Tag Archives: Ireland

The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan

I am very much a latecomer to the Irish short-story writer and journalist, Maeve Brennan, only having 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 another.

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 minute.

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 lacks the intense bitterness and anger of the Deardons’ marriage, and it is punctuated by occasional moments of brightness too. 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.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore

First published in 1955, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is a novel by the Northern Irish writer, Brian Moore. It’s a book I’ve been saving for quite a while, thinking that it might be my kind of read. Turns out I was right, as it’s definitely one of the best novels I’ve read in recent months, if not this year. It also features a rather marvellous boarding-house setting, an element that generally ticks all the right boxes for me.

The story itself is achingly sad, a tragic tale of grief, delusion and eternal loneliness set amidst the shabby surroundings of a down-at-heel boarding house in a poor area of Belfast in the 1950s. Its focus is Judith Hearne, a plain, unmarried woman in her early forties who finds herself shuttling from one dismal bedsit to another in an effort to find a suitable place to live.

Having devoted most of her adult life to caring for her selfish, somewhat senile aunt (now deceased), Judith is struggling to make ends meet between her dwindling income as a piano/needlecraft teacher and a pitiful annuity from Aunt D’Arcy’s estate. With a limited education and lack of a husband to support her, Judith is not cut out for the working world of the 1950s in which opportunities for women are slowly starting to open up. To make matters works, poor Judith has very few friends – only the O’Neill family whom she visits every Sunday afternoon, an occasion that proves to be the highlight of her week, prompting her to save up various stories to share with the family over tea (more about these excruciating teatimes later).

As the novel opens, Judith has just moved into her new lodgings, an establishment run by the rather nosy Mrs Rice who dotes on her lazy, good-for-nothing slob of a son, Bernard, an aspiring but frankly hopeless poet. Also in residence at the house are Mrs Rice’s brother, James Madden, recently returned from America under uncertain circumstances, two somewhat idiosyncratic fellow boarders, Miss Friel and Mr Linehan, and the young maid, Mary.

In her desperation and naivety, Judith is rather captivated by James Madden with his tales of America and the hotel business in Times Square. Nevertheless, she knows Mr Madden is likely to find her a dull proposition, especially when they are left alone to make small talk over breakfast – as Judith sees it, he is bound to make his excuses, just like all the other men before him.

The dining-room with its cold morning light, its heavy furniture, its dirty teacups and plates, became quiet as a church. Alone with this lonely stranger, she waited for his fumbled excuses, his departure. For now that the others had gone, it would be as it had always been. He would see her shyness, her stiffness. And it would frighten him, he would remember that he was alone with her. He would listen politely to whatever inanity she would manage to get out and then he would see the hysteria in her eyes, the hateful hot flush in her cheeks. And he would go as all men had gone before him. (p. 26)

But, much to everyone’s surprise, James Madden appears to show some interest in Judith, inviting her to the pictures and the occasional outing or two – and before she knows it, Judith is fantasising about a future life with Madden, back at his fancy hotel in New York. As a consequence of her loneliness, Judith is living in something of a dream world, periodically hoping that fate will offer her one last chance at romance and a life of happiness.

Mr and Mrs James Madden, of New York, sailed from Southampton yesterday in the Queen Mary. Mr Madden is a prominent New York hotelier and his bride is the former Judith Hearne, only daughter of the late Mr and Mrs Charles B. Hearne, of Ballymena. The honeymoon? Niagara Falls, isn’t that the place Americans go? Or perhaps Paris, before we sail. (p. 29)

Little does Judith know that Madden was actually a doorman at the hotel in New York, not a manager or proprietor as she has assumed from his carefully judged comments. To complicate matters further, Madden is also under a misconception about Judith, imagining her to be wealthy and knowledgeable from the jewellery she wears and her interest in America and the broader world in general.

He smiled at her. Friendly she is. And educated. Those rings and that gold wrist watch. They’re real. A pity she looks like that. (p. 35)

(Interestingly, Moore offers us direct access to other characters’ thoughts at various points in the narrative, a technique that adds considerably to our understanding of their impressions and motives alongside Judith’s.)

In light of this belief, Madden is hoping to ‘play’ Judith by persuading her to invest in his new business venture: a plan to open a US-style hamburger joint in the middle of Dublin to tap into the tourist business. However, while Judith has very little money of her own, she does harbour a terrible secret – a private passion which she tries, somewhat unsuccessfully, to keep under wraps.

When Judith’s dreams of a future with James Madden start to unravel, the true nature of her troubled inner life is revealed. The humiliation that follows is swift, unambiguous and utterly devastating, leading to significant tensions and gossip in the house. As a consequence, Judith seeks solace in the Catholic Church, her one guiding light during the many years of darkness. But when the priest on duty fails to grasp the true gravity of her concerns, Judith’s faith in God begins to fracture, adding considerably to her sense of desperation. It’s a testament to Moore’s skill and insight as a writer that one can really sense the overwhelming nature of Judith’s anxiety when her religious conviction is put to the test.

