Sean O’Faolain’s other women
An extract from Julia O’Faolain’s memoir ‘Trespassers’
Sean O'Faolain photographed on his 90th Birthday in February 1990.Photograph: Peter Thursfield
Here is a quote from one of Éamon de Valera’s more remarkable radio broadcasts, delivered in 1933. “The Irish genius has always stressed spiritual values . . . That is the characteristic that fits the Irish people in a special manner for the task of helping to save western civilisation.”
Being a year old when that claim was made, I knew nothing of the risk that saving the West might become part of a fascist agenda – as it might have that same year, when Irish citizens, enticed by the Blueshirt movement, were flirting with fascist plans. Luckily, these foundered when Gen O’Duffy, the potential Führer, lost his nerve.
A more tenacious spectre, however, was haunting our young Free State. When hopes of achieving a pious, all-Ireland republic foundered, hypocrisy – “the tribute vice pays to virtue” – grew exponentially. Coercion ensured that our population would at least seem to be amassing enough prayer power to help save the West – and that my age group would grow up in an age of pretence.
So how trust anyone’s memories?
I have been rereading Sean O’Faolain’s defiantly named memoir, Vive Modi , which he rewrote towards the end of his life. To spare my mother’s feelings, an edition published in the 1960s had made no mention of his love affairs.
Later, though, when he sensed love and identity slip away, he wrote an expanded version for publication after his death. This one too, though, missed completeness, not just through the paradox of that planned posthumous gasconade but also because, while wistfully reliving old loves, it failed to consider how they had affected my mother, or how best he and she might, in the time left to them, manage their mutual unhappiness. Instead, as his narrative advanced, her image receded – rather like those of the old comrades who vanished from group portraits in Stalin’s Russia.
She was stoical, as women of her generation often had to be. Her health, perhaps because of this, broke down, and Sean, who, it now turned out, both needed and was exasperated by her, lived with her until 1988, when she died. Then he fell apart, got dementia, lusted impotently after a youngish woman who encouraged him so rashly that he lost his bearings, fought with his housekeeper, ran into the street inadequately clad – some said not clad at all – to rage like Lear at the human condition and shock the neighbours who wrote to tell me this.
When I flew back from California, where I had been living, they invited me to tea so that I might be warned against the dangerous woman and hear how effectively they had concealed Sean’s sad antics from the editor of a national newspaper who lived on the same street. They were proud of having preserved decorum by keeping the incident out of the press. Virtue’s tribute had yet again been paid, and I, for once, was glad of this, because, although Sean had fought hard against the wretched Censorship of Publications Act and other petty curbs, he also, when in his right mind, cared as much as anyone about privacy.
Which is why, when I was growing up, I knew none of his secrets. These emerged piecemeal, sometimes indecorously and, as often as not, confusingly, as secrets tend to do.
Confusing moments, as it happens, can be the ones that stay with you.
Rue de Montpensier in Paris runs along the side of the Palais Royal garden, a place pulsing with memories of intriguing ghosts. The memory that comes to me, however, when I find myself there, focuses on Sean. It is of a baffled moment when he and I came out of one of its restaurants, and, having lunched too well and probably drunk a little too much, and being dazzled by sudden sunlight, I took a while to notice that he was weeping.
This must have been in the autumn of 1953, so Sean, who shared the century’s age, was also 53. He was embarrassed and apologetic, so I refrained from asking what was wrong.
I was shaken, though, for, being socially backward like most of my compatriots, I had always relied on him to be worldly and in control. He had been my mentor when it came to affairs of the heart, and, thinking back, I see that I must have known more about his than I let myself know I knew, though I remember guessing that his tears had to do with a woman.
With hindsight, his marriage to my mother strikes me as providing a small but telling illustration of how people in de Valera’s Ireland felt obliged to live. As was true of large parts of that society itself, disappointed idealism and a soured personal experience of its quarrelsome and rebelly past contributed to the glue that held them together. When Eileen died, it was 70 years since she and Sean had first met, as 18-year-old enthusiasts in a Gaelic class in Cork city. Ironically, in those days, de Valera was soon to become one of their heroes.
Did Sean ever let himself see how badly and often he hurt her? I’m not sure. Did I? Of course I did, but when their estrangement was at its worst, I was living abroad and trying to stretch the postgraduate scholarships that were enabling me to spend as many years as I could at the universities of Rome and Paris. So I limited my trips home, and, when I did make one, I felt unable to help, except once, about two years after the scene on Rue de Montpensier. By then I was entangled in my first serious love affair, which Sean manoeuvred me into ending by claiming that Eileen had threatened to leave him unless he got me to leave my lover, a French, north African, Jewish, communist activist, scandalously unsuitable in the eyes of the Ireland of the day.
