Love in a climate of neglect
SHORT STORIES: Different Kinds of Love,By Leland Bardwell Dedalus Press, 128pp. €11.99
‘LOVE IS SO FLEETING,” the protagonist, Nina, concludes in Leland Bardwell’s story Outpatients, “so inadequate.” As the title of the collection suggests, there are many types of love – and lack of love – to be found in these concise, precise tales, which were first published by Attic Press in 1987 and, 25 years later, are republished by Dedalus.
The love of one sibling for another is at the heart of the devastating opening story, The Dove of Peace, which deals with sexual and physical abuse, alcoholism and mental illness in rural Ireland. Though familiar to us now, these themes were less common in fiction when the book was first published, and its effect must have been startling. It is partly narrated by Jessica, whose elder sister, Columbine, is the victim of their father’s sexual violation. It is still an arresting piece, mainly because of Bardwell’s eye for an unusual image. Locked up in the asylum, like her mother before her, Jessica, when she wasn’t eating or sleeping, “paced the ward like the others, slowly back and forth, like floating creatures in a massive tank”.
By approaching the story from the point of view of the sister of the victim of sexual abuse (who is herself viciously beaten by their increasingly deranged mother), Bardwell makes clear its capacity to cause far-reaching destruction and damage. She also conveys the confusion created in the minds of children mired in a toxic family environment where nothing is as it seems and speaking out is forbidden.
It hints too at the redemptive possibilities of art: Jessica retreats from her crazy home into a shed in the garden, where she crafts small boxes from odd pieces of wood, a pursuit that helps her hold on to her sanity and, eventually, make a living.
Bardwell, who turns 90 this year, was born in India and came to live in Ireland at the age of two. Her father, Pat Hone, had a family lineage that included the artists Nathaniel Hone (the elder and the younger) and the stained-glass artist Evie Hone. In interviews, she has made it clear that categorising her as an Anglo-Irish writer is inaccurate, as her family originally came from the Netherlands, but she has frequently written about being Protestant in Ireland after the country gained independence.
As the description in her memoir, A Restless Life (2008), attests, she had an extremely difficult childhood. Her parents openly favoured her elder, more beautiful sister, Paloma, and her mother, perhaps jealous of her younger daughter’s intelligence and talent, convinced Leland that she was ugly.
Her adult life, unsurprisingly, was indeed restless. She married, in 1948, but later separated. There were subsequent affairs and entanglements. She drifted from bohemian postwar London back to Dublin, where she carved out a life for herself and her six children, and became a fixture on the literary scene, counting among her friends Patrick Kavanagh, John Jordan and Paul Durcan. In 1976, along with Desmond Hogan, Neil Jordan, Steve McDonagh and others, she set up the Irish Writers’ Co-operative.
She was a founding editor of the literary magazine Cyphersand founded the annual literary festival Scríobh in Sligo, where she now lives.
She struggled to bring up the children and applied herself to writing, bringing to both her poetry and her prose a clear-eyed, unsentimental empathy for the disadvantaged, those rendered less powerful by their gender, poverty, lack of education or emotional injuries.
These characters are often poor, stuck in run-down, neglected housing estates ( The Hairdresser) or sunk into genteel or not-so-genteel poverty (Cedric Dear, Conversations With and Around a Madman).
Nina in Outpatientsis married to a man who beats her. She regularly ends up in the emergency department of the local hospital, run by disapproving nuns, and has to make up stories about how she sustained her injuries, “each more improbable than the last”. This time she’s afraid he has broken her arm, but, with heartbreaking practicality, she’s relieved that at least it’s the left one, as she has a lot of sewing to do. (Her middle child needs a button on his coat.)
Domestic violence is a frequent theme: though the women’s movement had begun to seriously challenge the status quo when the stories first appeared, it was still the country in which a 15-year-old schoolgirl died giving birth beside a grotto in Co Longford, and where the Kerry Babies controversy had recently raged.
In Euston, Nina – she has the same name as the character from Outpatients, though her husband, also violent, has a different name – returns from Dublin to London with the intention of visiting the father of her first child. There is a lot of toing and froing between Ireland and Britain, and the stories seem to illuminate that metaphysical flow of troubled people across the Irish Sea. In The Quest, another woman travels over to meet the son she gave up for adoption in England nearly 40 years previously – with unexpected results.
Despite their age, many of the stories are still relevant, the more so in our new-found penury. And Bardwell’s pin-sharp observation is ageless. In the title story, for example, the protagonist is on a train that flies past “continuous suburbs – every line of washing a flag to the people’s spiritual notion of ‘same’”. He is an undistinguished, rather half-hearted solicitor whose life was made meaningful by his love for a woman, Irena. But Irena has been disabled and rendered dumb by a stroke, so he has become her carer. This is a love without many current rewards, an honouring of what went before.
In effect, these stories suggest that much of what we classify as love is something else: desire, need, control, condescension. And they show that, though its manifestations are as various as people and their circumstances, ultimately there is only one kind of love, and its absence is the only real tragedy.
Cathy Dillon is an Irish Timesjournalist