Mary Lavin (1912-96)


Life
b. 11 June, East Walpole, Massechusetts, USA, dg. of Tom Lavin, her mother being from a middle-class and puritanical family in Athenry, Co. Galway; brought to Ireland at 10 [vars. 9 and 11] and lived at Athenry; family moved to Dublin, 1922; ed. Loreto Convent, St. Stephen’s Green, and UCD, MA on Jane Austen in 1937; friendly in college with Michael (‘Mick’) McDonald Scott, a Jesuit novitiate who went to Australia on the proviso from his Superior that he could write to her;
 
commenced PhD on Virginia Woolf; wrote “Miss Holland” on the verso of her PhD thesis on Virginia Woolf, to be printed in Dublin Magazine, 14 (April-June 1939); two poems (“Let me Come Inland Always”, and “Poem”) which appeared in the October issue elicited Seamus O’Sullivan’s special praise and an invitation to enter them in in a poetry competition adjudicated by Austin Clarke, which she refused; much influenced in story-writing by Chekhov and Eudora Welty;
 
issued her first collection, Tales from Bective Bridge (1942), with a foreword by Dunsany who had previously written her eight letters of encouragement; m. William Walsh, a lawyer, with whom she had three daughters; wrote two novels, The House in Clew Street (1945) and Mary O’Grady (1950), the first publ. in Atlantic Monthly as “Gabriel Galloway” (Vol. 174, Nov.-Dec. 1944, & Vol. 175, Jan.-May 1945); widowed, 1954; bought Abbey Farm beside ruined Bective Abbey, a Cistercian foundation, Co. Meath, which she farmed (calling herself a ‘one-armed writer’);
 
lived on Lad Lane (Lwr. Baggot St.), Dublin; entertained Irish writers such as Brian Friel and Tom Kilroy, whom she introduced to one another; secured story-writing contract with New Yorker; published Selected Stories (1959); issued In the Middle of the Fields (1961), stories of widowhood; m. Scott, then Dean of School of Irish Studies (UCD), 1969, who had left the Jesuits, and predecessed her; suffered the death of her mother, also 1969; published by Michael Joseph up to 1956, and thereafter with Macmillan, Longman, and Constable; collected works issued as The Stories of Mary Lavin (1964, 1974, 1985);
 
won James Tait Memorial Prize, 1943; received Guggenheim Fellowships in 1959 and 1961; The Great Wave and Other Stories (1961), winner of Katherine Mansfield Prize; UCD Hon. D.Litt., 1968; ‘A Family Likeness’, her last published story, appeared in Irish University Review (1979); President of MIAL, 1972-74; visited Boston, 1979, and was scheduled to read with Elizabeth Bishop at Sanders Memorial Hall, Harvard; despite the sudden death of the latter, she read her story “Happiness” when the reading, briefly cancelled, was reinstated - various admirers of Bishop reading her poems in tribute; often frequented and wrote in Buswell's Hotel and Bewley's in Dublin;
 
offered Bective Farm to each of three daughters in turn, before selling; also sold Ladd Lane Mews house, and moved to Sandymount before final illness; elected Saoi of Aosdána, 1992; d. 25 March, Newtownpark Nursing Home, Blackrock, after period of mental decline [dementia]; Arrow in Flight (2002), a tribute to Mary Lavin at 80, was broadcast by RTÉ in May 1991 - and later served as the title of an anthology edited by her dg., Caroline Walsh (Irish Times Lit. Ed.), in 2002; there is a head by Margorie Fitzgibbon in the RDS; an obituary by Maurice Harmon appeared in The Irish Times (‘Courageous Chronicler of the Human Heart’, 26 March 1996); her dg. was Caroline Walsh, the Irish Times Literary Editor; a grand-dg. Kathleen MacMahon secured a high 6-figure advance in a debut novel in 2011. IF2 DIW DIL KUN FDA OCIL
 

[ top ]

