Mary Lavin: an arrow still in flight
When Scott eventually renounced his vows to marry her, Lavin said, “I half-resented it. I’d had a whale of a time as a widow.”
Scott died in 1991; Lavin five years later. Her quip provoked laughter when the film was shown at Glucksman Ireland House at New York University on Friday, at the end of a day-long seminar marking Lavin’s centenary.
“I’d had a whale of a time as a widow” summed up much of Lavin’s life. Fr Hugh, the Michael Scott character in Happiness, one of her best-known short stories, believed that “sorrow is an ingredient of happiness – a necessary ingredient”. Part of Lavin may have preferred her annual trysts with Scott to the tedium of domesticity. She already reigned over literary Dublin, receiving, among others, John McGahern, Patrick Kavanagh, Frank O’Connor and Thomas Kilroy in her mews house on Lad Lane.
Lavin and Scott met as students at University College Dublin. They corresponded daily while he was in seminary, until he returned to Australia as a priest. He contacted her years later, after learning she had been widowed.
Lavin married William Walsh, a Navan-based solicitor, and had three daughters: Elizabeth, who is the manager of Lavin’s literary estate; Valdi, who died in in 2010; and Caroline, who was Irish Times literary editor until her death last December.
In 1943, the year of her first marriage, Lavin published Tales from Bective Bridge, the first of 19 collections of short stories. It won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction. When the emperor and empress of Japan visited Ireland, the empress asked to visit Bective Bridge because she had studied Lavin’s stories.
Walsh died of heart disease in 1954. Lavin was determined to support herself and her three small daughters through her writing. They lived a bohemian existence, lodging for a time on the top floor of Buswells Hotel, for a time in a caravan. When she received a cheque from the New Yorker, or won yet another literary prize, she bundled the girls into her VW Beetle for holidays on the Continent.
Lavin “was a Broadway show; exuberant”, recalls Cormac O’Malley, a retired lawyer, member of the board of Glucksman Ireland House and publisher of the memoirs of his father, the anti-Treaty Republican Ernie O’Malley. The O’Malleys lived next door to Lavin and the girls for three years in the 1950s.
“When she was with her three daughters,” he says, “it was a circus, but a delightful one, with one voice echoing on another. And somehow all conversations made sense – to them – but not to the beholder.”
In the 1992 RTÉ documentary, Caroline Walsh, the youngest of Lavin’s daughters, recounted doing homework beside her mother in the National Library while Lavin wrote. When the weather was fine, Lavin would write sitting on a deck chair in St Stephen’s Green, with little Caroline beside her.
Lavin seemed impervious to distraction. In the mornings, she wrote in bed, on a board on her knees. “I never remember her being behind a closed door,” Walsh said. The writer would come home at 6pm to prepare dinner for her daughters, then return to the library to write through the evening.
“She had a sense of being very poor,” says James Ryan, a writer, director of creative writing at UCD and the husband of Caroline Walsh. “But there were anomalies in her story. She didn’t mind if there were holes in her cardigans, because they were cashmere.”
Lavin was deeply influenced by James Joyce’s The Dead, says Ryan. “She mastered the concentration of a few broad strokes that tell the whole tale.”
Though Lavin also published three novels, it was her short stories that established her as a leading writer of her generation. She famously maintained that a story needn’t have a beginning, middle and end. Rather, she thought of the genre “more as an arrow in flight”. A short story was “a flash of lightning lighting up the whole landscape all at once”, Lavin said.
As quoted by Greg Londe, professor of Irish literature at NYU, Lavin also compared writing a short story to a slide under a microscope. “A snow storm can be an immensely impressive sight,” she said. “But a single snow flake under a magnifying glass shows a complexity of design that has its own immensity.”
Lavin never learned to type, and her manuscripts grew into tall stacks, then diminished as she reworked plots and characters, whittling her prose down. In her 70s, she wrote in bed until noon, submerging a nearby hat box in drifts of crumpled paper. In her frustration at the waning of her inspiration, Lavin spoke of writing novellas, thinking the longer form would be easier.
The Irish writer Colm Tóibín, who teaches Lavin in his courses at Columbia University, believes her status as “the daughter of a returned Yank” imbued her with a certain strength and resilience. “To begin writing as she did in the 1940s took a great deal of courage,” Tóibín says. “It took a lot to break that strange glass ceiling, that there were no women creating images of women.”
Tóibín says Lavin “matters enormously” in 20th-century Irish literature, not only for her wise and profound tales of the human heart, but because “her presence in society empowered a lot of people. I don’t just mean women. I mean people who wanted to devote themselves to the idea of writing fiction in Ireland, rather than writing Irish fiction. There was a dedication and a seriousness about craft, and a sort of dignity that she attached to that.”
Just as there are “palpable absences” in fiction, “there was an absence in the room” at Glucksman Ireland House on Friday, “which was Caroline”, Tóibín says. Happiness is Lavin’s autobiographical account of her widowhood. As Tóibín notes, Lavin “found a voice which was close too to Caroline’s. The daughter recounted her mother’s vagaries and whims, the way she spoke, the way her daughters and her friend the priest had watched over her as a young widow.”
The voices of mother and daughter, the writer and the newspaper literary editor, meld and are almost indistinguishable. More than four months after Caroline Walsh’s death, celebrating the centenary of her mother’s birth was, as James Ryan said, a form of consolation.
Though these words were written by Lavin, one could almost hear her daughter Caroline saying: “If anything ever happens to me, children . . . I want you to promise you won’t feel bad. There’s no need! Just remember that I had a happy life – and that if I had to choose my kind of heaven I’d take it on this earth with you again, no matter how much you might annoy me!”