Authors: Mary Lavin

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Irish short-story writer

Author Works

Short Fiction:

Tales from Bective Bridge, 1942

The Long Ago, and Other Stories, 1944

The Becker Wives, and Other Stories, 1946

At Sallygap, and Other Stories, 1947

A Single Lady, and Other Stories, 1951

The Patriot Son, and Other Stories, 1956

Selected Stories, 1959

The Great Wave, and Other Stories, 1961

The Stories of Mary Lavin, 1964-1985 (3 volumes)

In the Middle of the Fields, and Other Stories, 1967

Happiness, and Other Stories, 1969

Collected Stories, 1971

A Memory, and Other Stories, 1972

The Shrine, and Other Stories, 1977

A Family Likeness, and Other Stories, 1985

In a Café, 1995

Long Fiction:

The House in Clewe Street, 1945

Mary O’Grady, 1950, 1986

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

A Likely Story, 1957

The Second-Best Children in the World, 1972


Mary Lavin has an illustrious place among the handful of Irish women writers of short stories. Unlike other members of that group–for example, Elizabeth Bowen and Edna O’Brien–Lavin has devoted virtually all of her creative energies to short fiction, her novels having little to contribute to an overall assessment of her artistic achievement.{$I[AN]9810001740}{$I[A]Lavin, Mary}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Lavin, Mary}{$I[geo]IRELAND;Lavin, Mary}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Lavin, Mary}{$I[tim]1912;Lavin, Mary}

At the age of nine, Lavin was brought by her Irish emigrant parents from her native America back to Ireland. For a time the family settled in Athenry, County Galway, in circumstances which have haunted the author’s work. The special place occupied by houses in her fiction and the stolidly repressive conformity they connote reflect this place and time. Stories such as “The Becker Wives,” the Grimes family sequence, and the novel The House in Clewe Street have their origins in these formative experiences. In 1922, the family moved to Dublin, where the author was educated. Four years later, her father began to work as the manager of Bective House, an estate in County Meath, north of Dublin. This position and locale had a number of important consequences for Lavin, not least for providing the landscape of many of her stories–“In the Middle of the Fields” is a noteworthy example.

In 1936, after completing an M.A. thesis on Jane Austen, Lavin left Dublin’s University College and took a teaching position. She later began to study for a Ph.D. but abandoned a thesis on Virginia Woolf in favor of creative work. Her first story, “Miss Holland,” was published in 1939. Marriage to a university classmate, William Walsh, a lawyer, followed in 1942, the same year that her first book of stories, Tales from Bective Bridge, was published. The book came with a preface by a famous Bective neighbor, the author Lord Dunsany, and in 1943 Lavin received the prestigious James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

In 1946, following the death of her father (see the story “Tom” in The Shrine, and Other Stories), Lavin and her family purchased a farm at Bective. This property is at the root of much of Lavin’s work, not only because it remained her main place of residence but also because, after the premature death of her husband in 1954, it became the site of those emotional uncertainties with which so many of her stories deal. These uncertainties have as their external circumstances some of the fundamental designations of a woman’s life–wife, mother, and widow. It would not be accurate to think of Lavin as a feminist writer in the contemporary sense of the term. On the other hand, her stories recognize clearly the socially determined nature of women’s roles, and many of her invariably female protagonists find themselves engaged in implicit critiques of those roles at an emotional level.

These critiques do not directly address the social status of women but are linked to a more permanent set of preoccupations concerning memory, loss, the challenge of autonomy, and the problematic power of one’s inner life. The loss of her husband left Lavin alone to maintain the farm and to raise her three young children, and initially she doubted that she could continue to write. In 1958 her stories began to appear regularly in The New Yorker. Such exposure, together with the publication in 1959 of Selected Stories, which has for a preface Lavin’s only published comments on her work, laid the basis for her enduring reputation as a practitioner of short fiction. Prominent achievements of this second phase of her career such as “The Great Wave,” “In a Café,” “The Cuckoo-spit,” and “Happiness,” substantiate that reputation.

In addition to their intrinsic artistic interest, many of Lavin’s later stories may be regarded as episodes in psychological autobiography. Such a view applies in particular to “Happiness.” Its female protagonist confuses her daughters by her genial acceptance of death; moreover, she does so in the presence of a priest who is a family friend. The publication of the volume to which the story gives its title coincided with Lavin’s remarriage. Her husband, Michael Scott, was an old friend from college days who had become a priest. His laicization enabled him to marry. The unsettlingly naïve courage and faith displayed by the protagonist of “Happiness” is the high point of Lavin’s recurrent thematic emphasis on perseverance, inimitability, and the difficult necessity of emotional directness.

