Mary Lavin 1912–-1996
American-born Irish short story writer and novelist.
See also Mary Lavin Criticism (Volume 4) and Volumes 18, 99.
Considered one of the foremost Irish short story writers of the twentieth century, Lavin instilled her tales of the Irish middle class with insight into the dynamics of intimate relationships through her focus on the contrarieties of human emotions. Sometimes faulted for lacking plot in her stories, Lavin frequently fixed her attention on seemingly trivial occurrences, investing them with hidden meanings and revealing their emotional significance. Though she published works in several genres, Lavin's most important literary contributions have been in the short story form.
Lavin was born in East Walpole, Massachusetts. When she was nine years old, she moved with her parents to Ireland and lived in Dublin, where she attended the Loreto convent school. In 1925 the family relocated to the Bective estate in County Meath, and Lavin subsequently attended University College, Dublin, receiving her M.A. in English in 1936. In 1938 Lavin wrote her first short story, “Miss Holland,” on the back of a typed draft of her Ph.D. dissertation on Virginia Woolf. After several rejections, the story was accepted by editor Seumas O'Sullivan and published in the Dublin Magazine in 1939. O'Sullivan's agreement to seriously consider any other submissions that Lavin sent prompted Lavin to abandon her dissertation and pursue a career as a writer. In 1940 the publication of Lavin's story “The Green Grave and the Black Grave” in the Atlantic Monthly introduced her fiction to an American audience and garnered high praise from such prominent Irish writers as Lord Dunsany and Frank O'Connor. In 1942, with the help of Dunsany, Lavin published Tales from the Bective Bridge, her first collection of short fiction, and secured her status as a prominent literary figure. She received several awards for her work, including the Guggenheim fellowship and the Katherine Mansfield Prize, and her short stories often appeared in such prestigious periodicals as the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and the Kenyon Review. She died on March 24, 1996.
Major Works of Short Fiction
The central figures of Lavin's stories tend to be sensitive individuals from the Irish middle class who have repressed or abandoned their dreams and are ultimately forced to confront regrets over the uneasy compromises of their lives. These pieces explore the dynamics of personal relationships and focus on the emotional dilemmas of her characters. In “At Sallygap,” one of the most critically acclaimed stories in Tales from Bective Bridge, Manny Ryan's unrealized artistic dreams strain his relationship with his wife, Annie. Critics note that Manny is one of Lavin's more complex characters, and through his narration in “At Sallygap” readers witness his growing dissatisfaction with himself, his work, and his marriage. In her later collections, A Single Lady, and other Stories (1951) and The Patriot Son, and Other Stories (1956), Lavin evinced a new emphasis on plot. Her fiction during this period garnered mixed reviews, and such stories as “Posy,” “The Small Bequest,” and “The Long Ago” have generally been faulted for intrusive narration and unrealistic characterizations.
The tales collected in In the Middle of the Fields, and Other Stories (1967) and Happiness, and Other Stories (1969) reflect Lavin's interest in autobiographical fiction and mark a return to the impressionistic writing style that established her reputation. These collections include several pieces that center on the emotional challenges of widowhood through the character Vera Traske. Commentators agree that Lavin's “widow stories” are among her finest and note that Vera Traske is Lavin's most autobiographical character. The story “Happiness” is the last of the Vera Traske stories and has been referred to by critics as a representative capsule of Lavin's artistic and personal perspectives. In this story, Vera, like Lavin, endures the early death of her husband and is left to care for their three young children. Though Vera dies, this story reveals her enduring faith in the value of life.
Lavin's early stories were noted for a lack of plot structure as well as intrusive narration; but critics contend that from her earliest attempts, Lavin has been successful in developing characters that reflect the essence of Irish culture as well as the boundless nature of human tragedies and triumphs. Commentators assert that she has maintained a strong commitment to writing richly colored tales that test the emotional endurance of her characters, and though often pervasively despairing in the treatment of the tragic elements of human existence, Lavin's stories are considered poignant for their unwavering compassion and hopefulness. Her short stories have been compared to those of Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, and Henry James.