Elizabeth Cullinan: ‘Through a lace curtain, darkly’

Irish-American women writers: in her masterpiece House of Gold she exposes Irish America’s deployment of Catholicism to achieve upward social mobility

Born in New York and raised in the Bronx, Elizabeth Cullinan (1933-) is a distinguished fiction writer who deserves to be much better known. Acclaimed by critics, her work – published between 1970 and the early 1980s – includes a classic of Irish-American literature, the novel House of Gold (1969), and two fine collections of short stories, The Time of Adam (1971) and Yellow Roses (1977). Most of her stories first appeared between 1960 and 1981 in The New Yorker.

Educated at convent schools and Marymount College, Cullinan first worked at the New Yorker as a typist, then as secretary to the editor, William Maxwell. From 1961 to 1963 she lived principally in Dublin: several important stories and her second novel A Change of Scene (1982) use this experience. During the 1970s and 1980s she taught writing at US universities including Fordham, and lived in Manhattan until moving to Maryland in 2015.

Paternal improvidence caused Cullinan’s family fortunes to decline early in her childhood, obliging the family to move into cramped quarters in the house of her formidable maternal grandmother, a conspicuously pious woman who prided herself on having Jesuit priest brothers. For Elizabeth at 22, beginning at the New Yorker in Manhattan was a startling transition: a short geographical distance but culturally worlds away from her relatively unprivileged, devout and largely anti-intellectual Bronx childhood.

When she began writing and, in 1960, publishing fiction, her emergence as an author was certainly helped by her access to this secular, irreverent community where wit, cleverness and aesthetic standards were most valued. Only excellent writing gained approval in a fiercely competitive milieu, where Irish-born writers such as Maeve Brennan and Frank O’Connor were valued, but Irish-Americans had something to prove. In Cullinan’s earliest work she achieves a spare, exact elegance in style, which she uses to bring searching scrutiny to her Irish-American Catholic culture of origin.


Formed in the diaspora one or two generations on from Irish-immigrant ancestors, she played a vital role in the 1960s and 1970s in bringing that milieu into literary narrative. Tapping a rich vein of autobiographical material, she created fictions with resonances going well beyond this specific historical formation.

In her masterpiece House of Gold and in many powerful stories, she broke new ground. She unforgettably exposes Irish-America’s instrumental deployment of Catholicism to achieve upward social mobility; she passionately critiques the hypocrisy of worldliness disguised as piety; she radically dismantles sanctimonious idealisations of the mother figure. In this constellation of connected themes, ineffectual male characters play their part: perceptive and not entirely unsympathetic portraits of alcohol or gambling addicts, failed breadwinners exposing their families to precarious lives.

A powerful writer of childhood anxiety, Cullinan persistently traces the accompanying deformation of the vulnerable young by controlling mother-figures obsessed with respectability at the expense of loving attachment. As Maeve Brennan put it in her review of House of Gold – entitled Through a Lace Curtain, Darkly – Mrs Julia Devlin, mother of nine, now dying, has been able to enjoy “eating her children and having them too”. Her two nun-daughters and her priest-son are addressed as “Mother Helen Marie”, “Mother Mary James”, and “Father Phil” by their own siblings, invoking parent-child relationships. The book’s demystification of the family’s real mothering and fathering shows the hollowness of this practice.

A pleasure to read, House of Gold rhythmically builds towards its conclusion, which brings some surprise redress. Set mainly during one hot summer day, the book is skilfully devised and executed. Each character’s interior life is shown, including two bewildered small boys, repeatedly wrong-footed, memorably shocked by encountering one of their nun-aunts semi-undressed, and each trying to foist on the other the felt future obligation to become a priest.

Gone beyond speech, the dying grandmother is accorded “The Story of a Mother’s Life”, left for posterity and found by her sceptical daughter-in-law. Seen in the light of what we know about her family’s experiences, this narration, with its uncertain grasp of initial capital letters and hand-wringing sentimentality, exposes itself at every turn as a concoction of lies, half-truths, omissions and distortions. A tour de force by Cullinan, it shows the founding falsehood governing the household: that Julia’s life has been given to goodness, when in truth it has been all about power; and heartfelt love, when it has been about psychological manipulation and how things should look. The “gold” of the title is shoddy gilt, the aspiration towards Mary-like virtue obscene.

This and other disenchanted fictions (such as The Reunion, which centres on a group of rather complacent priests and a now-married former clerical student fast going downhill) drew outraged letters calling Cullinan a renegade.

