belfast. As long as people are full of prejudice nothing will change. The “face of hate” that Johnny believes to see in every Protestant, only exists in his own imagination as he has not learned to accept Protestants as equal beings. Neither have they learned to tolerate him. The faces are only the visible parts of what lies behind: the hatred that spoils every possibility of a peaceful life is sown into the hearts. Mary Lavin does not show here the Paraders or the people from illegal movements, like Sheamus, but ordinary people who are not involved in politics, people who try to keep their distance but cannot do so. She takes side with Eileen and with Johnny's mother who both try to mediate and to reconcile by helping their neighbours. Eileen and Johnny's mother have their shortcomings, too, They are not immune against the hatred that surrounds them, and they are also entangled in attitudes that might discourage others, but they do not allow hatred to win over their other feelings.9 Again, as in “The Patriot Son”, the focus of this story is not on the political events but on the inner conflicts of the protagonists.

Though both stories take place in different parts of Ireland, even in different surroundings—one in a small town or village, the other in a big city—and at very different times, there seem to be common features. The problems in the South and the North are similar: everyone tries to solve the problems his own way, and many people think themselves ‘heroes’ or ‘patriots’ when they are fighting for what they believe to be deliverance from discord and suppression. Mary Lavin portrays protagonists who in their own small circles have to find a meaning in their lives. It is not the big political problems that are important but the attitudes that people develop in their own hearts. She does not want to give answers for a solution of the Irish political questions, and in that respect her stories are indeed not political stories. For her, man and his reactions, his feelings, his inner life are what matters.

To show this against a political background seems as legitimate as any other way. In doing so she remains faithful to what she said on story-writing earlier in her career: “Short-story writing—for me—is only looking closer than normal into the human heart.”10


  1. Elizabeth Bowen, “Essence of Ireland,” review of The Patriot Son, and Other Stories, Tatler and Bystander (11 April 1956), p. 70.

  2. Augustine Martin, “A Skeleton Key to the Stories of Mary Lavin,” Studies, 52, no. 208 (Winter 1963), 393-406 (405).

  3. Frank O'Connor, “The Girl at the Gaol Gate,” A Review of English Literature, 1, no. 2 (April 1960), 25-33 (25).

  4. Mary Lavin, The Patriot Son, and Other Stories (London: Michael Joseph, 1956); The Stories of Mary Lavin: Volume I (London: Constable, 1964); Georgia Review, 20, no. 3 (Fall 1966), 301-317; Tears of the Shamrock: An Anthology of Contemporary Short Stories on the Theme of Ireland's Struggle for Nationhood, ed. David Marcus (London: Wolfe Publ., 1972). Also in One True Friend and Other Irish Short Stories, ed. and slightly shortened by Roland John, Longman Structural Readers: Fiction Stage 5 (London: Longman, 1977).—It has been translated into German by Kurt Wagenseil: Mary Lavin, Der Rebell: 6 Stories mit einem Nachwort (München: Nymphenburger Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1962).—According to the Inventary of Boston University's Mugar Memorial Library which is in possession of some of Mary Lavin's manuscripts, the author must have revised the story thoroughly before publication in Georgia Review. There are five drafts and some notes. Nevertheless the first three versions differ only slightly.—Quotations and page-numbers are taken from the edition of The Stories.

  5. Mary Lavin, “The Face of Hate”, Southern Review, 15, no. 1 (1979), 148—168. Quoted from this source.

  6. For the political events v.—e.g.—Ulster by The Sunday Times Insight Team, new ed. (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972).

  7. This is a twisted Bible quotation. Matt. xii, 30 “He that is not with me is against me.” Also Luke xi, 23.

  8. Zack Bowen, Mary Lavin (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1975), p. 24, calls it a “vehicle for the character analysis.”

  9. Eileen helping the Protestant boy resembles the mother, Kath, in a play on Belfast by John Boyd, The Flats.

  10. Mary Lavin, “Preface,” Selected Stories (New York: Macmillan, 1959), p. vii.

Janet Egleson Dunleavy (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4134

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 introducing sophisticated readers to changing concepts in literature and art—for example, Atlantic Monthly, published in the United States, but widely read in England, and both the English and the American editions of Harper's Bazaar—had begun to include an Irish short story in almost every issue. Editors of fashionable magazines bid against one another to attract not only the “three O's,” as O'Connor, O'Faolain, and O'Flaherty came to be known in the trade, but also new Irish names that represented the best new work in the field. Little magazines of the period, sometimes called “shoestring” publications, also bid for their stories, offering smaller audiences and less money than their well-heeled rivals, but also a more enduring prestige, plus an opportunity to treat topics that did not, in the opinion of editors of more widely circulated magazines, appeal to the general reading public.

As the first half of the twentieth century drew to a close, O'Connor, O'Faolain, and O'Flaherty remained, among living writers, the acknowledged masters of the Irish short story (George Moore died in 1933, James Joyce in 1941). Recognized as writers of outstanding ability not only by critics but by the “three O's” themselves, however, were five newer voices in Irish short fiction: Mary Lavin, Elizabeth Bowen, Benedict Kiely, Bryan MacMahon, and Michael McLaverty. As these writers added to the body of their published fiction year by year, the validity of early opinions of their work was confirmed. Today they continue to be regarded as eminent literary artists. Indeed, as indicated in the following brief accounts of their careers, together these five have been awarded almost all the honors and literary prizes for which writers of short fiction in English are eligible.


Hailed by Joyce Carol Oates as “one of the finest of short story writers” of the twentieth century and by V. S. Pritchett as an artist “with the power to present the surface of life rapidly, but as a covering for something else,” American-born Mary Lavin (1912-) is, of the five, the one uniquely committed to short fiction.1 Although she has published also two novels, several poems, two children's books, and three or four critical essays, it is as a writer of short fiction—both the short story and the longer novella, or tale—that she prefers to be known. In this genre she is represented by twelve separate volumes, each containing new stories as well as stories previously published in periodicals, plus four retrospective collections. A number of stories published in periodicals has not yet appeared in book form.

Born in East Walpole, Massachusetts, Mary Lavin has been a resident of Ireland since the age of ten, except for short visits to the United States (most of them to teach or lecture on creative writing in American universities). Although her American origins are reflected in some of her stories, for the most part she sets her fiction in Ireland and identifies her characters as Irish men, women, and children. Her dual national experience no doubt has contributed to the “double vision” observed by some critics, the ability to sustain a narrative tone that is simultaneously universal and particular, objective and subjective. It may also explain why, with few exceptions (e.g., “The Patriot Son,” “The Face of Hate,” and the charming and whimsical tale entitled “A Likely Story”), nationality is not a significant identifying factor in her characterizations, and why she is able to focus so skillfully on the true landscape of her stories, the human heart. The extent to which her stories are published, read, and studied in other countries and cultures testifies to their universality.

Mary Lavin's earliest efforts in fiction were encouraged by Lord Dunsany, who first knew her as the daughter of Tom Lavin of Bective House, an estate belonging to an Irish-American, Charles Bird, not far from Dunsany's own estate in County Meath. At her father's request, Dunsany read her first unpublished stories in 1938, finding in them “astonishing insight … reminiscent of the Russians.” It was Dunsany who introduced her work to Ellery Sedgwick, just as the well-known editor of the Atlantic Monthly was about to retire; through Sedgwick it reached the desk of Edward Weeks, Sedgwick's successor. It was Dunsany also who advised Mary Lavin to submit her first stories for publication, disregarding letters of rejection but heeding the editorial advice that accompanied them, and Dunsany who helped her find her first literary agent. It was he who supported her admission to the Dublin literary circle, dominated by Frank O'Connor and Sean O'Faolain, in which her concepts of writing as art, fiction as craft, and the short story as a product of the disciplined imagination were reinforced.

No adviser could have been better suited to the needs of the young writer than Lord Dunsany, who refused to recommend changes in her fiction, lest he alter for the worse either her style or her content. Instead, he suggested authors she might read, as examples of writers in full command of language and the skillful ways it can be used in the service of the short story (Tolstoy, Chekhov, and Maupassant were among them). Only in her use of punctuation would he agree to be her mentor, as his letters reveal, but even in this he moved cautiously, noting by example rather than by instruction what differences in meaning might be achieved by the addition or deletion of a comma, or how altering a mark of punctuation might resolve problems of ambiguity.

Prior to her first attempt at writing short fiction, Mary Lavin had not thought of herself as a creative writer. A teacher of French at the Loreto School in Dublin, where she herself had received her secondary education, she had earned first-class honors at University College Dublin in 1936 for her M.A. thesis on Jane Austen. In 1938 she was at work on her Ph.D. dissertation on Virginia Woolf. One day, trying to understand Virginia Woolf, to think as the older writer might think, Mary Lavin speculated on what, at that moment, Virginia Woolf might be doing—whether and what, for example, she might be writing. Picking up her own pen and turning over the pages of her dissertation in progress, she drafted her own first short story, “Miss Holland.” The experience fascinated her: creative writing, she found, drew on facets of her personality and intellect very different from those required for literary scholarship. Immediately she set to work on several more stories, among them those read by Lord Dunsany and those she sent, at the request of Ellery Sedgwick and Edward Weeks, to the Atlantic Monthly. The Atlantic became the first publication to accept a Mary Lavin story (“The Green Grave and the Black Grave,” which appeared in May 1940). The Dublin Magazine, edited by Seumas O'Sullivan (James Starkey), became the first to print an example of her work (“Miss Holland,” April-June 1939). Meanwhile, the dissertation on Virginia Woolf was set aside, never to be submitted in fulfillment of the Ph.D.