Works
Short stories
  • Tales from Bective Bridge, foreword by Dunsany (London: Michael Joseph 1942; Boston: Little, Brown 1943; Readers’ Union/Michael Joseph 1945); Do . [rep. edn.] (Dublin: Poolbeg 1978; Town House [Gill & Macmillan] 1996), 256pp. [contents];
  • The Long Ago and Other Stories (London: Michael Joseph 1944);
  • The Becker Wives and Other Stories (London: Michael Joseph 1946), 223pp. [also The Becker Wives, pub. sep. as a short novel, 1971];
  • At Sallygap and Other Stories (London: Michael Joseph; Boston: Little Brown 1947);
  • A Single Lady and Other Stories (London: Michael Joseph 1951) [Aosdana err. 1956];
  • The Patriot Son and Other Stories (London: Michael Joseph 1956);
  • The Great Wave and Other Stories (London & NY: Macmillan 1961);
  • Collected Stories, intro. by V. S. Pritchett (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1971);
  • In the Middle of the Fields (London: Constable 1967);
  • Happiness and Other Stories (London: Constable 1969);
  • The Second Best Children in the World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1972);
  • A Memory and Other Stories (1972);
  • The Shrine and Other Stories (London: Constable 1977);
  • A Family Likeness and Other Stories (London: Constable 1985);
  • In a Café, into. Thomas Kilroy (Dublin: Town House 1995), 350pp. [includes In the Middle of the Fields’, and also a story by her dg. Elizabeth Walsh].
[ top ]
Selected & Collected Edns.
  • Selected Stories of Mary Lavin ((NY: Macmillan 1959);
  • Selected Stories of Mary Lavin (NY: Macmillan 1959), and Do. (London: Harmondsworth 1981) [contents];
  • The Stories of Mary Lavin, Vol. 1 (London: Longman 1972), Vol. 2 (London: Constable 1974), Vol. 3 (London: Constable 1985).
[ top ]
Novels
  • The House in Clewe Street (London: Michael Joseph [Book Production War Economy Standard, 460pp.]; Boston: Little, Brown 1946; Harmondsworth: Penguin 1949; Bath: Chivers 1973), and Do. [rep. edn.] with Afterword by Augustine Martin [Virago Modern Classics, No. 209] (NY: Virago Press 1987; London: Virago Press 1988);
  • Mary O’Grady (London: Michael Joseph; Boston: Little, Brown 1950), and Do. [rep. edn.] with Afterword by Augustine Martin (London: Virago Press 1987).
[ top ]
Miscellaneous
  • ‘Let Me Come Inland Always’, with another poem, in Dublin Magazine, 15 (Jan.-March 1940), pp.1-2;
  • ‘Some Curious People’, review of Brinsley MacNamara, The Valley of the Squinting Windows, in The Bell, 10 (Sept. 1945), pp.547-49;
  • “The Fields will Never Leave You” [essay], in Country Beautiful, 2, 1 (Sept. 1962), pp.18-20;
  • “A House to Let” [story], in Ploughshares (Spring 1976).
Dissertation
  • “The Construction of the Novel and Jane Austen” [MA NUI] (1936) 46pp. [held in NLI].
Reprints
  • Mary Lavin “The New Gardiner”, in The Cork Review, ‘Seán O Faoláin Special Number’, ed. Sean Dunne (1991), pp.60-62 [being the story that O’Faolain told her he liked best];
  • In the Café, selected by Elizabeth Walsh Peavoy, with a foreword by Tom Kilroy (Dublin: Town House 1994), pp.312.
[ top ]
Anthologies
  • Andrew Carpenter & Peter Fallon, eds., The Writers: A Sense of Place (Dublin: O’Brien Press 1980), incls. “A Walk on the Cliff”, a story, here pp.102-06, with photo-port.;
  • Peter Fallon & Seán Golden, eds., Soft Day: A Miscellany of Contemporary Irish Writing (Dublin: Wolfhound; Indiana: Notre Dame 1980), selects “A Voice from the Dead”;
  • Louise de Salvo, et al., eds., Territories of the Voice: Contemporary Stories by Irish Women (Boston: Beacon 1989), selects “In the Middle of the Fields’ [ pp.1-16];

See also Evelyn Conlon & Hans-Christian Oeser, eds., Cutting the Night in Two: Short Stories by Irish Women Writers (Dublin: New Island 2001).

[ top ]

Bibliographical details
Tales from Bective Bridge, pref. Lord Dunsany [Readers’ Union] (London: Michael Joseph 1945), 171pp. CONTENTS: Pref.; ‘Lilacs’; ‘The Green Grave and the Black Grave’; ‘Sarah’; ‘Brother Boniface’; ‘At Sallygap’; ‘Love is for Lovers’; ‘Say, Could that Lad Be I?’; ‘A Fable’; ‘Miss Holland’; ‘The Dead Soldier’. [See Dunsany’s Preface under criticism.]

