Clothes maketh the man, Mother used to say. Her words stay with you as you riffle through the hanging ghosts in your wardrobe. It’s a moment of infinite anticipation. What to wear? The evening’s expectations are secreted among the limp fall of fabrics, the yielding crush of shoulder pads, the sly whispers of silk. You whisk two or three recruits from the comradely army in the closet and set them up around the room – over the mirror, on the twin mother-of-pearl inlaid handles of the wardrobe, or fainting on the bed. It makes it seem more like play; makes more of a ritual of it.
Often the bedroom will end up strewn with discarded clothes, denuded hangers, fleets of shoes poised in the second position and still, you won’t have made a choice. You find such disarray intoxicatingly seedy, though nothing could be further from the truth. You’re a careful dresser, in fact, discreet, but unambiguously feminine.
Once in a blue moon, I am asked to do an interview with an academic journal. It’s a treat for a writer, particularly someone like me who’s writing in a minor key, to have her work given close attention by someone in the serious business of reading. Beyond a spurt of reviews on publication – if you’re lucky – there are few outlets in mainstream journalism for thoughtful consideration of creative work. Which is where the academic journal comes in. Sadly, though, most academic journals have tiny readerships which means that intelligent and accessible writing on creative work often languishes unseen.
Dr Loredana Salis of the University of Sassari interviewed me last year when I was visiting Sardinia on an EFACIS (European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies) reading tour of Italy. Dr Salis is a passionate Irish Studies scholar and a most perceptive reader of my work. (The headline above is hers – revealing a canny internal sub-editor trying to get out.) Her questions made me think and made me question how and why I write.
The following is an edited version of that interview which appeared in Studi Irlandesi earlier this year. The full text can be accessed here: http://www.fupress.com/bsfm-sijis
L: Let us begin from the end, and from your most recent literary effort – a collection of short stories entitled Prosperity Drive – that is where I came across that wonderful line, “on the brink of the absolutely forbidden”, which seems to be a perfect description of where your writing and your characters are.
M: Yes, I’d agree that the territory I’m exploring in Prosperity Drive is close to the transgressive, particularly the sexually transgressive. The characters to whom this line refers – a teenage couple overcome by lust – draw back from the forbidden but many of the characters in these stories go into the area of taboo.
L: Indeed, your characters often and deliberately challenge and break taboos. It has to do with curiosity and courage, and with being true to one’s self too. I wonder whether this also applies to you as a creative writer?
M: I don’t know about that big word, courage. I think the rather downbeat nature of a lot of my fiction is being true to my view of the world, although off the page I’m more cheery. When I look back over my work I see a curiosity about form, about playing with form. The linked short stories in Prosperity Drive are about seeing how you can push the boundaries of the short story form while the novels, inspired by real people and events, play with fictional biography or biographical fiction.
L: The line – “on the brink of the absolutely forbidden” – is taken from a short story entitled “Diaspora”. Would you say something about the genesis of your collection?
M: Well, the stories started as separate, discrete entities and then as I waswriting them, several of the characters reappeared and so I thought I’d make a short story cycle out of them i.e. a collection where all the stories could stand on their own but that when read together, they would have a cumulative effect. The stories spring from a fictional suburban street in Dublin but,of course, it’s impossible to write about Ireland without coming up against the theme of emigration. And some of the stories are set during the Celtic Tiger,so you have the experience of immigration as well, mostly from Eastern Europe. Not exactly a new phenomenon – in my childhood in the 60s therewere refugees from Hungary, followed by the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s – though people tend to forget that now. So the ‘diaspora’ theme is built into the content, and also reflects the form of the stories which is like a scattering from a fixed point.
L: That is a delicate issue, especially now, across the European continent.And yes, we seem to have forgotten what it used to be like in the past. History repeats itself, but… what strikes me in your description of the new stories is that somehow the architecture of the narrative has changed: in The Rising of Bella Casey the form of the story is cyclical – it ends where it begins. Now the stories ‘scatter’ from the centre. How does this reflect your own experience with writing?
M: After writing three novels, returning to the short story was a great relief. There is the relatively instant gratification of working the short form,though the main difference between the stories in A Lazy Eye and Prosperity Drive is that my stories have got much longer. Also I, suppose with a short story cycle I was trying to stretch the form, see how elastic it could be, how it might mimic the characteristics of the novel in some respects.
L: And the result was?
M: Well, my editor at Jonathan Cape called the result an “exploded novel” – I quite like that. It implies the shattering of both forms.
L: The idea of giving women visibility lies at the heart of your reconstruction of Bella’s life in The Rising of Bella Casey. Your writing about her seems to be an act of just retribution: you rescue her from the murderous hands of her brother Séan, and yet your insight into O’Casey’s troubled conscience makes him, in the eyes of the reader, a disturbing but also a captivating presence in the novel.
M: Sean O’Casey wrote harshly about his sister Bella in his autobiography and then killed her off ten years before her time. This literary sororicide was what prompted me to write The Rising of Bella Casey. I felt his was a failure of the imagination; he couldn’t understand what had prompted her downfall and he hadn’t the capacity to see beyond appearances. That disappointed me but in the writing of the novel I realised that O’Casey was also writing out of disappointment – the disappointment of his very elevated and unrealistic expectations of his bright, clever sister. He’d placed her on a pedestal and couldn’t bear to witness her fall, so he opted for silence.
