Stories of shame and repression from neglected Irish writer Maeve Brennan in 'The Springs of Affection'

AN IRISH woman and a stylish inhabitant of New York whose elegant prose appeared regularly in the New Yorker and who published two collections of stories and a collection of essays during her life-time, Maeve Brennan (1917-1993) had to quit writing after a breakdown in the 1970s. 

Stories of shame and repression from neglected Irish writer Maeve Brennan in 'The Springs of Affection'

She died, unknown. This collection of her Dublin-based stories was first published in 1997.

It’s a mixture of memoir and a study of two unhappy marriages. The memoir pieces read like anecdotes, often amusing.

The first piece, ‘The Morning after the Big Fire’, is told from the perspective of the young protagonist who is terribly excited by the sight of a fire in a local garage close to her family home in Ranelagh.

Brennan has the traits of a good reporter, describing the fire in great detail (as seen from a window in her home) to her neighbours until she realises her limitations.

Forbidden to actually go to the badly charred garage, she resents one of her neighbour’s visit to the scene of the blaze. “...I knew that when he came back, he would be a greater authority than I.”

The physical world that Brennan’s tales occupy is narrow in its focus, mostly centring round her middle-class childhood home at 48, Cherryfield Avenue in Ranelagh.

But the best of her stories are universal in their preoccupation with relationships, grief and the way families see the same events differently.

In a memoir piece, ‘The Clever One’, Maeve and her sister, Derry, are reminiscing about their childhood.

Maeve is “thunderstruck” when her sister reveals that she was faking her supposed danger of contracting St Vitus’s Dance. This meant that Derry didn’t have to help with the washing-up.

“Derry’s delicate health had loomed as importantly in my childhood as the Catholic Church and the fight for Irish freedom,” writes Brennan.

Her short stories involve two couples, the Derdons and the Bagots, who live interchangeably in Brennan’s childhood home. The Derdons are a particularly miserable couple.

In ‘A Young Girl Can Spoil Her Chances’, Hubert Derdon sees his wife, Rose, going to Mass “wearing the face that she showed the world... her pretension, the pitiful air she wore of being a certain sort of person.”

Brennan’s subtle but deadly evisceration of this marriage sees the author switching back in time to the beginning of the Derdon’s relationship in ‘A Free Choice’. Both parties misread the other’s actions.

At a dance in a posh house, Rose is disappointed that Hubert hadn’t asked her to dance given that he’d been calling to her mother’s shop regularly, to see her. Another man, the dashing Jim Nolan, has also let her down.

He led her to understand that he’d be back for a second dance. It transpires that Hubert, highly narked when he saw Jim with Rose, is unable to dance. He was ashamed to admit this to Rose.

In another story, the Derdons, now married for 27 years, engage in petty squabbles. At the root of Rose’s unhappiness is the fact that their only child, John, became a priest, leaving her bereft.

The unhappy Bagots have two daughters and lost their three-day-old son. It is the couple’s twelfth wedding anniversary and the wife, Delia, puts a bowl of flowers into his room to try to “break the silence.”

By mistake, Martin shatters the glass bowl, a metaphor for the couple’s relationship.

In the harsh title story, Martin’s twin sister, the embittered Min, is the last in her family to be alive. She despised Delia.

But what she really disapproves of is sex. She never married. “She had never wanted to assert herself like that.”

Beneath the surface, Brennan reveals embedded shame in an Ireland of not that long ago.

The Springs of Affection

Maeve Brennan

The Stinging Fly, €15

Review: Colette Sheridan

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