Neither national nor international events find their way into Neither national nor international events find their way into Mary Lavin’s (10 June 1912 – 25 March 1996) fiction, which is crammed with incidents from the lives of Dublin shopkeepers, country people, island fishermen and their families, nuns, priests, her parents, her children, and her husbands. Lavin’s characters, much more important than the plots, which are rather mundane, are usually autobiographical. They represent the author and her acquaintances at various stages in her lifetime: childhood, student life, marriage, motherhood, and widowhood.
Whereas James Joyce was haunted by a father-son conflict, Lavin was plagued by a mother-daughter conflict, resulting in what might be called an Electra complex. It partially accounts for the frequent revelations of unhappy marriages between mismatched couples, although the differences were a source of attraction before the birth of children or the assumption of responsibilities. More often than not, the wife characters are domineering, unhappy, practical slaves to social mores. Some other women characters—nuns, spinsters, sisters, and widows—are vain, flighty, insecure, and emotionally labile. Husband characters, in contrast, no matter how beaten they are by their wives and circumstances, have a certain poetic vision, while the priests, bachelors, brothers, and widowers appear robust, in command of life and their emotions.
“Miss Holland,” Lavin’s first short story, published in Dublin Magazine and reprinted in Tales from Bective Bridge, is the story of a typical spinster. Agnes Holland, lonely and ill prepared to face life, traveled for years with her father, who made all the decisions. At his death, Agnes must adjust to the world without anyone to help her. The story, set in England, begins with Agnes searching for a place to live; she finally decides to live at the guest house of Mrs. Lewis because of a playful cat.
Also living there are two men and three women with whom Agnes has nothing in common. She is not a conversationalist and cannot join in the spirited exchanges held during dining hours. Since the other boarders are younger, age is a further obstacle. Agnes feels trapped by her surroundings; there is nothing from the past that she can recollect which will bridge the gap between her and the boorish boarders. Agnes thinks she must try to enter this strange world and wants to discover something to share with the group, needing to be part of her environment.
The black cat affords the opportunity. Agnes sees him jumping in the sun after running through the flower bed where he plucked one red carnation; the image is like that of a Spanish dancer, and she can hardly wait to tell the group. At dinner she and a male guest begin to speak simultaneously, so Agnes waits to let him tell his story. To her horror, she learns that he has shot the cat. Amused, the other guests begin to laugh. Agnes is silent, withdrawing from the boisterous group; no longer can she associate with such people. Having no place else to go because she must live on the small amount of money left to her by her father, she determines to live on past memories of more genteel days. All the ugly characteristics of the uncultured men and women rush to her mind, separating her from them. Loneliness will become a fixed part of life, borne with dignity. Agnes’s emotional drama is the conflict of the story. Forever opposed to vulgarity, Agnes realizes she can no longer use her imagination to disguise poor taste and must protest “because my people before me went that way.”
Annie Ryan in “At Sallygap” and Ella in “A Happy Death” are typical examples of the wife characters who pressure their husbands. Childless, Annie is a real terror. Artistic Manny Ryan, a fiddler who years earlier was heading to Paris with a band, jumped ship for Annie. He thought she was loving, fragile, and in need of him. Their marriage, however, symbolizes the paralysis and stagnation of Irish urban life. After years of labor, they have nothing more tangible than a tiny Dublin shop where they work and live. Manny knows that “All the Dublin people were good for was talking.” Annie was no exception. Her tongue lashes out at Manny usually because he is not aggressive enough in commercial dealings. Annie dominates him while wishing he would be the dominant spouse. Manny’s gentility, unfortunately, serves as a red flag for Annie’s temper.
By ordering him to go to Sallygap to set up a trade in fresh eggs, Annie gives him a brief escape from his hateful marriage. A lover of nature, Manny draws strength from the rural scenes. On missing the last bus, he walks home, free “at last from the sordidness of the life he led.” While Manny feels elated, however, Annie, accustomed to her husband’s regularity, goes through a variety of emotions awaiting his return. First, she plans to taunt him. Then, thinking he is out drinking to get the courage to fight back, she relishes that prospect and prepares herself for a grand battle. Next, fear overcomes her: Perhaps Manny is dead. No, he would be brought home alive with a “latent mutinous instinct” activated, which she hopes will enliven their relationship. On hearing his footsteps, however, Annie realizes nothing has changed. Manny is sober and servile, “imprisoned forever in her hatred.”
