My Cousin Justin – or, Turn Ever Northward – by Margaret Barrington (1939)

This is the Irish Virago Modern Classic that wasn’t that I wrote about a few days ago.

I had been reading ‘The House on Clewe Street’ by Mary Lavin, and I noticed that there was a list of books by other Irish authors. I saw many familiar names and titles, but  I also saw an unfamiliar title and the name of an author that I thought – no, I knew – that Virago hadn’t published.

‘My Cousin Justin’ by Margaret Barrington.

I couldn’t find out much at all about the author or the book, but I saw reasonable priced copies, and so I decided to take a chance.

When my book arrived, when I started to read, I found that  had bought a historical novel set during turbulent years in the early years of the twentieth century.

The Thorauld family made its fortune on spinning mills and built a large, grand, stone house on the north-west coast of Ireland.

“North the land lies in great tongues out into the sea, protected by walls of black basalt, heave, rounded, smooth as a belly. When these bens do not present an even front to the ocean, the sea pours in over rocks and sand-bars, forming long, sandy bays which lie golden and blue under the summer sun, bleak and wind-swept in the winter storms.

At the foot of one of these little bays, sheltered by green hills lay the little village of Glasthule. Beyond the hills stretched the great moors rising gradually to the heights of the Slieve Dhu range. It lay cosy and snug, like an egg in the nest, forty houses or so, squat whitewashed buldings, golden-thatched, the roofs fasten with ropes and weighed down with stones. They surrounded a triangular green on which geese of unknown age and ownership grazed.

At the south corner of the green, near the church, there stood, apart from the other houses, a grey stone building. It was built in the French stly, surrounding a cobbled courtyard, and showed a bare front and shuttered windows to the world ….”

It was here, “forgotten and it seemed abandoned” by parents who lived abroad, that cousins Loulie Delahaie and Justin Thorauld grew up. They were educated at home by their grandfather, in a household that was managed by his unmarried daughter. They were set apart from the village children, because they were gentry and because they were different; and so they grew wild and they grew close.

61qHoaW1cOL__SL500_SX373_BO1,204,203,200_Loulie tells the story, and her account of these childhood years is rich and it is very well told. She catches the atmosphere of the old house, the dynamics of the small family group, the wild bleak landscape, and so many adventures that the cousins share.

The story loses a little when they are parted.

Justin is sent away to school, and then he is sent away to fight in the Great War. He marries in haste, believing that he will not return from the front, and his bride creates a sensation when she appear at his grandfather’s house.

Loulie’s parents return to Ireland and she is sent to live with them in a very different part of the country. Unhappy there, she escapes to college in Dublin. Then she finds work on a newspaper, she is drawn into the Republican movement, and that brings Egan – a boy from the village who had clashed with Justin – back into her life. He is a Republican too, a gunman on the run from the Black and Tans. She hides him, she falls in love with him, and they marry.

But Loulie finds that she and her husband are as mismatched as Justin and his bride; and that their shared cause was more important to him than it was to her.

The arc of their relationship is caught beautifully.

“I knew full well that Egan was slipping away from me, that I did not possess the wisdom to hold him, and if I did I could not use it. I knew that it would be better to leave him now than to watch him drift away, but I could not. There were times when I wished I could kill him to rid myself of this tyranny of love, yet I knew that not even death would set me free. It was a tyranny born as much in the mind as in the senses. I was caught up like a rabbit in a snare, and I did not know which way to turn.”

The human story is always at the forefront, but the bigger history is well explained.

I felt that I knew Loulie well, but I would have liked to have seen a little more of Justin’s and Owen’s lives and to understand a little better how they became the men they were.

But I understood enough to empathise with Loulie when she thought:

“As I watched my husband and my cousin, I realised for the first time that each was as badly mulilated as if he had lost an arm or leg. What they had lost was more because one could not see it. The scars of war lay on their souls, and old wounds ache.”

The story was a little contrived, but the lives and times felt real and true.

Margaret Barrington wrote well, and I am sorry that her first novel was also her last. She might have grown into a very interesting novelist, but she chose life as a journalist, an interpreter and a political activist.

I have no idea why his book didn’t become a Virago Modern Classic; but I’m glad that it at least made the ‘forthcoming’ list and that I found it.

The arc of Loulie’s story might not have entirely pleased a feminist publishing house, but I could say that same thing for quite a few books that Virago has published.

And yes, there are weaknesses – contrivances and a lack of depth in parts of the story – but I will remember this books for its strengths.

It gave me a greater understanding of Irish views of those conflicts, without ever lecturing; it wrapped those arguments up in an engaging human drama; and it described the setting of this drama, the place that Louilie and Justin would always think of as home, wonderfully well.

7 thoughts on “My Cousin Justin – or, Turn Ever Northward – by Margaret Barrington (1939)

  1. I have so much to learn about Irish literature! I enjoy books that explore big ideas or big events like this, through individual people’s lives, letting us see the effects through the people involved. It’s so effective when it’s well done. I wonder how her book was received, and if that had any impact on her decision not to write more fiction.

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    1. She did continue to write short stories for magazines, and I believe that a collection was published at some point. I couldn’t find much biographical information at all but my impression was that journalism was Margaret Barrington’s preferred ‘writing outlet’.

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