Selected Stories of Mary Lavin (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1981), Contents: “Lilacs” [first publ. in Tales from Bective Bridge, 1942]; “The Long Ago” [first publ. in The Long Ago and Other Stories, 1944]; “The Becker Wives” [first pub. in The Becker Wives and Other Stories, 1946]; “A Single Lady” [first publ. in A Single Lady and Other Stories, 1951]; “A Likely Story” [first pub. in A Likely Story, 1957]; “The Patriot Son” [first pub. in A Patriot Son and Other Stories, 1956; rep. in Georgia Review, No. 20, Fall 1966, pp.301-17]; “The Great Wave” [first publ. in New Yorker, Vol. 35, 13 June 1959, p-p.28-37; rep. in The Great Wave and Other Stories, 1961]; “In the Middle of the Road” [first publ. in New Yorker, Vo. 37, 3 June 1961; rep. in Kilkenny Magazine, Nos. 12-13, Spring 1965, pp.90-106; rep. in In the Middle of the Fields and Other Stories, 1967]; “Happiness” [first publ. in New yorker, Vol. 44, 14 Dec. 1968; rep. in Happiness and Other Stories, 1969; reps. incl. Bodley Head Book of Irish Short Stories, 1980, and David Marcus, ed., Irish Short Stories, Sceptre 1992, pp.171-189]); “A Memory” [first publ, in A Memory and Other Stories, 1972; rep. in Ben Forkner, A New Book of Dubliners, Minerva 1989, pp.158-202]; “The Shrine”. [Supplied by Sarah Briggs.]

[ top ]