L: He was also very disappointed at himself, though. I am thinking at that wonderful scene at the end of chapter 10 where he gets very frustrated with his work, but then he starts all over again. Writing must have been extenuating for him, painstaking even, almost as much as being Bella’s brother.
M: The way I depict O’Casey’s writing process is pure fiction. I think, in reality, he probably found writing a great release of pent-up feeling and conviction. Certainly the autobiographies – all six volumes of them – appear on the page as an unstoppable outpouring of exuberant language. The point I was making in the novel was that contrary to the rest of his work, writing about Bella might have been a real difficulty for him.
L: The Rising of Bella Casey is a contemporary historical novel set between fact and fiction. How do you combine the two, what inspires the encounter of real and imaginary worlds?
M: I think of The Rising of Bella Casey – and my other novels, Mother of Pearl and The Pretender – as inhabiting the grey area between biography and fiction. So though I write about real people, there are inevitably gaps in the narrative, and in those gaps, the fiction happens. I often think I must be very unimaginative because in my novel-writing I’m generally working with ready-made plots and a laid-down story. The ‘real’ story is a blueprint from which I depart when one of these gaps in the narrative appears. The trouble with a lot of historical characters – like Bella Casey or Anna Anderson, the fraudulent Anastasia Romanov whom I wrote about in my second novel The Pretender– is that they often appear unknowable. We have external evidence of them, of course, but sometimes it’s hard to imagine their interior lives.
The key word here is imagine. I see that as what I do, imagining myself beyond the official record, and into the interior of these characters’ lives.
With historical figures, particularly those pre-20th century, that requires two willed acts – an imaginative leap into a pre-modern world and a creative kind of forgetting – forgetting about Freud and Jung etc., whose psychology has become part of the mainstream, part of everyday thinking.
On a practical level and to aid that imaginative process, I generally write the story first and then do the research so that the research doesn’t swamp the imaginative process. Also I’m lazy about research; I only do as much as I need to. I’m not one of those authors who gets distracted by the minutiae of history. A lot of the time research is a chore; something in service to the narrative, the story, which is primary for me.
L: I find this particular aspect interesting, Mary. You use gaps – spaces in between, empty areas – creatively. Beaver [Bella Casey’s husband], for instance. His GPI (Joyce again?)causes him a fatal loss of memory and he eventually is “lost, somewhere, in the folds of time”. That line is absolutely marvellous, powerful in its capacity to define Bella’s condition too, before you “rise” her and rescue her from oblivion.
M: One of the things about writing about real people is that I feel I owe it to them to be true to the facts of their lives, as they are known. So, in real life, Bella’s husband, Nicholas Beaver, contracted syphilis and died of GPI,so all of this is true, rather than a novelistic trope. Of course, the novelist can invest emotional and symbolic resonance in the facts. People lost in the folds in time; yes that’s a good description of my creative territory – women caught in the shadow of history.
L: The shadow of History, a place where untold and forgotten stories are found. And The Rising is also about stories located “in the underneath of History”, to use Nancy Cunard’s words. The private and the public intertwine in your novel. “The Easter Rising”, for instance, is seen from the perspective of ordinary Dubliners, and of women belonging to the Protestant minority whose children went fighting in the Great War abroad. Is that past an open wound, too painful to be remembered? And is this part of the reason why it is so prominent in the novel?
M: For many years, this was, not so much a wound as a silence. At the time, Irish soldiers who survived the Great War and came home were often treated as traitors and outcasts in nationalist communities because they were seen as having supported an Empire that was oppressing their countrymen. (It’s important to note, however, that thousands of Irishmen from both sides of the divide – nationalist and unionist, Catholic and Protestant – fought and died together in the trenches). In the past decade there has been huge healing around the Irish contribution to the Great War. In 2011, for example, Queen Elizabeth made an official visit to Ireland – itself an historic occasion – and visited the National War Monument in Islandbridge in Dublin (which for many years, tellingly, was left abandoned and derelict) which commemorates the Irish fallen in the First World War. On the same visit she also paid her respects at the Garden of Remembrance which honours the Republican men and women who fought to end British rule in Ireland.
This was one of the most important public gestures of recent times that recognized the wound of divided loyalties that has lain at the heart of historical Irish identity. So I suppose all of this was in the ether as I was writing the novel.
The depiction of the Rising in the novel from the view of Bella and her family – Protestant, working class, loyal to the Crown – who don’t support the revolution and don’t understand it, is unusual, and deliberate. The Rising was a glorious failure, mismanaged and favoured by only a small minority of the population; what turned it into a success was the fact that the leaders were executed by the British – and it was this act that turned popular opinion. But even at that stage, it’s unlikely that Bella Casey would have changed her loyalties.
For her, the Rising would still have been an illegal challenge to what she would have considered legitimate British rule. (Unlike Sean O’Casey, her brother, who absolutely supported the break with Britain so you could say the Casey family is a microcosm for all the political divisions of the country at that time).
L: You teach Creative Writing to MA students at UCC: are those young writers also prompted to play with and engage with the ‘what ifs’? Does your academic experience somehow contribute to the workings of your imagination? In other words, would you say that your work lies between fact, fiction and the artifice of writing?
