A couple of years ago I read The Springs of Affection, a beautifully affecting collection of stories by the Irish writer and journalist Maeve Brennan. What struck me most about those stories was the strong sense of emotional dislocation they conveyed, particularly though their focus on lonely, unhappy individuals, often trapped in loveless marriages. The characters seemed caught in a form of stasis, unable to reach out to one another while unspoken bitterness and resentment festered away and remained unchecked.
There is a similar air of bitterness and resentment in The Visitor, a novella that was published posthumously in 2000 following its discovery in publishing archives that had been acquired by the University of Notre Dame in the 1980s. It is not known when Brennan first started work on The Visitor, but she is thought to have finished it in the mid-1940s. As such, it is one of her earliest works of fiction, all the more astonishing considering its power and precision – it’s remarkably accomplished for such an early piece.
As the novella opens, twenty-two-year-old Anastasia King is returning to her childhood home in Dublin, a house owned by her paternal grandmother, Mrs King. When Anastasia was sixteen, her mother and father split up, the mother fleeing to Paris and subsequently sending for Anastasia to join her there. As a consequence, Anastasia has been living in Paris for six years. Now both of Anastasia’s parents are dead, leaving the girl with no remaining family other than Mrs King – hence Anastasia’s belief that she will be able to live with her grandmother (and the latter’s elderly housekeeper, Katherine) going forward.
Mrs King, however, has a different view of the situation. She still blames Anastasia’s mother for the break-up of her son’s marriage, thereby bringing shame and disgrace on her son and the King family as a whole. Anastasia is also guilty of desertion in her grandmother’s eyes, having followed her mother to Paris to take up residence away from her father. As such, Mrs King is cold and remote in her receipt of Anastasia in the family home, making it clear that she considers the visit a temporary one, not a permanent arrangement.
Mrs K is a brilliant creation – cold, direct, monstrous and self-centred. She shows precious little warmth or compassion towards Anastasia who is recently bereaved. What I find particularly interesting about this elderly lady is how she views Anastasia both as an adult and as a child, choosing whichever of these states suits her best on each particular occasion.
For instance, Mrs King condemns Anastasia for having followed her mother to Paris, thereby deserting her father – Mrs King’s precious son – in the process. As far as Mrs King sees it, Anastasia was an adult at sixteen, someone who knew full well what she was doing in choosing to live with her mother.
Mrs King said in her gentle voice, “You know, Anastasia, you made a serious choice when you decided to stay with your mother in Paris. You were sixteen then, not a child. You knew what she had done. You were aware of the effect it was having on your father.” (p. 16)
And yet, Mrs King repeatedly refers to Anastasia as a child during their blunt conversations following the young woman’s return – “Now, child, get along to your bed. It’s very late. You’ll be dead tired in the morning.”— thereby emphasising her own dominance in the relationship. This vacillation between the positioning of her granddaughter as an adult or a child, depending on whichever of these suits her best at the time, is just one way in which Mrs King seeks to belittle Anastasia, closing off any expectations of comfort or affection.
As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that Mrs King played a major part in her daughter-in-law’s defection. When Anastasia’s parents were living together with Mrs King, there was an air of tension in the Dublin house; Anastasia’s mother felt belittled by her mother-in-law’s spiteful actions, a form of passive-aggressive behaviour or ‘campaign of cruelty’ as Clare Boylan neatly terms it in her introduction to the novella.
As in The Springs of Affection, Brennan excels in conveying the sense of isolation or separateness that can arise between family members occupying the same dwelling. Rather than living together and sharing a sense of connectedness, Anastasia and Mrs King remain emotionally distanced from one another in the unwelcoming, lifeless house.
The Christmas season passed. The days came and went, bringing nothing. There was a listlessness about the house but had seemed absent in the days before Christmas. The grandmother sat daily by the fire and Anastasia seldom joined her. With the growing of the year their separate lives seemed to dwindle away in shyness, and the house enclosed them aloofly, like a strange house that had not known them when they were happier. (p. 44)
The concepts of ‘home’ and ‘belonging’ are important themes in Brennan’s fiction, and the associations these notions spark can be painful and complex.
Home is a place in the mind. When it is empty, it frets. It is fretful with memory, faces and places and times gone by. Beloved images rise up in disobedience and make a mirror for emptiness. […] It is a silly creature that tries to get a smile from even the most familiar and loving shadow. Comical and hopeless, the long gaze back is always turned inward. (p. 8)
The novella’s mood is enhanced by Brennan’s use of imagery and sounds to heighten the unsettling atmosphere, the ghostly silence in the grandmother’s house, broken only by the crackling of the fire or the scrape of a knife across a slice of toast. There is some wonderful descriptive writing here, imagery to send a shiver down the spine.
The trees around Noon Square grew larger, as daylight faded. Darkness stole out of the thickening trees and slurred the thin iron railings around the houses, and spread quickly across the front gardens, making the grass go black and taking the colour from the flowers. The darkness of night fell on the green park in the middle of the square, and rose fast to envelop the tall patient houses all around. The street lamps drew flats circles of light around them and settled down for the night. (p. 13)
As the novella builds towards its unnerving conclusion, we begin to see another side to Anastasia’s personality, one that reveals a degree of selfishness or ambivalence towards the wishes of others. I’ll leave to to discover this for yourself, should you decide to read the book (which I hope you do). Suffice it to say that this plotline involves an old friend of Mrs King’s – an elderly spinster named Miss Kilbride, who appeals to Anastasia for help with an act of compassion. Miss Kilbride has also suffered at the hands of an embittered and jealous family member – in this instance her mother – which adds a resonance with the novella’s main storyline.