Criticism
  • Lord Dunsany, pref. to Tales from Bective Bridge (Boston 1942) [extract];
  • Frank O’Connor, The Lonely Voice (1962); Augustine Martin, ‘A Skeleton Key to the Stories of Mary Lavin’, Studies, 52 (Winter 1963) [q.pp.];
  • Robert W. Caswell, ‘Mary Lavin: Breaking a Pathway’, in Dublin Magazine (Summer 1967), pp.32-44 [extract; followed by the story “A Sigh”];
  • Frank O’Connor, A Short History of Irish Literature (NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons 1967), p.229 [extract];
  • Robert W. Caswell, ‘Irish Political Reality and Mary Lavin’s Tales From Bective Bridge ’, Éire-Ireland, 3, 1 (Spring 1968), pp.48-60;
  • P. A. Doyle, ‘Mary Lavin, a Checklist’, The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America, 63 (1969), pp.317-21;
  • Benedict Kiely, ‘Green Island, Red South: Mary Lavin and Flannery O’Connor’, in Kilkenny Magazine (Autumn/Winter 1970), and Do., rep. in A Raid into Dark Corners and Other Essays (Cork UP 1999), pp.259-74;
  • V. S. Pritchett, intro. to Lavin, Collected Stories (Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1971), pp. ix-x;
  • Joyce Carol Oates, ‘Written as if by People from Different Planets’, in New York Times Book Review (25 Nov. 1973), pp.7-[14];
  • Zack Bowen, Mary Lavin [Irish Writers Series] (Lewisburg: Bucknell UP 1975);
  • Maeve Kennedy, [interview] in The Irish Times (13 March 1976), q.p.;
  • Tom McIntyre, review of The Shrine and Other Stories, in Books Ireland (16 Sept. 1977), pp.171-72;
  • Richard F. Peterson, Mary Lavin [Twayne’s English Authors Ser. 239] (NY: Twayne 1978), 171pp.;
  • Irish University Review, 9, 2 [“Mary Lavin Special Issue”] (Autumn 1979) [extract];
  • Catherine A. Murphy, ‘The Ironic Vision of Mary Lavin’, in Mosaic, 12 (Spring 1979) [c.p.69];
  • Janet Dunleavy, ‘The Making of Mary Lavin’s “Happiness”’, in Irish University Review (Autumn 1979), pp.225-31;
  • Richard J. Thompson, ‘All Things Known: Mary Lavin’, Everlasting Voices: Aspects of the Modern Irish Short Story (NY: Whitston Publ. Co. 1989), [Chap. 5] pp.80ff. [to end].
  • Ruth Krawschak, with the assistance of Regina Mahlke, ‘Mary Lavin: A Check List 1939-1979’ [Erschienen im Selbstverlag] (Berlin: Freie Universität, Institut für Englische Philologie 1979), xxv, 79pp.
  • A. A. Kelly, Mary Lavin: Quiet Rebel (Dublin: Wolfhound Press: NY: Barnes & Noble 1980), 200pp., port.; and Do . [another edn.] (NY: Irish-American Book Co. 1998) [chaps. on Social Hierarchy, the Family and Intimate Relationships, Religious Conventions, Artistic Intentions, and The Significance of Textual Revisions];
  • Alan Warner, ‘Mary Lavin’, in A Guide to Anglo-Irish Literature (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1981), pp.216-24;
  • ‘Mary Lavin’, in D. L. Kirkpatrick, ed., Contemporary Novelists (London: St. James 1986) [q.pp.];
  • ‘Mary Lavin’ [by herself], in John Quinn, ed., A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl [RTÉ copyright 1985] (London: Methuen 1986), pp.79-91;
  • Janet Egleson Dunleavy & Janet Egleton, ‘Contemporary Irish Women Novelists’, in James Acheson, ed., British and Irish Novels Since 1960 (Basingstoke: Macmillan 1991), [q.pp.];
  • Maurice Harmon, ‘Mary Lavin: Moralist of The Heart’, in Barbara Hayley & Christopher Murray, eds., Ireland and France - A Bountiful Friendship: Essays in Honour of Patrick Rafroidi (Gerrards Cross: Smythe 1992), pp.107-123;
  • Sarah Briggs, ‘Mary Lavin: Questions of Identity’, in Irish Studies Review, 15 (Summer 1996), pp.10-15 [extract];
  • Maurice Harmon, ‘Courageous Chronicler of the Vagaries of the Heart’, in The Irish Times (26 March 1996) [obituary];
  • William Trevor [obituary], in Guardian (26 March 1996), p.13;
  • Maureen Murphy, et al., ‘A Bouquet for Mary’, in Irish Literary Supplement (Fall 1996), pp.4-5 [Murphy, and contribs. by Anne Francis Cavanaugh, Frank Phelan, Elizabeth Cullinain, and Maurice Harmon].
  • W. J., McCormack, Independent [UK] (26 March 1996), p.12.
  • Augustine Martin, ‘A Skeleton Key to the Stories of Mary Lavin’, in Bearing Witness: Essays on Anglo-Irish Literature by Augustine Martin, ed. Anthony Roche (UCD Press 1996) [q.pp.]
  • Rachael Sealy Lynch, ‘“The Fabulous Female Form”: The Deadly Erotics of the Male Gaze in Mary Lavin’s The House in Clewe Street ’, in Twentieth-century Literature, 43, 3 (1997), pp.326-38 [extract];
  • Maurice Harmon, ‘From Conversations with Mary Lavin’, in Irish University Review, 27, 2 (Autumn/Winter 1997), pp.287-92;
  • Leah Levenson, The Fours Seasons of Mary Lavin (Dublin: Marino Books 1998), 368pp.;
  • Sarah Briggs, ‘Mary Lavin and the Narrative of the Spinster’, in Irish Encounters: Poetry, Politics and Prose, ed. Alan Marshall & Neil Sammells (Bath: Sulis Press 1998) [Chap. 10; qpp.].
  • Jacqueline Fulmer, Women Folk and Indirection in Morrison, Ní Dhuibhne, Hurston and Lavin (Ashgate Press 2008).
 

See Roger Garfitt, ‘Constants in Contemporary Irish Fiction’, in Douglas Dunn, ed., Two Decades of Irish Writing (Manchester: Carcanet; Chester Springs: Dufour 1975), pp.207-42; Patrick Rafroidi & Terence Brown, eds., The Irish Short Story (Gerrards Cross: Smythe 1979); George O’Brien, ‘Irish Fiction Since 1966: Challenge, Themes, Promise’, in Plougshares (Spring 1980) [q.p.]; Heather Ingman, A History of the Irish Short Story (Cambridge UP 2009).

[ top ]

Bibliographical details
Irish University Review
, ‘Mary Lavin Special Issue’, 9, 2 (Autumn 1979), CONTENTS: Catherine A. Murphy, ‘Mary Lavin: An Interview’ [207]; Janet Egleson Dunleavy, ‘The Making of Mary Lavin’s “Happiness”’ [225]; Mary Lavin, “A Family Likeness” [story] [233]; Marianne Koenig, ‘Mary Lavin: The Novels and the Stories’ [244]; Bonnie Kime Scott, ‘Mary Lavin and the Life of the Mind’ [262]; Heinz Kosok, ‘Mary Lavin: A Bibliography’ [279-312].