By 1942, when the Atlantic Monthly Press brought out Tales from Bective Bridge, Mary Lavin's first volume of short stories, six of the stories that she had written rapidly between 1938 and 1941 had appeared in magazines, and more were scheduled for future periodical publication. In 1943, Tales from Bective Bridge was republished in England; this edition won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for the year's best work of fiction and was selected for distribution as a Readers Union book. Since then Mary Lavin has had two Guggenheim Foundation Fellowships (1959 and 1960) and has been awarded the Katherine Mansfield Prize (1961), the Ella Lynam Cabot Award (1971), the Eire Society of Boston Gold Medal (1974), the Gregory Medal (1975), and the American Irish Foundation Literature Prize (1979). In 1964 and 1965 she was elected president of Irish PEN. In 1968 the degree of Doctor of Letters (honoris causa) was conferred on her by the National University of Ireland. In 1971 and 1972, she was elected president of the Irish Academy of Letters, and in 1981 she was named to the Aos Dana, Ireland's newly constituted equivalent of the French Academy. In 1982 she received a five-year grant, as a member of Aos Dana, that freed her to pursue the art of short fiction without concern for its commercial potential.

As a native-born American long resident in Ireland, Mary Lavin belongs to both Ireland and the United States, a fact that has been recognized by the American universities that seek her participation in creative writing programs and by successive Irish governments that have appointed her to such quasi-public bodies as the Arts Council and the Cultural Relations Committee of the Department of External Affairs. She has long been a member also of the Board of Trustees of the National Library of Ireland. These appointments indicate the esteem in which she is held in her country of residence, where she is regarded as a major influence on younger writers, a link not only between them and the generation of O'Connor, O'Faolain, and O'Flaherty, but also between contemporary writers and those European masters of short fiction recommended to her by Lord Dunsany when she herself was young. Indeed, it is because she continues to experiment with the forms of short fiction, in language, length, content, and narrative mode, that she remains very much a contemporary writer of international reputation, despite a career that extends over nearly half a century. She also represents, among women writers, a continuation of a line of descent from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf, a distinction she shares with her older contemporary, Elizabeth Bowen, whom she also admires.2

Because Mary Lavin's fiction reflects the sights, smells, and sounds of places where she herself has lived and presents characters that follow patterns of life familiar to the people of such places, she is sometimes regarded as a naturalist or as an autobiographical writer. Similarly, because her stories are built around events that have a beginning, middle, and end, she also has been described as an old-fashioned storyteller, a traditionalist with a talent for recreating milieu, conveying verisimilitude, and eliciting, through what appear to be documented representations of reality, the reader's willing suspension of disbelief. Analysis of themes, characters, forms, and narrative modes, however, reveals subtleties beneath the surface of Mary Lavin's fiction, the “extraordinary sense” described by V. S. Pritchett “that what we call real life is a veil.” Reviewers have noted also the skill with which she suggests rather than discloses the story beneath her surface story and hints at stasis beyond kinesis, permanence beneath change.

In discussions of her work, Mary Lavin has confirmed observations by scholars and critics of a still point beyond the physical, emotional, and sometimes intellectual eddy and flow of her fiction. Indeed, it is in this still point that a story has its genesis, she declares. As she herself describes the creative process, as she knows it, a story begins when she is struck by what appears to her to be a universal truth: “That happens.” A question forms in her mind: “To whom does that happen?” It sharpens her observations, it makes her keenly aware of the people around her. Gradually an answer suggests itself: “That happens to that kind of person.” It is followed by other questions: “Why?” “Under what circumstances?” When they are answered to her satisfaction, she has the nucleus of the story, the insight that will attract readers of different cultures in different countries. It remains only for her to form a situation around that insight, to make real and believable the people to whom “that happens,” to fix them in time and place. From the storehouse of her memory, she draws the physical features of people and place; the discriminating details of gesture, voice, and action; the play of light and shadow on a landscape; the quirky moods of household pets; the squeaks of doors and groans of floorboards; the rhythmic patterns developed through habit and imposed by custom that make her fiction, art imitating life, seem to be life itself. If the same views of city or country appear in story after story, if her characters seem to inhabit similar if not identical houses or flats, the reasons are easily given: Why should the author try to imagine a house she has never seen, try to estimate the number of steps in a staircase that she never has climbed, try to position doors, or furniture, or a fireplace, when her home in Bective in County Meath or her Dublin townhouse or her mother's family's shop in Athenry has appropriate rooms in which her characters can live their fictional lives, with only minor changes needed to suit their taste, income, or background? Why wonder how far a character might have to go from home to store, school, neighbor, church, hospital, or post office, when the distance can be measured in the author's own real world of the present or can be remembered from the past?

Mary Lavin's early stories—those written in the late 1930s and 1940s—focus on the universal truth of restricted vision. In stories such as “The Green Grave and the Black Grave,” “At Sallygap,” “Sarah,” “Brother Boniface,” “Brigid,” “The Small Bequest,” “The Cemetery in the Desmesne,” and “The Nun's Mother,” she treats relationships assumed to be intimate and reveals the gulfs that exist between husbands and wives, parents and children, sisters and brothers, longterm neighbors, childhood friends, and others who think of themselves as really knowing each other. Sometimes their unperceived misunderstandings simply leave each feeling lonely and isolated; sometimes there is friction and a sense of betrayal that leads to chronic irritation or bursts of anger; sometimes separation seems to be the only solution, but lies must be told to justify the leaving; sometimes the truth is revealed, but always without hope that anything can be changed. And in one story at least—“The Small Bequest”—truth alone is not sufficient: the claim of close ties is not merely rebuffed but rejected with vengeance.

Many of the stories written during the 1950s and early 1960s test the universal truths Mary Lavin explores in her early writings: if this kind of thing happens to this kind of person under these circumstances, what happens in similar circumstances to a different kind of person? What happens to the same kind of person in different circumstances? Mary Lavin's fascination with these questions is revealed in such stories as “The Widow's Son,” in which the author actually provides the reader with alternate endings, then discusses the implications of each. For the most part, however, she tests her truths in different stories: “A Tragedy” may be read as an alternative to “Frail Vessel”; “The Long Holidays” may be seen as a comic version of what might have happened to another Miss Holland (albeit one with somewhat more self-confidence, more inclination to manipulate others).

During the 1950s and early 1960s, Mary Lavin also began to develop story cycles, individual tales that are connected through use of the same characters: for example, the Grimes family (for which the Mahons of Athenry, Mary Lavin's mother's family, served as models) appears, in this period, in “A Visit to the Cemetery,” “An Old Boot,” “The Little Prince,” “Frail Vessel,” and “Loving Memory”; Vera, a recurring character who sometimes shares traits and experiences of the author herself, is portrayed in “What's Wrong With Aubretia?” and “One Summer.” Critics who view Mary Lavin's work as autobiographical also describe her widow stories as a group belonging to this period, for in the decade following the death of Mary Lavin's first husband, William Walsh, in 1954 (she was remarried in 1969 to Michael MacDonald Scott), she wrote “Bridal Sheets,” “In a Café,” “In the Middle of the Fields,” and “The Cuckoo Spit.” But “Love Is for Lovers,” “Lilacs,” “The Dead Soldier,” “Brigid,” and “The Widow's Son” all concern widows, too, and all were written long before the author herself experienced widowhood. Nor can these stories be read as related in the way the Grimes family stories are related, for although superficial similarities of detail invite comparisons between some of her widows, others are unlike in all respects but their widowhood. What probably is true is that Mary Lavin brought to her widow stories of 1954 and after insights gained from her personal experience, always the raw material of her art (but always, as she emphasizes whenever she discusses her conception of writing as art, only raw material until it is synthesized and universalized). Finally, in the 1950s and early 1960s, Mary Lavin returned to some of the themes she had explored in her early work and to some collateral themes that had been suggested by them. For example, in “The Great Wave” and “Bridal Sheets” she evokes again the world of “The Green Grave and the Black Grave.” “Brigid” also might be read as a related story, for although its central character is a farmer's wife, she is as unprepared for the shock of her husband's sudden death as the wives of the islanders of “Bridal Sheets” and “The Green Grave and the Black Grave.”

Since the late 1960s Mary Lavin has preferred to write in the form of the short novel or tale rather than the short story: that is, the form that generally ranges from approximately seventy to nearly two hundred printed pages. As a result she has published less frequently in periodicals such as the New Yorker, in which stories usually run between five and fifteen pages in length and rarely exceed forty pages. Instead, following the practice familiar to readers of Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, and Joseph Conrad, she has turned increasingly to book publication, reducing the number of titles included in a single volume to between three and five (cf. A Memory, and Other Stories, 1972, and The Shrine, and Other Stories, 1977) instead of twelve or thirteen, as in her earlier volumes. (While this change possibly has made her work less accessible to readers of periodicals, it has assured her more recognition among readers of books.3) Her first experiments with the tale were published in The Becker Wives, and Other Stories (1946), in which the title story is seventy-one pages long and “A Happy Death” is but a slightly shorter sixty-eight pages. These short novels were preceded by her first full-length novel, The House in Clewe Street (1945), which had been serialized in the Atlantic Monthly in 1944-45 before it was published in book form. They were followed by Mary O'Grady, a second full-length novel, published in 1950. At this point the author returned to writing short stories of conventional length, partly because she was dissatisfied with her novels (critics did not share her dissatisfaction), partly because she found writing short fiction more satisfying. For a time the length of her stories was influenced, no doubt, by the fact that in 1958 the New Yorker had taken a first-reading option on her new work; the number of its issues in which a tale or novella could be published was limited. But again and again Mary Lavin was tempted by the form of the longer tale or novella, which allowed her to develop themes she felt she could not handle adequately within the conventional length of the short story. The success of such stories as “Happiness” and “A Memory” testifies to the accuracy of her artistic judgment.