The Visitor is achingly sad yet beautifully written, the kind of story that highlights just how destructive family relationships can be when grievances and feelings of selfishness are allowed to putrefy and fester. Heaven Ali has also written about this book; and as ever, her insightful post is well worth reading. Hopefully my piece will expand the conversation around this lesser-known gem and introduce others to Maeve Brennan, a writer who deserves to be so much better-known.
My copy of The Visitor was published by New Island Books; personal copy.
A tragic life. An excellent article in the guardian about Maeve Brennan by Anne Enright.
Oh, excellent! I shall look forward to reading that. Enright is always so very perceptive on other writers… Many thanks for the link.
I have a copy of this waiting on my shelves to be read thanks to a review I read some time ago which I think must be Ali’s.
Yes, Ali reviewed it a couple of months’ ago. I hope you enjoy it, Susan. I think you’ll like Brennan’s style as it’s very clean and beautifully crafted.
Maeve Brennan is someone I haven’t read at all and this sounds wonderful, however painful, thank you.
Very welcome! And the beauty is that it would make a great introduction to her work. It’s quite brief, so you could easily read it in a couple of hours.
You have interested me with the magic word ‘novella’! I actually remember your previous review and Brennan does sound like a writer I should try.
That’s good to hear, Grant – and very well remembered, too! Brennan definitely seems to suit the short form as this is quite compact, even by novella standards – almost an extended short story, in fact.
This does sound like a gem, Jacqui – those quotes are excellent and your wonderful review reminds me I’ve meant to try Brennan’s writing for some time now. I suspect this novella might be the best place to start!
I think she’s amazing – and yes, this would be the perfect entry point. Brennan brilliance right from the very start.
So glad you enjoyed this one. It is a perfectly rendered little piece, no word wasted. Brennan is so subtle, fully exploring her characters motivations, building a back story and creating a brilliant dynamic all within about 100 pages.
Yes, I thought it was tremendous, and it’s interesting to see some of the resonances with her later stories (e.g. those in The Springs of Affection collection). The characterisation is quite nuanced, don’t you think? Far from being black-and-white…
An author I’ve had on the radar for far too long, must pick up one of her works. The quotes are so striking and the description of how other facets of Anastasia’s character are slowly revealed sounds particularly interesting.
Yes, the two central characters are very interesting, and Brennan does a great job of letting us see different facets of their personalities as the narrative unravels. You’d like her as a writer, I think. She’s very poised, if that makes sense.
I actually read this last spring, in the midst of the pandemic when I couldn’t focus on longer works. I was astonished at how very good it was, for all the reasons you set out so well. Didn’t Brennan have a rather tragic life (mental illness, poverty in her old age) or am I confusing her with someone else? At any event, I wasn’t aware of her short story collection, which I shall eagerly check out!
Yes, I think you’re right about her having a very troubled life as there’s a bit about it in The Guardian piece Gert mentioned above. (Well worth a read, by the way.) Angela Bourke’s biography of Brennan sounds excellent, so I may well check it out at some point, once I’ve read some more of her work!
I will definitely check out Gert’s link. I associate Brennan with The New Yorker (think she wrote for it for many years). There weren’t, I don’t think, any novels, just shorter pieces (could be wrong); such a pity, given the quality of The Visitor. Which reminds me to track down the collection you mentioned in your review!
Yes, I think you’re right. Apart from this novella, it’s all short stories and non-fiction pieces. I have a collection of her New Yorker columns, which looks terrific. And yes, do track down a copy of The Springs of Affection if you can. All the stories are set in the same house — Brennan’s childhood home in Dublin — which gives some of the pieces an autobiographical feel.
That sounds incredibly atmospheric and a great read.
Yes, very immersive for such a slim book.
Gorgeous review Jacqui – I’m so glad you enjoyed this one, I think it’s wonderful. I’d highly recommend Angela Bourke’s biography of Brennan, it’s very insightful.
Thanks, Cathy. Yes, I’ve seen some positive reports of that biography. Very glad to hear you’d recommend it too!
I’ve not read this author at all but you’ve definitely made me want to remedy this! This sounds such a rich and well-observed novella.
I genuinely think you’d love this. Rich and well-observed is spot on as there’s quite a lot of depth to the emotions, especially for such a slim book.
You can stop trying now. You’ve already convinced me to read her from start ’til stop.
Ha! Jolly good. She is so worth it. :)
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“The Long-Winded Lady,” Brennan’s collection of nonfiction portraits of city life for The NYer, is full is small gems.
… my comment above should say, “… is full of small gems.” When, oh, when will I learn to proofread before posting?
No worries. I do this all the time! Many thanks for the recommendation. I have a copy of The Long-Winded Lady on the shelf and am looking forward to it immensely. The short form seems to suit Brennan very well, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction pieces.
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