Mary Lavin 1912–1996
American-born Irish short-story writer and novelist.
For further information on Lavin's life and works, see CLC, Volumes 4 and 18.
Lavin was one of Ireland's most respected contemporary writers. Although her short stories explore everyday events in the Irish countryside, the thoughts and actions of her characters often spark a deep personal resonance with her readers. She describes convincingly the eccentricities and illogic of average people and it is this character development, rather than her plots, which gained her critical acclaim. Born in Massachusetts, Lavin immigrated to Ireland as a child and grew up in the environs of Dublin. In 1934 she received a degree in English, with honors, from University College in Dublin. She continued her studies there, earning an M.A., with honors, in 1936. While writing her dissertation, she wrote and published her first story, "Miss Holland" (1938), which received favorable attention. Lavin subsequently abandoned her graduate studies to write fiction, and, in 1942, married William Walsh, with whom she had three daughters. Widowed twelve years later, Lavin continued to write, publishing thirteen short story collections and two novels. Best known for her short stories and novellas, the form she preferred, Lavin received three Guggenheim Fellowships, the Katherine Mansfield Prize, and the Aos Dana Award. Critics praised her ability to create contained, even isolated settings for her characters with great brevity and efficiency. She often wrote about poignant moments in the lives of families; not necessarily instances of dramatic action, but moments of profound insight. The sparse style of her work and its melancholy mood lead critics to compare it to that of some Russian writers, particularly Anton Chehkov. As Jean Stubbs wrote, Lavin "invites us to contemplate with her the infinite sadness and beauty of the world, the divine inconsequences of life."
Tales from Bective Bridge (short stories) 1943; revised edition, 1978
The Long Ago and Other Stories (short stories) 1944
The House in Clewe Street (novel) 1945
The Becker Wives and Other Stories (short stories) 1946
At Sallygap and Other Stories (short stories) 1947
Mary O'Grady (novel) 1950
A Single Lady and Other Stories (short stories) 1951
The Patriot Son and Other Stories (short stories) 1956
A Likely Story (juvenilia) 1957
Selected Stories (short stories) 1959
The Great Wave and Other Stories (short stories) 1961
The Stories of Mary Lavin 3 vols. (short stories) 1964–85
In the Middle of the Fields and Other Stories (short stories) 1967
Happiness and Other Stories (short stories) 1969
The Becker Wives (short stories) 1971
Collected Stories (short stories) 1971
The Second-Best Children in the World (juvenilia) 1972
A Memory and Other Stories (short stories) 1972
The Shrine and Other Stories (short stories) 1977
Mary Lavin: Selected Stories (short stories) 1981
A Family Likeness and Other Stories (short stories) 1985
In a Cafâe (short stories) 1995
James F. Clarity (obituary date 27 March 1996)
SOURCE: "Mary Lavin, 83, Wove Tales of Irish Experience," in The New York Times, March 27, 1996, p. D21.
[In the following obituary, Clarity provides an overview of her life and career and comments on the style and major themes of her fiction.]
Mary Lavin, whose short stories and novels about the conflicts in the hearts of her fellow Irish men and women transcended mere tales of life in Ireland, died on Monday at a nursing home here [Dublin, Ireland]. She was 83.
Ms. Lavin was the author of 19 collections of short stories and three novels. She won three Guggenhelm Fellowships and a number of literary awards, including the Katherine Mansfield Prize, in 1961. Her stories appeared regularly in The New Yorker.
Her death was front-page news in The Irish Times , whose chief book critic, Eileen Battersby, called her "one of modern Irish fiction's most subversive voices"...
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and said, "Her art explored often brutal tensions, disappointments and frustrations dictating the relationships within socalled 'normal' families."
Ms. Lavin's favorite form was the short story, which she once likened to "a flash of lightning lighting up the whole landscape all at once." In a 1976 interview she was quoted as saying "Publishers are definitely unfair to short-story writers. Since the essence of the short story is its conciseness, an addiction to change is an occupational disease and not the self-indulgence publishers think." She also said: "I don't think a story has to have a beginning, middle and end. I think of it more as an arrow in flight."
Critics often compared Ms. Lavin's work to that of other acclaimed Irish writers, including Liam O'Flaherty and Sean O'Faolain, and also perceived echoes of Balzac, Chekhov and Saki. Her writing influenced the work of others, as well, including the novelist William Trevor.
Ms. Lavin said her childhood reading of Jane Austen influenced her writing. She said that, as a realist, her writing was "only looking closer than normal into the human heart, whose vagaries and contrarieties have their own integral design." In an appreciation in The Irish Times, Maurice Harmon, professor emeritus of Anglo-Irish Literature at University College in Dublin, wrote, "She drew upon her own experience. Her stories explore and reflect the patterns of her life: the return of the little girl from America to the strange, puritanical society of her mother's people" in Western Ireland.
