O'Brien Press continues its impressive revival of the Brandon imprint with Mary Morrissy's first novel in more than a decade. The Rising of Bella Casey is the imaginative afterlife of an historical person, not the first time Morrissy has constructed such a fiction. The Pretender is the postmodern tale of a Polish factory worker who claimed to have been the Grand Duchess Anastasia. Morrissy's new book partakes of a related tradition: a fictive life of a family member who was a satellite to a great writer. We've had Rameau's Niece, by Cathleen Schine, and several incarnations of Shakespeare's sister, so why not an Irish entry into the genre?
Morrissy’s oeuvre is small but fine, also including the metafictional Mother of Pearl and a disturbing collection of short stories, A Lazy Eye (the protagonist of the title story, in a timely detail, envies Caroline Kennedy’s good fortune to have had a father worthy of assassination). Morrissy’s work has been recognised with a Cullman Fellowship at the New York Public Library and a prestigious Lannan Literary Award. She is truly a writer’s writer, but one with an avid following.
Isabella Casey was Seán O'Casey's sister, a minor figure in his multivolume autobiography. Fifteen years her brother Jack's senior, Bella was a second mother to the boy who would "rise" to fame years later. The real Bella married beneath her and seems to have fallen out of the family narrative. Morrissy recreates for her a life that fills the gaps in her story.
As the novel opens, on Easter Monday, 1916, we see an obsessed, middle-aged Bella risking her life, and that of her young son, dodging bullets on Dublin's streets to drag an abandoned piano back to their house. (This is a book in which keyboard instruments come and go, indicating changes in the family's fortunes.) Bella's rescue of the piano is a symbolic act, restitution for years of deprivation with an abusive English soldier. The novel then returns to Bella's early days as the promising scholarship girl, the proud new teacher in Dominick Street, and finally the victim of the violent act that brought an end to her dreams.
The geography shifts twice to England – signalled by a change in font – and the reader encounters a blocked Seán, working on his life’s story, first in Battersea and later in Totnes. Here the novel becomes more complex, also more akin to the writer’s earlier style. Not only is she creating Bella’s lost years, she is simultaneously crafting a fiction to explain Seán’s reluctance to deal with Bella’s life in print, told from his perspective. O’Casey, in Morrissy’s rendering, is a complex portrait, part socialist activist, part judgmental Edwardian brother.
His character is also hampered by being in possession of only some of the “facts” of Bella’s downfall, facts that are totally of Morrissy’s devising. There is thus something of a Chinese puzzle here, suitably couched in the melodramatic rhetoric of the period. The tone mimics some of O’Casey’s own writerly language, influenced as it was by his early exposure to the music hall and popular theatre. His characters also appear regularly, and he is given to thinking of his sister’s life as theatre.
Bella’s predicament is Dickensian, down to Morrissy’s decision to name the villain of the piece Reverend Leeper. Dickens or no, the crime committed within her pages is so brutal the nearly comical name and representation of Leeper seems to undercut the author’s intent. Similarly, with so many women in the novel who seem perfectly capable of defending themselves, one wonders at Bella’s continued naivete, pretension and timidity.
But The Rising of Bella Casey is a welcome volume, especially as we commemorate a formative stage in Ireland's history and those who helped to make that history.