With her belief system in tatters, Judith turns instead to the people she has always considered to be her true friends, the O’Neills. In reality, however, the O’Neills dread Judith’s Sunday afternoon visits, making fun of her behind her back and arguing over whose turn it is to do their duty that week. In her heart of hearts, Judith knows that she is thought of as a rather fussy and silly old woman, especially by the younger members of the O’Neill family, Una, Shaun and Kevin; nevertheless, in spite of this, she still believes the O’Neills are kindly people, even if they understand little of the realities of her life. Moore injects these ‘teatime’ passages with considerable humour, but it is a painfully dark kind of humour due to the tragedy and narrowness of Judith’s world.

‘Another sherry?’

‘Well, really, I shouldn’t. But it’s so good.’

She drank a second glass quickly and young Una lifted the decanter. ‘Let me fill your glass up, Miss Hearne.’

‘No, thank you, I couldn’t really. Two is my absolute limit.’

There! She’d done it again, saying something she always said. She saw the small cruel smile on Una’s face – like the day I came into the room and she and Shaun were saying over and over, imitating me. ‘Your mother will bear me out on that, won’t you?’ Over and over, and it’s what I always say – well, I won’t say two is my absolute limit ever again. Anyway, a child like her, what does she know about life? Or life’s problems? (p. 77)

As the novel reaches its shattering conclusion, Judith’s mind begins to spiral out of control as she loses her grip on reality. Without wishing to give too much away, there is a certain inevitability about the story which comes full circle towards the end. We see Judith adopting an air of resignation in her new home, another room in which she carefully places the two symbols that follow her everywhere: the silver-framed photograph of her aunt and the coloured oleograph of the Sacred Heart. As readers, we can only imagine what the future may hold for her.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is an outstanding novel (probably one of my top three for the year), but it’s also a devastating read. The characterisation is truly excellent, from the nuanced portrait of Judith, complete with all her flaws and complexities, to the immoralities of James Madden and Bernard Rice. (In a novel not short of damaged and dishonourable characters, James and Bernard definitely stand out.) It’s also beautifully written, a heartbreaking paean to the loneliness of a life without love. Very highly recommended indeed.

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne is published by NYRB Classics; personal copy

The Boarding-House by William Trevor

I have written before about my love of the great British boarding house as a setting for fiction – more specifically, novels like The Slaves of Solitude by Patrick Hamilton, Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross, and The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. There is something about this type of environment that really appeals to me. Maybe it’s the seediness of these places or the strange mix of people we often encounter there – whatever it is, I never seem to tire of reading about these establishments. All of which brings me to the very aptly named The Boarding-House, an absolute gem of an early novel by the Irish writer, William Trevor – a very worthy addition to my list.

Set in a South London suburb in 1964, the novel is an ensemble piece, focusing on the lives and concerns of the residents of Mr Bird’s boarding house, the sort of traditional establishment that is fast going out of fashion due to the rise in bedsits and flat-shares. At first, Mr Bird’s tenants appear to be a disparate bunch, each person possessing their own individual characteristics and personality traits. However, it soon becomes clear that they are all solitary figures, mostly flawed or inadequate in some way, at risk of being seen as misfits or outcasts from the realms of ‘normal’ society.

There is Major Eele, an old-school eccentric with a penchant for strip clubs; Mr Obd, a lonely Nigerian man who longs to deepen his relationship with an English girl he first met some twelve years earlier (sadly, she will have nothing to do with him any more); Mr Scribbin, a railway enthusiast who spends his nights listening to gramophone records of steam trains; and Mr Venables, a nervous office worker who has been the subject of petty bullying for most of his life. Then there are the female residents, Miss Clerricot, a somewhat plain secretary who is puzzled by the fact that her married boss seems to be taking a particular interest in her, and Rose Cave, a gentle, middle-aged woman who remains haunted by the memory of her dead mother. There are a couple of other notable residents too, Nurse Clock and Mr Studdy – more about those two a little later on.

All of these characters are drawn by Trevor with great precision and clarity, and in such a way that clearly elicits the reader’s sympathy. The pen portraits of Miss Clerricot and Rose Cave are particularly touching. There is a sense of tragedy surrounding the lives of both of these women, a feeling of missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential as time passes them by.

At first, Miss Clerricot is buoyed by the attention of her boss, Mr Sellwood, who takes her to lunch and then on a business trip to Leeds. However, her illusions are shattered when she realises that her companion is merely looking for someone who will listen to him, a captive audience for his interminably dull discourses on the banking and insurance industries. Not that Miss Clerricot wants to have an affair with Mr Sellwood, but it would be nice to feel wanted and desired in some way, at least for once in her life.

Rose Cave’s backstory is sadder still. Having been born out of wedlock, she never knew anything of her father apart from the fact that he had been hired by her grandparents to hang some wallpaper in their house. There was a closeness between Rose and her mother in those early years; the scandal over the affair and the snobbery it created in the family drew them together, cementing their reliance on one another until death intervened.