"At the high point of her career," he continued, "She wrote about widows who refuse to be passive in the face of death, who keep their memories of love and go forth to encounter experience with openness and with the wisdom of years."
Mary Lavin was born on June 11, 1912, of immigrant parents in East Walpole, Mass. When she was 10 the family moved back to Athenry, in Western Ireland. She wrote her first short story in 1938. Her first collection, Tales from Bective Bridge, won the James Tate Black Memorial Prize in 1942 and helped establish her career.
Her short-story collections include The Long Ago (1944), The Becker Wives (1946), A Single Lady (1957), In the Middle of the Fields (1966) and The Shrine and Other Stories (1976). She published her first novel, The House in Clewe Street, in 1945, her second, Mary O'Grady, appeared in 1950.
She served as president of the Irish Academy of Letters in 1971.
Ms. Lavin's first marriage was to William Walsh, a lawyer, who died in 1954. They had three daughters, who survive. In 1969 she married Michael McDonald Scott, a former Roman Catholic priest, who died in 1990. In recent years her health failed and she lived in a nursing home.
Her stories were characterized by arresting opening and closing lines. One story, "Happiness," begins with "Mother had a lot to say" and ends: "Mother made the last effort of her life and grasped at Bea's meaning. She let out a sigh, and, closing her eyes, she sank back, and this time her head sank so deep into the pillow that it would have been dented had it been a pillow of stone." Another, "A Memory," begins, "James did all right for a man on his own," and ends, "Under a weight of bitterness too great to be borne, his face was pressed into the wet leaves and when he gulped for breath, the rooted leaves were sucked into his mouth."
Los Angeles Times (obituary date 27 March 1996)
SOURCE: "Mary Lavin, 83; Prize-Winning Irish Author of Novels, Stories," in Los Angeles Times, March 27, 1996, p. A15.
[In the obituary below, the critic comments on Lavin's literary career.]
Mary Lavin, who depicted the narrow subtleties of Irish small town life in short stories and novels, has died. She was 83.
The prize-winning writer died Monday in a Dublin nursing home.
In a Los Angeles Times review of a book about Irish women writers in 1990, Thomas Cahill characterized Lavin's work as representing "surely the boldest tradition of women writers in all literature.
Born in East Walpole, Mass., Lavin moved to Ireland as a child and was educated at Loreto College and University College in Dublin.
In 1942, she published her first collection of short stories, Tales from Bective Bridge. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and established her literary reputation.
Spurred by its success, she wrote prolifically. Her 19 collections of short stories included The Long Ago in 1944, The Becker Wives in 1946, A Single Lady in 1957, In the Middle of the Fields in 1966 and The Shrine and Other Stories in 1976.
Her first novel, The House in Clewe Street, was published in 1945. The second, Mary O'Grady, appeared in 1950.
A recognizably Irish Catholic writer, she created such characters as forlorn spinsters, sprightly nuns, mothers mourning long-dead sons, and bitterly antagonistic sisters. Subtle, lucid and shrewdly observed, her writing featured themes that combined a sense of sorrow with hints of mystery.
Among her many awards were Guggenheim Fellowships in 1959, 1962 and 1972 and the Katherine Mansfield Prize in 1961.
In 1971, she was president of the Irish Academy of Letters.
Mark D. Hawthorne (essay date Fall 1994)
SOURCE: "Words that Do Not Speak Themselves: Mary Lavin's 'Happiness'," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 4, Fall, 1994, pp. 683-88.
[In the essay below, Hawthorne focuses on language and meaning in Lavin's story "Happiness," arguing that the story suggests an incongruence between language and meaning.]
In the short story "Happiness" (1969) Mary Lavin constructed a text in which the characters', and especially the narrator's, bewilderment over and confusion of the signification of key words points both to the arbitrariness of the words themselves and to the narrator's inability to understand the story that she tells. The narrator's attempt to account for her mother's enigmatic use of the word "happiness" illustrates the futility of trying to comprehend verbal constructs; the speaker's original construct and the narrator's reconstruction of what she thinks that construct signifies negate each other in such a way that the reader must accept that, in the final analysis, words cannot communicate. If "the main purpose of the narrative … is to capture and evaluate Vera's philosophy of life," Lavin has made the inability to communicate a major part of that purpose.
Lavin unabashedly based the story on her own experience: like Vera, she was left after the death of her husband in 1953 with the responsibility of raising her three daughters; during the first years of her widowhood, Lavin, like Vera, took the girls to Florence. Nevertheless, Lavin's narrative seriously alters her experiences: the story is narrated by an unnamed daughter, and Vera, who dies at the end of the story, does not marry Father Hugh despite the neighbors' thinking that their relation is too intimate. In 1969, Lavin married Michael Scott, who had applied for and was granted laicization. These deviations from Lavin's autobiographical experience should warn us that the story is more complex than it appears at first, even while it provides a striking picture of her own despair and renewed commitment after William's death.