Mary Lavin's art is economic, disciplined, compressed. Her working method is to allow her imagination to range freely, often over hundreds of pages of rough draft, until her characters and their backgrounds have been established, details of her story have been worked out, and the causes of the action have been analyzed. At this point she attacks her manuscript ruthlessly, discarding everything that is not essential to the central story she wishes to tell. Stripped of all but essential text, her stories emerge as brilliant, hard, gemlike. The quality of her art is her major contribution to the Irish short story. Important also is the nature of its content. She neither romanticizes nor trivializes the Irish experience, as did so many writers of the nineteenth century. Nor does she share the odi-atque-amo attitude toward Ireland familiar to readers of Moore and Joyce. Her work is closest perhaps, as they themselves observed, to that of O'Connor, O'Faolain, and O'Flaherty, but it transcends the national and historic context of their stories to present a world that is externally Irish but beyond time, place, and event in its understanding of that which is universally human in the Irish experience. In making this contribution to Irish literature, Mary Lavin has enhanced both the significance and the dignity of the Irish short story.


  1. Biographical and critical information concerning the life and work of Mary Lavin has been drawn for the most part from the results of research undertaken with the assistance of grants from the American Philosophical Society and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in connection with my full-length study of the genesis and development of Mary Lavin's novels and short fiction (in progress). Specifically, I should like to acknowledge permission to consult Mary Lavin correspondence and manuscripts in the possession of the author; in the Mugar Memorial Library, Boston University; in the Morris Library, University of Southern Illinois; and in the Library of the State University of New York at Binghamton; and I wish to thank the author and the directors of these libraries for their assistance and cooperation. Portions of this essay repeat conclusions expressed in my published essays on Mary Lavin's working methods and achievement as a writer of short fiction (see Bibliography) and my evaluation of her career as a novelist in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. I have consulted also studies of Mary Lavin's work by Zack Bowen, Richard F. Peterson, and A. A. Kelly and the Mary Lavin bibliographies discussed below.

  2. Mary Lavin's short stories have appeared in a wide variety of English-language magazines, journals, and newspapers, chiefly in Ireland, England, and the United States but also in other parts of the world. Many have been reprinted in textbooks and anthologies; usually revised, most have been collected with new stories not previously published in periodicals in books under the author's name. Entire collections as well as selected stories have been translated for publication in Dutch, German, Hebrew, Walloon, French, Italian, Polish, Russian, and Japanese. Two stories have been scripted for films; one inspired an opera. Critical studies and bibliographies have appeared in English as well as in other languages. In fall 1979, the Irish University Review published a special issue in which a number of scholars from different countries reexamined the corpus of Mary Lavin's published fiction and reassessed her work. Although the most recent bibliography (Ruth Krawschak, with the assistance of Regina Mahlke, Mary Lavin: A Check List, Berlin, 1979) supersedes the bibliography that appears in this issue of the Irish University Review, it is itself in need of updating, not only because additional critical studies have appeared since it was published, but because the author herself is constantly at work—writing new stories, rewriting unfinished stories, and revising stories to be republished.

  3. Despite a wide interest in her work in the United States, especially in colleges and universities where there is a particular demand for fiction written by women, Mary Lavin's publishers have been unaccountably lax about issuing her stories in paperback. Only Tales from Bective Bridge, The Becker Wives, and a recent Penguin edition of selected titles, the latter limited in distribution to England and Ireland, are available in paperback. Viking Press recently has contracted for a new collection to be published in both hardcover and paperback, but no publication date has yet been announced.

Jeanette Roberts Shumaker (essay date spring 1995)

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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. Discussing the dimensions of the Madonna—Virgin, mother, wife—Warner describes the primary effect of the Madonna myth: “By setting up an impossible ideal the cult of the Virgin does drive the adherent into a position of acknowledged and hopeless yearning and inferiority” (337). The heroines of Lavin's and O'Brien's stories fit the pattern of self-hatred that Warner describes. Their varieties of sacrifice stem from self-disgust fostered by failing to reach the standards of the Madonna myth.

In O'Brien's “Sister Imelda,” the teenage narrator falls in love with her teacher, the beautiful young nun of the title. The joys of their love are the Foucauldian pleasures of self-denial—a passion never to be realized but fanned by both teacher and student through notes, whispered confidences, devotional gifts, and an occasional hug or kiss. This story fits the pattern of O'Brien's novels that Thomas F. Staley calls confessional, “crying out for absolution” (188). Imelda's and the narrator's romance makes life in the cold nunnery tolerable, even enjoyable. The romance stands, in miniature, for the unrealizable passion that Sister Imelda holds for Christ. Thus it becomes an enlistment tool for the nunnery, as Sister Imelda lures the narrator into a permanent sisterhood of sublimated passion. The narrator abandons her plan to become a nun after she leaves the convent, instead taking up the worldly solaces of makeup and nylons to attract the attention of men. Her best friend, Baba, outdoes her at dressing like a mature woman, becoming the narrator's model as Imelda once was. Baba's name suggests trite babytalk among lovers, as well as the magic of the Arabian Nights—here the transformations of puberty that are supposed to lead to marital joy.

The narrator's struggle to sublimate her sexuality into a pure love for Sister Imelda may come from her wish to emulate the Virgin. Warner writes that “the foundations of the ethic of sexual chastity are laid in fear and loathing of the female body's functions in identification of evil with the flesh and flesh with woman” (77). The nuns' routine mortifications, which the schoolgirls are expected to imitate, reveal their sense that the female body is an inherently evil possession for which they must compensate. Sister Imelda gets a sty that suggests both her neglect of her body and her distorted view of it. Meanwhile, “Most girls had sore throats and were told to suffer this inconvenience to mortify themselves …” (2373). Sore throats are a metaphor for the voicelessness of the girls and the nuns under the convent's regimen. Both the nuns and the girls are often hungry because the convent habitually underfeeds them. Delicacies, such as the narrator's comically suggestive gift of bananas for Imelda, are saved for visiting bishops. The semi-starvation of both nuns and girls by a wealthy church forces their bodies into thin and spiritualized shapes that avoid the lush fecundity stereotypically associated with woman as sexual body. Weakened from hunger and other mortifications, the women arc to look as undesirable and feel as undesiring as possible; however, the story shows that neither goal is actually met.

The narrator feels the loathing for her body that underlies the convent's ascetic practices when, at the end of the story, she wants to jump out of the bus window to escape the gaze of Sister Imelda after two years of living outside of the convent. The narrator now sees Imelda as a judge who might condemn her for adhering to her culture's vision of woman as a sexual commodity. To the narrator, Imelda stands for the virgin identity that the narrator has decided to shun despite its high status when held by nuns. As Warner writes, “Thus the nun's state is a typical Christian conundrum, oppressive and liberating at once, founded in contempt for, yet inspiring respect for, the female sex. … But the very conditions which make the Virgin sublime are beyond the powers of women to fulfill unless they deny their sex” (77). That denial of sexuality is not easy for Imelda is suggested by the narrator's describing the nun's lips as those of “a woman who might sing in a cabaret” (2372). When Sister Imelda reads Cardinal Newman to her class, “she looked almost profane” (2372). Imelda's sensuality surfaced during a fling with a boy on the night before she became a postulant; it reappears during her inappropriate friendship with the narrator. In the convent's context of preserving a nun's or a schoolgirl's virginity, a mental lesbian liaison is more acceptable than a consummated heterosexual relationship. Within the context of current sexual scandals within the Church, the reader may wonder if the narrator's and Imelda's liaison was ever consummated, and if that consummation was beyond representation when the story, was written. For the story's purposes, however, the desire itself is what matters. As Kiera O'Hara writes of O'Brien's characters, it is “the possibility of union,” however unlikely, that obsesses the narrator of “Sister Imelda” (322). That transcendent union with Imelda would have both spiritual and physical dimensions.

In presenting a lesbian relationship from the point of view of the immature, enraptured narrator, O'Brien shows its appeal in a patriarchal world in which becoming like the hedonistic Baba seems more debased than becoming like the idealistic Imelda. Defying the restrictions of the nunnery, Imelda seems free and daring—“how peerless and how brave”—to the narrator (2376). The narrator is drawn not only to love Imelda, but to want to imitate her. As Imelda the nun emulates the Madonna, the narrator models herself upon her beautiful teacher, suggesting the erotic dimensions that female worship of the Madonna may take. Imelda's erotic dimension includes maternal stir-sacrifice, for Imelda enjoys feeding the narrator jam tarts which she herself refuses to eat. The tarts stand for forbidden sexuality that is tied up with the maternal: “Had we been caught, she, no doubt, would have had to make a massive sacrifice” (2376). As a sexualized stand-in for both the narrator's mother and the Madonna, Imelda eroticizes stereotypical female selflessness while she models it for the narrator.