Rose Cave lived a selfless life until her forty-first year, until the day her mother died. And then, when she moved closer in to London, closer to the work she did, she found it hard to feel that she was not alone. She joined clubs and societies to give herself something to do, but one night when she glanced around it seemed to her that she was just a little older than the other people present, and it seemed that the fact was noticeable. (p.48)

Also residing at the boarding house are the kitchen staff, the pragmatic Mrs Slape and her young helper Gallelty – the latter a very recent addition to the household, having been scooped up by Mr Bird in the most unlikely of circumstances.

It’s not long before we get the sense that Mr Bird has deliberately ‘collected’ these various unfortunates over the years, seeking them out for his own pleasure – not as acts of kindness but for some sort of perverse mischief, the nature of which becomes a little clearer as the story moves forward.

He in his time had sought these people out, selecting them and rejecting others. He sought them, he said, that they in each other might catch some telling reflection of themselves, and that he might see that happen and make what he wished of it. (p. 16)

Even though Mr Bird dies right at the beginning of the novel, his presence is felt throughout by way of extracts from his ‘Notes on Residents’ and accompanying flashbacks from the past. Plus, there is the sense that his spirit remains in the house following his death, exerting its influence over the various events which subsequently play out.

In a move seemingly designed to put the cat among the pigeons following his death, Mr Bird has bequeathed the boarding house to the two most diametrically opposed residents – namely, the rather brusque and interfering Nurse Clock and the feckless petty criminal and blackmailer, Mr Studdy.

Constantly on the lookout for any moneymaking opportunities, Studdy – a rather amiable chancer – uses the residents’ collection for Mr Bird’s funeral to acquire a couple of cut-price wreaths, pocketing the spare cash in the process. A nice little earner when added to the eight pounds eight he hopes to save in unpaid rent – money previously owed to Mr Bird that he now plans to keep for himself (well, as long as Nurse Clock doesn’t get wind of it).

Nurse Clock and he did not hit it off. He wondered if she knew about the eight pounds eight. It was not impossible, he imagined, that Mr Bird had released that information on his death-bed. She had looked at him oddly when he had displayed the wreaths, when he said that he had added an extra sixpence of his own. She had pitched up her head, snorting like a horse, blowing through her nostrils. You could not trust, thought Studdy, a woman who looked like that and who spoke so sharply. Whenever he saw her in her big blue skirt he wanted to stick a pin in her. He fingered the point of his lapel and felt the pin there, the pin her carried for that purpose: to stick, one day, into one or other of Nurse Clock’s knees. (pp. 14-15)

The other residents and kitchen staff fear Mr Bird’s death will signal the end of the boarding house. However, the conditions included in Bird’s will and testament provide them with a certain degree of reassurance. Nurse Clock and Studdy are to inherit the establishment provided it remains in its current form with no changes to the residents or staff – well, until someone dies or leaves the boarding house of their own accord. There is much fun to be had in observing the dynamics between the domineering Nurse Clock and the rather sly Mr Studdy as they vie for position in the house, their conversations with one another are a real treat.

In time, however, Nurse Clock realises that Mr Studdy might prove to be of some use. With Studdy’s assistance, she plans to turn the house into a home for the elderly – an altogether more agreeable endeavour than a boarding house, and potentially more profitable to boot. Studdy, for his part, sees this development as a positive move, viewing it as an opportunity to extort money and valuables from vulnerable elderly residents in their twilight years of their lives.

The hatred was still there between them, but it no longer raged; it was no longer on the brink of violence, because something stronger, something like self-interest or greed or small ambition, had put it into its proper place. (p. 120)

As the story plays out, it builds to a near-inevitable denouement. One gets the feeling that the spectral Mr Bird is playing God with the lives of the various residents, pitting them against one another in a bid to destabilise the environment he once created.

While the lives of many of these characters are marked by a deep sense of sadness or loneliness – Mr Obd’s situation is particularly heartbreaking – they are partly balanced by touches of dark humour every now and again. Major Eele takes centre stage in some priceless scenes, most notably those involving a certain Mrs le Tor, the unfortunate recipient of one of Mr Studdy’s rather tawdry blackmail letters.

The attempted disposal of Mr Bird’s clothes to a charity for refugees gives rise to more moments of hilarity. In an underhand move on the part of Mr Studdy, the deceased’s suits and shirts get mixed up with items belonging to Mr Scribbin and Mr Venables, much to the embarrassment of the normally uber-efficient Nurse Clock. It is a truly marvellous scene, one that could have come straight out of a classic comedy of manners by Barbara Pym.

All in all, The Boarding-House is a superb novel, a wonderful study of human nature, a tragi-comedy of the finest quality. Highly recommended.

The Boarding-House is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Tea at Four O’Clock by Janet McNeill

First published in 1956, Tea at Four O’Clock is a brilliant but desperately sad story of familial obligations, ulterior motives and long-held guilt, all set within the middle-class Protestant community of Belfast in the 1950s. It is the first of Janet McNeill’s novels that I have read, but on the strength of this I will definitely be seeking out more of her work – particularly her final novel, The Small Widow, which is still in print.

Tea at Four O’Clock centres on Laura, the youngest daughter and middle child of the Percival family. We first meet Laura – now a rather timid spinster in her forties – on the afternoon of the funeral of her elder sister, Mildred, a woman whose presence still looms large over the Percival residence, Marathon, in spite of her recent death.

