Bella’s French Revolution

UneMorrissy

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.

 

 

Days to remember

85 Upper Dorset Street where the Casey family lived; it is now demolished
85 Upper Dorset Street where the Casey family lived; it is now demolished

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.

Bella Casey’s War

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On  the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, I thought it would be fitting to chart the influence of the war on Bella Casey, the heroine of my novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon, 2013).

Bella (b.1865)  was the eldest of the family of five, which included Dublin’s premier playwright Sean O’Casey. The Protestant Caseys, and Bella in particular, were steeped in the tradition of service in the British Army. Two of Bella’s brothers had soldiered with the Army. Tom Casey saw active duty in the Boer War (he died in February 1914 ) and Mick, who had served in the Royal Engineers in the 1890s, re-enlisted in 1915. Bella’s teenage son, James “Sonny” Beaver, also joined the Royal Navy in 1915.

Bella’s husband, Nicholas Beaver, had been a career soldier with the King’s Liverpools regiment in the 1880s. Beaver was struck down with the mental effects of syphilis in 1905, and was committed to Dublin’s Richmond Asylum where he died in 1907. Bella was left destitute with five children to raise alone.

Her brother, Sean O’Casey, being an avowed socialist and staunch nationalist, would not have served in the British Army on principle but he often drew on his background of solid, working-class Protestant loyalism for his work. He might not have had personal sympathy for these beliefs, but there was no doubt he understood them.

Although he was fearless in tackling thorny political issues in his plays – the depiction of the Easter Rising in The Plough and the Stars, for example, caused riots in the Abbey Theatre when it was staged in 1926 –  it was to take O’Casey almost a decade to approach the horrors of the First World War. In 1928 he submitted his play, The Silver Tassie, to the Abbey Theatre.  It constitutes a different kind of war service, an unflinching polemic on the futility of battle.

In the first act we see Harry Heegan, a young Dublin sporting hero who plays on the winning team for a soccer trophy (the silver tassie of the title) on the day he is due to return to the front. The second act of the play is an operatic depiction of Heegan and his war-weary comrades set in the rain-soaked trenches of France. A ruined monastery forms the backdrop; a broken crucifix dominates the scene. Strange liturgical chanting mixed with parlour songs replace conventional dialogue, in a highly stylized rendering of the absurd horrors of war. Nothing in the play up to this prepares the audience for this daring expressionism. Acts Three and Four bring us back down to earth, but all has changed. Heegan, now confined to a wheelchair as a result of a war wound, returns to Dublin, embittered and disillusioned. His girlfriend has gone off with his best friend Barney, who has won the VC for saving Heegan on the battlefield. In the community where he was hailed once as a hero, he meets only bafflement and distaste. No one can understand the trauma he’s been through. This is so common a trope in war narratives now that it is barely remarkable, but at the time, it was a revolutionary perspective.

Director and founder of the Abbey, W.B.Yeats, and O’Casey’s friend, was not convinced, however.  He turned the play down out of hand. In the history of literary rejections, they don’t come more savage than this. Yeats claimed that O’Casey knew nothing about the First World War: “You have no subject,” he wrote, “You are not interested in the Great War, you never stood on its battlefields or walked its hospitals and so write out of your opinions. . . ” He dismissed the bravura second act as an interesting technical experiment; after that, he added, “there is nothing”.

Given O’Casey’s strong and enduring family ties with the British Army, Yeats’s accusation that O’Casey was not familiar with his subject matter could hardly have been more wrong. O’Casey was not a man to take such criticism lying down. He inquired tartly if Shakespeare had been at Actium before he wrote Antony and Cleopatra or visited Philippi in preparation for Julius Caesar. And had Yeats himself travelled to Tir na nÓg as a preparation for his esoteric dramas, O’Casey demanded. The battle lines between the two men were firmly drawn.

Furthermore, as well as having family members fighting in the war, O’Casey had talked to soldiers returned from the Front. In 1915, he was hospitalised with TB in St Vincent’s Hospital. The wards were thronged with wounded soldiers newly arrived from France. While recovering O’Casey recalled listening to accounts of the “slime, the blooded mud, the crater and the shell-hole” that had become “God’s kingdom on earth”. These first-hand accounts must surely have inspired the nightmarish visions of the second act of The Silver Tassie. But Yeats insisted that the play lacked unity of action.

In such criticism he missed O’Casey’s point entirely. The disconnect between Act Two and the rest of the play was absolutely intentional. As one contemporary critic has put it: “The experience of a foot soldier caught up in the madness of battle is impossible to reconcile with the world that exists outside it: it is a personal apocalypse that relates to nothing even as it changes everything.”