The appeal of Imelda's asceticism is its drama: “Each nun, even the Mother Superior—flung herself in total submission, saying prayers in Latin and offering up the moment to God. … It was not difficult to imagine Sister Imelda face downward, arms outstretched, prostrate on the tile floor” (2377). Imelda's gesture suggests Kristeva's jouissance of the mystic (181) and Foucault's notion that repression can be more fun than indulgence. The nuns' pleasure in prostration may come from ceasing to fight their awareness of their inferiority to the ideal wife and mother of God, the Madonna.

The irony is that the narrator does not know that a woman's life outside the convent may also require humiliating renunciations for her children or for a domineering husband; both sides of the Madonna ideal—Virgin and mother—are identically submissive. At the convent, the narrator does not try to grasp her mother's lot, although she visualizes her father darkly as “losing his temper perhaps and stamping on the kitchen floor with nailed boots” (2383). Certainly the narrator, like her mother, is a follower—first of Imelda and then of Baba, with the latter's makeup rites becoming so sacred that the narrator never removes her paint. Like Baba, Imelda prepares the narrator to be devoutly feminine; Imelda teaches the narrator a masochistic style of loving that the narrator will be able to use with men: “It was clear to me then that my version of pleasure was inextricable from pain” (2376). Kristeva might call this “A suffering lined with jubilation” (183) characteristic of the woman who lives suffused by the image of the sacrificial Madonna. Grace Eckley argues that O'Brien always defines love as sadomasochistic (11). That seems to be true. However, I believe that in “Sister Imelda” O'Brien is critical of sadomasochism as a feminine style of loving. The nuns' gestures of willing prostration are emblematic of the suffering Irish female condition in general. That the story ends with the narrator's pity for Imelda and her fellow nun suggests the narrator's coming awareness of the commonality of women's lot: “They [the two nuns] looked so cold and lost as they hurried along the pavement that I wanted to run after them” (2386). This commonality results from the sacrifices that the Madonna ideal requires of Irish women. It leaves O'Brien labeling herself, according to Eckley, as “only a guilt-ridden Irish woman” (66). The excessive humility of the “only” is what O'Brien challenges her readers to escape through avoiding the self-abnegation that restricts Imelda, the narrator, and herself.

“Sister Imelda” suggests that girls want to become nuns to experience the high drama of religious renunciation rather than the low comedy of becoming a sexual commodity. Lavin's “The Nun's Mother” presents a related explanation for why girls want to become nuns—to avoid male predation.1 More painfully than O'Brien, Lavin exposes the inescapability of patriarchal power, whether in the home or the convent. The story concerns a nun's mother's meditations after leaving her daughter, Angela, at a convent. Angela's mother, Mrs. Latimer, never dared to ask Angela why she chose such a career, when all of Angela's life she appeared to dislike going to mass. The girl's father, Luke, is horrified that his daughter is renouncing the physical joys of marriage without realizing what they mean. Like Mrs. Latimer he does not dare to question Angela. Mrs. Latimer reflects on her happiness in marriage, noting its rarity. She is both glad that her daughter will not have to risk a marriage failure, and sorry that she won't know intimate love. Although the parents do not realize it, a reason for Angela's choice is given at the end of the stow, when the father notices a flasher who has been operating near their home for months.

Angela apparently wishes to escape a world of invasive male sexuality for a sexless world in which wearing a swimsuit into the bathtub will safeguard her. The daughter's acceptance of such prudish defenses can be explained by “the terrible reticence about the body between mothers and daughters, a reticence based on revulsion, and not, as with mothers and sons, upon respect and mystery” (344). Shame over their bodies keeps Angela and Mrs. Latimer emotionally distant.2 Hence, Mrs. Latimer cannot ask Angela why she is becoming a nun: “She [Mrs. Latimer] was conscious of this revulsion [about the body] every time she was alone with her daughter during the last month” (344). As a result, Mrs. Latimer says nothing to Angela about her decision. Mrs. Latimer pretends to her husband that she has spoken to Angela, for Mrs. Latimer feels humiliated by her inability to be as intimate with her daughter as Luke expects. Mrs. Latimer knows that if Luke had a son, Luke would talk to him easily, since men lack women's shame about sexuality. At the story's end, Mrs. Latimer can't even imagine Angela being disturbed by the flasher near their home, because she never thinks of Angela as a sexual being capable of noticing a nude man. Mrs. Latimer's and Angela's revulsion against their bodies comes from the self-hatred engendered by a religion that regards female sexuality as evil. It is the same self-disgust that causes the narrator of “Sister Imelda” to hide from her once-beloved nun, and that perhaps caused Imelda to join her order. Only by denying her body as a nun can a woman preserve it from becoming that of a temptress.

Angela's fear of violation by the flasher or other men can be linked, through Warner, to the Church's “historical fear of contamination by outside influences, and its repugnance to change” that is symbolized by the Virgin's (and nun's) chastity (102). It is a fear of contamination that Angela's mother shares. Mrs. Latimer believes that the appeal of becoming a nun is gaining sexual independence from men. “And so, for most women, when they heard that a young girl was entering a convent, there was a strange triumph in their hearts … they felt a temporary hostility to their husbands” (340). However, Mrs. Latimer denies that she herself ever felt the allure of sexual emancipation. She would not give up her memories of passion with Luke for anything. Luke is gentle; both Angela and her mother seem to see him as an exception to typical male aggressiveness. Despite the presence of Luke, the story countenances Angela's fear of men in that the flasher epitomizes all the varieties of perverts who do in fact hurt women; that flashers themselves usually don't rape women physically, however, suggests Angela's naivete about men. Angela's other naive belief is that nuns are immune from sexual attacks.

The story ends with Mrs. Latimer's fantasy of Angela as a water lily about to be picked by the flasher. That Mrs. Latimer associates Angela with water lilies shows that Mrs. Latimer sees the female experience as a conflict between beautiful nature and a degraded civilization that endangers it. Mrs. Latimer's essentialism appears in her aligning of woman with nature. The danger for the female flower is not just one of being picked, but of withering in a self-protective, ossifying ideology of asceticism that the Irish Catholic Church endorses for women. Angela avoids the physical threat of rape but not the mental one of ossification, choosing her own form of sacrifice. Angela will be a water lily in a bowl on the convent's altar, her life a slow withering. With Angela's sexual independence from men comes intellectual dependence on the male-dominated Church. Angela's payoff will be the high status which Warner and Kristeva agree that emulating the Virgin earns.

Angela's mother will get that high status too. Mrs. Latimer realizes this upon arriving home, when her housekeeper treats her with a new deference. Yet this status is seen satirically by Mrs. Latimer, who abhors the pretentious acts of piety she may be expected to perform now that she is the mother of a nun. Mrs. Latimer fantasizes, “‘Meet Mrs. Latimer, who has a daughter in the convent.’ She would be quite an exhibit at church bazaars and charity whist drives. She might even have to assume an attitude” (341). The pathetic requests for prayers that Angela receives from her dressmaker, plus the stereotypical gifts of rosary, beads, quartz angels, and holy pictures, fill Mrs. Latimer with dismay. By association, Angela's mother is supposed to be aligned with the Madonna as a holy mother of a sacrificial child. But because the circumstances of Angela entering a convent in twentieth-century Ireland arc portrayed with mundane humor, they contradict any glorified image of nuns and their mothers. Such images of transcendence are sold to girls by bestsellers like The White Sister, according to Mrs. Latimer. Transcendence of what? Of being a Mrs. Latimer—the reader knows her only by her married name, as though marriage had consumed her identity. Yet the story, portrays Mrs. Latimer's marriage as a happy one in which the husband is the subordinate party if anyone is, whereas Angela's nunnery is seen not as a refuge from male dominance but as a museum.

For any mother, the ultimate price of bearing a nun might be knowing that her line ends with her daughter, as Christ ended Mary's. Mrs. Latimer will not have the pleasure of having grandchildren to love. In her odd relief at this apparent misfortune, her likeness to her daughter appears: both fear contamination above all else. At the birth of Angela, Mrs. Latimer had imagined her descendants falling into lurid varieties of wickedness that she can only observe, but not interrupt. “For the lives they led had suddenly seemed evil in every case. Some were prising open drawers and looking over their shoulders. Some were stealthily crossing the ‘ts’ of letters that were forged” (349). Mrs. Latimer's relief comes from knowing that her daughter's pure choice will eliminate any responsibility for future generations. Her relief at Angela's chastity vows outweighs her regret that she will no longer need to stay young for Angela.

The story's initial image of Mrs. Latimer is telling: her eyes are closed as she leaves Angela at the nunnery, as though Mrs. Latimer is afraid to face reality. This image reveals Mrs. Latimer's compulsion to control what she knows and experiences, as well as the actions of her descendants. Perhaps Mrs. Latimer chooses not to see the pathetic reason for Angela's vocation, as that vocation allays Mrs. Latimer's anxieties about her posterity. Mrs. Latimer would have been a good mother but for her fear of the future that she unconsciously passed onto her daughter. Mrs. Latimer's obsessive desire to control the future contradicts the healthy side of the Madonna myth that Kristeva describes as its connectedness to past and future through “a flow of unending germinations, an eternal cosmos” (185). Fertility is lost to the paranoid nun and her mother, as the virginal side of the Madonna excludes the maternal side. Whereas Angela imagines herself a victim of male predators, Mrs. Latimer dreams of being their ancestor. This is a dark turn to the story that makes Angela's desire to become a nun seem a result of her mother's pathology, not of an actual vocation.