Mildred had made her last exit through the gates of Marathon. There would be nothing heard of her again—no voice, no footstep, nor the insistent invalid bell. People would speak of her, of course, as they spoke of her father and mother; letters might still come addressed to her name; the house was full of her clothes and all the evidence of the fifty years she had lived there. Miss Parks, Laura knew, would be a tower of strength. Her distressed gentlewomen’s guild would gladly take over what lay in Mildred’s wardrobe and chest of drawers. Laura must arm herself against meeting a distressed gentlewoman coming along the street disguised as Mildred. But Mildred herself had gone. (p. 8)

Over the course of many years, any sense of joy or liberty had been systematically sucked out of Laura’s life, first by her puritanical father – long since deceased – and latterly by the tyrannical Mildred whose exacting standards governed the daily routine at Marathon. (The book’s title refers to Mildred’s insistence that afternoon tea should be served by Laura at precisely four o’clock – no sooner, and certainly no later.) Having nursed Mildred through the long illness that led to her death, Laura is now somewhat shell-shocked at the prospect of what the future might hold for her. She has known virtually no other life, the demands of Marathon and Mildred having dominated her day-to-day existence for so many years.

Laura’s current situation is further complicated by the presence of three seemingly well-meaning individuals, each one armed with their own particular motives for wanting to get close to her as the new owner of Marathon and sole beneficiary of Mildred’s will.

First, there is the pushy Miss Parks, Mildred’s old schoolteacher and recently rediscovered ‘friend’. For some years, Miss Parks had enjoyed the prestige of keeping house for her bachelor brother, a local clergyman, only to be dislodged from this position on her brother’s marriage to a usurper. In search of a new cause to champion, Miss Parks was only too willing to push herself forward at the time of Mildred’s illness. By doing so, she saw an opportunity to further her own position, worming her way back into Mildred’s affections and the Percival family home to boot. While her stay at Marathon was initially intended to be a temporary measure, to help support Mildred in the final weeks of her illness, Miss Parks is showing no signs of leaving now that her charge has passed away. If anything, this formidable woman is striving even harder to make herself indispensable to the household, taking charge of day-to-day matters whenever the opportunity arises. It will suit her proposes very well if Laura remains fragile and in need of careful management and direction, for who would be better placed to provide such a service than Miss Parks herself?

Yesterday, after the funeral cortège had left the house Miss Parks had her first taste of power. It was at her reminder that the blinds had not immediately been drawn up, it was her refusal to drink tea at an hour when Mildred never drank it that had made Laura refuse tea also. And again, this morning, she had watched with satisfaction as Laura made her escape into the garden, and then put on Mildred’s apron, filled Mildred’s watering-can, and taken over the duty of watering the plants. She did not wish to return to her own small bed-sitting-room in Ashley Avenue. It seemed possible, probable even, that she would not have to do so. (p. 68)

Then there is George, Laura and Mildred’s younger brother, banished from the family home by his father some twenty years earlier, who reappears at Marathon on the afternoon of Mildred’s funeral. Following his dismissal from the Percivals’ linen business for being reckless with his father’s money, George managed to carve out a modest life for himself with his working-class, socially conscious wife, Amy, and their teenage daughter, Kathie. They live in a cramped, rundown house on the other side of the city where money is very tight. George still resents the fact that he has been excluded from the Percival family home for several years, first by his unforgiving father, and then by the domineering Mildred who made him feel small and inadequate when he called on her for some money at the time of Amy’s pregnancy. Now he has designs on Marathon itself. By getting close to Laura again, George hopes to be able to move back to the Percival residence, this time with Amy and Kathie in tow. However, to achieve this, he must get the better of the calculating Miss Parks in the battle for Laura’s trust and affection.

Even the Percival family’s longstanding lawyer and close confidant, Mr McAlister, seems to have his eye on Laura. At first, it would appear that he is out to protect his charge, primarily from the detrimental influences of the bossy Miss Parks and the equally unscrupulous George; but it soon becomes clear that McAlister has a motive of his own, a more personal reason for trying to distance Laura from these predatory influences.

To have any hope of moving forward, Laura finds that she must delve back into her past. Over the course of this short novel, she is forced to come to terms with a period of her life she has long since buried: a series of circumstances that had led to her stay at Marathon at a time when the possibility of freedom was so tantalisingly within her reach. Slowly but surely, McNeill reveals through a series of flashbacks the tragedy of Laura’s past, the incidents and circumstances that have blighted her life, making her the anxious, downtrodden woman she is today. There was a time when Laura was happy, the two years she spent at art college where she fell in love with Tom, a fellow student and friend of George’s. In this scene, Laura is watching Tom as he sketches the landscape during a day trip to the lakeside.

Laura did not take out her sketching book. She lay on one elbow, contented in the sufficiency of the moment, in the luxury of knowing that just by turning her head she could see Tom beside her, feeling the sun warm on her skin, hearing the waves., Here was richness. She hoarded every moment as it went by, each chaffinch’s flourish, each small lazy wave. It would have to last her a long time. (p. 111)

Laura’s memories of Tom are reignited when his son, also an artist, comes to the city to show his paintings, an exhibition which Laura attends.

