The desolation of domestic life

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It’s ok, I’m not talking about my own domestic woes. I’ve just been reading The Springs of Affection by Maeve Brennan, a collection of short stories set in Dublin and written between the 1950s and 1970s when Brennan lived in New York.

In between stories I started the wonderful Academy Street by Mary Costello, in which the main character Tess lives in New York through that same period and beyond. I lived under the melancholy spell of that book for three days, snatching it greedily back up at every opportunity. Academy Street gives the illusion of moving slowly without much drama but before you know it you have been through Tess’s entire life, a patchwork of tragedy, transient love and inertia.

For more on Academy Street I would recommend this fabulous review by fellow blogger and author Anne Goodwin, whose first novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last July.

Tess, with her emotionally debilitating upbringing and tragic lack of self-belief, could be a character from one of Brennan’s stories. But while Brennan reproduced on paper the “petty social intricacies of the city she had left”, she was living the high life in New York, working as a columnist for The New Yorker and enjoying the kind of success and freedom most girls of those times only dreamed about.

After a disastrous marriage, Brennan had a breakdown and her illustrious career – and her life – fell apart. She spent the last fifteen years of her life plagued by alcoholism and mental illness, homeless at times, and died forgotten and penniless in 1993.

Some of Brennan’s characters appear in several of her stories and a lot of the action takes place in one particular house in a suburban street on the city’s south side, in Ranelagh to be exact. This is the house where Brennan grew up, where her family went through precarious times while her father was on the run during the Civil War. In the new Free State, he was on the winning side and the family moved to Washington when he was appointed Ireland’s envoy the United States. Maeve Brennan never moved back.

There is a play, Maeve’s House, based on Brennan’s life which I wish I had seen. It was commissioned by the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and was also staged in New York in 2013. The play owes its existence to an amazing coincidence: the actor performing the one-man show also lived in the house were Brennan grew up. Eamon Morrissey’s family bought the house in Ranelagh from Brennan’s parents when they moved to the US.

Morrissey was surprised to discover in one of her stories an exact description of his childhood home and he contacted her at the magazine; they arranged to meet in New York.
Here’s a review of the New York show.

To get back to the stories. Some are gently moving while others are steeped in despair, portraits of people trapped in prisons of their own making. The title story The Springs of Affection (1972) is the longest in the book and it features one of the most vividly drawn and unlikable characters I have ever come across.

Her name is Min and she is the last surviving member of her family. A seamstress by trade, Min has lived a life of unrealised dreams, defined by envy and spite, but she finds herself on top in the end, triumphant in her longevity.

“Min sat beside her own gas fire in her own flat in Wexford and considered life and crime and punishment according to the laws of arithmetic. She counted up and down the years, and added and subtracted the questions and answers, and found that she came out with a very tidy balance in her favour.”

Min’s brother Martin and his wife Delia are described with scathing disapproval by Min in her recollections. We meet the couple in several of the other stories, notably in The Twelfth Wedding Anniversary (first published in The New Yorker in 1966), where their domestic misery is writ large. When Martin returns home late after ignoring their anniversary, he finds refuge in his family’s slumber.

“… If this night could only last a week, or two weeks, I might have time to get everything straightened out in my head, and then I would know what to do … If they would only sleep happily like that for a long time, he might find himself able to think again. But the coming of day, a few hours off, rose up in his mind like a towering wave that was all the more awful because it would be succeeded after twenty-four hours by another wave, and then another. There was no end to the days ahead, and the ones furthest off, years from now, were gathering power while he stood waiting on the landing. It was a merciless prospect. There was no way out of this house, which now seemed to contain all of his future as well as a good part of his past.”

Oh the unhappiness!

10 thoughts on “The desolation of domestic life

  1. A lovely analysis of what sounds to be a fascinating short story collection. I love the coincidence of the actor having lived in the same house as the author.
    These are great quotes but we do need a break from the dismal sometimes!
    Thanks so much for your generous shout for my review and my forthcoming novel. I’m glad you’re enjoying Academy Street. Another one that’s really good on the domestic tedium – although alas not Irish – is Shelley Harris’s Vigilante

    A happy New Year to you too and hope it brings you all those five things.

    1. Thank you Anne! You know you’re right, I’ve been immersing myself in miserable marriages, doom and gloom etc. for much too long. Time for a book with a bit of fun in it.
      I’ve just started Elizabeth is Missing with my book club. I think you reviewed that one too. Hoping it ends on a positive note.

  2. I find it hard to read about people who are “steeped in despair” or “trapped in prisons of their own making,” especially when there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel.

    I’m currently 90% of the way through “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers” by Tom Rachman. Even this far into the book, I fear that the main character will never find her way in the world. I wouldn’t say it has been a pleasant reading experience, but I’m still reading, and it has been interesting–and different.

  3. Oh, what an interesting introduction to Maeve Brennan’s life and work. I am starting to wonder if it is now expected of Irish writers to produce books full of doom and gloom as proof that they have truly endured the ‘Irish experience’. Of course it works so well when it’s handled with a sense of humour (another stereotypical expectation perhaps?) and I’m afraid this is probably why I just couldn’t warm to ‘Academy Street’ – I just found it particularly humourless. I know I’m in a minority with this view, but to be totally honest, I had to force myself to read to the end and am amazed at how popular it was with other readers. Your post has, however, encouraged me to look up Maeve Brennan and her short stories.

    1. You might have a point about the expectation on Irish writers to produce misery. There’s obviously an appetite for it and plenty of material too. So on it goes! My own book shows a lot of the dark side of Irish life but it’s ultimately hopeful, about someone who finds her way out of an emotional dead end. I think our generation has more resources and more freedom to change. I hope so anyway.
      The one thing that bothered me about Academy Street was the way one of the characters met his untimely end. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read it yet because I really didn’t see that coming, but why did it have to be that particular event? Seemed unneccesary, and a bit cheap, to have to draw on the tragedy already associated with that event.

  4. ps. The link below leads to another disappointed reader of Academy Street (and a book blog well worth following). You guys should start a club!

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