As if to validate Angela's fear of sexual predation in “A Nun's Mother,” O'Brien's “A Scandalous Woman” shows that childbirth may doom a mother rather than being Kristeva's mystic experience. In O'Brien's story, female imprisonment and madness are caused by the fertility that nuns renounce, perhaps wisely given the story's context. Eily—unmarried, pregnant and Catholic—is locked up by her parents after being caught sleeping with a Protestant bank clerk. The clerk is forced to marry Eily, with the enticement of a substantial dowry and with the threat of being murdered by her father if he refuses. Of course the clerk is not a loving husband, and Eily goes mad after bearing several children. Later, her recovery into a mindless contentment despite her husband's affairs is portrayed as even more disturbing than her madness. The story is told by a girlfriend of Eily's who is a few years younger than Eily. The narrator begins by describing events from their childhood and proceeds chronologically.

What is most pertinent to the Madonna myth is Eily's and the female narrator's ambivalence about their pubescent bodies. Their distrust of their womanhood is learned from Eily's elder sister, Nuala. Lavin's Angela learns a similar fear of becoming a mature woman from her mother. When Eily and the narrator are little girls, Nuala pretends that she is a doctor. Every Tuesday Nuala plays that she is cutting out the young narrator's female parts, gesticulating above the narrator's body. As Nuala sharpens the knife with Eily assisting as nurse, Nuala sings “Waltzing Matilda”—Matilda being their code word for female reproductive organs. This ritual operation is accompanied by the narrator's confession, since the “elastic marks [of her underpants are] a sign of debaucher),” (5). James M. Haule writes that the surgery game “prepares us for the reduction of Eily, and finally of the narrator herself, to a mere shell” (218). The self-hatred of these little girls is already profound; they have been taught, perhaps through proscriptions against masturbation, that woman as a sexual being is a monster needing maiming to correct her inborn flaws. The narrator's guilt over helping Eily conceal her affair leads the narrator to gargle with salt and water, and to reject food: “These were forms of atonement to God” (17). The narrator feels not only her guilt as Eily's accomplice, but anticipatory guilt over her coming womanhood. The child narrator is put in the position of a latent werewolf dreading the full moon that must come no matter whether or not she wants the transformation into womanhood. The hell that descends upon Eily after her romps with the clerk shows a further significance to Nuala's Gothic operation. If only Eily's female parts had never developed, her life would have remained tolerable.

Warner argues that the Magdalen myth suggests that sexual crimes are the only significant ones a woman can commit (235). Eily's so-called “fall” thus makes her a criminal; whereas if she had stolen something or gambled her savings away, her family might have forgiven her more readily. The mistrust of female sexuality. that Warner links to the Madonna myth is seen when Eily's parents jail Eily in their oat room. On the day of her wedding, Eily “kept whitening and rewhitening her buckskin shoes,” as though hoping her marriage might restore the virgin purity her parents prize (22). Eily's relief from pain comes not through wifehood, but through a madness that allows her to express her rage towards the family and friends who were supposed to protect her, not reject her. Finally, her relief comes through a supposed cure, possibly a lobotomy, a numbed sanity that represents oblivion.

Several of Eily's actions pitifully enact the impoverished vision of romance that leads to her liaison. Eily gives the narrator a bottle of cheap perfume in appreciation for her help with hiding Eily's affair. Like Baba's makeup rites, Eily's perfume symbolizes the young woman's obsession with making herself attractive to men; through her gift of perfume, Eily tries to pass on her obsession to the narrator. Eily's passion for her fickle clerk takes her and the narrator to a witch's pub to have Eily's fortune told. The narrator acts as a guard while Eily and her lover make love furtively, outdoors. This is not the sublimated lesbian romance of “Sister Imelda,” but a consummated heterosexual affair that the naive narrator describes in humorous detail. Instead of reading The White Sister mentioned in Lavin's story, Eily seems never to read at all, but merely to gather tabloid notions about romance from her friends. Hence, Eily believes that “the god Cupid was on our side” (17). Eily has replaced Kristeva's jouissance of the mystic who loves God with the passion of heterosexual romance. The pathos of Eily's affair is that it is not worth the price that Eily's family and friends force her to pay for it.

The narrator suggests that the sane Eily at the end of the story has “half-dead eyes,” because “along with removing her cares they [her psychiatrists] had taken her spirit away” (32). That Eily has lost her memories alarms the narrator. Yet Eily is apparently content without the past that had driven her mad in the first place. The narrator writes that not only is Ireland “a land of strange, sacrificial women,” but it is also “a land of murder” (33).3 To be happy as an unloved wife, Eily must have her thoughts, memories, and dreams killed. That the narrator may soon share Eily's fate is implied when she meets Eily while pregnant “under not very happy circumstances,” and in the company of her mother (31). When the narrator again meets Eily years later, a husband as resentful as Eily's waits impatiently for the narrator and her son. Is it the narrator who is really the scandalous woman of the story's title? If so, the narrator exorcises her memories not through a nervous breakdown but by transforming her memories into fiction. Was the narrator, like Eily, sacrificed to the Irish ideal of virginity? Through not answering that question, O'Brien suggests that numerous women can be labeled by her story's title. Generation after generation, scandalous women are made to pay for their rebelliousness with a lifetime of submission to their husbands and parents.

As in nineteenth-century British fiction, the “fallen” twentieth-century Irish mother can only redeem herself through dedication to her children. Eily, the modern Magdalen, sacrifices herself for her parents' reputation, as well. As Lavin's Angela and O'Brien's Imelda die one kind of slow death in the convent, Eily dies another kind of slow death as a wife and mother. Eily is so numbed after her lobotomy that she cannot act affectionate toward her children. Each living death represents a different, murdering facet of the Madonna myth—the Virgin and the Magdalen mother.

Whereas a spiritually dead woman is the heroine of O'Brien's “A Scandalous Woman,” an actual murder victim is the heroine of Lavin's “Sarah.” As a widow who struggled to raise her children and eventually remarried a man who left the priesthood for her, Lavin can confront the paralyzing Irish middle-class conformity that Joyce critiqued. But Lavin presents a female point of view. As Zack Bowen writes, “Given Mary Lavin's lifelong concern with practicalities, money problems, responsibilities, and the effects of death, her vision of reality. is harsh and closely circumscribed by an acute awareness of social class, and society's sanctions and rules” (23). “Sarah” is one of Lavin's most hard-hitting pieces of social criticism. In her village, unmarried Sarah is respected for her piety and for her diligence as a cleaning lady. Yet Sarah dies from exposure while bearing her baby in a ditch during a rainstorm. The baby also dies. Sarah's angry brothers had kicked her out of their home, after depending on her cleverly efficient housekeeping for years. Although Sarah was already raising three sons whom she bore out of wedlock, this is apparently the first time Sarah had informed the father of his paternity. Sarah is no longer willing to claim sole responsibility for her children, or to pretend that she was honored by virgin births. As a result, Sarah's brothers can no longer hide behind their previous myth that the men who slept with Sarah were “blackguards” who took advantage of her (61). Her “fall” thus becomes a public shame that her brothers must acknowledge.

Sarah's brothers' violence is only a step beyond that of Eily's family. Since Sarah's paramour is a married man, her brothers cannot force a marriage as Eily's did. Sarah inflames her eldest brother by reminding him that her lovers are none of his business. What bothers him more than Sarah's affair is her defiance of his authority. But he hides his irritation at not being able to control his sister behind worry over their family's honor that is more socially acceptable. He regards Sarah's adultery as much more dishonorable than her previous affairs with single men, as he tells his younger brother: “No one is going to say I put up with that kind of thing” (66). Concern for their reputation motivates the cruelty of Sarah's brothers and Eily's family. O'Brien and Lavin suggest that Irish families punish scandalous women without compunction. Eily's and Sarah's scandalousness comes from their insubordination to their families as much as from the premarital sex that is the proof of their defiance.

The wife of the man Sarah slept with, Mrs. Kedrigan, writes to Sarah's brothers to protest Sarah's letter to Mr. Kedrigan informing him of her pregnancy. Mrs. Kedrigan is angry in part because her neighbors had warned her not to hire Sarah, but Mrs. Kedrigan had wanted to show them that her husband was entirely trustworthy. Sharing a belief in the double standard with Sarah's brothers, Mrs. Kedrigan does not blame her husband for his affair; nor does she believe his denial of it, or she would have ignored Sarah's letter. The illusion that Sarah is the sole culprit lets Mrs. Kedrigan avoid fighting with her husband about his affair. As Mrs. Kedrigan relics on him for physical and psychological support, it is in her interest to keep the peace. Without a job to support their baby who will soon be born, Mrs. Kedrigan can't leave her husband. But she gets back at him indirectly by telling him the news of Sarah's death with vengeful relish, saying that the ditch is the place where Sarah belongs. Mrs. Kedrigan can be seen as a victim of patriarchal restrictions that are whitewashed by the Madonna myth, to the point that she becomes a caricature of the wronged wife. Warner notes that the Virgin myth's influence is greatest in countries where women are primarily wives and mothers (191); Ireland would certainly qualify. Janet Egleson Dunleavy says that Lavin's stories from the 1940s focus on “the universal truth of restricted vision” (150); petty, vindictive vision is clearly Mrs. Kedrigan's flaw, as much as it is Sarah's brothers'. Mrs. Kedrigan condemns Sarah because, as Warner writes of the Madonna myth, “There is no place in the conceptual architecture of Christian society for a single woman who is neither a virgin nor a whore” (235).