Tea at Four O’Clock is a powerful, character-driven novel where the focus is on the psychology and underlying motives of different individuals tied together by familial or social bonds, however tenuous they might be. In this respect, it shares something with the work of other women writers of the mid-late 20th century, particularly Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen. The mood is intense, claustrophobic and ominous – deliberately so, I think. The weight of guilt is ever present in the story from Mr Percival’s regret over the death of his wife when she gave birth to George, the son and potential heir he so desperately desired, to Laura’s guilt over past events, the nature of which is unravelled over the course of the narrative. Without wishing to say too much about the ending, there is a secret at the heart of the novel, one which reveals the true extent of Mildred’s hold over Laura for the past twenty years. It is the reason I described the book as desperately sad in the opening paragraph of this post.

McNeill also finds time to make reference to the changing nature of Northern Ireland in the fifties: the proliferation of new housing estates encroaching on the grounds surrounding the Percival mansion; the slim pickings available at home for ordinary men like George; the swathes of people emigrating to America, the land of hope and opportunity.

At the end of the day though, this is Laura’s story. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that seems to typify her state of mind.

The gates of her prison were open, but she lacked the courage to go through them to whatever new country was waiting for her on the other side. (p. 176)

My sincere thanks to Mary at Goodreads who recommended this book to me.

Tea at Four O’Clock is published by Virago; personal copy.

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

I have long wanted to read Elizabeth Bowen; her 1938 novel, The Death of the Heart, has been calling me for quite a while. By rights I should have read it earlier in preparation for Karen and Simon’s 1938 Club (which took place last week) but time got the better of me in the end. Nevertheless, I’m hoping this review might count as a late entrant.

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When both her parents die in fairly quick succession, sixteen-year-old Portia Quayne is sent to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna in their large house near Regent’s Park in London. It was her late father’s wish that Portia should live with Thomas and his wife for a year, after which time she might move on to stay with an aunt. In truth, neither Thomas nor Anna is particularly keen to have Portia, although Thomas, for his part, does feel some sense of duty towards the girl. Portia was born out an affair between Thomas’ father and the woman who became his second wife, Irene. After their marriage, the couple spent their lives in the south of France, moving from one hotel to another with Portia in tow, effectively in a sort of exile from Thomas’ mother and the family. With Portia now living in London, her presence in the house cannot help but remind Thomas of the shame and embarrassment he experienced over the affair, emotions that always came to the fore whenever he visited his father and Irene in France.

In those sunless hotel rooms, those chilly flats, his father’s disintegration, his laugh so anxious or sheepish, his uneasiness with Irene in Thomas’s presence, had filled Thomas with an obscure shame – on behalf of his father, himself, and society. From the grotesqueries of that marriage he had felt a revulsion. (pg. 39)

There is no real warmth or affection in the Quayne household with very little sense of anyone taking any form of pleasure from their activities. All in all, it’s a rather strange and unwelcoming place for a young girl who has recently lost her parents. At 36, Thomas is much older than Portia; and with no children of their own, Thomas and Anna have no real experience of dealing with adolescents, nor any appreciation of how to incorporate Portia into their lives. Anna, in particular, is a rather cold, unsympathetic creature, more concerned with taking tea with her own friends than with trying to forge any kind of connection with Portia. She finds Portia somewhat unnerving, convinced as she is that the girl is stealing furtive glances at her and Thomas from a distance (although in truth Portia is simply curious and somewhat unsure of herself). As a consequence of all this, Portia is pretty much left to her own devices most of the time, her closest ally in the house being Matchett, the family’s maid.

Bowen is brilliant at capturing the sheer awkwardness and uncertainty of adolescence. Portia has very little understanding of how to behave around Anna, Thomas and their friends, no real sense of the workings of the adult mind. (And why should she? After all, her upbringing was somewhat unconventional and very different from the upper-class world in which she finds herself now.) In this scene, Portia is present while Anna takes tea with her friend, St Quentin – I think it’s an excellent illustration of Portia’s situation at the Quanyes’.

Getting up from the stool carefully, Portia returned her cup and plate to the tray. Then, holding herself so erect that she quivered, taking long soft steps on the balls of her feet, and at the same time with an orphaned unostentation, she started making towards the door. She moved crabwise, as though the others were royalty, never quite turning her back on them – and they, waiting for her to be quite gone, watched. She wore a dark wool dress, in Anna’s excellent taste, buttoned from throat to hem and belted with heavy leather. The belt slid down her thin hips, and she nervously gripped at it, pulling it up. Short sleeves showed her very thin arms and big delicate elbow joints. Her body was all concave and jerkily fluid lines; it moved with sensitive looseness, loosely threaded together: each movement had a touch of exaggeration, as though some secret power kept springing out. At the same time she looked cautious, aware of the world in which she had to live. She was sixteen, losing her childish majesty. (pgs. 26-27)

With very little support or affection coming from her half-brother and his wife, Portia falls in with Eddie, an acquaintance of Anna’s who also happens to work in Thomas’ office. Eddie is a selfish, uncaring young man with no real sense of integrity or responsibility. Portia, in her childlike innocence, is unable to see this, and so she falls in love with Eddie, believing everything he tells her without question.

