Sunday 18 March 2018

Theatre: Lavin's affectionate self-portrait returns to the place that so inspired her work

Renewed interest in Lavin: Claire Barrett in ‘Happiness’
Renewed interest in Lavin: Claire Barrett in ‘Happiness’

Maggie Armstrong

What do your loved ones really think of you? Do they understand you, and do you understand yourself? These questions surround Mary Lavin's story Happiness, adapted for the stage at Bewley's theatre with another overlooked work, In the Middle of the Fields.

Happiness is a rich and rewarding story about three young girls' attempts to understand their mother. "Her theme was happiness," the oldest daughter narrates. "What it was, what it was not; where we might find it, where not; and how, if found, it must be guarded. Never must we confound it with pleasure. Nor think sorrow its exact opposite."

Lavin is one of Ireland's major writers, or certainly was during the 1950s, 60s and '70s when she was working. At home, she held a sort of literary salon in her mews house near Baggott Street, serving red wine and spaghetti to famous writer friends. Away, she was published in The New Yorker (first encouraged by JD Salinger, she was to gain a fixed contract), the Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Bazaar and Cosmopolitan. She held lectureships in the US and was anthologised. Yet, of the 19 short story collections brought out in her lifetime, only two are now in print. Deirdre Kinahan who has adapted her stories to theatre, remarks that "a lot of female writers, like Maeve Brennan and Elisabeth Bowen, were just written out of the picture".

Lavin was born in Massachusetts in 1912 to Irish emigrant parents. They returned to live in Athenry when she was nine, and moved to Dublin where she studied French and English at UCD. There, she met law student and aspiring writer William Walsh, who she later married.

"I thought it would be very nice to be a writer's wife," she once quipped, because only when she was 26, preparing a PhD thesis on Virginia Woolf, did she feel the impulse to write herself. William died when her third daughter Caroline was still a baby, and then she had to write.

Lavin managed to write as the sole provider of her three daughters because they were part of the process. Living in Bective House in Co Meath and then in Dublin, she worked everywhere -- in the National Library, in St Stephen's Green on a warm day, in bus terminals, cafes, on her kitchen table and in bed, resting her pages on a breadboard and throwing the crumpled drafts in a hatbox. "Most writers have wives to do the housework. I don't," she said of her multi-tasking. She was interrupted "20 times an hour" and yet she managed two novels and almost 200 short stories.

She began Happiness in London in 1965 on a trip away from her children. Walking along the strand, she wondered what they really thought of her. She went to a Cadbury's coffee shop and scribbled the beginning of her story across the back pages of the November issue of Vogue magazine. An ad for 'Bounce Hairdressing Gel' was put to good use. Two years and several laborious drafts later (she wrote everything in longhand), Happiness was published in The New Yorker.

In the story, the girls discover that their mother's happiness is her children's happiness, just as they are inextricable from her life as an artist. It stands as an affectionate self-portrait of Lavin herself. She based it on her family's grief after her husband's death.

Though it's about the reawakening of desire when a new man, a priest, comes on the scene (the mother "thought nothing of running out of the bathroom in her slip, brushing her teeth, or combing her hair, if she wanted to tell him something"), the real love story is between a mother and her children. Lavin did remarry, to a former priest, Michael Scott, but once said that "contact with the minds of my daughters gave me more sheer pleasure than contact with any other mind".

She was a much-liked person, known for her warmth and elegance and rambling conversation. When she died in 1996, she was not widely read, but the centenary of her life brought a renewed interest.

Lavin once said that Bewley's cafe was crucial to her survival after she was widowed. Following a morning's writing, she would meet her daughters there for lunch, and they would be brought to her table "like royalty". It's appropriate that her work should be read here, where no doubt much of it was inspired.



Irish Independent

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