Lavin questions the ideology that allows Mrs. Kedrigan and Sarah's brothers to label Sarah a whore, much as O'Brien does in “A Scandalous Woman.” As Richard F. Peterson writes, Sarah's tragic death represents “the triumph of the unnatural over the natural” (30). Oliver Kedrigan kindles Sarah's animal attraction to him by complimenting her red cheeks; he laughingly asks her whether she rubs them with sheep-raddle. At the end of the story, when Mrs. Kedrigan tells Oliver of Sarah's death, he yells at her to give him the sheep-raddle, cursing it. Oliver is cursing the instinctive lust which led him to cause Sarah's and his baby's death. He also curses the unnaturalness of those deaths, which were fostered by an unforgiving manmade morality that is supported by Mrs. Kedrigan's jealousy and Sarah's brothers' shame. And Oliver is cursing his cowardice for denying his natural family outside of wedlock. Lavin suggests that Sarah is destined by nature for motherhood by contrasting her healthy pregnancy with that of the sickly Mrs. Kedrigan. The village women had predicted that Mrs. Kedrigan could never become a mother, and had wondered why the earthy farmer had married her. Her hysterical illnesses during pregnancy cause her to rely on her husband's ministrations even though she calls him “a cruel brute” for making her pregnant, whereas Sarah cheerfully works as hard as usual during pregnancy, without the help of any man (64). Perhaps Sarah's natural fitness for motherhood explains why upright matrons had delivered all of her previous births, and why they continued to hire her to clean their houses. Yet when the protection of her brothers and lover is withdrawn, self-reliant Sarah and her baby die; unnatural patriarchy triumphs over the natural mother.

Trying to show their disgust with Sarah, her brothers exceed her sin of lust with one of violence. Mrs. Kedrigan also tries to prove that her value is beyond Sarah's, but fails for the same reasons that Sarah's brothers do. Lavin exposes how respectable women such as Mrs. Kedrigan reconcile themselves to the low status of their gender by seeing themselves as worthy like the Virgin, whereas “fallen women” are despicable. Kristeva might call this regarding oneself as unique among women like the Virgin herself (181). For Mrs. Kedrigan, it is a self-delusion of superiority with horrible consequences for Sarah, Sarah's baby, and herself.

Sarah's martyrdom draws attention to the malice and artifice latent within the virginity ideal. However unconsciously, the village priest acts in accord with the cruelty of that ideal by nagging Sarah and her brothers about her affairs. The priest tells Sarah's brothers that their sister should be put into a Home. This idea encourages them to view Sarah as less than human—as criminal trash that should be thrown away. The brothers exile Sarah from their home to prevent their priest from continuing to blame them for Sarah's behavior. The priest also helps to cause Sarah's death through having repeatedly chastised her for not revealing the names of the fathers of her older children. Like Sarah's brothers, the priest hates Sarah's lack of submissiveness as much as her so-called fallenness. For although Sarah is pious, she will not accept the repentant Magdalen role that the priest dictates. Instead, Sarah gets pregnant out of wedlock again and again. To the priest, Sarah is an embarrassment—a rebel against the notions of proper womanhood that the Madonna myth promotes. Writing Kedrigan about his upcoming fatherhood may be Sarah's half-compliant, half-defiant response to the priest's exhortations. The priest's role as an underlying cause of Sarah's death suggests that the Church teaches Irish families to murder their own “fallen women.”

For Lavin and O'Brien, the demand for virginity enforces the punishment of the rebellious “fallen woman,” whereas it restricts the life experience of the well-disciplined nun.4 Although critics have noted that the alternatives to marriage for women in Ireland rarely go beyond the brothel or the convent, nuns and “fallen women” in O'Brien's and Lavin's stories don't recognize the economic factors that shape their choices; instead, they act masochistically to pay for the evil they perceive as inherent to their female bodies. The high status of the nun is achieved through the low status of the “fallen woman,” through contrasting the hard-bought virtue of one with the so-called sinfulness of the other. The nun's convent may seem imprisoning, but so may the home of the respectable wife or the ditch of the “fallen woman.”

Whereas O'Brien's heroines are captivated by two forms of romance—the religious and the sexual—Lavin's heroines seem impervious to both. The Madonna myth may be regarded as a source for both the religious and the sexual romances critiqued by O'Brien's stories. As the central model for the Irish woman, the Virgin fosters the ideal of chastity to which the nun aspires and from which the “fallen woman” falls short. O'Brien's Eily is led to a lobotomy through sexual passion. Lacking Eily's heterosexual fantasies of romance, Imelda and her admirer mingle religious and sexual romance in ways that question the standard formulations of both. In contrast with O'Brien's yearning heroines, Lavin's Angela becomes a nun out of fear of the romantic side of men, Sarah has affairs without expecting courtship, and Mrs. Kedrigan places revenge above both love and religion. Whereas O'Brien deconstructs religious and sexual romance by merging the two, Lavin shows the paucity of experience that lacks any form of romance. Lavin focuses upon the least glamorous effects of the Madonna myth—killing rivalries between women and ossifying chastity. Lavin and O'Brien share an awareness of the unrealistic desires—whether for superiority or sacrifice—that the Madonna myth fosters in Irish women, along with the women's guilt at never reaching their ideal of purity and selflessness.


  1. A. A. Kelly argues that Lavin's 1973 revision of “The Nun's Mother” makes Mrs. Latimer a “self-centered, spoilt mother whose husband appears as a silent dummy in the carriage beside her, or in the ridiculous postures of sex” (168). The revision appears in volume two of The Stories of Mary Lavin (London: Constable, 1973). For my purposes, the revision lacks the subtlety of the original.

  2. Ann Owens Weekes notes that the complex relations between mothers and daughters and granddaughters are the focus of many of Lavin's most recent stories (141); “The Nun's Mother” prefigures this interest.

  3. Of course, the use of the living dead to dramatize Irish social problems resembles that in James Joyce's Dubliners (1914).

  4. See Nina Auerbach's discussion of nuns and “fallen women” in Victorian literature and art, which inspired this article.

Works Cited

Auerbach, Nina. Woman and the Demon: The Life of a Victorian Myth. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1982.

Bowen, Zack. Mary Lavin. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1975.

Dunleavy, Janet Egleson. “Mary Lavin, Elizabeth Bowen, and a New Generation: The Irish Short Story at Midcentury.” Kilroy 145-68.

Eckley, Grace. Edna O'Brien. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell UP, 1974.

Haule, James M. “Tough Luck: The Unfortunate Birth of Edna O'Brien.” Colby Library Quarterly 23.4 (1987): 216-24.

Hogan, Robert. “Old Boys, Young Bucks, and New Women: The Contemporary Irish Short Story.” Kilroy 169-216.

Kelly, A. A. Mary Lavin: A Quiet Rebel. New York: Barnes, 1980.

Kilroy, James, ed. The Irish Short Story. Boston: Twayne, 1984.

Kristeva, Julia. “Stabat Mater.” [1977] Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. The Kristeva Reader. Ed. Toril Moi. New York: Columbia UP, 1986. 161-86.

Lavin, Mary. “The Nun's Mother.” [1940] Great Irish Short Stories. Ed. V. Mercier. New York: Dell, 1964. 338-56.

———. “Sarah.” Tales from Bective Bridge. Dublin: Poolbeg, 1943.

Meszaros, Patricia K. “Woman as Artist: The Fiction of Mary Lavin.” Critique 24.1 (1982): 39-54.

O'Brien, Edna. “A Scandalous Woman.” A Scandalous Woman and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt, 1972. 1-34.

———. “Sister Imelda.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams et al. Vol. 2. 5th ed. New York: Norton, 1986. 2371-85. 2 vols.

O'Brien, Peggy. “The Silly and the Serious: An Assessment of Edna O'Brien.” Massachusetts Review 28 (1987): 474-88.

O'Hara, Kiera. “Love Objects: Love and Obsession in the Stories of Edna O'Brien.” Studies in Short Fiction 30 (1993): 317-26.

Peterson, Richard F. Mary Lavin. Boston: Hall, 1978.

Staley, Thomas F. Twentieth-Century Women Novelists. Totowa, NJ: Barnes, 1982.

Warner, Marina. Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary. New York: Vintage, 1976.

Weekes, Ann Owens. Irish Women Writers. Lexington: UP of Kentucky, 1990.

Mary Neary (essay date winter 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4103

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, self-knowledge self-denial. Yet a people who take so long to form, like a rock in the sun, cannot altogether be destroyed; like a human soul, once they are created they exist.

(“Innocence” 81)

This passage touches on the long process of change and the elusiveness of a final form, a final center, in the Irish people.

