I am very much a latecomer to the Irish short-story writer and journalist, Maeve Brennan, having just read The Springs of Affection, a brilliant collection of her Dublin stories from the early 1950s to the early ‘70s. Virtually all of these twenty-one stories were first published by The New Yorker magazine where Brennan worked as a columnist and reviewer.
While I enjoy reading short stories, I often find them difficult to discuss, particularly if there are no apparent connections or common themes across the individual pieces. However, in this case, the situation is somewhat different as almost all of these stories are linked by virtue of their setting, a modest terraced house in the Ranelagh suburb of Dublin – a house featuring the same walled garden with a laburnum tree, the same three steps down to the kitchen, and the same linoleum on the bedroom floor. Moreover, the stories have been collated by theme rather than order of publication, an approach which adds depth to the reader’s understanding of the characters as they move from one story to the next.
The collection opens with a series of seven short autobiographical pieces which offer brief glimpses of Brennan’s childhood, a broadly happy time in spite of the political turbulence of the early 1920s. (In one of these stories, The Day We Got Our Own Back, a group of men carrying revolvers come to the house in search of Maeve’s father, a known Republican who has gone into hiding in revolt against the Irish Free State.)
Other pieces in this section paint a picture of a normal family life, complete with the usual tensions between siblings and others. In The Old Man of the Sea, Maeve’s mother feels sorry for an old man who comes to the door with an enormous basket of apples, so she buys two dozen, just to be charitable. But then the man returns the same time the following week with another two dozen apples for Mrs Brennan, all bagged up and ready to be handed over in exchange for payment. As the weeks go by, it becomes increasingly difficult for Mrs B. to refuse the apples until things come to a head in the most embarrassing of manners. This is a lovely story laced with warmth and humour.
The second series of stories feature Rose and Hubert Derdon, a middle-aged couple whose marriage is characterised by an intense emotional distance, a situation which appears to have developed over several years. The opening piece – A Young Girl Can Spoil Her Chances – captures the state of this couple’s relationship in a nutshell as they try to score points off one other in the pettiest of ways.
Some of the Derdon stories look back to happier times, the couple’s courtship and the early years of their marriage when they were young and relatively carefree, enjoying walks together in St Stephens Green park. Sadly, this sense of freedom and gaiety was relatively short-lived, and the cracks in their marriage soon started to appear.
In time, we learn that the Derdons have one grown-up son, John, who – much to Rose’s dismay – has left home to join the priesthood. She feels his absence very deeply. In her heart of hearts, Rose realises that she has lost her beloved John forever, but this doesn’t stop her from fantasising about his return every now and again, convincing herself that she will see him walking down their road at any moment.
But of course he wasn’t coming, and he wouldn’t be coming, and the excitement inside her would flatten out and stupefy her with its weight, and her disappointment and humiliation at being made a fool of would be as cruel as though what she had felt had really been hope and not what it was, the delirium of loss. (p.154)
Shut out of the marriage by Rose’s devotion to John, Hubert broods on what he considers to be his wife’s failings: her shyness and lack of confidence in social situations; her indecisiveness and ambivalence in various domestic matters; and her secrecy and concealment of certain things for no apparent reason.
He never could understand her—her secrecy, her furtiveness, her way of stopping what she was doing and running to do something else the minute he came into the room, as though what she was doing was forbidden to her. She was afraid of him, and she never made any attempt to control the fear, no matter what he said to her. All he ever said to her was that she ought to try to take things easy, try to take life easier—things like that, that would reassure her. But she was afraid of him, and that was the whole of the difficulty, and that is what defeated him at every turn, and that is why he gradually, or finally—he could not have told how it happened—gave up any attempt to get on any kind of terms with her. (p. 77)
When viewed together, these stories form a devastating picture of two desperately unhappy individuals locked in a kind of stasis, unable or incapable of reaching out to one another and accepting their respective flaws. While nothing ever comes to a confrontational head, there is a real sense of bitterness and resentment between husband and wife, the simmering tensions proving particularly destructive as they are rarely aired or spoken about directly.
The final set of stories feature another couple with difficulties in their marriage, Martin and Delia Bagot. The Bagots are younger than the Derdons, and they have two daughters – Lily aged nine, and Margaret, aged seven. As with the Derdons, there are hints that the Bagots were happy in the early days of their marriage, enjoying jokes together just like any other couple. But now Martin sleeps on his own in the back bedroom, an arrangement initially prompted by his unsociable working hours but now maintained through his own preference. What emerges is a picture of a man who longs to get away from his immediate family whom he considers to be a burden.
As the Bagot stories progress, we learn that there was another child in the family before the arrival of the two girls – a boy who died when he was just three days old. Naturally, Delia was distraught at the time, leaving Martin unable to reach out to her or comfort her in any way. This is the source of the fault line in their marriage, an unspoken rift that has been allowed to fester over the years.