M: Teaching creative writing keeps you in touch with what’s happening now in writing. You get to learn what enthuses young writers and you see new styles and genres opening up. You see students bursting with ideas and some of that energy brushes off on the teacher. As to where my own stories lie – maybe that’s for others to decide. For me they’re a mix of truth and lies. Emotionally true, factually suspect. Isn’t that the alchemy of writing? Unlike my novels, my short fiction often starts with something very small – an image, something witnessed, even a first line. In that sense the short story is much closer to the poem in conception. Then it’s a process of following your nose, so to speak. Seeing where the narrative takes you. In that sense it’s a lot freer as a process than the novels, where the trajectory of the narrative is often laid out. For the most part, my stories are contemporary, rather than historical, although I have been tinkering of late with some historical short stories. But even those concern fictional characters, not real people. I want to maintain that freedom to be absolutely fictional in the short form.
L: Since you mention “what is happening now in writing”, I’ d like to know your view on how Irish literature has changed in recent years from when you started writing fiction.
M: There are many more women writing and being published – exciting and ground-breaking new voices like Eimear McBride, Belinda McKeon, Sara Baume, Danielle McLaughlin. Daring, thoughtful, savage and unashamedly female. The breaking open of this female voice is very exciting to witness as when I started out, you were often singled out as being a ‘woman writer’ as if it was a special category apart from the mainstream. (I’m of the generation of Irish women writers who were famously excluded from the Field Day Anthology in the 1990s, only to be afterwards included in the extra ‘women’s’volume published in 2003). And for women themselves, there was a lot of hand-wringing about what it meant to be a ‘woman writer’ as if it bore special responsibilities because we were so few. So by sheer numbers, those gender distinctions and that identity anxiety has been swept away.
One of the great what-ifs of Irish history is what would have happened if the 1916 leaders hadn’t been executed. On this date, 100 years exactly since the Easter Rising began, it’s worth asking another question, what would the rebels have done with their lives, had they lived?
A quick trawl thought the 1916 Proclamation signatories reveals a disproportionate number of writers. Padraic Pearse was a short story writer, playwright and poet, Thomas Mac Donagh wrote poetry and plays, Joseph Mary Plunkett was a published poet and journalist, James Connolly was a prodigious political commentator.
What this shows, of course, is that before they were armed combatants, the rebel leaders were part of a cultural revolution, and had the political atmosphere of the time been different and the Rising hadn’t happened, (or the leaders hadn’t been executed), these young men might well have pursued literary and artistic careers.
In the end, they chose the sword over the pen and it fell to others to explore the origin myth of the Republic. Ironically, the two writers most identified with creating the Rising on the page – poet W. B.Yeats and playwright Sean O’Casey – were not directly involved in events at all.
From opposite ends of the Protestant social scale, upper-class Yeats and working-class O’Casey explored the doubts and misgivings of the Rising’s “success” from a distance, both philosophically and geographically.
Most people mistakenly believe that Sean O’Casey – whose Dublin trilogy, Shadow of a Gunman, Juno and the Paycock and The Plough and the Stars charts the political foment of the turbulent decade from the Dublin Lock-out to the Civil War – was a combatant or at least a supporter of the Easter Rising. Given his ardent nationalism and socialism, he should have been.
Although O’Casey had been heavily involved in the Irish Republican Brotherhood (IRB) and in 1914 had joined the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), he did not support the Rising and played no part in it. He was distrustful of the move towards violence but in fact, it was a procedural wrangle with Constance Markievizc that put an end to O’Casey’s activism.
O’Casey believed that the countess’s membership of the nationalist Cumann na mBan, the female branch of the Irish Volunteers, should disqualify her from the Irish Citizen Army. ( The Volunteers had been set up as a response to Edward Carson’s Ulster Volunteer Force: the ICA had grown out of the Dublin Lock-out. ) O’Casey suspected Markievizc of spying for the Volunteers and demanded she be expelled. The matter was put to a vote and when O’Casey lost, he walked out.
The irony was that in January 1916 the Volunteers and the Citizen Army joined forces but at that stage O’Casey had cut his links with the Republican movement. As historian Padraig Yeates observed in his book, Lockout, “the upshot of the faction fighting was the Citizen Army lost a clerk and Ireland gained a playwright”.
O’Casey sat out the Rising hunkered down with his elderly mother in East Wall, though Christopher Murray, O’Casey’s biographer notes in Sean O’Casey: Writer at Work that he spent several nights of Easter Week roaming the city despite the fact martial law was in force. Known as a nationalist sympathiser, he was picked up on Thursday, April 27 during a sweep of the area and held by the British Army for two nights.
“The internees were deposited in the cellar of a huge granary nearby, where they remained until Saturday morning, playing cards and chatting with the soldiers and seeing, in the distance, a faint glow as O’Connell Street went up in flames,” according to Martin Marguiles, author of The Early Life of Sean O’Casey.
If O’Casey’s Rising was spent playing cards with the enemy, Yeats, the great poetic chronicler of the nation’s birth-pangs, was reading to them in London, where he was based at the time. Nine days before the Rising on April 15, Yeats had been invited to a charity reading in Piccadilly, chaired by the Chief Secretary of Ireland, Augustine Birrell, whom The New Statesman observed, spent most of the evening “with his head buried in his hands” ─ an attitude many would see as Birrell’s approach to the Rising itself.