After its rejection by the Abbey, The Silver Tassie did find a home.  It was premiered in London at the Apollo Theatre in 1929, starring Charles Laughton and Barry Fitzgerald.  But the war between Yeats and O’Casey was to continue for several more years.  They eventually patched things up and The Silver Tassie was staged at the Abbey in 1935 but the relationship between the two was never quite the same again.

As for Bella, who had seen her husband and brothers serve with the British Army and her son fight in the war, she was the only member of the family who did not survive the First World War. On January 1, 1918, she died of the effects of influenza.  This was the beginning of the Spanish ‘flu  epidemic that was to sweep through Europe that year and claimed more victims than the hostilities did.

An edited version of this post was broadcast as part of  RTE’s Sunday Miscellany World War One Roadshow, August 3.  See http://www.rte.ie/radio1/sunday-miscellany/

He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother

Siblings are often in danger of being traduced in print when there’s a writer in the family. Sometimes they bite back, biographically or fictionally. Others, like Bella Casey, the heroine of The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon Press, 2013), my novel about the Irish playwright Sean O’Casey and his sister, don’t get the chance of a right to reply.  One of the triggers for writing Bella’s story was O’Casey’s decision to kill her off  ten years before her time in his autobiography.

Perhaps the best known set of literary siblings were the Brontës, but they happily shared a literary territory, particularly as teenagers. Later, the sisters’ fictional depiction of one another seems to have been heavily disguised – and, more importantly, was not contested. In the course of my research, I did some trawling through works where literary siblinghood was either hotly debated on the page, or – as in the case of Bella Casey –  a sister or brother was airbrushed out of the family album.

Stannie 1904

1. Stephen Hero: by James Joyce

This early work featured many episodes drawn from Joyce’s family life and, in particular, Stephen’s close relationship with his brother, Maurice (read Joyce’s real-life brother, Stanislaus, pictured above) Joyce subsequently rewrote it as A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man but he excised much of the material relating to Stanislaus. In later years, Stanislaus wrote a psychologically riveting memoir of Joyce’s early life, My Brother’s Keeper. “It is terrible,” he observed “to have a cleverer older brother. . .I perceive that he regards me as quite commonplace and uninteresting – he makes no attempt at disguise – and though I follow him fully in this opinion I cannot be expected to like it.”

2.Monkeys: by Susan Minot

Susan Minot’s “semi-autobiographical” debut novel caused a family storm when it was published in 1986. It follows the lives of the seven Vincent children, their Catholic mother and alcoholic father in an atmosphere of New England privilege. The novel inspired a veritable symphony of competing sibling creativity. Sister Eliza Minot published The Tiny One in 1999, covering the same events, brother George penned a murder mystery, The Blue Bowl,  about a large family in which one of the sons is accused of killing his father. Sam Minot, who claimed the father-killer character in George’s novel was based on him, replied with a self-published memoir entitled The Strange Poverty of the Rich. There are three other Minot siblings who have yet to contribute to the debate.

A S Byatt

3. The Game : A.S Byatt

A Brontean tale of two sisters who as children share an imagined alternate universe based on the Arthurean tales, but who are divided by the same creativity as adults. When Cassandra, a single Oxford don, sees one of her childhood fantasies portrayed in her sister Julia’s novel, the stage is set for a showdown. Byatt’s sister, Margaret Drabble, described the novel as “a mean-spirited book about sibling rivalry and she sent it to me with a note signed ‘With love,’ saying ‘I think I owe you an apology’.”

4. The Peppered Moth: Margaret Drabble

Drabble’s first novel, The Summer Bird-Cage was also about a pair of rivalrous sisters, one single and the other who opts for a wealthy marriage. But it was not until Drabble’s 2011 novel, The Peppered Moth was published, that Antonia Byatt railed publicly against her sister’s fiction. Byatt was exercised by the character of Bessie Bawtry in the novel which is based on the Drabbles’ mother, Kathleen. She is quoted as saying that she “would rather people didn’t read someone else’s version of my mother”.

5. Little Women: Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott did not have the same problems when she mined sibling territory for her series of novels about the March sisters – maybe because the proceeds were going towards supporting them. Troubled by her family’s genteel poverty, she vowed at age 15 that she would be rich. Little Women was a commissioned work; her publisher wanted “a book for girls”. The novel, based on Louisa and her sisters coming of age in the American Civil War, was published September 30, 1868 and was an instant success.

steve jobs

6. A Regular Guy: Mona Simpson

Tom Owens drops out of college and becomes a Silicon Valley biotech millionaire. He’s a barefoot in the boardroom kind of entrepreneur who eventually gets pushed out of the company he helped create. Sound familiar? Simpson’s brother was Apple founder, Steve Jobs, above, who was adopted days after birth. Simpson’s novel is written from the point of view of Owens’ estranged daughter, Jane. Jobs’ response to the novel is not recorded but Lisa Brennan-Jobs, his daughter by a first marriage, was furious. “In the first few pages, I was confronted with my family, my anecdotes, my things, my thoughts, myself in the character Jane. And sandwiched between the truths was invention—lies to me, made more evident because of their dangerous proximity to the truth.”