Several stories about adult women’s self-refashioning in Manhattan’s secular, individual, sexually open, working world place her in the vanguard of 1960s questioning of women’s roles. Her professionally-employed female characters express pleasure in their work environments as creative and sustaining: it’s a pointed rejection of 1950s prescribed domesticity. Cullinan shifts the emphasis in much Irish-American literature from ward bosses and henchmen, larger-than-life political fixers, tavern social life, and father-son relationships. With quiet irony but consistently, she resists assumptions that women’s concerns and experience are supplementary to men’s.

Flouting the prescriptions of institutional Catholicism, these characters live transgressive lives, several having a married lover (a figure sketched with appropriate ironies). Cullinan brings a keen eye to such women’s reflective self-examination. What can be preserved from repressive, inhibited childhoods overshadowed by church “authority and its citadels”? One abiding value is the impulse towards transcendence. Cullinan often associates this with the aesthetic realm of beauty and creativity in art, literature and music.

In Life After Death (1976) Constance, in her forties, occasionally visits “a Dominican church, all gray stone and vaulting and blue stained glass”, where the Mass, “that ceremony of death and transfiguration”, provides a way of “reckoning” with what is “outrageous” in her life.

The acutely perceptive, wryly humorous story The Sum and Substance (1977), however, disturbs old hierarchies of soul over body. Ellen MacGuire, a “single girl” (says the doctor) in her twenties experiences the procedures of ovarian-cyst surgery as variously invasive, embarrassing and painful. Struggling to be “a good girl” and not show distress, she has brought volumes of Elizabeth Bowen’s and Turgenev’s stories, to sustain herself in “the life of the mind”. But the physical effect, pre-op, of “the woman taking a razor to her” makes her see that “her understanding of her own nature was incomplete”. She wonders whether her thoughts are “worth very little, all based on a fundamental misconception”, since “the body had the last word – and it had the first.” Contrary to the Christian text, “in the beginning was the body” (not the divine “Word”). “Cuts, bruises, infection, disease, shock, sorrow – the body grasped them all at once and forever. The body had its own insight, its own learning. In its own way the body knew what happened and what to make of it. The body might take its time but the body understood, the body remembered”.

Here we see Cullinan’s kinship with the feminism of contemporaries like Alice Munro and Edna O’Brien, insisting on embodiment, rejecting the erasure of physicality in Catholic ideology. The story also remarkably anticipates later insights in trauma theory about the body’s non-verbal retention of experience.

Cullinan first encountered Irish writers after joining the New Yorker in 1955: the flamboyant, unconventional Maeve Brennan, and Maxwell’s friend Frank O’Connor, a frequent US visitor. The magazine paid so well for work published that by 1960-61 she could afford to realise a desire to live awhile in Europe. She chose Dublin, but her Irish-set stories cast a cold eye on 1960s Ireland, avoiding migrant-return myths and notions of affinity with “home”.

She bears important witness to a woman’s experience of the quasi-bohemian Dublin milieu where writers and artists, few in number, almost all male, moved in closely-connected social circles. Ireland was then painfully emerging into modernity: Cullinan’s Irish-set fictions are almost unique in providing an outsider’s perspective on the then-prevailing and unregenerate Irish gender order. A relationship with John McGahern (revealingly called “Betty’s boy” in letters between Maxwell and O’Connor) was one of those providing raw material for her work. Two classic stories, A Swim (1965), and A Sunday Like the Others (1967), crystallize the skin-crawling awkwardness of sexual encounter, poised between agony and farce. More diffusely, A Change of Scene and other stories offer a sequence of improbable suitors, often compromised by drink-sodden masculine conviviality.

Prominent in Dublin cultural life, Mary Lavin befriended and sustained Cullinan. Lavin, born in America, could perhaps also offer a trans-national bridging of the two societies. Maura’s Friends, the final story in Cullinan’s first collection, celebrates Lavin’s friendship and her mothering. In the larger view of Cullinan’s fictions, Maura, raising her daughters with open, nurturing and tolerant love, hospitably welcoming, feeding and encouraging younger writers and artists, is the Good Mother, independent and emphatically opposite to Julia Devlin’s Bad Mother in House of Gold.

Patricia Coughlan is Professor Emerita of English at UCC. She writes on Irish and Irish-American literature, with a focus on gender and women’s writing: co-edited collections include Irish Literature: Feminist Perspectives (2008, with Tina O’Toole). In 2015 she held a Fulbright Scholarship at Fordham University to research the work of Elizabeth Cullinan

Women Writers and Irish-American Literature is a week-long series to celebrate the centenary of Maeve Brennan’s birth on January 6th, 2017, comprising articles on Maeve Brennan, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Cullinan, Mary Gordon and Alice McDermott, co-ordinated by Ellen McWilliams and featuring contributions from Angela Bourke, Claire Bracken, Patricia Coughlan and Sinéad Moynihan