[ top ]

Commentary
Lord Dunsany, Preface, Tales from Bective Bridge (Boston 1942), notes that only the first work of hers shown to him struck him as the ‘work of a master’; compares her talent with that of Ledwidge as the only other of the same order; notes the coincidence that they both wrote on the left bank of the river Boyne; compares her ‘searching eyes’ to ‘the action of X-rays’ and tells of TCD don who felt that the pockets of his personality had been turned out after a short meeting when Dunsany introduced her to him, later finding a resemblance to himself in one of her stories; ‘But read these stories for yourselves, and see if again and again you do not find sentences which, if they had been translated from the Russian, would make you say that they do indeed show us that those writers understood life.’ [Preface, p.7; and cf. letters reprinted in Carswell, 1967, as supra.]

[ top ]

Robert W. Caswell, ‘Mary Lavin: Breaking a Pathway’, Dublin Magazine (Summer 1967), pp.32-44, cites Frank O’Connor, review of ‘The Girl at the Gaol Gate’, in Review of English English Studies (April 1960) [‘She fascinates me more than any other of the Irish writers of my generation because more than any of them, her work reveals the fact that she has not said all she has to say’]; Augustine Martin, ‘The Stories of Mary Lavin’, in Studies (Winter 1963) [q.pp.] [‘reason for this critical neglect, I feel, is almost wholly an extra-literary concern. An explantion of it would belong - to borrow a distinction from Dr. Leavis - more to the history of publicity than the history of literature’], also letters of Seumas O’Sullivan, viz., ‘This [“Lilacs”] is, in my opinion, not only the best of your stories which I have, so far, read, but one of the finest studies written by any Irish author. Your skill “in the telling”, the obvious truth in the characterisation - the quiet tragedy of its ending are above criticism’; 2 June 1940); also letters of Lord Dunsany, viz., ‘I hardly like to give you advice; partly because you don’t need it, but chiefly because it might be a great loss to divert you in any way from what you are doing. Of course if there were a little more story, a little more grip upon the reader, it “The Girders”, its chance of being accepted by an editor would be increased, and I know a course of reading which if taken once a day after meals for three days would probably strengthen it and yet I would be very reluctant to suggest anything that would destroy your style or vulgarise your stories. The reading I was thinking of was O. Henry, merely with the idea of slightly developing the story in your tales ... You are of course more like the Russians. The other tale does very well and I have no suggestions to make about it, except to wish it luck. PS. I apologise for sayign you are like the Russians.’ (Caswell, op. cit., 1967, p.41). Caswell further notes that Lavin destroyed the first story [i.e., “The Girders”]); also cites John Broderick, taped broadcast, Radio Eireann, 3 July 1961, reporting her denial of any Russian influence.

[ top ]

Frank O’Connor, A Short History of Irish Literature (NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons 1967), p.229 remarks that ‘Of the principle writers of the period, [the forties and afterwards] only Mary Lavin has come out of it unmarked. Her work seems to be in a class by itself. It is deeply personal, and there are a great many doors in it marked “Private.” Only once has she written about Irish nationalism; this was in a story called “Patriot son,” and from my point of view it was once too often. Like Whitman’s wild oak in Louisiana, she has stood a little apart from the rest of us.’ (quoted in Robert W. Caswell, ‘Irish Political Reality and Mary Lavin’s Tales From Bective Bridge ’, in Éire-Ireland, 3, 1, Spring 1968, pp.49). [A Short History of Irish Literature is the American edition of The Backward Look: A Survey of Irish Literature London: Macmillan 1967].

[ top ]

David Norris, ‘Imaginative Response versus Authority: A Theme of the Anglo-Irish Short Story’, in Terence Brown & Patrick Rafroidi, eds., The Irish Short Story (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1979) : speaks of Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain’s treatment of ‘the burden of obligation placed on children by their parents’ sacrifices, so that they are expected to fulfil, not their own potentialities, but the ambitions and social aspirations of an older generation’, and continues: ‘In Mary Lavin’s world, where Mother Ireland has abandoned her harp for a huster’s shop, this facet of Irish, indeed human life, is examined in a remarkable story called “The Widow’s Son” [Stories of Mary Lavin ]. This is a tale with two endings ; but both are cul de sacs and it is clearly implied that whatever action the widow takes, and whether her son lives or dies, she has in practice lost him anyway, not through mere physical accident but through the gradual hardening of her own emotional arteries. / Perhaps more representative of Mary Lavin’s art are the two stories “Posy” and “The Will”. Either could be taken as a perfect illustration of the title of my essay. In both, a central character whose joyful accord with nature is mirrored in the imagery of freshness and organic growth, comes into conflict with the unyielding structure of conventional social attitudes, yet manages to keep the flag (in Posy’s case a bright red scarf, and in Lally’s a jaunty blue feather) defiantly flying. Most significant of all perhaps, in both stories the clouds part momentarily and the claustrophobic atmosphere of respectability and repression is illuminated by a shaft of imaginative spontaneity whose rays can reach into even the dusty corners of Daniel’s heart - “a And if he never saw the upper sunlit air, nor ever now would see it, by the thrust of her flight, he knew that somewhere the sun shone”.’ (54).