A Happy Death
In “A Happy Death,” Ella, with three daughters to rear, has to control her emotions in dealing with her dying husband Robert. To supplement their income, Ella rents rooms in their home, using some of the money to buy clothes for Robert so he can get a better job at the library. Outraged when he is demoted from clerk to porter because of his coughing, she demands that he quit, but he refuses and works as a porter. Ella cannot comprehend Robert’s need to work and bring her his wages, so she convinces herself that he works to spite her and lower the family’s social class. The emotional charges between Ella and Robert build up until his death and explode in Ella afterward.
Through a series of flashbacks, a device Lavin uses in most of her stories, the reader learns of Ella’s happy courtship with Robert, her admiration of his white skin and his interest in poetry, and their elopement against her parents’ wishes. Their happiness is fleeting. After they are married, she burns his poetry books, sees his white skin as a sign of weakness, and understands why her shopkeeping parents opposed her marriage to unemployed Robert. When Robert is hospitalized, with a flush of excitement Ella insists on keeping up appearances. He must have the best ambulance, a private ward, a new nightshirt, and oranges which he cannot eat.
The daughters are embarrassed by their mother’s vain fussing over Robert; it is unnatural to send out for grapes, apples, and newspapers when they know he can neither eat not read. Ella, however, wants everyone to know Robert is a person of importance, with people who care for him. More fruit, biscuits, and sweets are brought to him, making it difficult for the nurses to find space for the thermometer.
Eventually, Ella realizes that the unconscious Robert is dying and prays for his happy death; meanwhile, her prayers and behavior at the bedside are a continued source of distress to her daughters. Thrusting a crucifix in Robert’s face, Ella tries to get him to say an act of contrition; he does not. Then he regains his senses long enough to call out for Ella with the lovely golden hair. Misunderstanding her request for him to repeat “I am heartily sorry,” Robert thinks she is sorry for having offended him and says, “There’s nothing to be sorry about. You always made me happy, just by being near me.” Robert’s delirious mind recollects their youth and plans for “just the two of them,” ignoring the daughters, and a look of “rapturous happiness” returns to his face before he dies. Bewildered, Ella refuses comfort from the priest, nurse, and her daughters. Screaming and sobbing, she is led from the ward, disbelieving God’s refusal to answer her prayers for Robert’s happy death. Ironically, she does not know that her prayers have been answered.
Say Could That Lad Be I
The young boy in “Say Could That Lad Be I,” an early story in the first collection, Tales from Bective Bridge, and Tom in “Tom” from the collection The Shrine, and Other Stories, are portraits of Lavin’s father. The farm boy, mischievous and carefree, has a dog, White Prince, the greatest fighter in the countryside. On a visit to his grandmother, the boy takes along White Prince. It is a great mistake to lock him in the cottage when he goes on an errand for his grandmother, since the dog jumps through a closed window and follows his master to the village. After a disturbance in a shop, White Prince flies through its window, causing even greater destruction. Pretending that it is not his dog, the boy walks back to his grandmother. On the road, White Prince, dragging a leg of mutton in his mouth, joins his master. There is not much the lad can do but wash the mutton, present it to his grandmother, and head home before the townspeople pounce on him.
In “Tom,” Lavin opens the story by saying, “My father’s hair was black as the Devil’s, and he flew into black, black rages.” Everything about him was black except for “the gold spikes of love with which he pierced me to the heart when I was a child.” The author leaves little doubt about the affection she held for her father. In this story she recounts with pride his exploits at school, his walks under a sky filled with birds, his travels to Dublin, Liverpool, Scotland, and America, plus his return to Ireland.
Lavin’s portrait of her mother is quite different. She states with disinterest that her mother had numerous memories filling her head, but they could all be reduced to her mother at the piano with her singing sisters and their beaux about her. Her courtship with Tom was more ardent on his part than hers. Yet she, at thirty years old, realized she had snared a desirable fifty-year-old bachelor even though she disliked him at first because of his coarseness, ignorance, and arrogance. Lavin surmises her mother would have preferred her Protestant suitor, Mr. Barrett, a land agent on a large estate. Because of the age difference, Nora lived twenty-four years after Tom’s death; Lavin agrees it was an unfair relationship. Her father had her “mother’s beauty when he could proudly display it but she did not have his support when she needed it most.”
