From the bohemia of Baggot Street, to a New York point of view
Mary Lavin had a curiosity, wit and wisdom that made her essential reading , whether on the pages of the ‘New Yorker’ or in her many collections and novels
On the last day of August 1967, the author Mary Lavin boarded the SS United States with her youngest daughter, Caroline Walsh. They were headed for Manhattan; from there, they would make their way to the University of Connecticut (UConn), where Lavin had been appointed writer-in-residence. By this time, two decades into her career as a fiction writer, Lavin had published nine collections of short stories and had a contract with the New Yorker ; she had twice received a Guggenheim fellowship and was in demand for readings and speaking engagements at several American universities.
UConn was keen to have her, so much so that the visiting-writer position had been created especially so that Lavin could stay for a whole semester.
The arrival in Connecticut of this author was news. Lavin’s fictions captured, with equal parts sharpness and compassion, the way people were, both in public and in private. Her stories richly evoked, with a rare incisiveness and a wry humour, the inner lives of people, especially women, mothers and widows.
In her first couple of weeks on campus, the Hartford Courant ran an item on Lavin, noting that her creative-writing instruction was “not in the traditional classroom style”. Indeed, classrooms were scarcely part of the Lavin pedagogy. Students were instead expected to come to her for individual mentoring, which was likely as intense an experience as those students had during their college days, no matter what kind of smoke the late 1960s might have wafted their way. This was a shot of Baggot Street bohemia looking out over New England lawns.
As for 14-year-old Caroline, the months in Connecticut meant swapping Miss Meredith’s Academy – where her classes included Latin with Maeve Binchy – for the bustle and swagger of the EO Smith High School, where the sports teams were called the Panthers, the younger brothers of one of the Monkees was a classmate, and everyone from sophomore year up was pretending they’d been at the Summer of Love.
It would be a remarkable adventure for any Irish teenager, even for one who’d had as unconventional an upbringing as did all three of Lavin’s daughters, shuttling between a farm in Co Meath and a Lad Lane mews. Between Bewleys, the National Library and St Stephen’s Green – their mother’s writing haunts. Between the studio of the designer Nellie Mulcahy, who made all of Lavin’s “costumes”, and the old Morris Minor that took them, when New Yorker or award money came through, to France or Italy for a jaunt along backroads and mountain towns. The Walsh girls (their father, William, had died young in 1954) knew adventure well enough as it was.
Still, for Caroline, America could not but be a discovery. It was, after all, her first visit to the country of her mother’s birth; Lavin had been born in East Walpole, Massachusetts in June 1912 and had lived there until the age of 10. Indeed, even the week on the ocean liner was freighted with significance for Caroline, since it was on just such a voyage that her maternal grandparents, Lavin’s Roscommon father and her Galway mother, had met, some 60 years before. Lavin later dramatised their first encounter and subsequent marriage in her 1973 story Tom ; the title character walks up the gangplank of a ship and spies a beautiful young woman sitting in a deck chair, reading a book. Over the course of the journey, Tom will court Nora by inscribing his name in her book on whatever page it is on each time she leaves it aside.
Years later, when Nora is his wife and has taken their daughter back to Ireland from Massachusetts – just as happened with the real Nora and the young Mary – he writes letters to their little girl, letters that “told so much love it lies on the pages still, although the ink has faded and the paper frayed.”
Last month, on the UConn campus where Mary Lavin and Caroline Walsh spent a semester, a display case held a set of fraying pages begun by the daughter and edited by the mother; a draft of Caroline’s Master’s thesis on Edith Wharton, written at UCD under the supervision of Denis Donoghue.
The typescript is so covered in Lavin’s scrawling notes and changes as to be almost indecipherable; observations on Wharton’s books Summer, Ethan Frome and Bunner Sisters are crossed out, moved around, tightened and rephrased: the edits themselves are edited, and a line in Lavin’s pencilled hand about Wharton – “Her confidence has broken down and we see panic striking, trying to save the story” – seems apposite; most students, seeing a draft come back in such shape, would scarcely know how to put it back together again.
