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Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks: Mary Lavin, The Becker Wives

29 June 2015

The Becker Wives by Mary Lavin,1949.

The 1946 entry for the Modern Ireland in 100 Artworks series is The Becker Wives by Mary Lavin. The four stories in this fine collection by an unpredictable, taboo-breaching writer capture a mood of struggling with confinement.

According to the article authors the Becker Wives caused shockwaves when it was released.

‘Mary Lavin’s contemporaries found it hard to place or to contain her unsettling stories. Frank O’Connor, a close friend, said that “an Irishman reading the stories of Mary Lavin is actually more at a loss than a foreigner would be”. Usefully, Augustine Martincalled her stories “outrageously private”; other critics noted that she breaches taboos and creates new and jarring clashes within a vividly imagined middle- and lower-class world whose Irishness is not central, only ever implicit. As Colm Tóibín says of her, “The stories are set in Ireland but it is an Ireland as calm background rather than an alarming Ireland.” The alarm lies elsewhere, in her ability to lead the story into unexpected ground and to make her endings unsettlingly unpredictable.’

Read the article in full here

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Learn more about Mary Lavin in her Dictionary of Irish Biography entry below. 

Lavin, Mary

by Maurice Harmon

Lavin, Mary (1912–96), short-story writer and novelist, was born 11 June 1912 at East Walpole, Massachusetts, USA, only child of Thomas Lavin (d. 1945) and Nora Lavin, née Mahon. Her father came from Frenchpark, Co. Roscommon, her mother from a large middle-class family in Athenry, Co. Galway. Mary went to school first to the Bird School in East Walpole. In 1921, when she and her mother returned to Ireland, they lived for eight months with the Mahon family in Athenry. There Mary became sharply aware of the contrast between the puritan catholicism of her new surroundings and the more relaxed catholicism of East Walpole. She also noted the restrictive middle-class values of the Mahon household, which served as a model for her portrayals of middle-class life. Tom Lavin returned to Ireland in 1922; they lived at 48 Adelaide Rd in Dublin. Mary attended Loreto College on St Stephen's Green from 1922 to 1930, when the family moved to Bective, Co. Meath. Tom Lavin became manager of Bective House, owned by the Charles Sumner Bird family for whom he had worked in East Walpole.

In 1930 Mary became a student at UCD (BA in English and French, 1934; MA in English, 1936). She taught French at Loreto College (1936–8). Her research on Virginia Woolf for a Ph.D. degree was permanently interrupted to write the story ‘Miss Holland’. She married William Walsh in 1942. In that year also her first collection, Tales from Bective Bridge, won the James Tait Black memorial prize. Her daughter Valentine (Valdi) was born in 1943, Elizabeth in 1945, Caroline in 1953. In 1946 Mary and William bought land adjacent to Bective House and built the Abbey Farm. William Walsh died in 1954. In 1958 Mary received a contract from theNew Yorker and soon after bought The Mews at 11 Lad Lane in Dublin, dividing her time between Co. Meath and Dublin. On 18 March 1969 she married Michael MacDonald Scott, a former Australian Jesuit whom she had first met at UCD in 1930. Nora Lavin died the same year. In 1981 Mary gave up her American citizenship. She and Michael sold The Mews and moved to an apartment at 5 Guilford Place in Sandymount. In 1988 they sold the Abbey Farm. Michael died 29 December 1990.

Mary Lavin found her subject matter early. ‘The will’, published in The long ago (1944) is the story of a girl who eloped, endured the rejection of her family, and was true to her heart's desire. Lavin often shows how difficult it can be to maintain the feeling of love in the face of familial antagonism and life's hardships, revealing how some characters overcome adversity and manifest in themselves the wonder and enduring qualities of love. She writes of two major types of people: those frustrated by social taboos or family pressures who sometimes achieve moments of joy, and those who by their very natures have an inner light that transforms their spirit. Middle-class minds, their cunning and cruelties, are measured against those singular people who are true to themselves. The novella ‘The Becker wives’ (1946) and stories about the Grimes family expose middle-class values and failings, the lack of imagination, the unforgiving natures, the pressures towards conformity. These stories about shopkeepers, their sons, daughters, and assistants, and stories about farmers, farm labourers, solicitors, and clerks place Lavin in the realistic middle-class tradition of writing. The political and social issues of her time, so prominent in the work of Sean O'Faolain (qv) and Austin Clarke (qv), are not central to her work, although the changes that take place in society are part of the context. She is essentially an autobiographical writer. Her stories explore and reflect the patterns of her days: the return of the little girl to the restrictive society of her mother's people, the unhappy marriage of her parents, her colourful father, her demanding mother, the world of Bective, her house in the middle of the fields, the world of Dublin where she was a student. But her deeper theme is self-deception. Some people live lives not of quiet desperation but of evasion and wish-fulfillment. She translated her own complicated sensibility into portrayals of complex, shifting psychological and mental states, dramas of the mind, in which the narrative method, the syntax, the organisation register the intricacies of the human being. She called them the ‘vagaries and contrarieties’ of the human heart and spoke of the need for ‘careful watching’ and ‘absolute sincerity’ in the management of our lives. At the high point of her career, in The middle of the fields (1967), she wrote about widows who refuse to be diminished by death and loss, retain warm memories of love, and meet experience in an open and capable manner. In her final stories, A family likeness(1985), she wrote frankly about the experiences of older people, revealing the tensions and failings, the impulses towards love and understanding, the reactions that inhibit relationships.

She earned a number of awards: a Guggenheim award in 1959, renewed the following year; the Katherine Mansfield prize in 1962; the Ella Lynam Cabot award in 1972; the Eire Society medal and the Gregory medal in 1975; the American Irish Foundation Literary Award in 1979. She was awarded an Honorary D.Litt. by the NUI in 1968, was president of the Irish Academy of Letters 1971–5, and became a member of Aosdána in 1983. HerCollected stories were published in 1971. Mary Lavin died 25 March 1996 in a nursing home in Dublin. Two portraits, one by Ernest Hayes (1914–78), the other by Seán O'Sullivan (qv), are in the possession of the family; a sculptured head by Marjorie Fitzgibbon is in the RDS library. Some of her papers are at Southern Illinois University, Binghampton University New York, Boston University, and UCD.

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