Mary, in contrast, had Tom’s support when she needed it. While at the university, he took her to Roscommon, revisiting his boyhood haunts and sharing his memories. Ignoring the material changes, he points out the unchanging mounds, stone walls, and streams running over mossy stones. Although he recognizes old friends, very aged and worn, they do not recognize him. A childhood friend, Rose Magarry, on seeing him says he is Tom’s son, “Sure, you’re the dead spit of him!” Silently, they leave without correcting the woman.
Tom does not follow the same rules that Nora does, and Mary accepts his lifestyle without complaint. If he was ever a burden to her, it does not appear in Lavin’s fiction. Incidentally, the old mother in “Senility” from the same collection is an exquisite portrait of a widowed woman who lives with her daughter. The emotional tension between them is acute, and neither mother nor daughter will release it. The son-in-law acts as a referee in a continuing war of nerves.
When not writing about her family, Lavin presents other people’s problems. Always busy with her own difficulties as the correspondence with Lord and Lady Dunsany reveals, she records some fresh insights about psychotic behavior in a tightly structured society. In writing about insanity, she is more comprehensive in Mary O’Grady, her second novel, with a description of Patrick’s withdrawal from his family and its effect on the members, but the short stories also document the exploits of schizophrenic people, giving the impression that such people are an integral part of Irish society.
Eterna, the nun in “Eterna,” is an excellent example of a woman who cannot face life. A young doctor called to treat the novice Eterna finds her arrogant, despite an outward appearance of humility. He discovers that her infected arm was caused by turpentine soaking through the bandage over a cut which she received by falling off a ladder. Eterna, he learns, is an artist. As the eldest of ten from a poor family, she was educated by the nuns because of her talent and joined the order to continue her work; she could not remain with her impoverished family, and the doctor learns that in time she would not remain with the order.
Years after his calls at the convent in a provincial town, he sees Eterna again at the national Gallery in Dublin. She has a crazed look, wears outlandish clothes, and fixes her daft gaze on him. It brings back his memories of her former life and his brief, questioning visits with her. He flees from the gallery and rushes to his car to await his wife. She, who also knew Eterna, is nonchalant about his encounter with the artist, saying, “If she’d gone a bit cracked, what about it . . . she was probably headed that way from the start.” She then tells her husband that people have to clip their wings in order to keep their feet on the ground.
The many widows in Lavin’s fiction have their feet on the ground, representing their author after the death of her first husband. Mary and Maudie from “In a Café,” Brede from “Bridal Sheets,” the unnamed widow from “In the Middle of the Fields,” and Vera Traska from “The Cuckoo-Spit,” “Happiness,” “Trastevere,” and “Villa Violella” trace Lavin’s battle against loneliness and her eventual adjustment to another self and remarriage.
Vera in “Happiness” is a central widow character. Her story is told in the first person by her eldest daughter, an unusual technique for Lavin, who generally uses the omniscient third-person point of view. Kate, the eldest daughter in “The Will,” the novice in “My Vocation,” the neighbor-narrator in “The Small Bequest,” the niece-narrator in “A Wet Day,” the daughter in “The Mouse,” and the husband in “My Molly” are other exceptions to the omniscient viewpoint.
The daughter in “Happiness” describes Vera’s thoughts about happiness and how it must not be confused with pleasure or perceived as the opposite of sorrow. The narrator then introduces her younger sisters, Bea and Linda (the latter was only a year old at the time of their father’s death), Father Hugh (Michael Scott), a family friend filling the place of the lost father, and Grandmother, whom “God Almighty couldn’t make happy.” This is a portrait of Lavin’s family. Episodes from Lavin’s life with husband Robert (William Walsh) and grandfather Tom reveal happy moments. The black period immediately after Robert’s death is an unhappy period when the narrator and Bea guard against their mother’s suicide. Their trips to Europe are in vain because Vera cannot forget her husband, but since the children learn geography and history, the trips are not completely a waste. In rearing her daughter after returning home, Vera rejects advice from relatives, friends, and strangers, who want her to accept life as a vale of tears.