Vera, the widowed mother who teaches the enigmatic lesson that happiness is the essence and goal of life, seems at first to be a truth-sayer. Her name derives from the Latin verax, "truthful," and she seems earnest, however unclear her lesson. As a librarian, she works with words, an occupation also suggested by her study and the sheaf of paper that preoccupies her as if she were, like Lavin herself, a writer. But if she is truthful, her inability to communicate clearly suggests that truth cannot easily be shared: neither Father Hugh nor her three daughters understand what she means by "happiness." Her name also suggests the Latin ver, "youth" or "springtime," a reading that Lavin supports in repeated references to spring, spring flowers, and the rejuvenation of spring following winter's desolation. As youthful or springlike, her name carries an obvious double or paradoxical meaning: she is old (and getting older as the story progresses), yet she is youthful in her attitude and springlike in her ability to bounce back from despair. As her name suggests, she is a fulcrum that contains opposites without fully embracing the contradictions that those opposites define.
As in the case of the main character, the narrator frequently uses words that can be read with contradictory significance, thus generating what Augustine Martin called "vibrations in the mind and the imagination which continue in the reader's mind long after the story has been put down." Twice, for example, she uses the word "rhetoric" in such a way that the reader cannot distinguish whether it signifies Vera's skill in using language effectively or an insincerity concealed behind a grandiloquent barrage of words. The first use of "rhetoric" occurs just after Vera declares that "Happiness drives out pain, as fire burns out fire," a cryptic statement obviously beyond the understanding of her daughters who, nevertheless, "thirstily drank in her rhetoric" (emphasis added). Here the word seems to denote the narrator's distrust of her mother's glib reply, but in the second use of the word, there is no hint of glibness: here Vera, on her deathbed, speaks of the nun and the daffodils in such a way that the daughters are mystified, Vera's language seeming to conceal a secret that she cannot or will not communicate. In the first passage Bea is skeptical, trying in vain to understand but failing because she takes Vera's statement too literally, but in the second Bea recognizes Vera's signification, a comprehension of Vera's "rhetoric" that makes her joyous and strong in facing her mother's death, the very reactions that Vera had wanted in the passage in which the narrator first uses "rhetoric."
Likewise, "father" means both the priest—as in Father Hugh—and the father of the family, but this particular distinction becomes blurred when Father Hugh takes on the role of the father of the family, growing to play an intimate role in the three girls' childhood even while he remains chaste and faithful to his priestly vows. If we have no trouble seeing the priest as a spiritual father, Father Hugh's role takes on broader domestic implications that have generated gossip even though he has remained fully faithful to his priestly vows. In other words, though he is not the girls' natural father, he becomes their father in every other way.
Equally significant is the narrator's use of "mother"—on the one hand, because she is a daughter telling about her own mother. But she is also married, and possibly a mother herself, thereby playing a double role of daughter to her mother and mother to her own children, a double role that she does not develop. On the other hand, she develops a verbal ambiguity between her mother and grandmother. While Vera clearly takes the role of mother, her own mother calls her "mother," thus creating a situation in which the daughter is verbally the mother of her own mother. Yet Vera confesses to her daughters, "I would never have put so much effort into rearing you, because I wasn't a bit maternal." That is, the character whom the narrator develops as mother rejects the verbalization of her role even while she clearly fulfills it. Though such reversal may be commonplace as a sign of humility, Lavin uses the change in the noun from describing a familial relation to signifying a behavioral relation to emphasize her treatment of other words that have changing or shifting significations. That the same woman can be both mother and daughter merely indicates the shifting of generational perspective, but that the woman can be called mother by her own mother reflects either a confusion in attribution or a shift from familial relation through which the mother lets her daughter the dominant role of decision-maker.
Still another blurring of family names—similar to the blurring of "father" and "mother" but more grotesque—is with the word "kid." Though the children see themselves as kids, the word, of course, also refers to young goats. When Linda mistakes goats for children, her mistake is humorous, but it is also rather frightening because it involves the slaughter of the young. The change in "father" points toward a double role played by Father Hugh; the change in "mother" points toward shifting dependencies; but the change in "kid" points toward the inexplicable terror of a child who must leave childhood to become an adult. Thus the mistaken signification suggests one of Lavin's major themes in the short story—the inability of the children to understand their mother's use of language, their inability to understand the lesson that she strives to teach.
