Friday 21 June 2019

Mary Kenny: 'How The Valley of the Squinting Windows became a byword for nasty nosiness'

 

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

It's a well-known phrase implying inquisitive neighbours twitching their curtains, usually in small communities - 'The Valley of the Squinting Windows'. And it's a great title for a book.

The original novel, published just over 100 years ago, has recently been republished in paperback by Bibliolife (a facsimile from its 1920 American edition), and it's available in Hodges Figgis in Dublin, and online. Some libraries also provide it.

Brinsley MacNamara's story is a classic text, and I can honestly say that it's one of the most loathsome I've ever read. Small wonder it was ritually burned in Delvin, Co Westmeath, the village on which it was based (called Garradrimna in the story). Almost everyone in this community is horrible: mean-spirited, spiteful, malicious, begrudging, hypocritical, money-grabbing, blackmailing, dishonest and often filthy. Only one individual - a minor character and a schoolmaster (MacNamara's father was a schoolteacher) - emerges with decency.

Squinting Windows shows a truly nasty side of human nature - the prevailing village activity being glee and pleasure at the misfortunes of others, and active conspiracies, wherever possible, to bring humiliation and disgrace to others. And yet, for all its ludicrous over-exaggeration of village venom, it's a narrative that contains some psychological truths.

It also has historical relevance to women's lives, since the central plot is around the "ruination" of a woman, Nan Brennan, made pregnant out of wedlock by a local wealthy bounder - and the price she has to pay for this "fall". Nan herself, in keeping with the cast of Garradrimna, is a dislikeable character: her error, it is explained, was that "she hadn't made sure of Henry Shannon" before ceding to him. He, in turn, was able to wriggle out of his responsibilities because wealthy lawyers protected him.

The resulting child is disposed of, but will reappear later as part of the tragic revenge plot. Nan goes on to marry a local ne'er-do-well, has another son, John, who, to her overweening pride is studying to be a priest. She compensates for her earlier sin, in the eyes of the community, with a ghastly performance of over-religiosity, though all her craw-thumping doesn't dissuade another venomous character, a "shuiler" (a traveller and mendicant) named Marse Prendergast from blackmailing her on a regular basis.

The parish priest seems mainly motivated by money, and consorting with the strong farmers described routinely as "land-grabbers". Anyway, people only go to chapel "as a measure of respectability" - there's hardly a shred of Christian charity among the whole community.

The postmistress is nothing short of criminal, spending her time either steaming open private letters in the post, or composing poison pen missives to ruin some innocent person's life. The village police sergeant is described as stupid and coarse.

Predictably, the plot leads to a tragic ending for almost everyone, with hardly a single redemptive note.

When Squinting Windows was first published, some found it vastly entertaining, and at a pub in Delvin, the landlord started reading it aloud, "to bawdy jeers and whoops of hilarity", (as Padraic O'Farrell writes in his study The Burning of Brinsley MacNamara.)

But then the landlord halted. He came to a passage which was clearly about his own wife, described as "a notably hard woman… the hardest woman in Garradrimna. Her childlessness had made her so…" In the book she is Mrs Brannagan, but she was subsequently identified as Anne Clyne, who was indeed childless: she had lost two babies at birth. Cruel.

The schoolteacher, Mrs Wyse in the book, is portrayed as slothful, malicious and negligent: in real life, she was Christina Barry, a "gentle and refined" person. The postmistress, whose real name was Mary Cully, was outraged to see her character painted as a "bitter woman", a venomous "barren…old maid" who routinely perverts the course of the postal service.

Not having swanky lawyers to defend their reputations, the villagers of Delvin burned the book, and boycotted MacNamara's father. (MacNamara's real name was John Weldon, and his schoolteacher father was James, who had indeed been involved in local disputes, and drank more than he should have.)

It all became a great literary sensation: and even 40 years later, visitors to Delvin were advised not to refer to the Squinting Windows reputation. All participants are now dead, and the book's notoriety today is probably more in the way of a tourist attraction.

But it remains a vicious portrayal of a small community's gossip and back-biting. One American critic wrote that the women in the village were "both victims and aggressors"; the men too were seen as being "ruined" by assaults on their reputation.

Thank heaven life is no longer like that! Thank goodness people today have become gentler and kinder. You would never find such spite, malice, personal abuse, bullying, jealousy, or anonymous messages of hate and resentment nowadays.

Oh, wait a minute: have we visited Twitter recently? Have we studied the social media that causes sensitive young girls to kill themselves because such hurtful things are said? Yes, The Valley of the Squinting Windows is no longer located in a village community: it's on the internet, in full bloom. Human nature doesn't change!

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