“Your mother,” said Sean grandly, “is punching above her weight. She doesn’t realise that she couldn’t survive without me. And what’s worse, having issued her threat, she’ll be too proud to climb down. So it’s up to you to get us out of this mess. You’re the only one who can.”
This struck me as a mean passing of the buck.
“Why should I believe him?” I asked myself, and felt outrage both on her behalf and my own. But though his appeal might be a bluff, it seemed dangerous to call. Between us, I feared that he and I could indeed back Eileen into a corner and provoke her into some sort of craziness.
Could we, though? Truly?
What made me think we could was a small secret of my own, a shy memory of how, when I was six, I had been in love with her. There is no other term for my feelings at the time. Shortly before my brother’s birth, I became excessively attached to her, and something, I forget quite what, tipped this state of mind towards recklessness. Perhaps she had been talking too happily about the new baby she planned to bring home from the Hatch Street nursing home or had shown off her preparations with too much pride. There was, I remember, a softly draped and canopied cot in which I would have enjoyed sleeping myself, if it had been big enough, with next to it a Moses basket heaped with crocheted coatees, bonnets and tiny shoes. All new!
The sight made me so jealous that I went straight into Eileen’s garden, where I picked and ate a selection of brightly coloured berries that I had been warned were poisonous. “Attention-seeking” I suppose this would now be called or, more charitably, a “cry for help”. In the end it failed as both, when the berries turned out not to be poisonous after all. Nobody knew I’d eaten them, and I don’t even remember being sick.
Dangers of jealousy
In 1955, though, what the embarrassing old memory brought home to me was the danger of making people jealous. At the same time, I began to wonder whether, despite what Sean thought, Eileen might do very well without him. Better perhaps. She could still go beagling in Wicklow with her friend Lily and to point-to-point races and country-house auctions. Couldn’t she?
For all I knew she might be happier. Maybe. But I couldn’t risk being wrong, even though she was still an attractive woman who, I knew, had in their early years as a couple been its livewire.
But now he was a successful writer and public figure, while she was a middle-aged housewife, and I wasn’t worldly enough to judge her chances of – well, what? Didn’t people speak of “making a new life”? In Ireland, that didn’t happen often. Not then. Not for women.
And Sean back then was still dangerously good-looking. Someone might snap him up. They would certainly try. Quite recently I had noticed women brighten in his presence. He was burning with energy, long-legged and lean, with good cheekbones and an amused smile. There are photographs to prove it.
For all I knew, however, he might have invented the story about her threatening to leave him. He was a fiction writer, after all. Impish and a bit of a tease! When bored at a party, he was quite capable of opening a woman’s handbag, if he found one left on a chair, and shamelessly examining the contents. I had seen him do this more than once. If caught him rifling through it, he would laugh easily, claim that this was research, then chaff the bag’s owner about secrets he would pretend to have found.
Next, he might argue that writing and living needed to feed off each other. A good way to write a short story, he sometimes told young writers who came to tea, was to bring two narrative ideas together, make them interact and see what would happen. How could I be sure that he wasn’t doing this very thing with Eileen’s life and mine? “Leave him, or she’ll leave me,” was how he had started our conversation. “I’m appealing to you for her sake.”
Was this true, though? He could be manipulating me, just as Irish governments manipulated voters when they appealed to national pride, then forestalled further argument by banning abortion, divorce and contraceptives, and stepping up the censorship of films, newspapers and books.
To survive in such a place, and report unwelcome truths, you needed to develop guile. Sean did, and the one time he used it on me was when he persuaded me to test myself and my French lover by staying apart for a year to see if we would keep faith with each other. We didn’t, of course. Each of us blamed the other. And my parents’ marriage staggered on for another three decades. Then they died within three years of each other.
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So how, to come back to my question, when looking back on a delusive and deluded country, can I trust my own memory, or tell whether I saw anything clearly in the first place?
Wondering about this, I try to remember my young self. “She’s easily flustered and highly strung!” That was what my mother warned my husband to expect when she met him first, which was two years after I and my Frenchman broke up, and four years after I began to doubt Sean’s omniscience and savvy.
I had had doubts about these earlier, when he gave me a golden rule to help me decide whether or not to go to bed with a man. If I was to avoid self-dislike and moral squalor, I should, he advised, do so only when I was at least starting to fall in love. Properly, truly in love, he specified. This, in the Ireland of the day, seemed benignly permissive, but it paralysed me. Am I in love, I would ask myself when the moment arose, then take my emotional temperature and freeze.
