Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Mary Lavin's Reputation

Mary Lavin

A slightly edited version of the following article appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 25 August 2013:

The pellucid perfection of James Joyce's Dubliners has set the gold standard for Irish short story writers.  The genre has been mined productively for the past hundred years by such major writers as Frank O'Connor, Seán Ó Faoláin, Elizabeth Bowen, William Trevor and John McGahern.  Recent years have seen Kevin Barry unearth the twisted and violent denizens of his netherworlds.

Is Mary Lavin a major writer?  Time has not been kind to her reputation and I doubt that this book of essays, edited by Belgian academic Elke D'hoker, is going to restore it - notwithstanding some fine contributions and an introduction (albeit a slight one) by Colm Tóibín.  The causes of her slide from favour are various.  Her small domestic dramas were perhaps washed away by the feminist tide.  Frank O'Connor's suggestion that she wrote about "the life of the kitchen" can't have helped.  She was largely apolitical, arriving in Ireland after the nationalist ferment had died down, so she ceded that ground to O'Connor and Ó Faoláin.  She had a good solid middle-class upbringing so she was denied access to working-class colour.  Her world was narrow and circumscribed.  She described the petty concerns of small-town Ireland: the lives of quiet desperation where appearance and respectability were more important than freedom.  From a post-feminist perspective she hardly rocked the boat - maybe her jaundiced view of the emotional development of the average Irish male was too subtle for the sisters.  Also, the central role of the priest in her world now seems quaint.  Some of her stories have not aged well - the language often seems strained and the conclusions contrived.  Character and colour were the focus rather than plot and language.  In A Wet Day, for example, the character of the smug priest is well wrought but the plot device of the mislaid thermometer is improbable.

The most impressive essay in the collection is a review of her oeuvre by Maurice Harmon, an English professor at UCD.  He quotes Seán Ó Faoláin's sobering conclusion that writers as great as Chekov and de Maupassant will be remembered for a mere handful of their stories.  The same, he avers, is true of Mary Lavin and suggests that the stories of hers that endure include: The Will, Happiness and The Becker Wives.  Lavin herself considered The Will to be her best story.  Some may find the heroine's hysteria a little unconvincing but then the torments of Purgatory don't seem as alarming to us today.

Lavin's own story is an interesting one.  Born in the USA in 1912 to Irish parents, and transplanted to rural Ireland when she was ten, Lavin retained an outsider's beady eye for the foibles of the middle-classes in our small towns.  She enjoyed a conventional education in Loreto College and afterwards at UCD.   After a spell teaching she married William Walsh.  He died in 1954 a mere eleven years after their marriage and left the writer with three young daughters and a farm in County Meath.  She was so overwhelmed with grief that she was unable to write for the next four years.  After 15 years of widowhood, and stories about widows, she married her childhood sweetheart Michael Scott, a laicised priest.  The next 20 years or so were the happiest and most productive of her life.  Her mews in Lad Lane became a haven for writers as disparate as the lionised Frank O'Connor and the young, unpublished John McGahern.  She was a familiar figure around Baggot Street, stocky and serene, always dressed in flowing black.  After Scott died suddenly in 1991 she went into a steep decline and died in 1996.

Although she had a modest reputation at the time her first husband died, the real change in her fortunes came when she began to have stories accepted by the New Yorker in 1958.  This happened through an intervention by an unlikely source.  She had been writing to J. D. Salinger about the American market and he encouraged her to submit stories to them, just as Frank O'Connor and Maeve Brennan had done.  In addition Salinger, a made man at this stage, wrote to William Maxwell the fiction editor suggesting Lavin as a contributor.  This resulted in 16 of her stories being published by them over the next 18 years.  The essay by Gráinne Hurley on her relationship with the New Yorker gives a fascinating account of the degree of intrusion that they practised and she permitted.  That she had to abide by its rigorous house style is not unexpected.  That she allowed wholesale excisions (15 pages in one case) is surprising.  But that she actually removed or changed characters at her editor's behest is a tad disturbing - turning some of her stories into virtual collaborations.  I suppose a young family trumped artistic preciousness.

She used her own family and circumstances as source material right through her career.  Happiness is a prime example.  In it a widowed woman with three daughters enjoys a close relationship with a priest, who visits regularly and even stays overnight occasionally.  The family are not in awe of him and treat him like any regular man.  In a racy touch, unusual for Lavin, the widow even moves around the house in her slip in front of him.  Lavin famously was never banned, unlike almost every one of her worthwhile contemporaries.  This deviation from her usual decorum may have been as close as she ever got.

Mary Lavin's centenary year in 2012 passed with barely a ripple.  There were a few low-key events in Navan Library.  The death of her daughter, the journalist Caroline Walsh, may have cast a pall over any planned celebrations. Her Selected Stories is out of print. This is a shame.  It would have been a good time for an enterprising publisher to produce a new selected stories and so help to revive interest in this neglected chronicler of small-town Ireland.

Irish Academic Press
222 pages