Mary Lavin’s novel Gabriel Galloway was serialized in The Atlantic Monthly in 1944 and was later published as a book under another title, The House in Clewe Street (1945). The House in Clewe Street and the novel Mary O’Grady (1950, 1986) are a loosely connected series of episodes in family life, structured to dramatize the lives of family members over several generations. Without an overall unity, the novels lack direction and force; there are, however, numerous examples within the novels of the social mores and restrictive attitudes more artfully handled in the short stories. Lavin’s fine children’s stories, A Likely Story (1957) and The Second-Best Children in the World (1972), capture the imaginative life of children.
As a major Irish writer, Mary Lavin is a realist in the tradition of Frank O’Connor and Seán O’Faoláin. The resemblance to those important Irish writers, however, stops there. Her characters are usually solidly middle class, and they tend to be shopkeepers and clerks, a population that is, perhaps, less “submerged” than that of O’Connor’s fiction. For Lavin, social class is a determining factor in a character’s behavior and fate. She stresses the limitations imposed by a character’s social role. In addition, she does not use humor as a major fictional device. Instead of humor, there is often an ironic twist to the plot. Lavin’s plots also tend to avoid the simple solution provided by techniques such as reversal and recognition. Instead, she closely examines the problems that her characters encounter. If there is a resolution, it is by no means a simple one.
Lavin is the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1944, the Katherine Mansfield-Menton Prize in 1962, the Ella Lynam Cabot Fellowship in 1971, the Gregory Medal in 1974, and the American Irish Foundation Award in 1979. Lavin was president of the Irish Academy of Letters from 1971 to 1973, and she received the American Irish Foundation award in 1979.
Lavin was honored at the Kells Heritage Festival in County Meath in 1993, when a Irish television documentary about her life and work, An Arrow in Flight, was screened. Also in 1993, Aosdana, the Irish body that honors writers, musicians, and visual artists, granted her its highest distinction by electing her to the rank of Saoi, “in recognition of creative work which has made an outstanding contribution to the arts in Ireland.” The Irish President at the time, Mary Robison, praised Lavin’s ability to “catch the tones of the Irish family and the tensions therein.”
Bowen, Zack. Mary Lavin. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1975. A concise introduction in the Irish Writers series to Lavin’s life and work. Bowen touches on the social background of the fiction and a few themes. Nearly half the book is a discussion of Lavin’s novels The House in Clewe Street and Mary O’Grady.
Caswell, Robert W. “Political Reality and Mary Lavin’s Tales from Bective Bridge.” Eire-Ireland 3 (Spring, 1968): 48-60. Caswell argues that Lavin’s stories lack the “political reality” found in the works of Frank O’Connor and Seán O’Faoláin. He also states that she does not show nationalism as a driving force of her characters. Yet Caswell still feels that Lavin captures a distinctly Irish identity.
Deane, Séamus. “Mary Lavin.” In The Irish Short Story, edited by Patrick Rafroidi. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1979. A general introduction to Lavin’s short stories, focusing on her central theme of the nature of love. Argues that the power of the stories is related to the social and psychological habits of social suppression and secrecy in Irish life. Discusses her classical style and her communal ethic, commenting on several of her major stories.
Gottwald, Maria. “Narrative Strategies.” In Irish Literature, edited by Birgit Bramsback and Martin Croghan. Uppsala: Sweden, 1988. Discusses the relationship of narrative techniques to character, theme, and value system in Lavin’s stories. Argues that Lavin’s most common...
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