She knew things were not as they should be between them, but while the children were at home she did not want to say anything for fear of a row that might frighten the children, and now that the children were away she found she was afraid to speak for fear of disturbing a silence that might, if broken, reveal any number of things that she did not want to see and that she was sure he did not want to see. Or perhaps he saw them and kept silent out of charity, or out of despair, or out of a hope that they would vanish if no one paid any attention to them. (pp. 247-248)
While this all might sound very bleak, there is a little more hope for the Bagots than the Deardons. Their relationship is punctuated by occasional moments of brightness, and happily it lacks the intense bitterness and anger of the Deardons’ marriage. A visit from an elderly Bishop and old family friend puts Delia back in touch with herself in a manner that boosts her sense of peace and harmony, although we never see if this enables her to reconnect with Martin in any meaningful way. There are glimpses of jet-black humour too, especially towards the end of the collection.
The final story, The Springs of Affection, is probably worth the cover price alone, focusing as it does on Martin’s spiteful twin sister, Min, who kept house for him in Dublin following Delia’s sudden death (we are now several years down the line). From the opening passages, it is clear that Min resented Delia from the outset, for stealing Martin away from her and the rest of the Bagot family. Now that Martin is also dead, the elderly Min has returned to her flat in Wexford where she can wallow in a satisfaction fuelled by jealousy and bitterness, surrounded as she is by the couple’s furniture and former possessions.
What sets this collection apart from many others I’ve read recently is the strong sense of disconnection/emotional turbulence conveyed through the stories, the layers of insight and meaning which gradually reveal themselves with each additional piece. Brennan’s prose is simple and straightforward yet beautifully precise – her descriptions of various aspects of the terraced house in Ranelagh are both clean and graceful.
This is a terrific collection of stories with much to recommend it, particularly for lovers of perceptive character-driven fiction in an understated style.
My copy of The Springs of Affection was published by Counterpoint.
I’ve been meaning to seek out Maeve Brennnan’s short stories for quite some time now but somehow haven’t got around to it. This was just the nudge I needed, Jacqui. ‘Understated’ is right up my alley.Thanks!
Cool. I think you’ll like her stories, Susan. There’s a real depth of emotion and insight in these stories, but they never feel too heavy-handed or overwrought. Subtlety and nuance are the watchwords of the day here.
Lovely review, Jacqui. I also struggle with short stories, for a range of reasons, though the best are as rich as any novel. This sounds like an excellent collection and, despite your reservations, you’ve represented it beautifully.
Thanks, Belinda. Short stories are never terribly easy to write about without descending into platitudes, so I’m glad you feel I’ve been able to convey a sense of the collection here! I think it helps that the majority of the individual stories (certainly those in the Bagots and Derdons sections) have a cumulative effect, each one adding another layer or element to our understanding of the relationships at play. So, in that sense, they do feel quite novelistic in style.
Great review, Jacqui! I loved this book so much. And I agree with you: there is a strong sense of disconnection throughout these stories. Her writing is so beautiful, so melancholy.
Ah, lovely to hear that you’re a fan of these stories too – that’s great. I completely agree with you about the writing. On the surface, it seems quite simple and beautifully precise, and yet the emotions Brennan manages to capture run so deep. All these individuals desperately isolated in their marriages…melancholic indeed.
It can be difficult to write about short story collections. I tend to just focus on single stories and write about them.
These sound very good. Based upon your commentary, It seems liken there is a pattern in that the stories take place during difficult times for the characters when past times were happier. Such situations often make for very good but sad stories.
Yes, that’s it exactly, Brian. As each series of stories unfolds, we get a sense of the early stages of these relationships, of times of hope and happiness. Naturally, this is accompanied by various insights into the causes of fault lines, the things that have led to the terrible sense of dislocation that characterises these couples’ current situations. It’s all rather sad but beautifully done.
I am very much a latecomer to the Irish short-story writer and journalist, Maeve Brennan
I feel your pain! Brennan’s been on my horizon for decades now and I’ve still never quite managed to pick up one of her books. The eloquence of your review persuades me I should get my Brennan act together . . .
Better late than never, as they say! Her New Yorker pieces sound excellent too, wry observations on the nature of New York life. I think they’ve been collected together in another of her books, The Long-Winded Lady. Fascinating reading, no doubt!
I would have read her ages ago but the book I ordered once never arrived, A the same time I also ordered a biography as I’ve heard her life was just as tragic as her stories and it helped to know more. The biography did arrive but I never got around to it.
The stories do sound very good but bleak. I agree with you, it’s not so easy to review short story collections. I only read a couple this year but didn’t review any.
Oh, no! That’s a shame about the missing book. Still, you have her biography to look forward to. There’s a little section about her life in the introduction to this collection – just a few pages but insightful nonetheless, particularly regarding her working relationship with William Maxwell. I get the sense that she was razor-sharp, funny and a little bit tragic too.
Now I remember how I discovered her and that I need to read Maxwell again. He is one of the most astonishing discoveries I made thanks to blogging.
I haven’t read nearly enough of him, only ‘So Long, See You Tomorrow’ which I liked a lot. He was Brennan’s editor at The New Yorker, I think. It must have been a fascinating time to be there.