Things take a different turn for Portia when Thomas and Anna decide to go to Capri for a month. Instead of taking the girl with them, the Quanyes pack her off to the Kentish coast to stay with Anna’s old governess, Mrs Heccomb, and her stepchildren, Daphne and Dickie, both of whom are in their twenties. The Heccomb household – the house is called Waikiki – represents a marked change of pace for Portia. It is welcoming, lively and somewhat chaotic, full of the sounds of doors banging, plates clattering and music playing away in the background. Quite soon after her arrival, Portia find herself drawn into the Heccombs’ friendly social set and their world of dances, cafés, and walks along the coastline. In some ways, it all starts to feel like a new beginning for the young girl.

However, there is trouble in the air when Portia invites Eddie to stay at the Heccombs’. From the moment she sets eyes on him, Mrs Heccomb detects something fishy about Eddie and is visibly distracted by his presence. Her view of Anna is rather idealised, and there is something about Eddie’s manner which seems quite at odds with this. In this scene, Eddie has just sat down to tea following his arrival at Waikiki.

He could not be expected to know that his appearance, and that the something around him that might be called his aura, struck into her heart its first misgiving for years – a misgiving not about Portia but about Anna. […] A conviction (dating from her last year at Richmond) that no man with bounce could be up to any good set up an unhappy twitch in one fold of her left cheek. Apprehensions that someone might be common were the worst she had had to combat since she ruled at Waikiki. No doubt it must be in order, this young man being Portia’s friend, since Porta said that he was a friend of Anna’s. But what was he doing being a friend of Anna’s? … Portia, watching the cheek twitch, wondered what could be up. (pg 209)

The weekend continues on a note of confusion for Portia as she struggles to understand Eddie’s behaviour around Daphne, especially when the two of them end up sitting next to one another at the cinema. It is a defining moment in the story as Portia finds herself in a world where people don’t necessarily say what they mean or mean what they say. Furthermore, once she returns to London, Portia discovers the true extent of the betrayals by those around her, not just by Eddie, but by others close to her as well.

The Death of the Heart is a wonderful novel, a very subtle exploration of the pain and confusion of adolescence, of how easy it is for someone to toy with the emotions of a teenager, especially someone as vulnerable and as trusting as Portia. Eddie is a cruel, insensitive young man who takes advantage of Portia’s naivety and desire for affection, crushing her hopes and dreams in the process. In turn, Anna and Thomas are little better than Eddie, failing to offer Portia the support and protection she so desperately needs.

In some ways, Heart reminds me very strongly of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, particularly A Game of Hide and Seek and At Mrs Lippincote’s (review to come). Both Bowen and Taylor pay close attention to character development, creating complex but realistic individuals the reader can invest in. Like Taylor, Bowen is an acute observer of the social interactions between people, and this novel is full of beautifully rendered scenes, rich with detail and latent emotions. The secondary characters deserve a mention as well, particularly Major Brutt, an acquaintance of the Quanyes who finds himself ridiculed by the couple (Anna in particular).

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates the novel’s London setting. Bowen’s description of this cold afternoon in January reflects something of the atmosphere in the Quanyes’ house, a cold, brittle, shallow place with little warmth inside.

The circle of traffic tightens at this hour round Regent’s Park; cars hummed past without a break; it was just before lighting-up time – quite soon the All Out whistles would sound. At the far side of the road, dusk set the Regency buildings back at a false distance: against the sky they were colourless silhouettes, insipidly ornate, brittle, and cold. The blackness of windows not yet lit or curtained made the houses look hollow inside. (pg. 9)

Karen, Ali and Harriet have also reviewed this novel.

The Death of the Heart is published by Vintage Books; personal copy

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (2) – life in a small town in Ireland

Last week I posted the first of two pieces I’ve put together on Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín’s touching novel about a woman who has to find a new way to live following the death of her husband. The book is set in Enniscorthy (Tóibín’s birthplace), a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the late 1960s. My first post focused on certain aspects of Nora’s character together with some background on the story – if you haven’t already read it, please do take a look. In this second piece, I’m going to consider the setting and period – more specifically, life in a small Irish community in the late sixties. By doing so, I hope to be able to bring out some of the novel‘s humour alongside other elements.

Nora cover

In my previous piece, I commented on Tóibín’s achievement in creating a complex, nuanced character in Nora, one I find utterly believable and full of depth. He’s equally strong when it comes to evoking a sense of place as his portrayal of a small-town Ireland rings completely true to me.

Enniscorthy is a very conservative community, a place where all the residents are aware of one another and what is happening in the town. Nora’s husband, Maurice, was widely known and well respected, and when he dies, Nora has to deal with a stream of well-wishers keen to express their condolences. Naturally, these people have nothing but good intentions, but Nora, an intensely private person at heart, finds it all too difficult to cope with these conversations.