If words that normally carry unambiguous denotations are wrenched from their usual signification, we should not be surprised by other words that carry double, contradictory meanings. Vera finds "rest" in her garden where she works and where she finally finds the "rest" of death. Like "kid," "pillow" in the final symbol of the story suggests a gap between signifier and signified. Ordinarily, a pillow is a soft object whereon to rest one's weary head; here, however, the pillow is a stone marking both Vera's death, her movement from softness, and her grave, her final resting place. This choice of words, like Lavin's use of familial words, derives from a domestic, homey vocabulary in which we usually do not expect such double meanings.
In addition to the words that have double meanings, Lavin's narrator also uses words that are misleading because they are not clearly defined; that is, either a character or the narrator uses some words that are left for the reader to interpret because the text does not given enough clues to determine a definitive signification. These words, unlike those with double meanings, often carry the appearance of a signification that they do not actually have in the context in which they appear. For example, when Vera refers to the Alps, she calls them "hills," a word that hardly describes their size and magnificence, but when the narrator corrects her, she does acknowledge her "mistake." On the one hand, she may simply confuse the two nouns, an unlikely confusion for a woman whose working life centers around words; on the other hand, she may be making a judgment in which her use of "hills" is intended to be pejorative, an attack on the spectacle that the daughters fail to comprehend. In this latter sense, Vera's word choice is a reversal of the hyperbole that enables us to talk about the "Dublin mountains" when that geological feature is merely a range of hills compared to the Alps.
When the girls try for the umpteenth time to ascertain exactly what their mother means by "happiness," Bea concludes, "It's a sham!" While a sham is something false that pretends to be genuine, it is also a curtain or decorative cloth that conceals. Because the context does not develop Bea's statement further, we cannot resolve whether she is making a moral judgment on her mother's advocacy of happiness or describing her mother's use of happiness as a quality that acts like a pillow sham to conceal something from view. That is, Bea may have an insight that her sisters lack, the same sort of insight that enables her to understand her mother in the final scene. Along the same lines, when Vera says she is "foolish" after the nun's revelation that her husband is dying, we have no context for determining the exact signification of her adjective. On the one hand, she may be saying that she is ridiculous, but, on the other, she may be suggesting her own insignificance. In the first, she may recognize her absurdity, a self-mocking that results from a context of denial, but, in the second, she may recognize that humility forces her to deny the importance of what she recognizes. Or, contrary to either of these readings, she may suggest that she is, indeed, the fool that we associate with a certain freedom from ordinary or material matter-of-factness or with an other-worldliness that seems simple or naïve.
Mary Lavin wrenches words from their expected denotations to shape some of the most striking images of the story. The ordinary experience of turning on a light in a dark room turns a window into a mirror: Bea turns on the light to distract Father Hugh from Vera, who has stayed in the garden after the sunset. Instead of looking through the window at Vera, the narrator, Bea, and Father Hugh see themselves reflected in the window. Structurally, this shift from transparency to opacity marks the moment when Vera's philosophy faces its most demanding test. Just as Bea turns the light on so that they can no longer see Vera in the garden, Bea, not the narrator, will be the daughter who tells her mother that she can die in peace. Bea holds Vera's "face between her palms as tenderly as if it were the face of a child" (another mother/daughter inversion) while she tells her that "You don't have to face it!" The combination of the imagery of seeing and this play on "face" pass Vera's legacy to the middle daughter, the only one who comprehends what Vera had been striving to teach.
The narrator uses this tendency to blur denotation to confuse the difference between tangible objects and intangible ideas. As a pillow can be a stone or a soft object on a bed, a rosary can be the beads that Grandmother says or the growing list of "if only" wishes. The object and the idea thus become inseparable: the word invokes the object even while the object exists only through its name. Thus Vera can carry her daughters "by magic" to the "small girl with black hair and buttoned boots" just as Robert, "while he lived, had cast a magic over everything." This magic, objectification through words, transforms the ordinary into the unusual, the commonplace into the extraordinary. If Vera can use words as magic, then her words about happiness turn the words themselves into the objects that they represent just as the narrator's use of words to tell about her mother's lessons makes those lessons palatable. Daffodils are both harbingers for new and refreshed life and the brutal awareness of death; Vera's swimming carries both an escape as she hovers birdlike over a rushing stream and the temptation to die when she wades into the moonlight sea after the death of her husband; a snowdrop is both "a bleak bud that had come up stunted before its time" and a summation of "the whole point of happiness."
