Maeve Brennan: notes on her life and work
A guest post by Dr Paula Böndel
Maeve Brennan, the Irish-American writer, who emigrated in 1934 with her family following the appointment of her father Robert Brennan as Secretary of the Irish Legation in Washington – he later became the Irish Minister to the US – died in 1993 at the age of seventy-six in New York. A celebrated author in the American literary circles of her day, she wrote short stories, columns, autobiographical sketches, book reviews, and fashion notes for The New Yorker. In later years her life was devastated by mental illness, and by 1993 she had virtually disappeared from public view; her works, published in three collections during her lifetime, had all but fallen into oblivion. In 1997 her Dublin stories were republished in The Springs of Affection. This was followed in 2000 by The Rose Garden, which mainly comprises her American stories. The same year saw the publication of The Visitor, Brennan's earliest work, which was rescued from obscurity by Christopher Carduff, who stumbled on its typescript in the archives of the University of Notre Dame. It was published by New Island Books to critical acclaim in 2001, triggering a Maeve Brennan Revival that continues to the present today.
The Visitor explores the despair of Anastasia King, who returns after the death of her mother to the house of her paternal grandmother in Dublin, only to be confronted with the cruel reality that she is no longer welcome in her former home. The young protagonist has spent the last six years in Paris with her mentally fragile mother, who had previously fled her unhappy marriage to Anastasia's father. The refusal of Mrs King to take her granddaughter in on the grounds that she had allegedly sided with her mother and in doing so caused the untimely death of her father, provokes an emotional crisis. At the end of the novella we see Anastasia abandoned, in a state of near-insanity, singing barefoot in the street outside her grandmother's house.
The Visitor, intimately concerned with the topics of home, loss, and alienation, is a work of frightening precision, yet perfectly balanced in its depiction of internal isolation and instability. Moreover, it foreshadows the themes, which would later become dominant in many of Brennan's Irish stories. Loneliness in human relationships, the claustrophobia of family ties, inability to express one's own needs, combined with the loss of identity and the sense of belonging.
Brennan's most widely acclaimed Irish stories are those of two families living in a house in Dublin, which is modelled on the house in Ranelagh, in which the author herself grew up. This is not to suggest that the stories are purely autobiographical. In fact, it would be quite difficult to imagine Robert and Una Brennan, who had been deeply involved in the fight for Irish independence, as being the literary role models for the Derdons and the Bagots. The stories – reminiscent of Joyce's Dubliners – are an exploration of the theme of frustration, focusing on the dissection of the isolation, anger, and pain of people trapped by circumstance, with little hope of escape. In this stifling atmosphere relationships disintegrate, any aspirations the protagonists ever had, thwarted. Brennan writes about these entangled lives from a distant point of view, treating her subject matter objectively, without irony.
Brennans's irony and her notable razor-sharp humour is primarily evident in her American stories, set in the fictional enclave of Herbert's Retreat. This district north of New York City bears a striking resemblance to the residential Sneden's Landing, where the author herself lived for some time after her marriage to St. Clair McKelway, then the managing editor of the New Yorker. Juxtaposing the lives of privileged New Yorkers and their Irish domestic servants, the stories concentrate on the mistress-maid relationship. In Herbert's Retreat, we are told, “only the right people live”. These “right people” are obsessed with keeping up appearances in order to mask their insecurities. They treat their domestic servants with condescension, disdain, and derision. Powerless as the maids may seem, they possess the ability to outwit their employers by closely observing their foibles and relating these with “evil mirth”. Their stories mercilessly expose the superficiality and petty snobbery of the upperclass inhabitants of this 'exclusive' community.
In her New Yorker vignettes, published in 1969 under the title The Long-Winded Lady, Brennan captures the fleeting moments of metropolitan life. Although “she is not very curious, not even inquisitive”, the narrator prefers watching to participating. Sitting by herself in small restaurants and seemingly preoccupied with other matters allows her to observe while affording her an escape from any form of intimate communication.
The scenes she portrays are of ordinary, everyday life. Yet her sketches do not merely replicate quotidian urban experience. In them we see reality and imagination merge. Minute details, overheard snippets of conversation, an expression on somebody's face are sometimes enough to trigger a whole flow of associations.
Although crowds are the signature image of the metropolis, it is mostly solitary men and women and couples in uncommunicative situations that attract her attention. The damaged, the lonely, the vulnerable – old ladies living alone in shabby hotel rooms as she herself did for most of her life in New York.
Brennan once called herself a “traveller in residence”. This oxymoron conveys the idea not so much of transitioning from one place to another as to inhabiting a space – hanging in midair, as it were. Unrooted and precarious as it may have been, this space allowed her to cross boundaries. Maeve Brennan's stories transcend Dublin and New York, confronting human aspirations, failings, and sufferings. They are archetypal. And as such, they rank among the best short stories of the twentieth century.