Showing posts with label Kate O'Brien. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kate O'Brien. Show all posts

Friday, 25 February 2011

Without My Cloak by Kate O'Brien

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.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

That Lady by Kate O'Brien

Apparently, at this year's Hay Literary Festival, Antony Beevor suggested that "novelists ought to mark in bold type the bits they made up".  He might be mollified by Kate O'Brien's forward to That Lady, which states firmly that "what follows is not a historical novel. It is an invention arising from reflection on the curious external story of Ana de Mendoza and Philip II of Spain."  O'Brien extracts from her reflections a novel that deals with a complex blend of political intrigue, love, jealousy, religion, and humour.  

Ana de Mendoza, Princess of Eboli and owner of many other complicated titles, is a widow at the start of the novel, but still probably the most powerful woman in Spain.  Rich in her own right, the friend and confidante of Philip II, she is able to rise above the scurrilous and unfounded rumours which suggest that she is the King's mistress.  Her appearance - she is thin, not traditionally beautiful, old at 35 by the standards of the day , and wears a silk eyepatch following a fencing accident when she was a child - confounds the gossip about her; many believe her virtuous because they find her ugly.  Ana, knowing she is both committing a sin and taking a significant political risk, takes as a lover the King's Secretary of State, Antonio Perez.   It is not long before their affair begins to excite gossip and political intrigue, which adds to the already complex and personal political situation centred around Philip and his government of Spain.   The lovers are denounced by Juan de Escovedo, a political enemy of Philip, who endorses his elimination.  After Escovedo's murder, the King becomes aware of the true nature of Ana's relationship with Perez, and the consequences for the lovers are terrible.

Philip's intransigent desire to punish Ana and Perez is only part of the story.  Buoyed by her wealth and status, Ana is overconfident about her power and her ability to manage Philip.  Perez has similar faith in his invincibility.  Both, eventually, suffer at the hands of an absolute monarch who has no need to invoke the law to imprison and torture.  Ana is a faithful Catholic, and denies herself the consolation of the church while her affair with Antonio continues, but her story shows us that we need to beware of earthly powers as well as heavenly ones.  At the heart of Ana's story is a rather modern theme - the right to a private life.  Ana is a political figure, a landowner, a manager of estates, but she continually asserts that her private relations are nobody else's business; they dishonour nobody, they threaten nobody, because nobody has the right to be interested in them.  This assertion will lead to her imprisonment and eventual death.

It is often said that historical novels are really about the period in which they were written, and in this 1945 work it's possible to read the Spain of Philip II, exhausted by wars, wealthy but unable to feed its people, and struggling to maintain its imperial conquests, as a metaphor for Britain at the end of the Second World War, especially Ana's reaction to the decay of her estates during her house arrest.  Ana is forced to cede the management of her estates to the King's representative: "When Ruy lived and in the six years after his death that I was in nominal charge of Pastrana, this estate and its people were prosperous.  Now it's being run by the government, and I can tell from looking out of that window, walking through my own garden - even if none of the people ever came to see me - that for some reason that no one can quite fix on, that is no longer true."  The fear of the ascendant middle-class bureaucracy so common in novels of the interwar and war years is clearly indicated here.  There are also echoes of Franco's autocratic rule over Spain: Ana's power is not threatened by increasing democracy but by a greater despotism.  But the politics of the novel merge with echoes of fairy tales; Ana is imprisoned and, like the Sleeping Beauty, her house decays and her garden becomes overgrown.

There is also a personal reading of this work: Kate O'Brien based her characterisation of Ana de Mendoza on her friend, E M Delafield.  At first it is somewhat hard to reconcile a one-eyed sixteenth-century Spanish aristocrat with the author of the Provincial Lady, but Ana's unfailing good humour, affection for her friends and (most of) her children, and endurance of suffering are all reminiscent of Delafield's biography.  Kate O'Brien spent a lot of time with Delafield during her last illness, and perhaps her friend's stoicism inspired Ana's:

"Ana was feeling ill that evening, in pain all through her body, but this most exquisitely tragic-comic piece of news, which she refused to accept as more than some travelling man's fantasy, roused her to a mood of mockery that was rejuvenating and even analgesic."

This is a detailed and complex book; the political machinations of the key characters, the back story which must be conveyed to help the reader make sense of the present, and the many dramatic events make it a demanding read, especially for a reader who (like me) knows practically nothing about this era in Spanish history.  But it is a rewarding book, opening up many ideas and images to the reader, who cannot fail to be charmed by Ana, her bravery and her wit, or moved by her eventual decline.

Friday, 18 September 2009

The Land of Spices by Kate O'Brien

I confess to picking this up because I know that Kate O'Brien was a friend of EMD's in her later years, and then to buying it because it turned out to be about nuns, but I'm very glad I did. O'Brien's novel, set in a fictionalised Limerick at the beginning of the 20th century, deals with the relationship between Mother Mary Helen, Reverend Mother of a Catholic boarding school in a fictionalised Limerick, and Anna Murphy, sent there at the early age of six because her father's drinking is disrupting family life. Reverend Mother, at the start of the novel, considers her work in Ireland to have failed, and doubts her original motivation for becoming a nun. But through her distant and reserved love for Anna, and their evolving friendship, she comes to reconsider her position.

The book is excellent on the politics and diplomacies of the life of a senior nun, managing parents, bishops and her fellow sisters in an atmosphere of self-abnegation and the rejection of pride in her own achievements. While Reverend Mother occupies much of the narrative space, Anna appears regularly as a narrative viewpoint, giving us another perspective on the school and the nuns but also underlining the similarities between her story and Reverend Mother's. The schoolgirls, often ebullient and silly, point up the quietness and restraint of the nuns who care for them. The book is structured around two key events which it would be unfair to new readers to reveal; around these high points the pace of the work is measured, its prose calm and contained, evoking the restraint of convent life.

There is some feminist polemic here regarding the education of women. The young Anna wishes only for time and space in which to think about how she will earn her living, but knows that these are luxuries likely to be denied her by a controlling family. She reckons without the support of Reverend Mother, however. Clare Boylan, in the introduction to this book, suggests that O'Brien's polemic inclinations prevent her from producing a work of art; there probably would have been ways to resolve Anna's story less intrusively, however agreeable the polemic concerned. Having said that, I found the depiction of an older and powerful woman campaigning for the freedom and education of a vulnerable girl very moving. Equally moving is Anna's epiphany, towards the end of the novel, explaining Lycidas to a beautiful but empty-headed fellow pupil. As well as the revelation that the flaw is essential to art and to beauty, this passage seems to me to hint at a sudden realisation of beauty's erotic potential; both understandings appropriate to Anna as she edges into adult life.

There are several other Kate O'Brien novels to look forward to: perfect displacement activity for a newly minted research student.