KATE O’BRIEN (1897-1974)
In 1936 the Irish novelist Kate O’Brien’s novel Mary Lavelle was banned in her homeland for its dangerous representations of women on the verge of a social breakthrough.
When Mary Lavelle is about to be introduced to Agatha Conlan, she is warned that she is ‘The worst-tempered woman in Spain’. Keogh says, ‘She’s a bit of a poser’; Barker says, ‘She’s just not like the rest of us, that’s all’; and Duggan says, ‘Deo gratias … One of her sort is quite enough’. It is no wonder that Mary, by now quite intrigued, says, ‘She sounds queer’. The two women duly meet, and Agatha Conlan takes Mary Lavelle to a bullfight. Agatha is thrilled by the magnificent first kill, causing Mary to think, ‘You might take her for a boy just now’. As they get to know each other, a slow-burning romance develops between them; but nothing is spoken out loud until Mary announces her intention of going home to Ireland. Agatha speaks at last. Referring to an earlier conversation, she says, ‘You asked me if I’d ever had a crush—on a matador, of all people! … And I said I’d never had a crush on a living creature. That would have been true up to the first day I saw you. It’s not true any more’. She adds, ‘Are you shocked? I like you the way a man would, you see. I never can see you without—without wanting to touch you. I could look at your face forever’. However, used as she is to suppressing her instincts, she withdraws her declaration with an abrupt ‘Forget it. Forget the rot I talked’.
Two weeks later, they are taking their leave of each other in the station café. No reference has been made to Agatha’s confession of desire. Mary has not dwelt on it. All we really know is that she did not react as negatively as she might have: ‘Mary had not been frightened or repulsed’. Now, Agatha asks for a photograph, but Mary does not have one; she agrees to send one. Agatha takes this last opportunity to speak out, saying, ‘I’ll never forget my first sight of you … I had never known anything about attraction to other people or about the sensation of pleasure human beauty can give … So I fell into what my confessor calls the sin of Sodom’. To which Mary aptly responds, ‘They have queer names for things’. Mary’s male lover Juanito comes into the café to take her away, and in the next chapter he and Mary make love in enough purple prose to paper a 1970s lounge. When Mary finally takes her homeward train through the Pyrenees she remembers the leave-taking at the station café: ‘Agatha had cried at the station—she never thought Agatha could cry’. It is this image of the apparently strong, manly woman reduced to tears by her affection for a more womanly woman that completes the book’s account of Agatha Conlan.
All of this was too much for the Irish Republic and Mary Lavelle was suppressed. After Kate O’Brien’s death her lover Lorna Reynolds wrote an unsatisfactory, unforthcoming biography of her, calling their relationship ‘a memorable and stormy friendship’. (What could be more demeaning to a love affair than to patronise it with the epithet ‘memorable’?) Commenting on the book ban, she says, with some animus, ‘The Church has always made a place for sinners in its widespread commonwealth, but the Irish state would have none of them’. In 1941 O’Brien’s novel The Land of Spices was likewise banned. Reynolds has not much more to say about the matter than this: ‘The Chairman [of the Censorship Board], Professor [William] Magennis, also a Senator, waxed magnificently eloquent in expression of his horror and disgust at any reference to such a subject [as homosexuality] and his fear for the young people of the country, if they were to learn of its existence’ (Reynolds 1997). The problem boiled down to a single phrase in the book: ‘in the embrace of love’—referring to two males. (It may remind the reader of that most shocking clause in The Well of Loneliness, ‘and that night they were not divided’.)
The scene in question occurs when the central character, Helen, at the age of eighteen, goes home unexpectedly and looks in the window of her father’s study: ‘She saw Etienne and her father, in the embrace of love’. (Etienne Marot is a student of his.) This awesome moment constitutes, for her, ‘the last scene of youth, of innocence’. She will always remember its immediate effect, ‘her savage awareness of total change’. Her mind replays the scene involuntarily and repeatedly, especially when she is alone in the quiet of the night: ‘She remembered how the picture of Etienne and her father, stamped on her brain, became luridly vivid in those nights, and would not leave the stretched canvas of her eyelids. She remembered how it changed, became dreadful, became vast or savaged or gargoyled or insanely fantastical; how it became a temptation, a curiosity, a threat, and sometimes no more than piteous, no more than dreary, sad’. In other words, she goes through a whole gamut of common homophobic reactions. The veil of civility has been rent—the very same veil that the Irish establishment sought to maintain by banning books. ‘So that was the sort of thing that the most graceful life could hide! That was what lay around, under love, under beauty. That was the flesh they preached about, the extremity of what the sin of the flesh might be. Here, at home, in her father, in the best person she had known or hoped to know’.
O’Brien foreshadows the revelation of the father, Henry Archer’s homosexuality with some fairly cumbersome dramatic irony, concentrated in Helen’s and her mother Catherine’s attitudes to him. For instance, of Helen as a child, the narrative declares that ‘It always delighted her to come on the sight of him suddenly and realise, always with new pleasure, that he was different from other men’. There will, of course, be a time when she ‘come[s] on the sight of him suddenly’ and makes the same discovery, to somewhat less delightful effect. Catherine unguardedly says to her at one point, ‘Father is the Socrates of our suburb, darling’. Catherine dies when Helen is eleven. (The young violinist Etienne went to Henry Archer for English lessons. The maid Marie-Jeanne thought Archer was grooming him to marry Helen.) The rest of the novel is about Helen’s compensation for and recovery from this moment. She develops a hatred of her father and then a vocation. At the time of narration, she is the Reverend Mother in a convent.
Kate O’Brien, Mary Lavelle (London: Heinemann, 1936), pp.84, 117, 284, 285, 286, 295, 298, 343, 156-159. All French names are italicised throughout the book. I am grateful to Catherine Byron for drawing my attention to O’Brien and her work.
Lorna Reynolds, Kate O’Brien: A Literary Portrait (Gerrards Cross, Bucks: Colin Smythe, & Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1987), pp.62, 75.