By accepting life’s chaos, symbolized by her disordered study, Vera painfully pursues life. Father Hugh is there to help, but at times she has him “as distracted as herself.” Writing, working for her family, and gardening consume much energy, and it is not surprising that Vera eventually collapses while working in her garden. Father Hugh carries her into the house, where she dies four hours later, recalling the day Robert died. It is necessary for Vera to die and natural that she would remember Robert’s last day. A finality to that relationship opens new doors for Mary Lavin, through which she and Father Michael Scott can pass. “Happiness,” more autobiographical than fictive, is the story of an insecure, emotionally fragile woman dealt some cruel blows.
In a Café
The final book Mary Lavin saw through publication was In a Café, which included reprints of such stories as “In the Middle of the Fields” and “In a Café”; revised versions of such stories as “The Convert” and “The Will”; and one story, “The Girders,” which had never been published before. According to Elizabeth Lavin, one of her three daughters, who was responsible for selecting the stories, Lavin had been revising a number of stories for a collected edition of her short fiction; this shorter selection was published when she broke her hip and had to halt the revision process. The new story in the collection was found by Lavin’s daughter quite by accident. According to those who knew her, Lavin was quite sensitive about the stories she sent under contract to The New Yorker which were rejected. She reportedly had a big heap of such stories under a bed. Her daughter has said that she is sure she will discover many more unpublished Lavin stories, which will probably see print in the near future.
It is not known whether “The Girders” is a New Yorker reject or a story Lavin had not gotten around to submitting for publication. However, it is a typical Lavin story, straightforward and unadorned—an example of whatWilliam Trevor has referred to as her ability to be subtle “without making a palaver about it.” The story reflects a typical Irish conflict between nostalgia for the country and pride in progress and work in the city. The central character is a man who works on large construction sites in Dublin as part of the economic boom in Ireland in the last decade of the twentieth century. Life in the city for the man seems crazed and giddy, but he knows that outside was a world “still as sane and sweet as ever.” Thus, he longs to make enough money to return to the country.
When the man has an accident that cripples his feet and necessitates his return to his mother’s house in the country, he is not so sure that this is what he wants. The story ends with him looking out the hospital window at the construction girders and thinking he will never see them again. Instead, he would be looking at the trees and fields for the rest of his life. As he thinks of them, the fields seem a monotonous green and the trees clumsy and stupidly twisted. Now the girders of the great buildings do not look so cruel at all, and “the cranes looked as frail as the silk wings of a dragonfly that wouldn’t harm a thing.”
Children’s literature: A Likely Story, 1957; The Second-Best Children in the World, 1972.
Novels: The House in Clewe Street, 1945; Mary O’Grady, 1950, 1986.
Caswell, Robert W. “Political Reality and Mary Lavin’s Tales from Bective Bridge.” Eire- Ireland 3 (Spring, 1968): 48-60.
Hawthorne, Mark D. “Words That Do Not Speak Themselves: Mary Lavin’s ‘Happiness.’” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Fall, 1994): 683-688.
Kelly, A. A. Mary Lavin: A Study. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1980.
Lynch, Rachel Sealy. “‘The Fabulous Female Form’: The Deadly Erotics of the Male Gaze in Mary Lavin’s The House on Crewe Street.” Twentieth Century Literature 43 (Fall, 1997): 326-338.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
Murray, Thomas J. “Mary Lavin’s World: Lovers and Strangers.” Eire-Ireland 7 (Summer, 1973): 122-131.
Neary, Michael. “Flora’s Answer to the Irish Question: A Study of Mary Lavin’s ‘The Becker Wives.’” Twentieth Century Literature 42 (Winter, 1996): 516-525.
Peterson, Richard F. Mary Lavin. Boston: Twayne, 1980.
Shumaker, Jeanette Roberts. “Sacrificial Women in Short Stories by Mary Lavin and Edna O’Brien.” Studies in Short Fiction 32 (Spring, 1995): 185-197.
Vertreace, Martha. “The Goddess Resurrected in Mary Lavin’s Short Fiction.” In The Anna Book: Searching for Anna in Literary History, edited by Mickey Perlman. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992.