7. Hideous Kinky: Esther Freud

Hippie mother Julia leaves the predictability of Tunbridge Wells with her two daughters, aged 4 and 7, for Morocco where they live a low-rent life in Marrakech. The elder girl, Bea, based on Freud’s sister, Bella, insists on a conventional life in the midst of the chaos, going to school etc while the younger sister and child narrator of the novel watches uncomprehendingly as her rackety mother hitches herself up to various men and explores Sufism while the family slides further into impoverishment. When asked what her sister thought of the autobiographical novel, Esther Freud said Bella’s memories of the sojourn in Morocco were not compatible with hers. But she added that her sister had relished the novel.

frank mccourt

8. Angela’s Ashes: Frank McCourt:

Frank McCourt ‘s fictionalised memoir was a fore-runner of the misery lit genre back in 1996. Its depiction of a miserable Irish childhood with a brood of brothers enraged the residents of Limerick where the McCourts grew up. McCourt’s brothers, Malachy and Alphie each subsequently produced memoirs of their own – A Monk Swimming and A Long Stone’s Throw respectively. They didn’t argue with their brother’s account; they merely added their own voices to the family narrative with further adventures, mostly in the US.

9. Big Brother: Lionel Shriver

Lionel Shriver’s latest novel is inspired by her dangerously overweight brother Greg, who was contemplating gastric surgery when he suffered a fatal heart attack in 2009. Shriver has turned the story into a novel in which the brother – now called Edison – takes charge of his obesity with a rigorous diet imposed by his sister, Pandora, with weight issues of her own. Shriver was determined to fictionalise her brother’s story. “It was the inspiration,” she said of his death. But she added that her real brother was very complicated. “I don’t think he would’ve fit in a book.”  And if he were still alive, the novel might never have been written.

dorothy wordsworth

10. Daffodils: William Wordsworth:

I wandered lonely as a cloud, Wordsworth wrote, but by right he probably should have used the first person plural. He was with his devoted sister Dorothy (in the portrait above) when they saw the long belt of daffodils as she notes in her diary. “. . . they grew among the mossy stones and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed and reeled and danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind. . . ” Dorothy’s journals were full of observations of nature and the siblings’ life together, some of which found their way into Wordsworth’s verse. Indeed, he consulted her journal when he came to write Daffodils and that, it seems, is how she intended it. It was for William that Dorothy kept the journal.

Bella and Sean, as Hollywood saw them

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It’s not surprising that the late great Peter O’Toole  played Captain Boyle in one of Ireland’s classic plays, Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock. The Irish-born actor produced and acted in a 1966 version of the play at the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, sharing the stage with Siobhan McKenna and Jackie McGowran. But what might be more surprising is that his first wife, Sian Phillips, played O’Casey’s sister, Bella –  subject of my latest novel, The Rising of Bella Casey –  on screen.

The film, based on O’Casey’s autobiographies and titled Young Cassidy,  was a major Hollywood production and shot on location in Dublin.  It was due to be directed by John Ford but Ford  fell ill a couple of weeks into production and was replaced by Jack Cardiff. The film featured a star-studded cast – Michael Redgrave  (as W B Yeats),  Edith Evans (Lady Gregory) Maggie Smith and  Julie Christie.  Flora Robson,  Jackie McGowran  and T P McKenna, played the roles of  O’Casey’s mother and brothers.

Perhaps the most interesting piece of casting was the actor, Rod Taylor, playing Jack Cassidy, a thinly disguised version of O’Casey himself.  The Australian beefcake was an odd choice to play the bookish O’Casey, but the playwright  approved of the casting (Sean Connery and Richard Harris were also considered for the part) though he didn’t live to see the film.

The reception of the film was mixed.    The New York Times found the brogueish Irishness of the production charming, but dismissed John Whiting’s screenplay as “long on character, short on plot,”  echoing  Lady Gregory’s verdict on the first play O’Casey sent to the Abbey Theatre.  Young Cassidy, the review went on,  “may thrill the romantics, but it will leave the realists looking at holes through the screen”.