Bea, whose name recalls the Latin beata, "happy" or "happiness," is the character who finally grasps the meaning of her mother's lessons, but the narrator remains nameless. Because even the grandmother takes on a nickname—Miss Imperious, Lavin implies that this lack of a name is important. Throughout, the narrator has been "loving yet occasionally skeptical," an ambivalence showing in her tone that forces the reader to question whether she has ever learned what her sister discovers at Vera's death. Vera proclaims happiness although her life does not seem happy: after the death of her husband, the girls even fear that she will commit suicide when she is swimming at night. Likewise, Bea does not understand her message until she mentions the daffodils, a word that invokes her memory of Vera's story about her husband's death. Because the word connects the past and present, Bea understands, not the word but the emotions that the word indirectly signifies: knowing that the cruel nun had made her aware of her husband's dying, Vera associated daffodils with death so that Bea can tell her that she herself can let go of life "confident that her tidings were joyous, her voice was strong." Looking on without speaking, the narrator merely reports because, unlike her sister, she has not mastered the rich confidence of language. In short, the narrator fails to understand her mother and consequently provides us with the sort of ironic contrast that Thomas Murray described as a "point of view [that] works well to maintain an almost extremely cruel distance from the characters to the extent that at times it is impossible to say where [Lavin's] true sympathies are as judged from the distanced and neutral point of view."
Lavin's choice of a narrator is especially interesting if Vera is, as we have no reason to doubt, her "autobiographical heroine," an assumption that seems well validated by her appearance in other stories. However, if Lavin used the medium of language to describe her own philosophy that enabled her to go on after her husband's death, she seems to distrust the very medium, not the content that Vera passes on to Bea. Likewise, if the story is, indeed, "the work most revelatory of Lavin's attitude toward her own life and art," then we must read through the ironic juxtaposition of narrator and misunderstood subject. The daughter who tells the story, another wordmonger, fails to grasp her mother's throwing of manuscripts from a train window or her meaning, a meaning that falls silent, unable despite many efforts to communicate itself through language. The narrator's words, like Vera's, defy their medium: as Bea discovers, they suggest but do not contain the message.
Jeanette Roberts Shumaker (essay date Spring 1995)
SOURCE: "Sacrificial Women in Short Stories by Mary Lavin and Edna O'Brien," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 32, No. 2, Spring, 1995, pp. 185-97.
[In the following excerpt, Shumaker focuses on the protagonists from Lavin's stories "A Nun's Mother" and "Sarah" and argues that the "martyrdoms" of both heroines can best be understood in the context of Catholic notions of the suffering Madonna.]
Edna O'Brien's "A Scandalous Woman" (1972) ends with the statement that Ireland is "a land of strange, sacrificial women." 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." 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….
"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. 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 story, 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." Shame over their bodies keeps Angela and Mrs. Latimer emotionally distant. 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." 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. 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." 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 naïveté about men. Angela's other naïve 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 selfprotective, 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." 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 are 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." 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." 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….
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." "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. 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." 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 relies 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; Ireland would certainly qualify. Janet Egleson Dunleavy says that Lavin's stories from the 1940s focus on "the universal truth of restricted vision"; 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."
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." 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 man-made 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. 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. 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 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. 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.
Desmond Hogan (essay date March 1996)
SOURCE: "Sources of Happiness," in Books and Bookmen, No. 365, March, 1996, pp. 24-5.
[In the essay below, Hogan reflects on Lavin's works and concludes that the overall mood of her stories and novels is agnostic.]
A fitting introduction to the work of Mary Lavin might be an emblem from a mesmeric and lonely short story by a contemporary of Mary Lavin, 'The Bride of the Innisfallen' by Eudora Welty, a story of journeying and estrangement and newness, the newness of place, and the newness of self away from familiar surroundings and ingrained relationships. 'You must never betray pure joy the kind you were born and began with either by hiding it or by parading it in front of people's eyes; they didn't want to be shown it. And still you must tell it.' With the republication by Virago in April of Mary Lavin's second and last novel Mary O'Grady and the recent publication by Constable of the third volume of Mary Lavin's stories it would seem an appropriate moment to take a bold look at the work of Mary Lavin and its unifying obsession with happiness and inner life, the fierce admonition her work seems to give that inner life should be protected at all costs. One of her most complete later stories, contained in volume three of her collected stories, is in fact called 'Happiness', and in this the heroine who has forged a path through all of her volumes of stories is prostrate and dying, seeing psychic daffodils on the bedroom floor. 'Her theme was happiness: what it was, what it was not; where we might find it, where not; and how, if found, it must be guarded.' The opening of 'Happiness' could be an appraisal of Mary Lavin's lifetime struggle. Frank O'Connor's description of Mary Lavin is not altogether different. 'Like Whitman's wild oak in Louisiana, she has stood a little apart from the rest of us "uttering joyous leaves of dark green".'
Mary O'Grady, first published in 1950 when Mary Lavin had already published three volumes of stories and one novel, written in a month while her father was dying, is unusually frenetic among her work a series of mosaics, a description of family, an attempted analysis of family relationships, and particularly a portrait of an Irish mother who consumes joys and tragedies, rewards and afflictions into the treadmill of Irish motherhood.