Mary Lavin's short story “The Becker Wives” (1945) dramatizes this Irish quest for identity, the asking of the question “What ish my nation?” Perhaps in the context of this story, though, a winding river delivers an even more appropriate metaphor for Ireland than a rock: a river incessantly turning back on itself, questioning itself, dancing over perpetually changing ground. What Lavin ultimately uncovers in this story is not a rock of solid identity, not centrality, but elusiveness and eccentricity. The story dramatizes more the phenomenon of asking the question “What ish my nation?”—a phenomenon that I think hits on what is really characteristic of Ireland—than the answer that ultimately surfaces.

Lavin does not, however, stop simply with an exploration of “Irishness” as if it were a single entity. She looks specifically at female Irishness and reveals how particularly pressing the question of identity is to modern Irish women. She anticipates another insight of Boland: the trivializing of Irish femininity by using it as a national emblem. “Once the idea of a nation influences the perception of a woman then that woman is suddenly and inevitably simplified,” writes Boland. “She can no longer have complex feelings and aspirations. She becomes the passive projection of a national idea” (“Outside History” 33). In “The Becker Wives” Flora, the central female character, is exploited by her husband not as a national but as a family emblem. Lavin explores in microcosm, then, the pattern Boland depicts; and by exploring the way that a woman is objectified, made “the passive projection of a national [or familial] idea,” Lavin also investigates the larger Irish problem, male and female: the struggle to establish an identity from within rather than to succumb to the vision of politically powerful outsiders. The story illuminates simultaneously struggles of gender and nation.

In this context the short story becomes for Lavin the perfect vehicle, a genre Frank O'Connor characterizes in The Lonely Voice as one devoted to the “little man” living on the margin of a large, established society (16). He elaborates: “Always in the short story there is this sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society …” (19). In many senses Lavin's Flora is just such a person: small in stature and unconventional in her actions, she is a character whose internal life could be deemed insignificant in a context wider—or in a genre larger—than the one Lavin creates for her. “The Becker Wives” joins, in fact, a number of other Lavin stories about small characters. One, “A Likely Story,” centers on a boy and a leprechaun-like sorcerer; another, “The Patriot Son,” focuses on two young boys and deals directly with Irish politics. But perhaps none of her stories investigates the struggle of a small character to create an identity as thoroughly as “The Becker Wives” does. The fact that it is not overtly about Irishness, furthermore, tends to inject peculiar freshness into the insights it yields regarding Irish culture.

Most writing about Mary Lavin does not focus on Irishness. Lavin has also talked so freely about the relationship of her stories to her own family that it seems logical to take a more personally focused approach to her stories. Zack Bowen, for instance, reminds us of Lavin's “intensely personal, autobiographical approach to her stories” (44). But the two approaches hardly lie at odds with each other. In fact, because Mary Lavin was born in the United States, moving to Ireland when she was 10, if anything she has experienced even more acutely than usual the double allegiance so much a part of the Irish psyche—an opposition characterized by North and South, Ireland and England, or Ireland and any number of countries to which native writers have emigrated. Ingrained in Lavin from the beginning is the kind of doubleness crucial to the Irish consciousness.

It is also a commonplace that Lavin focuses closely on social battles, or the battles of characters to rise out of their social class. “The Becker Wives” certainly portrays these social desires, as it depicts the youngest Becker child Theobald's unimaginative struggle to gain prestige for his rich but socially undistinguished family. The crux of the story, though, pierces beneath the satire into the internal lives of the characters. Since Lavin so painstakingly sketches the politics of social striving, the latter aspect of her fiction is easily overlooked, making an observation like A. A. Kelly's necessary: “Mary Lavin often writes at two levels of significance, one exterior and obvious, one hidden and implied. Both levels are to be found in “The Becker Wives” (24). Later Kelly sums up “the perpetual and necessary dichotomy between the outward and inward senses of reality; the ability to act and to dream; the tension between reason and instinct; and the extreme difficulty of resolving this dichotomy in a balanced way …” (45). This notion of dialogue, of self-examination (of nation, family, individual) is central to “The Becker Wives” and its exploration of the Irish question.

In “The Becker Wives” the “little man” is a woman named Flora, who comes into a family trying desperately, at the prodding of the youngest son Theobald (to be Flora's husband), to transcend the ordinary. Theobald's method, besides being annoying and condescending, is in full conformity with prevailing social standards: He wants the family to rise to a higher social level, to command attention from the outside. What enrages him more than anything is to find his family looking with interest at other people, consequently revealing their inferiority to them, in his mind. Such are his thoughts when they go out to eat:

Was it for this they had dragged him out of his comfortable apartment—to stare at strangers? He was mortified for himself, and still more mortified for them. Such an admission of inferiority!


Consequently he marries Flora, a woman who can bring attention to the family with her bizarreness. His plan succeeds for a while as Flora, a powerfully and strangely endearing mime-artist, unleashes a magic that immediately brings recognition to the family. Throughout the story her unusualness is marked by smallness, obvious first from a physical standpoint: “Flora was small. She was exceedingly small. She was fine-boned as well, so that, as with a bird, you felt if you pressed her too hard she would be crushed” (74). She is also small in a more elusive way. Near the end of the story her brother-in-law Samuel, who befriends her more intimately than anyone else in the story, spots her in the dining room:

Samuel went across the hall and opened the dining-room door. For a moment he thought there was no one at all in the room. It was only faintly lit by the paling daylight and the furniture had begun to confound itself with its own long shadows on the wall. Beyond the window the trees in the garden were still visible. Samuel was staring at the black branches when he saw Flora.


And Flora stands, “her shoulder blades drawn downward,” her eyes “sightless.” She is as close to a nonentity as a corporeally existing creature could be. She is indeed a little person, an outsider physically small and strangely empty inside.

Certainly Flora's smallness could suggest her ultimate powerlessness as a woman in the Becker family. Her role is to elevate the family; her performances are for their sake, as dictated by her husband Theobald. When she goes too far, for Theobald, he checks her violently:

“It was this way all the time at the hotel,” Theobald said. “You'd only to mention something and Flora would start to personify it.” He took her arm and shook it, rather violently. “Stop it, Flora.”

As if drenched with cold water, the flame that was Flora died down.


Since Flora is not permitted by her husband to perform for her own sake, she must savor her creativity covertly. Her physical smallness, which Lavin so strongly emphasizes, may hint at the near invisibility with which she must function to stay emotionally alive.

For a time she does function; she even thrives, supplying the Beckers with the distinction Theobald craves as she exploits her artistic talents. Her psychological smallness—her absence of autonomy, of an identity not exploited for mercantile purposes—temporarily fuels her artistic ability, as her need to escape the emptiness inside prompts her to create more urgently than she would otherwise: “… it didn't matter to her whether it was Henrietta or Honoria she was impersonating as long as she stepped out of her own personality and became another being” (89). The guises she adopts let her escape from her own being by becoming something, anything, else. Zack Bowen notes that “It is ironic that the seemingly original character of Flora at the beginning is at the end only a replica of the stolid but real character of Honoria, who is anything but original and vital” (34). The same could be said of a number of the characters Flora plays, long before the end; but the artistry of Flora lies in the action, the moment of seizing and living another character's essence, of taking the shape of the ground underneath as she flows gently overhead:

She was evidently very curious about them all, but unlike the curiosity of the Beckers that strove to conceal itself, her curiosity had taken open possession of her. It almost seemed that the excited beating of her heart was causing her frail frame to vibrate and tremble, and that she would simply have to find some outlet: beat her wings, flutter her feathers, or clutch at her perch and burst into song, song so rapturous the perch too would sway up and down.


The last phrase is especially revealing: Taken with only a slightly symbolic twist, it hints that the foundation—the “perch”—of Flora's identity is in flux, swaying and changing with her quest to absorb. Here the similarity to Ireland itself is quite clear, for unlike the identities of countries with firm, unquestioned traditions, Ireland's identity—its very sense of self—shifts dramatically as the imaginative hunger of its members (especially artists) spurs experimentation and confrontation. And of course some of the most dramatic shifts occurred in the decades preceding the publication of “The Becker Wives” in 1945.

Flora's smallness creates a very particular kind of power, catalyst-like, that can be measured more by the transformation it produces outside than by any product it seizes for itself. A look at another activity of Flora may make her artistic power clearer: her mock photography, which she conducts as soon as she arrives:

It was the most unexpected thing that could possibly have happened. It was exactly as if she was a real photographer. The Beckers had unconsciously stiffened into the unnatural and rigid postures of people being taken by the camera. Then, when the girl straightened up and pushed back her hair, the group came to life again. Realizing how ridiculous they must have looked, Julia laughed. Then they all laughed, even the parlor maid, even Honoria, who looked as if she didn't often do so.


The fact that this is mock photography places all of the emphasis on the present. The act is not performed to preserve a scene for future consumption, the kind of pragmatic motive at the bottom of real photography; rather, it is exclusively devoted to transforming the present moment into something strange and new, as she freezes the Beckers and brings them to life again, but this time to a richer life (“they all laughed, even the parlor maid, even Honoria, who looked as if she didn't often do so”). In her version of photography Flora preserves no thing, no token; all of her creative energy flows into the rejuvenation of the present moment.

