Without My Cloak was Kate O'Brien's first novel and this Victorian family saga draws heavily on her own family background in Limerick. Limerick becomes Mellick in the novel, sitting in a sheltering, well-watered landscape called the Vale of Honey, and the home of the Considines. The family dynasty was founded by Anthony Considine, a horse-thief, who comes to Mellick with a stolen thoroughbred horse in 1789. By 1860 his son Honest John Considine has established a successful and respectable business trading in animal feed. His youngest son, another Anthony, takes over the running of the business, and is even more successful. The large Considine family - eight of Honest John's children make it to adulthood, and several of them have children - are rich, well-housed, and influential. One is a doctor, another a priest; Anthony Considine becomes mayor of Mellick. The novel will explore the progress of the Considines, as a clan and as individuals, and in particular the perpetual struggle between family loyalty and self-fulfilment.
Of the older generation, it is siblings Eddy - who has managed a partial escape from the family by acting as London agent for the business - and Caroline who fret most against the constraints of family life. Eddy is presented as a cultured hedonist, and the narrative strongly hints at his homosexuality. Caroline has married a man that she does not love for the sake of family advantage and respectability, and when she does fall in love, her world is shattered. But their stories act as preludes for the story of Denis Considine, eldest son of Anthony Considine the mayor. Denis is handsome, intelligent, and greatly beloved by his widowed father; he has a passion for landscape gardening that his father is rich enough to indulge. Hoping to make gardening his profession, Denis nevertheless enters the family business as a clerk; already compromised, when he falls in love with an illegitimate peasant girl. Christina, he is plunged into a confusion of loyalties that only Christina herself can resolve. The novel ends with Denis's twenty-first birthday, a day that will see both a violent rejection of the family and a tentative acceptance of his social role.
The narrative is long and leisurely. Kate O'Brien's inexperience as a novelist shows through occasionally; there can be a lot of dense exposition rather than the more distanced evocation of character familiar from her later novels, and there are some over-long scenes, especially the innumerable family parties. The introduction of Christina is particularly awkward; we know Denis very well by the time they meet, and O'Brien spends several pages making sure we know Christina just as well, which diverts attention from their growing love for one another. There are also some rather clunky snobberies: much is made of Christina's aristocrat father as the source of her beauty, grace and intelligence. But despite this, the novel is a rich, satisfying read. I'm not much of a fan of family sagas on the whole, and the book kept me interested in the Considines and their fate until the last page.