'There are only two valid relationships, blood and passion' one of Mary Lavin's stories insists; and it seems in Mary O'Grady that anyone, like the son Patrick, who does not bow to these twin authorities is destroyed by their profligacy. The biographical fact that Mary O'Grady was written while Mary Lavin's father was dying is more than interesting for it is a father character, in various shades, who provides most surprises in her work. In The Shrine (1977), there is a story called 'Tom' in which a father writes a letter in aberrant English to his daughter, on pink paper, on the eve of the Grand National:
You Seem to wait till the Ball Came to you that is Rong you should Keep Moving and and Not to Stay in the One Place. God Luck, Dadey.
In Mary Lavin's work there are people who move and people who are still like Mary O'Grady people trapped by stillness and people obliterated by movement like the son Patrick in Mary O'Grady. But it is not so much the darers who have Mary Lavin's admiration as those whose state of either movement or stillness comes from complex, integral decisions. Miss Lomas in 'The Mock Auction' and Vera in 'One Summer' are among those who are still and yet, despite the contradictions, achieve felicity in their stillness.
One of those who went the furthest is Lally in an early story, 'The Will'. She went from Athenry to Dublin, the 'heart of that mystery', is spurned by her mother for making a bad marriage, and for sinking so low as to have lodgers, is cut out of the will. But Lally realises that despite the revulsion of her family towards her that 'You were you always, no matter where you went or what you did … you don't change' and so makes a manifesto for the Irish artist in declining a compromised family offer of money to her. She anticipates Edna O'Brien's personal and grieved manifesto in Mother Ireland. 'Those who feel and go along with the journey of their feelings are richer than the seducers who hit and run.' Instead of taking money she sinks her own pittances into lighting 'some holy lamps at the Covent of Perpetual Reparation', for her mother died in bitterness and nonforgiveness towards her. Someone who is forgiven but too late is the happy-go-lucky young man in the magnificent 'The Little Prince,"' driven across the 'vast Atlantic' because he is a spendthrift. 'Many a young man like him went out in danger to come home a different man altogether; a man to be respected: a well-to-do man with a fur lining in his top coat, his teeth stopped with gold, and the means to hire motor cars and drive his relatives about the countryside.' Years later his sister makes the same journey to try to find him only to come up in her searchings with a corpse which might or might not be him. 'But if it was her brother something had sundered them, something had severed the bonds of blood, and she knew him not. And if it was I who was lying there, she thought, he wouldn't know me. It signified nothing that they might once have sprung from the same womb. Now they were strangers.' The myth of blood bonds is unassailably contested. A strange room is opened in Irish fiction. The rage is Faulknerian. There is no rest for the conscience in Athenry.
The middle stories are concerned with efforts to protect the self and inner life against the loneliness of the body, against incursions from strangers, against an obtusely unsympathetic society. A 'dowdy, lumpish and unromantic figure' wanders through these stories, often stumbling on unexpected moments of triumph, unexpected epiphanies composed from everyday details. The story 'Happiness' seems to obliterate this heroine as if the struggle has gone on long enough and acknowledgement of ultimate triumph is made with a deathbed scene in which a mother finally communicates to a hitherto uncomprehending daughter her Tolstoian vision of happiness 'Nor think sorrow its exact opposite' thus preserving the continuity of things, injecting a personal vision into the family tree, sublimating the self into the general. Mary O'Grady doesn't let go of life until she knows her youngest daughter Rosie is pregnant, thus family continuity is preserved. The nightmare of self is dissolved in the omnipotent family tree. But this I would suggest is longing more than a reality in Mary Lavin's work. One of her saddest stories is another recent one, 'Eterna', in which a doctor befriends a woman who has become a nun because the nuns were the only people who ever took an interest in her, showing her she could paint. Years after their friendship the doctor sights a strange, wrecked creature in the National Gallery in Dublin whom he presumes to be that nun. 'People had to clip their wings if they wanted to survive in this world', he smugly remarks, recalling the nun's onetime embarrassing idealism.
The fundamental and integral mood in Mary Lavin's work, though, is not of effulgent happiness or of moral contraction. For all the priests and nuns and brothers who inhabit it it is agnostic. It seems to say, at its most intense and unhindered, 'I don't know'.
Craig Brown (review date 29 November 1985)
SOURCE: "Breathing Hope and Despair," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4313, November 29, 1985, p. 1353.
[In the following review of A Family Likeness, Brown comments on Lavin's themes and style.]