[ top ]

Evelyn Conlon, review of Leah Levenson, The Fours Seasons of Mary Lavin (Marino 1998), expresses expresses regret that so much of the biography is concerned with the lives of Lavin and her family, and quotes Lavin on the ineptitude of medicos during a hospital stay: ‘if you put yourself in their hands they are capable of doing pregancy tests at 71.’

[ top ]

Sarah Briggs, ‘Mary Lavin: Questions of Identity’, Irish Studies Review, No. 15 (Summer 1996), pp.10-15: Briggs underscores the fact that she was born American and completely assimilated to Irish writing, both in the ‘lilt’ of her Hiberno-English and in her interrogative attitude to the small communities she obsessively studied. ‘It was one of her achievements that she constantly interrogates the very nature of what it means to be Irish, particularly an Irish woman, and it is, perhaps, from the duality of her own background that the question of nationality ... is raised’ (p.13); ‘Lavin is stressing cultural divisions within Eire, a lack of understanding based on language difficulties and a failure to communicate. In concentrating upon these internal divisions this story [‘Bridal Sheets’] questions the roots of what “Irishness” means’. Bibl., notices dearth of studies, citing Ruth Krawschak, ‘Mary Lavin: A Check List 1939-1979 (Berlin: Erschienen im Selbstverlag 1979), Irish University Review ‘Special Issue’ (Autumn 1979), &c. [all incorp. in Criticism, supra].

Ann Owens Weekes, Irish Women Writers: An Uncharted Tradition (Kentucky UP 1990), cites Frank O’Connor writing that Irish men reading Lavin are lost when the revolution ‘practically disappears’ to be replaced by ‘sensual richness’ quite foreign to him (O’Connor, ‘The Girl at the Gaol Gate’, in The Lonely Voice, A Study of the Short Story, Cleveland 1963, 202, 204); quotes Lavin: ‘women are out of their boxes everywhere’ [30] but ‘individual conscience must always have priority over group belief.’ (pp.30-31.)

Maurice Harmon, ‘Mary Lavin: Moralist of the Heart’, in Barbara Hayley & Christopher Murray, eds., Ireland and France - A Bountiful Friendship: Essays in Honour of Patrick Rafroidi (Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe 1992), 107-123pp.: compares “The Will”,[a story] about the moral superiority and happiness of the sister who marries for love, though becoming slightly disgracefully a landlady in the city, with “A Happy Death”, concerning the moral disintegration of a man and woman who are unable to live according to the ‘realities of their situation’ (p.109.) ‘The story moves by a process of gradual revelation of the hidden areas of Mrs Latimer’s psyche. it [sic] is a form of unconscious confession by which the reader has increased access to her character. The style is attuned to her sensibility [...] (p.111.) ‘The narrator’s clarity of mind and of memory, her scrupulous honesty, together with her sense of hope and her openness to love and to nature are signs of her worth. By her narrative manner we know her. (p.121.) When Mary Lavin tells us that she has too much to say to be a novelist, she is being neither frivolous nor boastful. Quite clearly she has important things to tell us about ourselves and does so with sophistication, warmth and intelligence.’ [123; END.] Note: this essay previously appeared in Gaeliana [q. date]; the bibl. cites Lavin’s Stories (1964, 1974, but not 1985).