Young men, taken aback by this, could be scathing. A handsome, charming but, to my mind, too matter-of-fact young Frenchman called Robert took me to dinner and then to the Bois de Boulogne, where he hired a boat and attempted to make love to me as we drifted into the dark. When given the frozen treatment, he said sourly, “So, you’re holding on to your little capital, is that it?”
He assumed I was a virgin, which by then I no longer was. The question bothering me was my emotional state, which depended on his and on the likelihood that feeling might play a role in this encounter, especially as I had just spent a year in Rome, where I had grown used to Italian readiness to indulge in patient, courteous, unconsummated foreplay, which allowed me and my male friends to warm ourselves in the glow of an old-fashioned amitié amoureuse .
The evening with Robert, an honest man and an adult, was a debacle.
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Suffering from a nine-year itch (he had married my mother in 1928), my father had developed a cerebral passion for the novelist Elizabeth Bowen, his imagined “Irish Turgenev”. They hadn’t met, but to remedy this, an amused Derek Verschoyle, editor of the Spectator , for which Sean sometimes reviewed, arranged a small luncheon party at his London club and, one may guess, prepared the ground by telling Elizabeth how keenly this ex-IRA man admired her.
Sean was good-looking, and it seems that Bowen’s marriage, though solid, was unconsummated. So he and she began an affair. “Why,” he later remembered wondering during that lunch, “might I not learn as much from her about Woman as I had already learned from Turgenev about Writing?”
Interestingly, her next lover, the Canadian diplomat Charles Ritchie, whom she would meet in 1941 and love for 30 years, considered her writing “infinitely more exciting . . . and profound than E herself ”.
Inspiring cerebral passions seems to have been her forte.
Sean describes a final visit to her in London on August 31st, 1939, when, as they “lay abed, passion sated”, her husband rang to say that the fleet had been ordered to mobilise, “which means war”.
It also meant the end of their affair, as neutral Ireland would now be isolated and Elizabeth, when she did come over, would be doing so – though Sean did not know this at first – partly at the behest of the British ministry of information, which was eager to have her report on how Irish people felt about the English threat to take back the Irish ports.
A letter from her to a former lover, Humphrey House, describes Sean without naming him and says, “we are . . . very much in love. It doesn’t feel like a love affair. It feels like a marriage . . . He is the best (I think without prejudice) of the younger Irish writers. I only read any book of his last summer . . .”
She claims that she nearly wrote him a fan letter. Then that he wrote her a fan letter, so they met. This account of their manoeuvring is more hesitant and less Stendhalian than Sean’s but probably slightly arranged – as no doubt is his. After all, both were writers. She says nice things about Eileen, mentions her husband and my five-year-old self, and says that, as they would both hate to upset anyone, “We are paying for our happiness by being very good. We are both, by nature, extremely secretive, which helps.”
Tension in the house
The above information comes from their pens. All I knew at the time was that there was a bristle of tension in our house, that Eileen was restive and that Sean was making trips not just to London but to Cork – and not to Cork city, either, where his mother lived, but to Bowen’s home,
Bowenscourt. Why, I heard Eileen ask, if he was going, as he claimed, to a house party, had she not been invited too? Airily implausible, he insisted that it was to be a professional gathering that only writers would attend. A likely story! And yet, given his view of Elizabeth as an Irish Turgenev, there was some truth to his claim. His interest was not only professionalbut also a form of fieldwork.
Muted rows dragged on, and Eileen must at some point have met Elizabeth, because, later, she disparagingly described her as wearing yards of fake pearls. No doubt they met at one of the dinners hosted by the Irish Academy of Letters, for Sean had meanwhile introduced Bowen to its founder, the aged Yeats, whom she apparently charmed.
Sean himself was mesmerised. He and Bowen had so much in common: Co Cork, romanticism and its opposite, emotional doubleness, their restless age (when they met, both, like the century itself, were 37), short stories – they both wrote them, and she drew attention in her Faber Book of Modern Stories , which appeared that same year, to the fact that “the younger Irish writers” had all carried arms.
This remark fitted Sean’s case almost too neatly, as, having both made bombs and carried a gun, he had indeed “carried arms”, but, as far as I know, he himself never turned them on anyone. He was proud of his marksmanship, though, and shooting was for years to be one of his hobbies. The story of his that appears in Bowen’s Faber anthology is The Bombshop .
This is an edited extract from Trespassers , published by Faber and Faber, £14.99