The Irish writer and journalist Maeve Brennan has been enjoying something of a mini-renaissance in recent years with the republication of her brilliant collection of Dublin stories, The Springs of Affection, by Peninsula Press in February and a Backlisted Podcast discussion on the book last November. Many of Brennan’s short stories first appeared in The New Yorker magazine, where she worked as a columnist and reviewer, only to be collected posthumously following her death in 1993. The Rose Garden is the second of these volumes, another excellent collection of pieces originally published in the 1950s and ‘60s.
The Rose Garden comprises twenty stories, divided into four sections, the first (and longest) of which I’ll cover in this review. These seven pieces are all set in Herbert’s Retreat, a private, exclusive community of desirable houses situated on the east bank of the Hudson River, thirty miles from the heart of New York. It’s the kind of place where only ‘the right people’ are permitted to live, ‘solemn, exclusive, and shaped by restrictions that are as steely as they are vague’.
During her time in New York, Brennan lived in the East Hamptons for several years, an experience that almost certainly inspired these stories of bitchy, social-climbing wives, ineffectual, unfaithful husbands and gossipy, put-upon maids.
But in every house the residents have contrived and plotted and schemed and paid to bring the river as intimately as possible into their lives. (p. 3)
While the Herbert’s Retreat pieces are generally thought of as secondary to Brennan’s Irish fiction (her editor, William Maxwell dismissed them as ‘heavy-handed’ and lacking the ‘breath of life’), I thoroughly enjoyed them. These are sharply perceptive stories, beautifully written and observed – think John O’Hara or Richard Yates, maybe with a dash of Mavis Gallant for good measure.
Four of the seven tales revolve around the Harkey household, featuring the impressionable housewife, Leona Harkey, her boring second husband, George, and their cutting Irish maid, Bridie. Also pivotal to these pieces is Leona’s style guru, Charles Runyon, a culturally sophisticated theatre critic who stays with the Harkeys every weekend, travelling there and back from his faded New York hotel.
Brennan wastes little time showing us the lay of the land in the Harkey household, painting Leona as a determined but shallow woman in thrall to Charles, whom she values more highly than George. In fact, the main reason Leona married George in the first place was to gain control of his riverside cottage, which had been blocking her view of the river. Naturally, the offending property was swiftly demolished following the couple’s marriage, much to Leona’s delight.
When Leona first meets Charles, her appearance is somewhat dowdy and old-fashioned. But with his help, she is transformed; out go her country tweeds and simple chignon, swiftly replaced by chic fireside skirts and a stylish hair-do. Compared to Charles, George is dull and embarrassing, making it easy for Leona to ignore him whenever possible.
Naturally, the sharp-eyed Bridie observes all this with self-satisfied pleasure. Moreover, the weekly bus rides to Sunday Mass give her the opportunity to share gossip with the other ‘help’ from Herbert’s Retreat – each maid trading anecdotes about their own employers, all of whom seem just as badly behaved.
[Bridie:] “That crowd takes care of their own drinks. Out of shame, if nothing else, so we won’t see how much they put down. As if I didn’t have to carry the empty bottles out. It’s a scandal. He [Charles] makes the drinks. He stands up in front of the bar in there like a priest saying Mass, God forgive me, and mixes a martini for himself, and one for her [Leona], and maybe an odd one for the husband [George]…” (p. 8)
What Brennan does so well here is to lay bare these residents’ motivations for everyone to observe: the social climbers’ desire for approval; the value they put on appearance over ideals and principles; the importance they place on social standing at the expense of grace and sincerity. In short, we see these characters as they really are – the dissemblers behind the curtains, complete with all their imperfections and fears.
She [Leona] was afraid of offending or disappointing him [Charles], having many times been obliterated by his scathing and horribly accurate tongue. She was also afraid of losing his favor, because his presence in the house every weekend gave her an unquestioned position among the women who lived at the Retreat, and their admiration, or envy, was the foundation on which Leona built up her importance. (p. 73)
The caustic power dynamics also extend to other members of these status-driven families, typically the householders’ mothers and ex-wives. In The Anachronism, we meet Liza and Tom Frye, who share their home with Liza’s mother, Mrs Conroy. Mother and daughter clearly loathe one another, with Liza bullying Mrs Conroy at every opportunity, denying her the small courtesies and pleasures her position should afford.
Liza and Mrs. Conroy detested each other, but it suited them to live together—Liza because she enjoyed showing her power, and Mrs. Conroy because she was waiting for her day of vengeance. They were alike in their admiration for Tom’s money, but Mrs. Conroy felt she should have more say in the spending of it. (p. 18)
Also on display here is Brennan’s keen ear for dialogue, particularly the barbed conversations between neighbours as they vie for social status – superficially polite on the surface but dripping with malice underneath.
Liza made a strong impression. Right off, her modern furniture outraged all the other women, who had been concentrating on Early American. Liza called the furniture at the Retreat “country.” “Country furniture is sweet,” she said, “but it’s so sheeplike.” In the same way, she refused to share the other women’s enthusiasm for gardening (p. 17)
Several of the stories, The Anachronism included, end with a kind of twist or unexpected outcome as the social climbers are unmasked or outmanoeuvred by those around them. For instance, when Liza plots to get the better of Clara, the Retreat’s resident Queen Bee, her plan backfires, strengthening Mrs Conroy’s position in the process. There is some wonderfully wicked humour threaded through these stories, largely powered by Brennan’s scathing portrayals of the vagaries of human nature.
As in The Springs of Affection, Brennan writes beautifully about interiors, conjuring up her settings in simple, quietly evocative prose. In The Joker, thirty-something Isobel Bailey, who likes to think of herself as a generous, charitable woman, invites a small group of life’s outsiders (or ‘waifs’ as she likes to call them) to lunch on Christmas Day. The Baileys’ dining room is gorgeously evoked, rich with the pleasures of a luxurious Christmas for all her guests to acknowledge.
The warm pink dining room smelled of spice, of roasting turkey, and of roses. The tablecloth was of stiff, icy white damask, and the centrepiece—of holly and ivy and full-blown blood red roses—bloomed and flamed and cast a hundred small shadows trembling among the crystal and the silver. In the fireplace a great log, not so exuberant as the one in the living room, glowed a powerful dark red. (p. 60)
Nevertheless, Isobel’s hopes of the perfect day are dashed when a beggar comes to the back door looking for a dollar. Instead of offering money, Isobel insists that the man is given a full Christmas dinner in the servants’ kitchen, a gesture she comes to regret as the afternoon plays out…
In several instances, the stories pivot on a significant household object: a precious stone hotel water bottle lent to a prestigious guest; a concealed fireplace that exposures the fault lines in a marriage; two matching pink-and-white striped shirts designed to symbolise friendship but trigger a chain of calamities instead. It’s a feature that chimes with many of Brennan’s Irish stories from Springs with their focus on domestic interiors, painting the house as a battleground ahead of a breeding ground for love.
These are biting stories of flawed individuals and their quests for social advancement – beautifully crafted and observed. I’m planning to read the rest of these stories quite slowly, hopefully with another post to follow later this year.
The Rose Garden is published by Counterpoint; personal copy.