The Flower of May by Kate O’Brien (1953)

This novel, sadly out of print, is set early in the 20th century, and it tells the story of a younger daughter who loves her home and family but misses her convent school in Belgium until a chance comes to travel with the family of her dearest friend.

It is beautifully and clearly written, it has a wonderful cast of characters, and it would have sat very well with the selection of the author’s books that Virago reissued.

The story begins at an Irish family wedding. The writing was rather more formal than I have come to expect from Kate O’Brien, but I loved the way that she portrayed the occasion and made characters and relationships clear, often with just a few simple strokes. I particularly loved her drawing of the bride’s mother and father, which showed a wonderful understanding of how a long married couple might love and be infuriated by, understand and by mystified by each other.

Fanny, who had just turned eighteen years old, was bridesmaid at her elder sister’s wedding. She was happy that her sister had what she knew she had always wanted, but she knew that she wanted something different for herself.

She had been deeply disappointed to learn, only after she had returned home, that she would not be returning to her convent school in Belgium to study for her baccalaureate. Her parents hadn’t explained the reasons for their decision, but she had more than enough faith in them to know that there must be good reasons; that her sister’s wedding had been costly, and that maybe it was her turn to be the daughter who stayed at home.

Sympathetic to their daughter’s feelings, Fanny’s parents agree that she can  travel to Belgium to visit Lucille, her dearest friend, and that she can join Lucille, her two brother and her mother –  the Comtesse de Mellin – on a visit to Italy.

The writing that had began formally relaxed, and it captured the unfolding story quite beautifully.

The visit and the trip were a joy – for the girls and the reader. Fanny was warmly received into what was clearly a happy family, and the two friends had a lovely time exploring Italy together.  The country had less appeal for the Comtesse, who rather missed her husband and her home comforts, found took great pleasure watching the young people find do much to delight them.

Fanny was admired by the younger brother and charmed by the older. She knew though that their family was much, much grander than hers and that she could never be more to them than a family friend. That wasn’t a problem at all, because what both Fanny and Lucille had come to realise was that, though marriage could lie in the future, they wanted to be educated and to explore the world.

News from Ireland drove all thoughts of how they might do that from Fanny’s mind. Her mother was gravely ill and so she returned, not to her own home but to her grandfather’s home in the country that her mother has always considered to be her real home.

She no longer had the security of being the younger daughter; she had to support her father who struggled to cope without his wife by his side, and her sister whose marriage had been troubled from the start; and she saw strengths and weaknesses in the people around her they reacted to the situation and as she learned certain things about them.

Lucille turned to the Mère Générale of her school for advice, and then she travelled to Ireland to support her friend.

Fanny found that her aunt, who had stayed at home to look after her grandfather, understood her hopes for the future better than anyone; and that had done what she thought might not be possible. She had found a way for both of them – and Lucille –  to set out on the paths they wanted to tread ….

The story is beautifully constructed and told; mainly from Fanny’s perspectives but shifting sometimes to her mother and to her dear friend. The use of those different perspectives, they deployments and development of the cast of characters, the parallels between the set piece and the beginning of the book and the one near the end, were so thoughtful and they worked wonderfully well.

The characters and their relationships live and breathe in a world that is richly drawn and perfectly realised.

What struck me most of all was the strength and depth of the women characters and the relationships between them.

The friendship between Fanny and Lucille was perfectly drawn and I was quite sure that they would support one another throughout the courses of their lives. The dialogue between Lucille and her wise and compassionate Mère Générale was a joy, and I would have loved to spend more time at her school. It was wonderful to see Fanny realising what a remarkable woman her aunt was, and appreciating that she had held on to her own hopes for her future until she could let go of the responsibilities she felt for the people she loved.

I loved the way that this book said that home need not be holding on to a familiar place, that it could be holding on to loved ones, and it could be holding on to hopes and dreams and beliefs.

I can think of few coming of age stories more profound than this one. It moves from immature feelings about love and life, though loss and grief, to an understanding that acceptance of responsibility without sacrificing ambition would bring both security and spiritual grace.

It would be lovely to see it back in print ….

Pray for the Wanderer by Kate O’Brien (1938)

‘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.

617bq50SK-L__SL500_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.