There is something rather un-Irish about Mary Lavin's prose: it doesn't sing or soar or weep, it has no lilt, no twang even, and the sentences straggle and falter and thud. There is hardly a sentence in her new book of short stories, her first for eight years, which could be described as "beautifully turned", and she salvages no aphorisms or last-line truths from the sadness of her tales. The only poetic line in the book—"Nature ever was a deceiver"—is uttered by a newly-wed young woman. "Surely this was a strange thing for a young girl to say on her honeymoon?" her husband thinks, years later. V.S. Pritchett recently said that his own short stories are concerned with those moments in which there is a change in his characters' lives; in general, Mary Lavin's could be said to concern those moments when it becomes clear—though not always to the characters—that things will never change. Lavin's sadnesses are too personal to be fêted by rhythm, too isolated to be relieved by a moral, too sparse for beauty.
She writes mainly of marriages and families. Her characters are not alone in a social sense: the possibility of a deep love is forever there, but with contact turns to something smaller and meaner, like indifference or irritation. In the best story in the new collection, "A Marriage", a wife of many years confronts her increasingly irritable husband, a university professor, with the news that she has paid a secret visit to the doctor. All the petty, disloyal thoughts from a long and weary marriage fly away:
The doctor? James was stunned. He fell back against the pillows. Such a rush of blood came to his head, his sight blurred and he thought for a moment blood had gushed into his eyes…. Distraught, he looked at her and their eyes met. James was momentarily distracted. How young her eyes had remained. They were the eyes of a girl. How was it that they never looked into each other's eyes nowadays? Maybe that was where love took refuge when the rest of the body was drained of the power to evoke it. "Oh Emmy, Emmy, what is the matter? Tell me. Tell me." His eyes still clinging to hers, he went to clutch her to him.
Gently Emmy pushed him away. "I must explain something, James. It was not to consult him about myself I went. I went to make an appointment with him for you."
"Me?" James was first dumbfounded, then outraged. "How dare you interfere in my life, attempt to interfere I mean."
In Lavin's world, profound emotions make speedy, bit-part entrances and exits while less fulsome feelings—tetchiness, disappointment and undefined longings for something other—dominate. Lavin has such a keen sense of the irrational, disordered workings of the mind, and the way in which it is activated more often by misinterpretation and defiance than by truth, that occasionally when reading her, one has the uncanny sense of being confronted by something previously secret to oneself and from oneself. Her characters are more often than not hopelessly misrepresented by their efforts at speech.
In those few Lavin stories where the reality behind this quirkiness has to submit itself to straightforwardness, or to too great a scheme, the writing jars. This happens only once in A Family Likeness, in "The Face of Hate", set in Belfast in 1957, against a background of increasing civil unrest. Employing a young girl as the voice of wisdom and honesty ("The land was here before any of us, Catholics and Protestants"), Lavin is forced to deprive her of the subtleties and contradictions that make other characters so true and convincing. As robust and simple and articulate a voice of right as this seems less likely than ever after the stories it follows, the girl's final statement of impending doom too overtly a message from the author, and that message wrapped a little too neatly in the bleakness afforded by hindsight. Elsewhere, the characters breathe hope and despair, hope and despair as surely as they breathe in and out.
Reva Brown (review date February 1986)
SOURCE: A review of A Family Likeness, and Other Stories, and The Stories of Mary Lavin Vol. 3, in British Book News, February, 1986, pp. 110-11.
[In the review below, Brown comments favorably on Lavin's talents as a short-story writer.]
Mary Lavin is a superb storyteller. She has the capacity to take an apparently ordinary, even banal, situation and to compress within the few pages of her short story an entirely credible small world. Such is the honesty and reality of her creation that we believe in the lives led by her characters both before and after the incidents that make up the core of the story she tells us about them. Not only has she a sensitive insight into the human condition but she also shows an appreciation of the beauty of the countryside in which many of her stories are set. She writes about contemporary people, involved in present-day situations, and there is something honourable and honest in her approach to her characters and their problems, emotions, involvements, triumphs and failures. Nothing extraordinary happens to them, but their lives and feelings are portrayed with a clear vision and empathy that transforms these 'ordinary' people into something special.
The 'plots' of the stories are simple: an elderly woman visits the nearby woods with her daughter and grandaughter to see if the cowslips are out ('A Family Likeness'); a courting couple, out on an evening stroll, see a house to let ('A House to Let'); a young woman describes her mother's sisters, and their lives ('A Bevy of Aunts'); a middle-aged woman visits her daughter and son-in-law for the first time soon after their marriage ('A Walk on the Cliff'); a young man meets a middle-aged widow and they both let slip the possibility of 'something more' between them ('The Cuckoo-Spit'); two students at Dublin University warily approach romance ('The Lucky Pair'); a middle-aged woman agrees to marry the man who jilted her twenty years before ('Heart of Gold').