Absent, then, is any lasting kernel of identity that can be seized and examined. This absence of concrete signs outside hints at absence inside—at least of anything unmoving or constant. Yet the emptiness inside is always the force behind Flora's relentless energy in seeing and transforming the outside; it is the smallness that drives the engine of creativity. Even before the pivotal scene in the bedroom where Flora is so remote, so mysterious, so un-present, there are hints of a powerful kind of absence. When Flora begins to play a game in which she pretends to see a dragon, for instance, she fails to conjure the image in her head. In a way this is a failure of the imagination, a surfacing of the absence, the empty center. It is potentially tragic. But it turns out otherwise: “‘I'm sorry I can't show it to you,’ she said. ‘I don't see it anywhere. It must have gone into the garden’” (88). Shortly after, the narrator comments: “It was almost as good as putting on the act” (88). Here the nature of the game Flora plays throughout the story becomes unusually obvious: by making a joke she converts absence into something affirmative.

The brilliance of Flora's actions does not, however, eliminate the emptiness that surfaces when she is divorced from her role as emblem of the new Becker vitality. But unlike many Irish writers preceding her, Lavin carefully investigates her heroine's emptiness. She consequently upends the whole notion of the emblematic heroine—the notion providing the underpinning of works like Yeats's Cathleen ni Houlihan. A brief look at a passage from Yeats's play illustrates the problem Lavin's story addresses. Although on one hand Cathleen is a compelling character in the play, she also relies strictly on male actions. This dependence becomes especially clear at the end, in the exchange that occurs immediately after a character named Michael has set out to fight the British:

PETER (to PATRICK, laying a hand on his arm). Did you see an old woman going down the path?

PATRICK. I did not, but I saw a young girl, and she had the walk of a queen.


Cathleen solely, emblematically, represents male activity; her transformation, flowing from an act of male heroism, depicts the feminine image as both a motivation for masculine action and as a sign of that action. In “The Becker Wives” Lavin echoes this pattern, with wry twists. The first woman in the story connected to male action is Anna, the father Bartholomew's wife and source of his inspiration:

And as the years went on, the thought of his big soft Anna more often than not heavy with child, sitting up pretending to read, but in reality yawning and listening for his step on the stairs, had in it just the right blend of desire and promise of fulfillment that enabled him to keep at the ledgers and not go up to her until he'd got through them. In this way he made more money for her.


Anna herself, described as if she were a boggy countryside, resembles Cathleen, the symbol in Cathleen ni Houlihan of all of Ireland. Both figures appear, one earnestly and one absurdly, as prods for men to produce: either to fight or to make money. This portrait of Anna prepares the way for Flora, also exploited as a symbol, particularly by her husband Theobald, who views marriage as a means “towards a better social level” (58). But Lavin, unlike Yeats, gazes at her central female character outside of her family role. Another passage describing Samuel's observation of Flora, alone (she thinks) in the dining room, reveals a character independent of the emblematic role her husband ascribes to her:

She was standing by the side of the window, leaning back against the white woodwork to which her back was closely pressed, her shoulder blades drawn downward, and her face tilted upward more than usual. She seemed to be staring through the upper panes of the glass, and when he moved nearer, Samuel saw the thin spikes of the first stars. She was like the bowsprit of an ancient ship, he thought, and as sightless—at any rate sightless so far as he was concerned. She was unaware of him until he came close—or so it seemed, although he did not think it possible she had not heard him when he first entered. But then, when he'd come close and seen the rigidity of her body and the intensity of her expression, he was paralysed with embarrassment. (93)

Even the sympathetic Samuel cannot help but turn Flora into something out of his own imagination, the bowsprit of a ship, but at least his vision acknowledges Flora's pain and her autonomy (she is “sightless so far as he was concerned”). A later description accentuates this autonomy: “This was not Theobald's wife. This was someone else. But who? It was someone Samuel had never seen before …” (94). When Samuel asks who it is Flora is depicting, she responds simply: “Why Samuel! What a strange thing to ask! I'm Flora, of course, who else?” (94). Though previous Irish writers do explore women in ways that transcend easy stereotype (such as John Millington Synge, whose strong-minded Nora dominates In the Shadow in the Glen), Lavin's story is unusual in its exploration of a woman who, in the same story, also serves as a powerful emblem. In this sense observing Flora alone in her bedroom resembles looking into the mind of Yeats's Cathleen in a private moment—if, that is, the play were to grant her a private moment. Of course this speculation appears absurd since the figure of Cathleen is presented as a symbol, not as an autonomous character. But that is precisely the point. Though it concentrates on a family rather than a nation, Lavin's story uncovers the personal price paid by such symbolism: the neglect of the internal lives of an entire gender. Lavin's story embodies the problem Boland describes as “a fusion of the national and the feminine which seemed to simplify both” (“Outside History” 33).

Finally, though, the story does not suggest stagnation: Instead, it sketches the seeds for a dialogue that can create change, a dialogue stemming from the Irish insistence to ask some version of “What ish my nation?” The encounter between Flora and Samuel, which at first glance seems like the consummate failure, the moment at which Flora's magic has failed, wields tremendous power. It is this revelation of emptiness that supplies the most power of any revelation Flora makes—it is the handing over, the transition of power from Flora to Samuel. It is the moment in which Flora asks “who am I”—a version of “What ish my nation?”—and is answered with silence. This is also the moment in which Samuel watches Flora's question and answer and is prompted to examine his own identity—an examination Theobald has been nagging him to make throughout the story, but only in the narrowest, most mercantile way. The vision of Flora, however, pushes Samuel into real introspection. At the end, a stream of narrative emerges from Samuel's mind and announces a profound internal change:

But when Flora's sobbing finally ceased and, exhausted, she rested against him, her weight was so slight he started. It was as if she had begun to dissolve once more into the wraith-like creature of light that had first flashed on them all in its airy brilliance on the night of his own betrothal party; a spirit which they in their presumption had come to regard—so erroneously—as one of themselves.


On one level this passage indicates no change at all: Flora has left, her attempt to inject life into a dull family an ultimate failure. Yet if this is Samuel's realization, he and Flora are imaginatively united since Samuel absorbs the strangeness, the mystery, of Flora deeply enough to know how thoroughly the stolid conventionality of the rest of his family has missed it. The silent dialogue between Samuel and Flora signifies a culture, within the story, that is alive.

If the presence of Flora suggests the smallness of Ireland (as defined by politically powerful nations) and the smallness of Irish women (as defined by Irish men), this emergence of Samuel embodies the way Ireland analyzes its smallness(es). The scene dramatizes the nature of confrontation that has been at the center of the Irish ethos, a confrontation based on questioning, on relentless self-examination that turns the self, or the nation, into opposing parts. Brian Friel portrays this opposition baldly in his play Philadelphia, Here I Come! by splitting the protagonist into two characters called “Private” and “Public.” Thomas Bartlett, in an article called “‘What Ish My Nation?’: Themes in Irish History 1550-1850,” gravitates, after scrutinizing several themes, “to our general theme of conflict.” He sums up:

… violent confrontation and peaceful encounter walk hand in hand in Irish history, and assimilation and rejection are no strangers to one another. This is the subject's fascination and in the end it may be that the attempt to reconcile opposites is the central theme of Irish history.


In a sense, another word for confrontation—with a more affirmative thrust—is question. The land wars, the religious wars, the constant struggle with England (all themes Bartlett discusses) were violent manifestations of the question “What ish my nation?” These are all signs of a nation asking itself what form it will take, how it will present itself to the rest of the world, and to itself. With the exception of the land wars (at least as they manifested themselves in the nineteenth century), these and other manifestations of the question continue into the twentieth century, continue into the fiction of Mary Lavin.

The unsatisfactory answer that emerges in “The Becker Wives”—the silence of Flora—on one hand may indicate a kind of internal confusion unique to people who, as Boland has noted, struggle with a mirage of images in their collective history. But in any people such a question that so directly and ambitiously attempts to unlock the secrets of self and nation is destined for failure. Versions of “What ish my nation?” must always lead to the void, to the point at which language and the senses both fail. In large and established nations, however, the question need not be asked.

The inability, then, of Ireland to answer the question “What ish my nation?” may not ultimately be as striking as it appears to be. What is more striking is the vibrant insistence with which it must ask the question. And so Ireland, in stories like “The Becker Wives,” will dance on the edge of the abyss, tasting the terrifying, destructive, creative potential of the void.

Works Cited

Bartlett, Thomas. “‘What Ish my Nation?’: Themes in Irish History 1550-1850.” Irish Studies: A General Introduction. Ed. Thomas Bartlett et al. Dublin: Gill, 1988. 44-59.

Boland, Eavan. “The Innocence of Frank O'Connor.” Michael/Frank: Studies on Frank O'Connor. Ed. Maurice Sheehy. Dublin: Gill, 1969. 77-85.

———. “Outside History.” American Poetry Review 2 (1990): 32-38.

Bowen, Zack. Mary Lavin. Cranbury: Associated University Presses, 1975.

Kelly, A. A. Mary Lavin: Quiet Rebel. Dublin: Wolfhound, 1980.

Lavin, Mary. “The Becker Wives.” Selected Stories. New York: Penguin, 1981. 47-106.

O'Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice. Cleveland: World, 1962.

Yeats, William Butler. Cathleen ni Houlihan. Modern Irish Drama. Ed. John P. Harrington. New York: Norton, 1991. 3-11.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 151


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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Lavin, Mary (Vol. 18)

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