I found myself wondering just how much of this is down to Nora’s character, her internal make-up, and how much might be a function of the culture in Ireland at the time. My recollection of Ireland in the 1970s – a time not long after the period featured in Nora – is a place where virtually everybody internalised their own personal pain following the death of a partner. Nobody discussed how they were feeling; nobody talked about grief or how best to cope with it. Either way, this next quote resonates with me. It reminds me of how my mother felt when we returned to her family home in Ireland in the years following my father’s death. She would long for the time when she could go out without someone reminding her of her loss.

The town had become easier. In Court Street, or John Street, or on the Back Road, no one stopped her any more to express sympathy, no one stood looking into her eyes waiting for her to reply. If she met someone now and they stopped, it was to discuss other things. Sometimes, as they were ready to part, they would ask her how she was, or how the boys were, and this would be a way of quietly acknowledging what had happened. But even still she became nervous when she saw someone coming towards her ready to remind her of her loss. It was at times intrusive and hurtful. (pg. 183)

The novel is set in a culture where many women like Nora were expected to stay at home and manage the household. Once married, a woman’s main role would revolve around caring for her husband and her children. One of the threads running through the novel is Nora’s growing sense of independence in the years that follow her husband’s death. When he was alive, Maurice made all the decisions in the marriage, not just the big choices but several little ones too; for instance, when they went out for the evening, it was always Maurice who decided when they would leave.

With her husband gone, Nora gradually realises that she can think for herself: she can express her own opinions on the political situation rumbling away in the background at the time; she can begin to develop her own interests, pursuits that Maurice would never have shared. At first she is concerned that others will judge her, worried about what they might think if she dyes her hair or spends money on records. After all, Enniscorthy is a conservative town whose inhabitants are often quick to form opinions. In time, though, Nora becomes more willing to live a little. Here she considers her new stereo system, a purchase she makes to complement her growing love of music.

They would all see it now, all of her visitors, Nora thought, and they would think her extravagant. She would have to steel herself, no matter what comments they made, not to care. She had wanted this and now she had it. (pg. 280)

Much of Nora’s story reminds me of my mother’s own personal experience of losing her husband, the Ireland she knew, the people she met there. This is all rather melancholy, so I’d like to finish on a more positive note by commenting on some of the humour running through Nora. It would be very easy to form the impression that this novel is entirely morose. Naturally, the story is sad and very moving, but there are moments of lightness too, much of which stems from Tóibín’s observations on various members of the community.

There is a wonderful passage in which Nora is persuaded, albeit somewhat reluctantly, to have her hair dyed and styled. She is mortified when the colour turns out looking less natural than she had expected. What on earth will people think of her with Maurice only six months in the grave? Naturally, Nora is worried they will think she is trying to look like a much younger woman.

I could have picked one of several quotes from this section of the story – Conor’s reaction, in particular, is priceless – but instead I’ve chosen a short piece from a conversation Nora has with her Aunt Josie. Tóibín has a wonderful ear for dialogue, for the language and expressions the people of small-town Ireland use in their day-to-day lives. I think it shows in this quote. Here’s Josie as she tells Nora how she popped into Fitzgerald’s, a clothes shop in Wexford, just to kill a bit of time while waiting for her husband. This passage also seems to capture something of the spirit of Josie, a woman who reminds me so much of one of my own aunts.

‘…So I went in, and there was a very friendly assistant all ready to help. And I began to fit on costumes and then she got all the accessories. You should have seen the prices! Oh, she had me rigged out ten times over and went off to get more things that might suit me better. I was only filling in time. And I got a good hour out of it. She was full of this colour and that shade and this cut and that new fashion and what suited me and didn’t suit me. And then when I was back in my own clothes and ready to depart, didn’t she let out a roar at me, that I was after wasting her time. And she followed me to the door and said to me that I was not to think of coming into her shop again.’

Nora almost had a pain in her side laughing. Josie remained serious, with just a glint in her eye.

‘So I won’t be going into Fitzgerald’s to buy my spring outfit,’ she said sadly and shook her head. The cheek of that woman! A rip of a one.’ (pg. 39)

Several other bloggers have reviewed Nora Webster – posts that have caught my eye include those by Claire, FictionFan, Max and Simon.

Nora Webster is published by Penguin. Source: personal copy. Book 13/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (1) – Nora

Colm Tóibín’s latest novel, Nora Webster, has been widely reviewed in the press and the blogosphere. Consequently, there seems little point in my trying to write a traditional review of this fine novel – I would simply end up repeating the words of other reviews. (It’s probably going to be hard to avoid doing that anyway, but I’ll try not to.) Instead, I’m going to comment on a few passages from the novel, quotes that seem to reveal something about the characters or the particular time and sense of place. This is the first of two pieces I’ve put together on Nora Webster, a story that speaks to me on a personal level. Today’s post focuses on Nora’s character while the second piece (which I’m planning to post next week) will look at the setting.

Nora cover

The novel is set in Enniscorthy (Tóibín’s birthplace), a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the late 1960s. Nora’s husband, Maurice, a well-respected local schoolteacher, has recently died a slow and painful death. This leaves Nora alone with her two young sons, Donal and Connor, both of whom are still in school. Her two older children, Fiona and Aine, are continuing their studies at college/boarding school and as such they are living away from home for most of the year. Nora is in her mid-forties when Maurice dies, and the book takes us through the next four years or so of Nora’s life as she tries to come to terms with the changes widowhood brings. In effect, she must try to find a new way to live.