Yeats’ first reaction to the news from home was to dismiss the Rising as “a piece of childish madness”. But he and Lady Gregory, with whom he communicated feverishly in the weeks following the Rising, were shocked to learn that they knew some of the Rising’s leaders personally. Yeats had allowed Pearse to stage free productions of his plays in St Enda’s School and MacDonagh had dedicated a book of his poems to Yeats. He moved in the same circles as Joseph Plunkett’s aristocratic nationalist family and, of course, Constance Markievizc had been a childhood friend in Sligo.
But though Yeats knew Pearse, he had publicly severed any association with Pearse’s politics, claiming that he was “flirting with the gallows-tree”.
As Yeats’ correspondence with Lady Gregory and his sister, Lily – the only member of the extended Yeats family who was in Dublin for the Rising – continued in the weeks following, his attitude to the insurrectionists begins to change. The execution of the Rising’s leaders contributed to the change of heart but distance from events was also a factor. He had received a letter from Maud Gonne (whose estranged husband, Capt John McBride was among those put to death) suggesting that the Irish cause had been elevated by the Rising “to a position of tragic dignity”.
“. . .she saw the ruined houses about O’Connell Street & the wounded & dying lying about the streets, in the first few days of the war. I perfectly remember the vision & my making light of it & saying that if a true vision at all it could only have a symbolical meaning,” Yeats wrote.
But by May 23, he was already beginning to see the late rebels as “the ablest & most fine natured of our young men”. According to Roy Foster (W.B.Yeats: A Life II: The Arch-Poet) Yeats was, by this stage, planning to write about the executed men in a poem that was to become Easter 1916 – “a terrible beauty is born” – perhaps the most quoted poem of the Rising. Though written between May and September of that year, it was not published till 1921.
O’ Casey took 10 years to distil the events of the Rising into dramatic form in The Plough and the Stars. The play premiered at the Abbey Theatre in May 1926. The Rising was a terrible mistake, O’Casey told Lady Gregory, shortly before the play was staged, “. . . and we lost such fine men. We should have won freedom by degrees with them.” It was these sentiments, explored through the characters, and the depiction of the Rising as a failed revolution – as well as perceived demeaning of the Tricolour and scenes of citizen looting – which excited riots in the Abbey. O’Casey had further offended by including an off-stage character, The Figure in the Window, whose oratory is based on Pearse’s speeches.
Republican women, led by Hannah Sheehy-Skeffington, and including Pearse’s mother and Mrs Tom Clarke, attempted to storm the stage. While Yeats tried to quell the high feelings by declaring the play as O’Casey’s artistic apotheosis, his words fell on deaf ears and the police had to be called to clear the theatre.
The incendiary effects of The Plough were down to O’Casey’s fearlessness as a dramatist, his distance from the events portrayed and the timing of the staging. As Christopher Murray points out, the 10-year anniversary of the Rising had just passed, but there had been no special public commemoration. “Most people wanted to forget all about the violence of recent years and get on with building and so-called decent life,” Murray observes. The Rising was a “dead issue. O’Casey’s play, by an ironic process of revisionism, made it a live one”.
The French edition of The Rising of Bella Casey appears today, St Patrick’s Day, with impeccable timing! The handsome publication comes courtesy of French publishers, La Table Ronde.
The company was founded in 1944 and its first published title was Antigone by Jean Anouilh; it’s been an imprint of Gallimard since 1996. Which means, of course, that it looks lovely. It has the classy simplicity of a trademark Gallimard edition – a plain cover with clean lines on bond paper – but it comes in a striking Cerulian blue. There’s a gorgeous wraparound flap with a strikingly expressionist illustration (by Aline Zalko) of a piano sitting tilted on the kerb of an imperial-looking street.
This is a scene drawn directly from the novel – the heroine, Bella Casey, steals a piano she finds on a street in Dublin during the Easter Rising – but with its vivid lines and swirls of hot oranges and vivid reds, the cover manages also to encapsulate the atmosphere of a city in flames.
There were long debates about how to translate the title of the novel. The Rising in the English title is used ironically, although it is also factual since Bella was caught up in the events of 1916, as were many citizens of Dublin. But the act of stealing the piano – as mentioned above – also resurrects Bella’s long dormant sense of pride. In French, the novel has become Les Revolutions de Bella Casey which , I think, neatly catches the sense of Bella’s several selves explored in the course of the novel, while also referring to the foment of the turbulent times she lived through..
Alice Deon, daughter of French novelist Michel Deon, is the director of La Table Ronde. She grew up in Ireland and has been a great champion of Irish fiction in translation. Earlier this month, Michele Forbes’ Ghost Moth appeared in a similar Quai Voltaire edition. Other translated authors in the Table Ronde stable include Norman Mailer, Dacia Maraini and Alice McDermott.
Thought I’d get into the revolutionary mode for this week’s reading at UCC for Women and the Rising month at the School of English.
Historical novelist, Lia Mills, author of Fallen, the Two Cities One Book choice for 2016 and poet Nessa O’Mahony, whose latest collection Her Father’s Daughter explores her family history through the lens of 1916, will read with me at the Creative Zone, Boole Library, UCC on March 3 at 6.30pm.