But these exchanges were part of the beginning of Caroline Walsh’s training as an editor, and they stemmed from Lavin’s own meticulousness as an editor of work-in-progress, a meticulousness that Lavin had once described in a letter to her New Yorker editor, Rachel MacKenzie, as a “diabolic compulsion . . . like a tailor – a crazy tailor – sitting crosslegged hemming the bits of cloth he has cut away from the pattern”.
Those discarded pieces of cloth were often far from useless; in fact, it was on the discarded draft of her own graduate thesis, on Virginia Woolf, that Lavin had written the draft of her very first short story, Miss Holland , back in 1938. She had quite simply decided one day that she wanted to write fiction instead of writing about it, and she turned the thesis typescript over, and began.
The centenary of Mary Lavin’s birth last year was marked by events in Ireland and the US, but it was an occasion impossible to truly celebrate, so shadowed was it by the death of Caroline Walsh just months earlier. She had been excited about the prospect of her mother’s centenary, and, with her husband James Ryan, had helped to put many of the commemorative events together. Some of those, including symposia at UCD and NYU, went ahead in altered forms, but the Gerson Reading at UConn, which was to have taken Lavin as its focus, had to be cancelled, as Caroline was to have been the keynote speaker.
Last month, however, a reimagined version of that Gerson reading took place. Titled Mother and Daughter , it was presented as a celebration of both women, and featured writers who bore the influence of Lavin and who worked often with Walsh in her capacity as literary editor of The Irish Times . Before reading from The Gathering , Anne Enright said that Walsh had been her “antidote to Ireland”. Colm Tóibín spoke about his discovery of Lavin as a schoolboy in the 1960s, and about Walsh’s pioneering work in literary journalism, which saw to it that the appearance of important new books was regarded as news.
An accompanying exhibition, curated by UConn in collaboration with Walsh’s daughter Alice Ryan, gave a sense of the mother-daughter relationship in question. It included that heavily-annotated thesis manuscript, along with family photographs and several items from the semester that Lavin and Walsh spent in Connecticut. Among these were drama and sports certificates from the EO Smith High School, and the ship’s manifest for their return sailing across the Atlantic – a Miss Edna O’Brien was one of their co-passengers.
That image, of O’Brien and Lavin on the same boat, seems not without a deeper resonance. Prior to the event, UConn’s Timothy Moriarty Award for Irish Studies was presented to Tara Harney-Mahajan, a doctoral student who is researching the connections between Lavin and O’Brien, in particular the ways in which critical categorisations of the work of both authors as “intimate” or “domestic” (read: women’s fiction) have functioned to limit their perceived scope.
In her introduction to Mary Lavin , a new collection of critical essays to be published by Irish Academic Press at the end of this month, editor Elke D’hoker makes clear that scholarly attention to Lavin’s work “seems to have lagged” in the past few decades. Part of the problem, D’hoker suggests, is that Lavin’s fiction does not fit the mould of the modern Irish story as developed by her contemporaries, Frank O’Connor and Seán Ó Faoláin. It lacks the “political interests” of their work, as well as “their celebration of the romantic outsider or exile as . . . hero”. Nor did what D’hoker terms the critical “feminist recovery projects” of the 1990s focus intensely on Lavin – possibly, says D’hoker, because Lavin’s portraits of motherhood and working women “sit uneasily with contemporary feminists.”
But the Irish Academic Press collection (which includes essays by Maurice Harmon, Anne Fogarty, Heather Ingman and Derek Hand, with a foreword by Tóibín) points to a new momentum in Lavin studies, as does the work of scholars such as Harney-Mahajan. There are also moves afoot at UConn and NYU to establish scholarships or bursary funds in the author’s name.
The next step will be to again make Lavin’s work accessible to readers. The centenary precipitated the reissue of Happiness and Other Stories (1969) by New Island and of her debut, Tales From Bective Bridge (1942) by an online imprint of Faber, but her other 17 collections remain out of print. It would be a pity to lose that work; a pity not to have the presence, on bookshelves and on reading lists, of that sharp eye on society, that curiosity about human behaviour, that great wisdom, that ever-knowing wit. For her ship has not sailed. We need it still.