Sian Phillips  Young Cassidy (1965)rod taylor

Sian Phillips, left, as Bella and Rod Taylor as the “brawling, battling” Sean O’Casey, in Young Cassidy (1965)

Brilliant language and blueprints

Julianna

Look, if you love historical fiction or just a great story, if you’re a writer looking for brilliant language and blueprints, hey, if you’re of Irish descent, if you know the work of Sean O’Casey, if, if, if … well then you should know Mary Morrissy, one of my favorite novelists, has a new novel out, The Rising of Bella Casey. She’s the author of one of my favorite novels, Mother of Pearl (not the Oprah pick of the same title, but this gorgeous stunning Morrissy novel, now out of print — but, by God, someone get it back into readers’ hands!) as well as two other books. She’s finally being recognized — one blurb calls her the Irish Hilary Mantel. She’s a brilliant writer, deserving of a much broader audience. Dave found Mother of Pearl while he was roaming a publishing house in London and I was doing an interview — and I’m so thankful for the find, so writes Julianna Baggott (above).

Julianna is an indefatigable cross-genre writer – as herself and under the pen names Bridget Asher and N.E. Bode. She has published nineteen books over the last twelve years. Film rights for her novel Pure, the first of a sci-fi trilogy, was  a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and ALA Alex Award-winner, have been acquired by Fox 2000. The second book in the trilogy, Fuse was released last year: The Guardian raved about her “scalpel-sharp prose”.  I can rave about Julianna’s even rarer gift – the selfless championing of other writers’ work in the true spirit of literary comradeship.   See www. juliannabaggott.com and https://www.facebook.com/JuliannaBaggott

 

Returning to first loves

abbott_james_joyce

When I was a student journalist in the 1970s, we were given a list of 20 books, which, it was suggested gently, everyone should have read by the age of 20.  Shamefully, I had read only a handful, so I determined, with the zeal of the auto-didact, to get through every recommended work on the list.  I started with Joyce’s Dubliners and the first story I read was Araby. (The exotic title attracted me).  It was love at first read, a fitting response since Araby is about first love. But not simply first love, first unrequited love.

It’s a simple story – it dares to be simple.  The narrator, a young boy, nurses a crush on the older sister of his friend Mangan, but is too tongue-tied to declare it.   He decides he will demonstrate his love with a gift.  There’s a visiting bazaar in the city  – from which the story gets its title –  which Mangan’s sister wants to go to but can’t.  The boy decides he will go for her and buy her a trinket that will make his feelings clear. But first he has to get a promised florin from his uncle.  The well-oiled uncle does not come home till late and by the time our hero gets on the train, florin in hand, it is after 8 pm, and the reader (the older, wiser reader) already knows the expedition is doomed. When he gets to the bazaar, the place is virtually closed, the stalls mostly empty and those few that are still trading have nothing that he wants to buy.  His disappointment is palpable.

The story ends with one of Joyce’s classic epiphanies. (Joyce described an epiphany as a delicate and evanescent moment, a revelation. But it could also be an error or gesture “by which people betrayed the very things they were most careful to conceal”.) “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” The voice that finishes the story is an older one, viewing the child through the long lens of time. Or is it that clear-cut?  Do we not all know even in the feverish grip of infatuation how ridiculous it makes us? In Araby, Joyce places the reader above the boy in the middle of the deserted bazaar – perhaps gazing down from the gallery described earlier that “girdled” the big hall, but not looking down on him.

Araby is a story popular with the young.  When I first read it, it was the pain and exaltation of infatuation that I identified with, perhaps because I was a fellow sufferer.  Most teenagers are experts in the pangs of unreturned affection and Araby authenticates the experience and its associated mortifications.

Unrequited love is love at its most noble.  It’s untested, certainly, but it allows us to bestow passionate goodwill on someone who may only be barely aware of us.  It expects no reward.  It is both gloriously selfless and, paradoxically, totally taken up with self.
“Her name sprang to my lips at moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand.  My eyes were often full of tears (I could not tell why) and at times a flood from my heart seemed to pour myself out into my bosom.  I thought little of the future.  I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I would tell her of my confused adoration.”

Joyce captured the delicious pain, the secret shame and cruel paradoxes of unrequited love – how the sufferer longs to declare herself, while also desperately wanting to hide her affliction, to hug it to herself because it is a tender feeling, too fine for the grubby world.

The other discovery I made reading Araby was to see my own city being mirrored back at me.  “We walked through the flaring streets, jostled by drunken men and bargaining women, amid the curses of labourers, the shrill litanies of shop-boys who stood on guard by the barrels of pigs’ cheeks, the nasal chanting of street singers. . .” In my mind’s eye I pictured Moore Street of my own time, or imagined Henry Street the week before Christmas, and realised how close our Dublins were.  The traces of the Edwardian city were much closer to the surface in the 1970s, but even if they hadn’t been, the city Joyce spent his whole writing life trying to recreate in exile, was right there in Araby – the dismal streets, the brown houses, the dark dripping gardens, the empty gloomy rooms, the shuttered lives.  When I came to write about Dublin in that era  in  “The Rising of Bella Casey”, my novel due out with Brandon Press later this month, it was to those memories I returned – as well, of course, as drawing on the atmosphere Joyce rendered so beautifully in “Dubliners”.