Within these ordinary, often commonplace, situations, Mary Lavin explores the motive, thoughts and feelings of her characters, rendering even the most complex of them comprehensible and clear. Her people are fully rounded and believable, depicted with a subtle wit and humour that sets up echoes of irony, pathos or recognition in the reader. Mary Lavin was born in Massachusetts, came to Ireland when she was ten, and has lived there ever since. Her stories, many published in the New Yorker, are set in small towns or the countryside of Massachusetts or Ireland. On a practical level, A Family Likeness, which contains six stories, has a larger print-size and is consequently easier to read than The Stories of Mary Lavin, which has thirteen stories and is only around seventy pages longer.
Richard F. Peterson (review date Spring 1987)
SOURCE: A review of A Family Likeness and Other Stories and The Stories of Mary Lavin, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 2, Spring, 1987, pp. 170-71.
[In the following review, Peterson remarks on the themes of Lavin's stories and praises them as "remarkably insightful and intimate."]
With the publication of A Family Likeness and Other Stories and the third volume of The Stories of Mary Lavin, Constable has something new and something old for Mary Lavin readers.
While a new collection of short stories by a writer of major reputation in the genre is bound to excite her readers, a volume of previously collected stories can be equally interesting and even more satisfying if the stories are among the writer's best. The third volume of Stories does have the virtue of containing several of Mary Lavin's finest short stories, though it suffers from the same quirks of selection and arrangement that bother the earlier Constable volumes. With the exception of "Lilacs," a leftover from Lavin's first collection of stories published in 1943, and the autobiographical "Lemonade," from a 1961 collection, the third volume collects, though not in their original order, all of the short stories and novellas from In the Middle of the Fields and Happiness. These eleven stories, published in the late 1960s, represent a major phase in Mary Lavin's career in which she added new power and control to her fiction by occasionally dramatizing her painful adjustment to widowhood.
If read in the order in which they were first collected, Mary Lavin's widow stories begin with "In the Middle of the Fields," include "The Cuckoospit," one of her most successful studies of widowhood, and conclude with "Happiness," one of her most personal narratives. In these three stories, Mary Lavin reveals the intense loneliness of the widow immediately after the death of her husband, then the emotional complexities, four years later, in the opportunity for a new intimate relationship, and finally the spiritual and physical resignation of the widow after a lifetime of joy and grief. The common thread drawing the three stories together is the powerful influence of memory on the emotions of Mary Lavin's widows, especially in preserving the pleasure of married life and the pain of loss.
The remaining entries in Constable's third volume represent Mary Lavin's diverse approaches to fiction writing, including formula stories, like "The New Gardener," impressionistic portraits of human isolation, especially "One Evening" and "A Pure Accident," and novellas, including "One Summer," "The Mock Auction," and "The Lost Child." Of these stories, the novella "The Lost Child" stands out as one of Lavin's most experimental and successful long narratives. This story of a woman's emotional and spiritual crisis during her miscarriage is told with such artistic balance that both the external events and the inner state of the central character are rendered vividly, while the narrative itself raises several difficult questions about the human spirit. "The Lost Child" and Mary Lavin's widow stories highlight the third volume of Stories and make it an important, even if uneven, addition to the Constable series.
Mary Lavin's latest collection of stories, A Family Likeness, offers a microcosm of the delights, perplexities, and occasional problems in her fiction. The volume holds six new stories, including a novella, "A Bevy of Aunts." While the novella is interesting because it adds one more measure to the fictionalized chronology of Mary Lavin's youth, in this case, her life with her mother's relatives in Athenry, the most intriguing stories are those reflective of her present age and concems. With the exception of "The Face of Hate," with its contrived plot based on the troubles in Northern Ireland, and "A House to Let," with its overstated epiphany of the adolescent's acceptance of adult responsibilities, the short stories in A Family Likeness explore the problems of growing old, especially the persistent and growing doubts of the aging of their value and place in a world that now apparently belongs to the young. Indeed, the two best stories in the collection, "A Family Likeness" and "A Walk on the Cliff," concentrate specifically on the dilemma of the mother who struggles with either her feeling of being a nuisance in the raising of her daughter's child or her dread of interfering with her daughter's marriage.
With their sensitive narratives of the aging mother's fear of displacement from family and home, "A Family Likeness" and "A Walk on the Cliff" exemplify, more than the other stories in the collection, the sustaining power of Mary Lavin's vision and craft after the accomplishment of her widow stories. They also reveal, once again, a courageous artist at work, drawing from her own experiences, no matter how difficult and painful, to create remarkably insightful and intimate stories.
C. L. Innes. "Living in Separate Worlds." Irish Literary Supplement 7, No. 2 (Fall 1988): 20.
Favorably reviews The House in Clewe Street, which, Innes argues, "begins to fill a substantial gap in the subject matter of Irish fiction—the world of middle class Catholics in the towns and cities."
Patricia K. Meszaros. "Woman as Artist: The Fiction of Mary Lavin." Critique XXIV, No. 1 (Fall 1982): 39-54.
An overview of Lavin's work focusing on feminist themes in her fiction.