When novelist and short story writer Mary Lavin died in 1996, her work had been acclaimed and rewarded almost throughout her career.
His first collection of short stories, Tales from the Bective Bridgepublished in 1942, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, and she later received, among other honors, the Katherine Mansfield Prize in 1961, two Guggenheim Fellowships (1959 and 1961) and in 1992, nomination as Saoi from the ‘Aosdana, the highest artistic honor Ireland can bestow. She has also had her work published over a period of 18 years in the new yorker – then as now, the seal of an international career combining popularity and literary success.
With UCD’s recent acquisition of a trunk of his personal correspondence, a whole new dimension has opened up to research into his life. (Lavin’s literary archives are already deposited in the library of his alma mater, bequeathed in his will.)
The genes passed down from his youngest daughter Caroline Walsh who, before her untimely death, was literary editor of the irish timeand her granddaughter, novelist Kathleen MacMahon.
Lavin’s death was the occasion for some reassessment of his work, but by the time of his centenary in 2012, the genre was in the game. This aim continued to dominate with the announcement a year ago that the canalside square planned as part of the Wilton Place development in Dublin will bear his name. It was not just the naming of the space, next to which she lived for many years, that was being celebrated, but that it was the first naming of a streetscape after a ‘woman writer’ .
I have the funny feeling that Mary Lavin would not have appreciated being called a “woman writer”. She may have explored family life in her writing, with women at the heart of it, but her work could never have been part of what is called women’s fiction. She was a writer. Full stop. And a highly acclaimed person who has made a name for herself in publishing and literary academia in ways few women have. She did not view her work as appealing specifically or primarily to women.
His creeper-covered mews at Lad Lane were a frequent gathering place for artists of his time, and sometimes for dazzled young bibliophiles like myself. No doubt she would have accepted the memorial honor quite graciously, as Mary could be very gracious. But she also had a “tongue on her” and was more than ready to speak loudly for herself. And woe to anyone who crosses her into an argument after she had had a few drinks on board.
The irony of ‘Mary Lavin Place’ would not have escaped her notice, as the original office development on Wilton Place was the subject of a legal action she brought against the City Council. She fought like hell against it, to protect the privacy and elegance of her Lad Lane home which was also her workplace. She didn’t win, notice.
I didn’t know her very well, even though her daughter Valdi and I were close to our contemporaries. And it was via Valdi that I resolved what I had always considered somewhat mysterious in the work of Mary Lavin.
She has a reputation for being subtly subversive of the accepted order of her day, something one would expect she deserved to be banned here in Ireland for general depravity if unnamed, the frequent fate of a work of serious literary merit. So how did she stay “on the good side of Drumcondra”, as would have been the phrase in her life as a writer? I was puzzled.
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It was in 1998, with the publication of Leah Levenson’s biography, The Four Seasons of Mary Lavinthat I became aware of Lavin’s intensely docile Roman Catholicism.
In part, my failure to spot him earlier had to do with his sophisticated, cosmopolitan lifestyle, allied to his kindness to youth in all its overt forms. When you’re young, you tend to confuse this with liberalism. Levenson cast a different light.
In the aftermath of the then-modernizing changes of the Second Vatican Council, Mary Lavin commented in an interview that when what she called the “capers” in the Church were over, the Irish clergy would move on, and be somewhat slower, it avoids some of the “absurd changes”.
One of the changes the Irish clergy would avoid was the then-hot topic of “artificial” birth control, which, although almost universally rejected in everyday life today, is still prohibited by the Church on pain of “sin serious”.
And when engaged 20-something Valdi went away for the weekend with her fiancé, Mary wrote to her, “How could you challenge me in this? (…) Are you going to risk pregnancy… and if you were to take action against it, were you prepared to take a moral step which millions of very great thinkers of all religions (and none) are still uncertain of its validity even in marriage?
She went on to say that she herself was “probably more experienced in sex than almost anyone” who had had a “long and happy marriage”. (Her husband, the father of her three children, died in 1954, after only 12 years of marriage.)
Moreover, she had been in love since childhood with a man who became a Jesuit priest and abandoned her for her vocation. They remained in constant contact while he lived his priestly life in Australia. Several years later he left the priesthood and returned to Ireland, and they married in 1969. But she admitted in a later interview that she still ‘needed’ a double whiskey before going to the bed with her husband.
And suddenly knowledge filled in the gaps that I had always found in novels and stories. It’s easy to find what has been described by more than one reviewer as their “fierceness”, but the corollary of this is the writing’s failure to accept the true eroticism in the characters’ love patterns. At times, there even seems to be a joyless brutality to his depictions of love between man and woman. Indeed, the suggestion can be tainted eroticism and disappointed by the experience.
Neo-feminist assessments during her centenary in 2012 and since have attempted to cast Lavin as a feminist, anti-clerical and dissenting voice. She was anything but, and to claim it for her is to undermine her stature as a literary figure. It imposes a 21st century interpretation on values that belonged to another era.
Worse, it negates his gaze and his vision, the two qualities that have shaped his work. Her vision is her own: that of a woman uncomfortable with intimacy, and perhaps grateful for the vicissitudes of a life that have imposed on her a certain loneliness of soul.
Either way, Mary Lavin Place, on the banks of the canal she loved so much and whose serenity she fought to preserve, will be a lasting memorial, while the UCD archives will hopefully prevent the, future misrepresentations of an important literary voice.