[ top ]

Maurice Harmon, [contrib.], in Maureen Murphy, et al., ‘A Bouquet for Mary’, in Irish Literary Supplement (Fall 1996), pp.4-5: ‘Mary Lavin’s honesty shines through everything she wrote. She had to cope with indecision in her own makeup. She was mentally alert, impetuous, endlessly questioning, and this make it hard to be decisive. Through writing she coped, turning her own complicated sensibility into portrayals of complex, shifting psychological and mental states, dramas of the mind, in which the narrative method, the, syntax the organization, register the intricacies of human nature. She called them “vagaries and contraries” of the human heart.” She spoke of the need for “careful watching” and “absolute sincerity” in,how we manage our lives and loves. / At the high point of her career she wrote about widows who refuse to be passive in the face of death, who keep their memories of love, and go forth to encourage experience with openness and with the wisdom of the years. In her final stories she tells what it is like to be old. The generations overlap, grandmothers, mothers, daughters, a new generation of small children. A lesser writer might have shirked the reality of these relationships, their stresses and stains. But Mary Lavin was not a lesser writer. She as always courageous and clear-eyed. Once again she wrote about the vagaries of the human heart, about tensions and failings in the old and young, about the impulse towards love, understanding and tolerance and the feelings and urges that sometimes undermine them. / She is a wonderful writer not for brilliance of technique or formal experimentation, but for the precision, honesty and complexity with which she describes the way we are. Her passing diminishes us, but it also leaves a legacy that enriches us.’ (p.5; for full text, see RICORSO Library, “Criticism > Reviews”, via index or direct.)

[ top ]

Rachael Sealy Lynch, ‘“The Fabulous Female Form”: The Deadly Erotics of the Male Gaze in Mary Lavin’s The House in Clewe Street ’, in Twentieth-century Literature, 43, 3 (1997), writes, ‘Recent critical attention to Mary Lavin’s The House in Clewe Street has tended to focus on the novel’s treatment of traditional provincial Irish values, the passing down or rejection of these values in the course of a story spanning three generations and as many social classes, and the losing battle waged by Gabriel, the chief male protagonist, as he struggles and largely fails to extricate himself from the “mind-forged manacles” of his upbringing. Yet much of this criticism has, surprisingly, failed to recognise this novel for what it is - a relentlessly scathing social commentary.’ Notes that sundry critics ‘all concur that The House in Clewe Street, despite its sympathy for doomed characters like Onny Soraghan, is not a text in which Irish middle-class morality is seriously questioned’, and continues: ‘[e]ven in the least complacent, most sympathetic readings of this disturbing and underanalysed novel [...] the grim details and implications of the narrative, and the parallel development of the servant Onny Soraghan and Gabriel Galloway, the bourgeois heir apparent, remain largely unexplored.’ (p.326.)

Cont. (Rachael Sealy Lynch, 1997): ‘What Lavin is detailng here is the early twentieth-century provincial bourgeous version ofa centuries-old Irish tradtion that has inscribed the female in rigid ways, reflecting cultural and religious views on women. Women in Irish culture were and are typically constructed as mothers, love objects, temptresses, servants, nuns, or symbolic embodiments of Ireland. [...] the rigid social codes inscribed in the novel offer a feminist commentary on the ways in which women in Ireland culture are routtinely and, Lavin seems to be suggesting, inescapably trapped by these codes.’ (p.329.) Lynch concludes: ‘The key to this distasteful and ironic novel is an awareness that it is written with, and indeed derives its force from, an insider’s understanding of Gabriel’s limited perspective, but that this “effort of understanding” is neither sympathy nor concurrence. The House in Clewe Street has been harmed by easy critical assumptions [...]’. (p.336.) Bibl. incls. [inter al.] Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Writing a Woman’s Life (NY: Northon 1988); Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The metaethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon 1990); Eavan Boland, Object Lessons [ ... &c. ] (Carcanet 1995), et al.

[ top ]

The literature of grief’, in The Guardian (2 Oct. 2014): ‘When I came to Dublin as a student in 1972, the writer Mary Lavin was a familiar presence in the city. I watched her as she moved with a sort of stateliness between the desks in the National Library on her way to the main desk, or as she sat in a small cafe known as the Country Shop, or as she drank coffee in Bewley’s in Grafton Street. She was usually alone. She wore black. Her hair was parted in the middle and pulled untidily into a bun at the back. Her gaze was kind and sad and oddly distracted, but it had a funny strength to it as well. She had spent her life describing others, and finding strategies to create versions of herself; it was not easy to categorise her or ever be sure about her just from looking. / I have no clear memory of how I knew that she had been left a widow with children at a young age, but I certainly knew it before I came to the city. I was interested in the word “widow” and I would have paid real attention to a writer, or anyone at all indeed, who was a widow, since my mother was one. It may have been when we studied a story by Lavin in school called “The Widow’s Son”. /I had read a good deal of her work by the time I saw her. Some of her stories meant nothing to me. The scenes of upper middle-class life in County Meath, north of Dublin, were too rarefied. But the ones that dealt with the life of a widow were almost too close to the space between how we lived then in our house and what was unmentionable - the business of silence around grief, the life of a woman alone, the palpable absence of a man, a husband, a father, our father, my father, the idea of conversation as a way of concealing loss rather than revealing anything, least of all feeling - for me not to have read her with full recognition. The recognition was so clear, in fact, that I do not remember recognising anything. I was reading with too much rawness. [...]’ (See full-text version - as attached.)