As the novel opens, we find Nora deep in grief as she struggles to cope with the constant stream of friends and neighbours who call to express their sympathy. These visitors mean well, but they are somewhat intrusive both physically and emotionally, each one requiring a little piece of Nora at a time when she would much rather be alone. In the early months following Maurice’s death, Nora suppresses her feelings, internalising all her emotions as she tries to keep things together for the sake of the boys.

Her aim in those months, autumn leading to winter, was to manage for the boys’ sake and maybe her own sake too to hold back tears. Her crying as though for no reason frightened the boys and disturbed them as they gradually became used to their father not being there. She realized now that they had come to behave as if everything were normal, as if nothing were really missing. They had learned to disguise how they felt. She in turn, had learned to recognize danger signs, thoughts that would lead to other thoughts. She measured her success with the boys by how much she could control her feelings. (pg. 6, Penguin Books)

Quite early on in the novel it becomes apparent that Nora’s sons, Donal and Conor, are deeply unsettled. In the period leading up to her husband’s death, Nora devoted herself to Maurice completely, visiting him in hospital every day and staying by his side as much as possible. The boys went to live with their Aunt Josie for a couple of months, and during this time they heard nothing from Nora, neither a phone call nor a visit. Her sole focus was Maurice. As a consequence, the boys felt abandoned, a realisation that only becomes clear to Nora after Maurice’s death. Here’s Josie as she tells Nora what happened.

‘…So they stayed here. And it was silent. And they thought you might come and you never did. Sometimes even if a car began to make its way up the lane, or pulled in on the road, the two of them would stop what they were doing and sit up. And then time went by. I don’t know what you were thinking of leaving them here all that time and never once coming to see them.’ (pg. 54)

I wouldn’t want to give the impression Nora doesn’t care for her children – in fact, she’s fiercely protective of them when they’re treated unjustly. It’s just that she finds it hard to show her emotions, and there are times when she could demonstrate a little more warmth in her interactions with the children.

As the narrative progresses, it gradually becomes apparent that Nora is somewhat distanced from other members of her immediate family, too. She is not close to her married sister, Catherine, and her younger sister, Una, is a little afraid of upsetting her. There is an inner steeliness to Nora’s character, and she can be rather blunt at times. As a consequence of all of this, Nora is often left out of various conversations as close friends and family members think they know what’s best for her and the boys. In this scene, Nora discovers she is the last person to hear of Una’s forthcoming wedding.

Nora felt the weight of them all talking about her, all of them thinking that she might in some way object to her sister getting married or say something stinging to Una about it. She wished now that she felt like saying something helpful, but she could not think what it might be. But she also wished that the three of them might go, the two girls back upstairs or to the other room, and Una to her own house. The longer they stayed expecting something from her, the closer she came to feeling a sort of rage that she knew stemmed from her encounter with Miss Kavanagh and from not sleeping well […]. But it also came from Una herself, and from Fiona and Aine. (pg. 155)

As you’ve probably gathered by now, Nora Webster is not a plot-driven novel. This is a quiet, largely introspective story that relies on the strength of its characters. Tóibín has created a complex, nuanced character in Nora, one I find utterly believable and full of depth. So much of her situation, along with certain aspects of her personality, reminds me of my own mother’s life. There are several parallels: both women were brought up in small-town communities in Ireland; both were widowed in their mid-forties; both suppressed their emotions, internalising much of what they were feeling and thinking. (I must have been about the same age as Donal when my own father died suddenly.)

Tóibín perfectly captures Nora’s grief, this sense of feeling cast adrift from day-to-day life, of floating in a world where everything seems meaningless.

So this was what being alone was like, she thought. It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been in a car accident, it was this wandering in a sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing. (pg. 204)

The novel contains a number of perceptive passages on the difficulty of recovering from the death of a partner. At times, it feels as though there is nothing to move on to, only what has happened in the past.

Slowly but surely, Nora does begin to discover a new way to live. She finds solace in music, joins the town’s Gramophone Society and takes singing lessons in her spare time. Her deep love of classical music is something Maurice would never have cared for.

In time, she also finds a way of reconnecting with her children, particularly Donal who seems to be the one most affected by Maurice’s death. In this scene, she realises just how much she needs to reach out to reassure him, to demonstrate she’s there for him.

Her speaking about herself, her own needs, her own worry, made him appear even more alert. It occurred to her that he had thought more closely about her over the previous few years than she had about him. She wondered if that could be true. She knew that how she felt affected him, and now, for the first time, how he felt seemed more urgent, more worthy of attention than any of her feelings. All she could do was to let him know and make him believe that she would do everything she promised to do. (pg. 309)

Needless to say, I loved this novel for its textured portrayal of Nora, for its beautiful pared-back prose, for so many things. I’ll be back next week with a shorter piece on life in small-town Ireland in the late 1960s and the humour in the community.

Nora Webster is published by Penguin. Source: personal copy. Book 13/20, #TBR20 round 2.