Although Lavin typically concentrated on the mores and mentalities of the Irish middle class, her stories are not as narrow as their subject. Formally, they reveal her mastery of both the epiphanic approach to the short story perfected by James Joyce and the more loosely constructed novella, with Ivan Turgenev as perhaps the main influence. Stylistically, Lavin’s fiction is verbally plain and direct though tonally varied and complex. She received a number of prestigious awards, including the Katherine Mansfield-Menton Prize in 1962. She died on March 25, 1996.

BibliographyBowen, Zack. Mary Lavin. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1975. A concise introduction in the Irish Writers series to Lavin’s life and work. Bowen touches on the social background of the fiction and a few themes. Nearly half the book is a discussion of Lavin’s novels The House in Clewe Street and Mary O’Grady.Caswell, Robert W. “Political Reality and Mary Lavin’s Tales from Bective Bridge.” Eire-Ireland 3 (Spring, 1968): 48-60. Caswell argues that Lavin’s stories lack the “political reality” found in the works of Frank O’Connor and Seán O’Faoláin. He also states that she does not show nationalism as a driving force of her characters. Yet Caswell still feels that Lavin captures a distinctly Irish identity.Deane, Séamus. “Mary Lavin.” In The Irish Short Story, edited by Patrick Rafroidi. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1979. A general introduction to Lavin’s short stories, focusing on her central theme of the nature of love. Argues that the power of the stories is related to the social and psychological habits of social suppression and secrecy in Irish life. Discusses her classical style and her communal ethic, commenting on several of her major stories.Gottwald, Maria. “Narrative Strategies.” In Irish Literature, edited by Birgit Bramsback and Martin Croghan. Uppsala: Sweden, 1988. Discusses the relationship of narrative techniques to character, theme, and value system in Lavin’s stories. Argues that Lavin’s most common approach is a figural narrative situation with an internal perspective.Hawthorne, Mark D. “Words That Do Not Speak Themselves: Mary Lavin’s ‘Happiness.’” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Fall, 1994): 683-688. Claims that in this well-known Lavin story the narrator’s attempt to understand and account for her mother’s enigmatic use of the word “happiness” illustrates the futility of trying to understand verbal constructs; the inability to communicate is a major theme in the story.Kelly, A. A. Mary Lavin: A Study. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1980. The best critical book available on Lavin. Kelly discusses Lavin’s use of the social hierarchy in her fiction. There are also excellent chapters on the themes of the family and religion found in Lavin’s work.Levenson, Leah. The Four Seasons of Mary Lavin. Dublin: Marino Books, 1998. A literary biography.Lynch, Rachel Sealy. “‘The Fabulous Female Form’: The Deadly Erotics of the Male Gaze in Mary Lavin’s The House on Crewe Street.” Twentieth Century Literature 43 (Fall, 1997): 326-338. An analysis of Lavin’s novel, concentrating on gender relations and Lavin’s use of satire.Murray, Thomas J. “Mary Lavin’s World: Lovers and Strangers.” Eire-Ireland 7 (Summer, 1973): 122-131. Murray finds much “sterility” in the characters and situations in Lavin’s fiction. The role of women in many of the stories, Murray argues, is to destroy the life-affirming fantasies of men.Neary, Michael. “Flora’s Answer to the Irish Question: A Study of Mary Lavin’s ‘The Becker Wives.’” Twentieth Century Literature 42 (Winter, 1996): 516-525. Discusses the protagonist of the story as a passive projection of a national Irish ideal; shows how the story deals with the Irish struggle to establish an identity from within.Peterson, Richard F. Mary Lavin. Boston: Twayne, 1980. This book offers a brief biography of Lavin and then examines specific examples of the stories and novels. A useful introduction to the writer.Shumaker, Jeanette Roberts. “Sacrificial Women in Short Stories by Mary Lavin and Edna O’Brien.” Studies in Short Fiction 32 (Spring, 1995): 185-197. Examines sacrificial women in two stories by Lavin and two by O’Brien; claims that in the stories, female martyrdom (en)gendered by the Madonna myth has different forms, from becoming a nun to becoming a wife, mother, or “fallen woman.”Vertreace, Martha. “The Goddess Resurrected in Mary Lavin’s Short Fiction.” In The Anna Book: Searching for Anna in Literary History, edited by Mickey Perlman. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1992. Argues that Lavin creates a number of mother figures in her stories based on pre-Christian goddesses worshiped in ancient Ireland. Suggests that characters who interact with this figure are redeemed through her by relinquishing other forms of creativity, such as artistic expression.
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