[ top ]

References
Helena Sheehan, Irish Television Drama: A Society and Its Stories (RTE 1987), lists TV film, The Cuckoo Spit, dir. Deirdre Friel (1974).

Seamus Deane, gen. ed., The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing (Derry: Field Day CO. 1991), Vol. 2, selects from A Single Lady (1951), “A Visit to the Cemetery” [1198-201];from In the Middle of the Fields, “In the Middle of the Fields” [1201-08; 1024-45; 1222, WORKS [as supra], Life & Criticism [both as supra].

Janet Egleson Dunleavy, ‘Contemporary Irish Women Novelists’, in British and Irish Novels, ed. James Acheson (1991) [q.pp.], cites novels, The House in Clewe Street (1945); Mary O’Grady (1950); novellas, ‘The Becker Wives’ (first publ. in The Becker Wives and Other Stories, 1946; separately as novel, The Becker Wives, 1971); ‘a Happy Death’, in The Becker Wives and Other Stories (1946); ‘A Memory’ and ‘Villa Violetta’, in A Memory and Other Stories (1972); ‘A Bevy of Aunts’, in Family Likeness (London: Constable 1985).

[ top ]

Southen Illinois University holds a collection of Mary Lavin Papers, consisting of 20 short stories in MSS incl. “The Pastor of Six Mile Bush” and “A Gentle Soul” (composed earlier than 1951) a draft of “Catharsis” from 1953 along with others written between 1958-1964, all published in The Great Wave and Other Stories (1961) and In the Middle of the Fields (1969) - lacking only five from the former and only “The Mock Auction” from the latter; also fragments and notes of essays on the short story and some letters exchanged with the editors of magazines. There are multiple versions of most of the stories in the collection, many in Lavin’s hand, including fifteen to twenty drafts each of a number of stories and more than thirty drafts of “A Lucky Pair”, “The Cuckoo Spit” and “One Summer”. The collection documents Lavin’s lengthy composing process, showing how carefully each story is reworked before it is ready for publication. The more than forty drafts of “One Summer,” for example, range from August 1962 to October 1965. Additional holdings include eight letters to and from Denys Val Baker, The New Yorker and Lord Dunsany dating from 1963 to 1977 and holograph fragments of “The Cuckoo Spit” and Mary O’Grady. Also held here is an xerox copy her thesis “The Construction of the Novel and Jane Austen” (NUI 1936). [See online.]

Belfast Public Library holds The House in Clew Street (1945) and six other titles.

[ top ]

Quotations
Selected Stories ( 1959), Introduction: ‘[The short story form] imposed a selectivity that I might not otherwise have been strong enough to impose upon my often feverish, over-fertile imagination [...] I even wished that I could break up the tow long novels I have published into the few short stories they ought to have been in the first place. For in spite of these two novels and in spite of the fact that I may write other novels, I feel that it is in the short story that a writer distils the essence of his thought’. (Quoted in Patrick Rafroidi, ‘A Question of Inheritance: The Anglo-Irish Tradition’, in Rafroidi & Maurice Harmon, eds., The Irish Novel in Our Time, Université de Lille 1975-76, p.27.)

[ top ]

Notes
Maurice Harmon, ‘Courageous Chronicler of the Vagaries of the Heart’, an obituary in the Irish Times (26 March 1996), departs from a title-phrase which was habitual with her in describing her own art.

Kith & Kin: Mary Lavin’s daughter Caroline Walsh was appointed Literary Editor of the Irish Times in succession to John Banville, and is married to James Ryan, novelist.

More arrows: in reviewing David Marcus, ed., The Faber Book of Best New Irish Short Stories (2007), Liam Harte writes: ‘Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s pungent satire “A Literary Lunch” [...] skewers the snobberies and grievances of literary Dublin, and then fashions a hilarious ending from the creative-writing axiom that “a short story is an arrow in flight towards its target”.’ (The Irish Times, 14 April 2007, Weekend Review.)

[ top ]