When I went to collect the posters for the event, our poster designer , Kieran O’Connor- see his beautiful handiwork below – took this snap of me in my suitably green trench coat – and provided the firearm. Not the real thing, I hasten to add, but a theatrical prop.
Later in the month, Prof Lucy McDiarmid, author of At Home in the Revolution: What Women Said and Did in 1916 (Royal Irish Academy) will speak on the Women and the Rising theme, also at the Creative Zone, Boole Library, March 15, 6pm.
Two weeks ahead of publication ahead, the Irish Times is ahead of the posse with novelist and short story writer Eilis Ni Dhuibhne’s dream review of Prosperity Drive in today’s paper and online, in which she links my name with Chekhov!
It’s a real treat to read a collection of short stories that presents totally engaging characters, genuinely interesting storylines, and subtle emotional insights – in English that is as correct as it is polished. Mary Morrissy’s use of language is exceptionally supple and imaginative. Her images and metaphors are original and apt. She can be hilariously amusing. Still, it’s not all about style, which can sometimes camouflage thin substance, or suggest that the writer lacks faith in her ideas and themes.
Morrissy is much too subtle a writer to feel the need to advertise her mastery of English. Indeed, in some ways she is hardly like an Irish writer at all – more like a Canadian (Alice Munro) or even an English one (Julian Barnes or Penelope Lively, for instance).
Her subject matter in Prosperity Drive is Ireland and the Irish – specifically the suburban middle classes. The 18 stories are mainly about people who live on, or were born on or otherwise connected to, Prosperity Drive, a typical south Dublin road. The cover of the book, showing one of the beautiful old green road signs, with the street name in English and in Irish in the old Cló Gaelach, is an absolute delight.
The device of the “linked collection” has been around for a long time, and enjoyed a recent resurgence (such as in Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.)
But, in a sense, nearly all short story collections that don’t employ the device ostensibly are linked anyway, by the landscape of the author’s imagination and experience: Frank O’Connor’s Cork, Edna O’Brien’s Clare.
It is an almost obvious step from the unity of place that occurs spontaneously to deliberately set all short stories in a collection in one named place: a town, a parish or, as in this instance, a prim and proper road with front and back gardens, cars in the driveways, and secrets in the bedrooms.
This is the sort of place where most Irish writers have lived for 100 years but which has slowly emerged to take its place in the sun, or rain, of Irish fiction.
Any suburban road supplies a goodly quantity and variety of characters and dramatic incident, rich pickings for any writer.
Characters who recur frequently in this book belong to the Elworthy family: the opening story, The Scream, introduces us to Edel Elworthy, an elderly woman suffering from memory loss, being nursed on her deathbed by her daughter Norah. “Remember, remember, remember what?” is the last line in this story.
Over the course of Prosperity Drive, much is remembered – the inside stories of the Elworthys and their neighbours. The final story brings us right back to the beginning, and tells us how Edel met Victor, her husband and father of Trish and Norah, who figures in several of the stories.
“Edel has never told anyone how she and Victor had met. She was ashamed of it because it had not been a lucky accident. She had seen him and wanted him; the direct line between wanting and having had never been so clear to her. He had been sitting at the heel bar. It was the latest innovation in Roches Stores, an American idea.”
First love, middle-aged love, illicit love, divorce, bereavement, child- rearing, emigration, holidays. Illness, death. And work – in kitchens, offices, the classroom, the printing works and newspapers. All the “ordinary” things that make up our lives are described here. But there is nothing ordinary about the stories themselves.
Sensationalism not needed
Morrissy never resorts to the sensational to create a strong tale. Murder, incest, serious violence, rape – none of it affects Prosperity Drive very often, although they do occur from time to time. A young woman, the hired help, gases herself in one of the outstanding stories, Miss Ireland.
In one of several stories set abroad (Prosperity Drive folk travel) Anita manages to conceive a child with a man she meets in a cloakroom when the ship stops for a day in Aden. Is it a rape or consensual? The question is not answered.
Morrissy has an acute sense of how attitudes change, and Anita certainly doesn’t consider herself a victim. She unzips her dress herself. Later she feels a sense of triumph. “She had gone beyond [the other girls], left them behind with their useless and florid romantic speculations.” Yesterday’s romance is today’s rape. Morrissy tells us what happened, and allows us to make up our own mind about it.
In refraining from judgment, she is a true heir to Chekhov and the great writers.
In general, extremely interesting things happen in these stories without the intervention of guns, knives or psychopaths.
Apart from her seduction of her husband in the Heel Bar, Edel Elworthy brings another dark secret to her grave, and one which is more original but no less alarming than a murder.
Little dramas happen all time in our suburban lives. And little dramas are the best subject matter for short stories, which must reveal the world in a grain of sand.
In the hands of a master storyteller such as Morrissy, minor incidents are much more entertaining and revealing than sensational events.
Above all, it is the brilliantly acute observation of every sort of detail – of place and time, of the foibles and passions of people – that makes the work so impressive and so thoroughly enjoyable.
Seldom has Irish suburban life – especially the lives of girls and women been so sensitively and wittily, portrayed. Morrissy captures it all: the civil servants on the bus, the children out playing on the road, the mildewed old swimming baths at Sandymount or Blackrock. The office parties and the typing pools. The old taffeta ball gown in the wardrobe and the shiny crocked car on the drive.