Lovely review, as always Jacqui. I’m another who’s been aware of Brennan on the horizon and never got to her works. I do wish there were more reading hours in the day…
Ah, yes. Too many books, too little time – the eternal problem…
Not a writer that was on my radar but I like the sound of ‘very bleak’ and ‘jet-black humour’ – just my thing! Makes me wonder what her ‘Christmas Eve’ stories contain!
Indeed – plenty of scope for bleakness and jet-black humour there. From what I know of those stories, at least one of them features the Bagot family…
So glad you enjoyed this Jacqui. I love Maeve Brennan and can recommend The Rose Garden. I’ve yet to read this one but am looking forward to it.
Thanks, Cathy. I loved these stories, full of the failings and frailty of human nature. It’s a shame they aren’t better known. I’m sure you’ll enjoy them too.
Reblogged this on DSM Publications and commented:
Check out this post featuring the book The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan from Jacqui Wine’s blog.
Thanks for sharing my post Don Massenzio, much appreciated.
This isn’t a writer I had heard of before. But these stories sound right up my street. I love stories that are linked in someway. Great review.
She’s been on my radar for a while – partly on account of her association with The New Yorker – but this is the first chance I’ve had to read some of her work. It’s such a good collection, building in terms of insight into the characters with every story. I seem to have been on a run of bleak but beautifully written fiction lately, so it’s high time I read something cosy and witty!
A very interesting long article and review of Maeve Brennan’s life and work by Joanne O’Leary in the September edition of the London Review of Books. You can see it online. I won’t put a link because they often don’t work, but it’s available if you want to read it. She was something of a fatal woman.
Oh, thank you! I’ll have a look for that at the weekend. How timely…
This sounds so good, Jacqui! I do happen to have this collection of short stories, so another one to bump up the TBR pile. I had read her novella The Visitor some years ago and remember being very impressed. It prompted me to subsequently purchase The Springs of Affection.
Oh, that’s great. Definitely something to look forward to there, although you might need to have something cheerful lined up as a follow-on read just for a change of tone! I’m glad to hear that you liked The Visitor – it does sound very good.
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I’ve never read Maeve Brennan and you’ve shown what an oversight this is. I love the rhythm in the quotes you’ve pulled – just stunning.
That’s such a great point about the rhythm of her prose – it’s so beautiful, almost as though it’s been created to be read aloud! I think you’d like Ms Brennan, madame bibi. Cathy (over at 746Books) has been championing her for a while, so I’m glad I finally got around to pulling this from the shelves.
I hadn’t heard of this author, so now I’m off to take a look.
I think I first came across her through her connection with The New Yorker as she worked there (alongside William Maxwell) for a number of years. There are a couple of articles about her in the links below. She’s well worth exploring as her insights into the small cruelties of human nature are spot on. (Thanks to the Gerts for spotting the recent LRB piece.)
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I’ve just read her biography by Angela Bourke and it is fascinating to see how much her early life in Ireland influenced these stories. Such a wonderful writer. Lovely review Jacqui.
Oh, I’ll be very interested to hear more about that. The autobiographical pieces at the beginning of this collection are beautifully observed – very moving too, in a quiet, gentle way.
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Excellent review! I also find short story collections to be difficult to access, but this sounds like it’s been well edited. A character-driven, understated style happens to be my favorite form of short fiction, so I’ll be sure to keep this in mind for later in the month.
Thank you. Yes, I think it holds together very well as a collection with the setting of the terraced house in Ranelagh acting as a kind of unifying thread. The extended focus on the Derdons and the Bagots also gives it a real sense of depth, so you end up feeling you know these couples quite intimately by the end of the book.
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Lovely review. I’m a masters student , studying english literature, and this semester the teacher focused on Irish short fiction written by women, and I’ve decided to write my final essay on the short stories on this book, more specifically about the couple Rose and Hubert Derdon. At first, probably because I had a lot on my mind ( and maybe because english isn’t my native language) I was not paying attention to the stories at all, as I was just reading them a bit because I had to. The moment I let the obligation feeling go away, I felt really in love with them. I’m still writing my essay and I came across your blog, and everything you wrote it’s exactly what I feel about the book itself. This is so rich in so many ways, in every daily situations such as avoiding each other contact, in wordless rows they have, the claustrophobia one can feel that it gets more intense across the stories, culminating at the end with Rose’s death and the lack of grief… it’s just brilliant
Thank you so much for your lovely comment. I’m glad you found something in my review that resonated with your own feelings about these stories. The Derden stories in particular are remarkably powerful – the silences between them, the things that are felt very deeply but left unsaid, the ways they frustrate one another (sometimes deliberately). There’s a real sense of intensity there. Wishing you all the very best with your studies – what a fine topic you’ve chosen for your final essay!
Thank you for your words. I’m glad to have encounter your blog, it’s getting rarer these days to find people who are into reading good literature :) The best regards from Portugal
That’s very kind of you to say. Thank you!
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