‘Mary Lavelle’, Kate O’Brien’s third novel, the story of a young Irish governess who lost her heart to the married son of her Spanish employer, was banned in Ireland. The banning order – under the Censorship of Publications Act of 1929 – was granted swiftly after publication and was not revoked until 1967.
This book is said to be the author’s response to that act of censorship.
It tells the story of Matt Costello, who fought in Civil War only to leave Ireland, disillusioned when a peace treaty was brokered. He travelled to America, he found success as a novelist and a playwright, and then he settled in London. He loved his life. He went home, to the family farm in Mellick, for the first time in years, telling himself that he was going because it was time, but knowing at heart that he was retreating because his actress lover, who he wanted to marry, had chosen to stay with her husband.
His relationship with his elder brother, Will, a veteran of the Great War, had stood the test of time and separation and was happily resumed; Will’s wife, Una, was pleased to see that, and Matt was struck by how capably she managed her home and her young children; those children where very impressed with the uncle they had only ever heard about, while he enjoyed his role and played it well.
Kate O’Brien wrote beautifully, and she made these characters, and others that she would introduce, live and breathe. I could hear their voices as they talked about all of the things that you would expect a family to talk about, and about their concerns for De Valera’s Ireland.
This is not a book with a great deal of plot; its interest comes from the Costello family, the people around them, and the time when they lived. I found much to appreciate, and I suspect that a reader closer to the history would find even more.
Matt was acutely aware of what wasn’t being said – or at least not said in his hearing. He knew that he was the subject of gossip, and that his lifestyle had been judged harshly and found wanting. And he was aware that even those who had congratulated him on his success knew little of his work, because his work was either censored or not accepted for publication in his home country.
That disappointed him; but he was aware that his family and their neighbours were happy and secure in their faith and their way of life, and he felt the lack of anything like that in his own life.
He was drawn to Una’s sister, Nell. She was bright, she was well educated, and she had travelled . But she had chosen to come home, to accept the values she had been raised with and the teaching of her faith, and to become a school teacher. And yet she had turned down the proposal of a young man who all her friends and family had tought she would marry.
Nell was a fascinating character, and I could happily have read a book that told her story.
Knowing that he had to make a decision about his future, and tempted by the comfort andcharm of family life, and by the beauty of his native land, Matt proposed to her. Her response, and the dialogue and the events that followed, we every bit as wonderful as I could hope.
This is a short novel and, aside from that final drama, a quiet story, but it speaks clearly and articulately of the conflict between art and faith, about the need to make and accept choices, without ever losing sight of the very human story that is being told.
I can’t say that it is Kate O’Brien’s best work, but she was such a good writer, and I am sorry that this book seems to have been out of print for quite some time.
I hadn’t heard of it when I spotted it in a Devon bookshop last summer, but I picked it up on the strength of the author’s name.
I’m very glad that I did, and that The 1938 Club inspired me to pick it up and read.