Her clear-eyed vision and her deep compassion, along with her lovely sense of the comic and her exceptional literary articulacy, make this an outstanding collection.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest stories appear in The Long Gaze Back and A Kind of Compass
When my novel, The Rising of Bella Casey, came out in late 2013, one of the authors approached to blurb it was Irish novelist and short story writer, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne. She described me as “the Irish Hilary Mantel”. I was pretty chuffed about being mentioned in the same breath as Mantel, since I’ve been a long-time admirer of her work – long before Wolf Hall sent her into the literary stratosphere.
It’s over 25 years ago since I came across Mantel’s third novel Eight Months on Ghazzah Street. I was immediately hooked.
The novel tells the story of Frances Shore, whose husband Andrew, a civil engineer, is posted to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia on a lucrative building contract. Frances is disturbed by the restrictions the Saudi way of life imposes on her. She is not allowed to drive; she can’t walk alone in the city without being harassed. Even in her own apartment there’s a constant reminder of the oppressive burden of the female life in the Middle East. The front door of the the apartment where she and Andrew live, is walled up – the legacy of the last occupant, a Saudi woman who had to be protected from accidentally encountering a male neighbour on the corridor outside.
Nor is the company of her own kind – the ex-pat community – much comfort to Frances. “They sat at the back of the plane and got sodden drunk within an hour of takeoff; they squirted each other with duty-free Nina Ricci, and laid hands on the stewardesses, and threw their dinners about, and vomited on the saris of dignified Indian ladies.”
The atmosphere of the novel is perilous, claustrophobic and haunted. Frances constantly hears footsteps in the apartment overhead that’s supposed to be empty; the motif has echoes of Bronte’s Mrs Rochester, the madwoman in the attic. As with the best of novels it’s less about what happens externally as about what happens inside – and in Saudi it’s all inside, if you’re a woman.
But what makes Eight Months on Ghazzah Street truly memorable is that it’s as much about the state of being female – beleaguered, prone to doubt, troubled by shadowy anxieties – as it is about living as a western woman in a Saudi city at a particular time.
I loved this novel and felt I was the only one who knew about Mantel’s wry and bracing prose, her unflinching eye. I went on to read many of her books – Beyond Black is one of my favourites, a darkly ambiguous novel about a flakey (or is she?) spiritualist. And there’s Mantel’s affecting memoir, Giving up the Ghost, which had particular resonance for me as a fellow sufferer of endometriosis.
When the rest of the world discovered Mantel with Wolf Hall, I have to admit to a tiny sliver of resentment that finally one of my reading secrets was out.
When it came time for my latest collection of linked short stories, Prosperity Drive, to be promoted (publication date: February 2016) the publishers asked if there was anyone I’d like to blurb the book. Well, I said, since I’ve been described as the Irish Hilary Mantel, what about the two-time Booker Prize winner? It was a long shot, but here’s what came back:
‘Mary Morrissy is a wonderful writer. These stories are entertaining and deft, so skilfully balanced and interwoven that when you begin to pick out the pattern it is a real moment of delight.’
So from one devoted fan of Hilary Mantel – a heartfelt thanks.
Recently, I visited a café in south county Dublin and noticed that the walls were decorated with shelves chock-full of books. The shelves were set at such a height as to discourage casual browsing but by craning my neck I could see they were all hardbacks of a certain era – 1940s/50s ─ minus their dust-jackets. Their underclothes – green and roseate cardboard covers – were on show. I wondered how they had been chosen. Was it for their content? Unlikely. Or was it for the pretty faded covers, their forlorn vintage chic, a perfect complement to the café’s lime-washed New England décor?
I took note of the titles – The Whiteoaks of Jalna by Mazo de la Roche was one. De la Roche was a Canadian writer, who penned a 16-novel family saga over a 30-year span from the 1930s to 1960s about the eponymous Whiteoak family. They were common currency in my convent school library in the 1970s. We discussed their plots with the enthusiasm now reserved for selfies and You Tube clips.
The Jalna novels were what you might call polite bodice-rippers. Lots of heaving bosoms and unrequited love but the bedroom door invariably closed at the opportune time. Georgette Heyer was another staple of our school library. These were solid, middle-brow novels, well-researched and historically accurate with doughty female heroines. Heyer was probably one of the authors that prompted my journey into writing historical fiction, but she was reduced to visual tat in this café too. So too were several Reader’s Digest compendiums of abridged books that seemed to cluster in holiday chalets of my childhood. Seaside reads, in other words. But, here’s the difference; we actually read those books when the rain came down and there was nothing else to do but stay indoors.
I’ve revisited this café several times and I’ve never seen anyone take down one of these books. That’s not the deal. They’re for decoration. They’re literally part of the wallpaper. They are job lots of books chosen on a “never-mind-the quality-feel-the-width” basis, displayed for the sole purpose of projecting a brand – we’re bookish, we’re hipster, we’re cool.
A friend instanced another example of book objectification in a pub in Dubai. The interior had the look of a book-lined study but on closer inspection, the books – yes, real genuine books – had been chopped in half vertically so that they would fit on the narrow shelves assigned to them in the pub’s design.
