An Irishwoman's Diary
Navan town library opened its doors to a gathering of readers, many of whom could recall having seen the Irish writer, Mary Lavin, attending church on Sundays, her three daughters following in a line behind her.
Several people agreed it was extraordinary that such a busy woman, a widow with a farm in nearby Bective to run, could find the time to write. Yet she did. The housework could wait as she spent the morning working on sheets of paper balanced on the bread board across her lap.
Long before Mary Lavin, became a writer, she was a reader.
She was intelligent and quick-witted, a sceptical romantic with a belief in love as an all-empowering force. When placing her in the context of mid 20th century Irish fiction, it is important to acknowledge her mentors, Turgenev and Chekhov. Yes she is an Irish writer, though one, in common with William Trevor, shaped by a sense of distance. Born 100 years ago, in East Walpole, Massachusetts, her first decade was spent in the US and when she began school in Ireland her classmates teased her for being different. Outsiders often become good observers, Lavin became a great one. She brought a different vision to Irish rural life because, whereas other Irish writers fled it, she moved into it and loved its rituals.
There is always a moment when a reader becomes a writer. For Lavin it happened with a touch of magic laced with her innate practicality. While writing a thesis about Virginia Woolf, she heard about a woman who was to have tea with the exalted English modernist. Lavin abandoned her doctorate and instead wrote a short story, Miss Holland. Many more would follow as Mary Lavin established a distinctive voice that would contrast with Kate O’Brien’s response to the Irish Catholic middle-class narrative or Elizabeth Bowen’s Anglo-Irish legacy.
“Brother Boniface sat in the sun. The sun shone full on the monastery wall, and brightened the gold coins of its ancient lichen. It fell full on the rough stone seat where Brother Boniface sat smiling. It fell through the leaves of the elm trees and littered the grass with its yellow petals. It splattered the green and white palings that shut off the kitchen garden from the blazing flower beds on the lawn.” A communal warmth filled the library space on hearing the opening paragraph from one of her most famous stories. In it, one of Lavin’s favourite motifs, flowers, proves crucial. Her preference for a small canvas well served by exact detail – be it the memory of armfuls of daffodils, or two pale blue feathers reminding a bitter mother of the day Lally, her daughter, left home to make a match of which the family disapproved – was something Lavin had learned from Jane Austen.
In ways she could have been a writer from the American South. There are Lavin stories which could have been written Eudora Welty or the great Peter Taylor. Just as Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter (1969) initially written for Lavin’s close friend the New Yorker fiction editor, William Maxwell, could as easily have been by Lavin. She was a cosmopolitan by nature, which explains why her work sits so comfortable alongside that of Welty, or the New Zealander Katherine Mansfield or the Canadian minimalist Mavis Gallant. Whereas another Canadian virtuoso, Alice Munro, has perfected the longer short story, Lavin strove for economy. Her lightness of touch was the key, that and the direct, unsentimental detachment she shares with Trevor.
Widowhood dominates her stories and with it the “crater of loneliness”. The strong autobiographical element is brilliantly underplayed. If one could select only one Lavin story it would have to be Happiness, in which one of three daughters tells her mother’s story. It is uncanny.
“Mother had a lot to say. That does not mean that she was always talking but that we children felt the wells she drew upon were deep, deep, deep.” After the sudden death of the husband and father, a recurring theme, the mother attempted to provide the life that the girls would have had, had he survived. The narrator recalls her mother saying “. . . it was nothing but foolishness the way I dragged you children after me all over Europe”.
Lavin presented the apolitical face of feminism – women who feel: mothers, daughters, wives, widows. The bold, courageous mother in Happiness announces to her girls: “You brought out the best in me! I put unnatural effort into you, of course.” Our gathering in Navan celebrated the compelling ease Mary Lavin brought to her singular art.