In the hey-day of the reconstituted “Irish pub” – when such establishments sprouted in Beijing, Boston and Baden-Baden – ye olde family photographs were used in the same way, bought in bulk by pub outfitters to give the dewy-eyed exile or the unwary tourist the impression he/she was walking into Granny Grunt’s kitchen from the mists of time. The trouble with colonizing these artefacts is that for someone somewhere they are genuine mementos representing real human relationships. Like the books they have authorship.
Home décor websites are a hotbed of this kind of objectification of books. One such site offers 37 different ways to decorate your home with books. Cut a hole in the middle of a thick volume, put earth inside and plant something in it! Why not pile your books up and make a bedside table of them? Tear out the pages and make a fabulous collage!
But before the interior decorators got their hands on the book, its value among so-called book-lovers was already declining. Some years ago I was a judge on a major literary competition and ended up with over 100 contemporary novels, many of them hardbacks, which I couldn’t accommodate on my shelves. They were span-new publications, hot off the presses, in mint condition, yet I had real difficulty finding a home for them. My first port of call was my local second-hand bookstores. I felt sure of a welcome there with my handsome, almost new, library. These people were my own kind, weren’t they? But they turned out to be annoyingly finicky. Some wouldn’t touch hardbacks; others cherry-picked the big names from my crates and rejected the rest. I even tried the local library. The librarian on duty looked at me askance as if I were trying to peddle drugs when I offered them four boxes of brand new books. Where would we put them, she demanded in an almost aggrieved tone. I stopped myself from suggesting the obvious. In the end most of the books ended up in a charity shop, the only place that would accept them no questions asked. Oh, apart from the dump, that is.
But I couldn’t contemplate that. Even though these books represented imposed reading rather than titles I had chosen myself, I had never considered simply throwing them out. But maybe I should have. Isn’t pulping and recycling a more honourable end for the unwanted book than being transformed into a cute planter or deconstructed into a fabulous collage? And there’s always the possibility of a reprieve at the dump. Another acquaintance of mine goes to the dump for all his reading material. He climbs into the large bin reserved for unwanted books and scavenges merrily. I imagine him like a vineyard keeper trampling on grapes at harvest time, high on the literature fumes.
The downgrading of the physical book is inevitably twinned with the digitising of reading. Amazon has been blamed for devaluing the book by merely pricing it down to the cost of a sandwich. Independent publisher Dennis Johnson, proprietor of Melville Books, declared in an interview in the New Yorker last year, that Amazon had “successfully fostered the idea that the book is a thing of minimal value – it’s a widget”.
Time on the physical book was called when e-books first came on the scene. But rumours of tis demise have proved premature. E-book sales have settled at around 30% of the market, so that means that 70% of us are still buying the physical object.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Luddite. I have a Kindle and do a lot of reading on it. But when I like a book, really like it, I go out and buy it in a bookshop because I don’t feel I own it when it’s trapped, incorporeal, in an electronic device. I need to see it on a shelf where I can put my hand on it. That’s probably an indication of my age. The Kindle is efficient, convenient and portable, but for me, even at its slick and well-lit best, it lacks the objecthood and temporality of the physical book. I’m a sucker for the texture of a leather-bound hardback, for the luxury of marbled end papers or the crinkly freshness of a volume with uncut pages. I could go on. . . but I won’t. It sounds too much like breathless porn.
But there’s a difference between my kind of bibliophilic fetish, and an interior decorator pimping out books as deconstructed decorative objets. For me, the cover and binding is only part of the relationship with the book, not the be all and end all. As Milton observed in Areopagitica, his impassioned argument against censorship way back in 1644, books are “not absolutely dead things”. They contain the “potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them”.
Hands off, I want to say to those café owners, interior decorators and pub designers keen to fill up empty visual spaces with literary props, books are for reading.
Writing about real people makes you maternal about your characters. You know things about them that you mightn’t know about fictional creations. Their birthdays, for example. Today, 150 years ago, the heroine of my IMPAC Prize nominated novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon) was born on February 6, 1865, at 22 Wellington Street, Dublin.
Christened Isabella Charlotte Casey, she was the eldest of five and the only girl in a family of four brothers, Mick, Tom, Isaac and the baby of the family, John, who would later convert to the Irish version of his name, to become the renowned playwright, Sean O’Casey. Bella’s parents, Michael Casey and Susan Archer, had met on Chambers Street in Dublin, where Susan lived and Michael rented a room.
The Caseys were Protestants in a city where Protestants were outnumbered by Catholics by five to one. Sean O’Casey often depicted himself as a child of the tenements, but the Caseys belonged to the respectable lower middle-class at the time of Bella’s birth. On her birth certificate, Bella’s father, Michael Casey, is registered as a mercantile clerk and by the time Sean was born in 1880, he was leasing a large, three-storey, above basement Georgian house at 85 Upper Dorset Street where the family lived. He was also working as a clerk at the Irish Church Missions on Townsend Street.
At the time Dorset Street was a trading street rather than a top-notch address, but it was respectable nonetheless and it was this background that informed Bella’s early years ─ she played the piano and spoke French. The family’s relative comfort nurtured her upwardly mobile ambitions, allowing her to finish secondary schooling and to train as a primary school teacher at the teaching college on Marlborough Street. It was only when Bella’s father died – in 1886 – that the Caseys began to slide into more straitened circumstances. Even so, by this stage Bella was a qualified teacher, and was a major contributor to the family’s finances.
As sometimes happens, dates cluster in family history and February 6th became memorable for the Caseys for another reason when in 1914, Bella’s brother Tom died of peritonitis at the age of 44. Tom was one of two Casey brothers who had “married out” – i.e. married Catholics – much to the chagrin of their mother, Susan, who was a staunch Protestant. Tom was Sean O’Casey’s favourite brother, having a gentle nature, but he was hostile towards Tom’s wife, Mary Kelly. Perhaps channelling his mother’s bigotry, he blamed her for Tom’s early demise.
Writing in the 1940s in his autobiographies, Sean O’Casey described Mary Kelly as “an ignorant catholic girl who in some way had influenced him [Tom] towards a new home. . . a yellow-skinned, stout woman, badly built in body and mind-sly in a lot of ways as so many toweringly ignorant persons are”. O’Casey declared the marriage was the death of Tom, though how is not made clear.
O’Casey’s biographer Christopher Murray notes that the publishers of O’Casey’s autobiographies, Macmillan, were worried about his possibly libellous description of Mary Kelly, but O’Casey replied loftily that there was not the slightest chance she would ever read his account. (She had died in 1936). But Tom and Mary’s children were still alive.
Kit Casey, their son, speaking to Colm Cronin in The World of Sean O’Casey (ed Sean McCann) remembered things differently. “My father seemed to be the most popular of the O’Caseys and every Sunday evening they’d all meet in our house. A family within a family, very proud and they kept together. They all met for a social evening and they used to sing and recite and so on.”
Of Sean O’Casey he says: “You know he borrowed twenty sovereigns from my mother and he hadn’t the decency to pay it back. . . I never cared for him or got on with him.”
Tom Casey died on Bella’s 49th birthday and was buried in Mount Jerome cemetery, as she would be four years later.
The death of a fictional character is always difficult for an author. You’ve lovingly created them, you’ve spent several years in their company; then you have to kill them off. The dilemma is further complicated if you’re writing about real people. And if you’re writing about historical figures, they already have a death assigned to them.
The eponymous heroine of my novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon) had the ill-luck of becoming an early victim of the Spanish ‘flu.
The epidemic swept through Europe and the US at the end of the First World War, and at its lowest estimate, claimed 21 million victims world-wide, a figure far higher than the war’s death-toll. (By comparison, the SARS outbreak in 2003 claimed 775 lives, while the avian ‘flu has killed 384 people in the last 10 years, according to the World Health Organization.)
The ‘flu came in two waves – in early 1918, and then again later in the year. But the first outbreak of the Spanish ‘flu (so-called because in neutral Spain newspapers were publishing accounts of the spread of the disease) is now understood to have originated as early as 1916 in a British infantry depot in Etaples, 20 miles south of Boulogne. All newly-arrived British troops were sent for training at the northern French camp so that at any given time over 100,000 men were in residence. Most lived in tents or temporary wooden barracks and conditions were overcrowded and unsanitary – a recipe for the spread of the respiratory virus.
In December 1916, dozens of soldiers at the camp began complaining of aches and pains, coughs and shortness of breath. As many as 40 % of these first victims died of what was described as “purulent bronchitis”. It was a horrible death, where patients literally drowned in their own blood, their faces turning a peculiar lavender colour – indicating cyanosis (where the lungs cannot transfer oxygen into the blood) ─ a tell-tale trademark of the killer ‘flu. Other early outbreaks are placed in the US (Camp Funston, Kansas) and in China, both in 1917.
In Dublin, eye-witnesses remember it as the Black Flu. “The Black Flu came in 1918. I was still a child. It was a horrible old thing. Well, my mother had the Black Flu and we only got her back from Heaven. Praying. And I remember sitting at her bedside and she was very, very sick. . . Oh, a dispensary doctor came up, but he had hundreds,” May Hanaphy told the author Kevin Kearns in Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History of the Dublin Slums.
The Spanish ‘flu felled the young and the healthy. Bella Casey was neither. Her health had already been compromised by erysipelas, a skin infection caused by the streptococcus bacteria. Known alternatively as “holy fire” or “St Anthony’s Fire”, the condition can cause high fever, shaking, chills, fevers, headaches and vomiting. The skin lesions enlarge rapidly and become inflamed. They are painful and hard to the touch transforming the affected skin so that it takes on the consistency of orange peel. Nowadays, it can be treated with antibiotics, but these were not available until 1928.
In Bella’s case, the skin rash may have been caused by an allergy to cleaning products of the time – predominantly soap and lye. Although an educated woman, she spent the latter years of her life in poverty working as a charwoman . In The Early Life of Sean O’Casey Martin Marguiles notes that “incongruously she always wore a pair of gloves and neighbours referred to her admiringly as ‘Lady Beaver’.” (Beaver was Bella’s married name.)
“She suffered from headaches which became progressively more frequent and severe, until she had to stop scrubbing floors. The headaches – symptoms of erysipelas – became so painful that she took to wearing a shawl, which made her white gloves appear more incongruous still.”
In the end, however, the Spanish ‘flu claimed Bella Casey. Her death certificate notes the cause of death as “Influenza, 10 Days Certified”. She was 52. Bella Casey died on this day 97 years ago, New Year’s Day, 1918.