“Home is a place in the mind. When it is empty it frets. It is fretful with memory, faces and places and times gone by. Beloved images rise up in disobedience and make a mirror for emptiness.”
The above quote is from Maeve Brennan’s novella The Visitor and was my first introduction to her. I discovered Brennan’s work, by complete accident, while listening to an episode of The Stoneface Films podcast that featured teacher and academic Ciara Fitzpatrick as a guest. Fitzpatrick spoke at length about Brennan and her work, quoting a passage from The Visitor, a story that was written by Brennan in the 1940s but not published until 2000. Before this, Brennan’s work was completely unknown to me, but after hearing Fitzpatrick discuss this fascinating, talented Irish female writer, I instantly became intrigued. I was not alone in my ignorance of Maeve Brennan’s life and work. Although she enjoyed a career as a successful writer in New York during the 1940s, 50s and 60s, Brennan was almost completely unknown in her native Ireland. Her work was never published here during her lifetime, and it was only in the last decade or so that she began to be widely read in her home country.
The revived interest in Brennan’s work was initially sparked by a 1998 The Irish Times article by Fintan O’Toole, entitled “Maeve Brennan: No fairy tale ending.” A few later, Angela Bourke published Maeve Brennan: Homesick at The New Yorker, providing the public with the first complete, well-researched account of Brennan’s life and career. In subsequent years, a large portion of Brennan’s work was made widely available for the first time. The Visitor was finally published in 2000. In 2016, her collection of short stories, The Springs of Affection, was re-issued by the Dublin based Stinging Fly Press, featuring an introduction by the then Laureate for Irish Fiction, Anne Enright.
When looking at Brennan’s impressive body of work, it is hard to comprehend why this newfound awareness and appreciation of her writing came so late. Her decline into mental illness, and destitution, in her later years, would partly explain why Maeve’s work had largely been forgotten by the time of her death in 1993. However, Maeve Brennan never occupied a significant place, or indeed any place, in the landscape of Irish literature during her lifetime. Even while she enjoyed a prolonged period of success and acclaim as a writer at the prestigious American literary magazine The New Yorker, her name was largely unknown in Ireland. The fact that Brennan lived away from Ireland for most of her adult life could explain why she was so little known in her country of birth. However, many of twentieth-century Ireland’s most celebrated writers, like Joyce and Beckett, were also writers-in-exile for most of their careers. Perhaps the fact she was a female writer contributed somewhat to her exclusion, but I don’t think that completely explains why the Irish literary elite, and society as a whole, were so disinterested in her work.
I don’t think that there was one clear reason why Brennan’s work was so little known and under-appreciated in Ireland during her lifetime. I believe that her gender, status as an emigrant, and the fact that her work wasn’t widely published outside of the United States during her lifetime, all contributed to her work being overlooked. I also agree with Fitzpatrick’s assertion, that a reason why Maeve’s work wasn’t so readily accepted in her home country, was that the themes that she explored didn’t fit into the image that the emerging independent Irish state was cultivating for itself. Ireland in the mid-twentieth century was establishing itself as a staunchly Catholic country, that valued the stability and sanctity of the family home above anything else. A woman’s place was in the home, and her primary duty and goals in life were to provide her husband and children with care, comfort, moral guidance and a sense of stability and serenity. In her Dublin-based stories, Maeve frequently deals with the hidden trauma within the family home. Her characters, particularly the female ones, are often overcome with feelings of anxiety, loneliness and a sense of regret about past decisions and events.
When learning about Maeve’s early life, it seems surprising that she overlooked in her homeland for so long. From her early childhood, Maeve and her family were at the centre of the political upheaval of early twentieth-century Ireland, and the establishment of an independent Irish state. She was born on 6th January 1917 in Dublin, a few months after the 1916 Easter Rising. Her parents, Úna and Robert, were active Republicans who participated in the Rising and the subsequent War of Independence and Civil War. In the 1930s Robert Brennan was appointed as the Irish Free State’s ambassador to the United States. At the age of seventeen, Maeve moved with her family to Washington, D.C. During her time in America Maeve completed her education, graduating from the American University with a degree in English in 1938. When her family returned to Ireland in 1944, Maeve and her two sisters decided to stay in America.
It was perhaps Maeve’s decision to stay in America that marked the beginning of her exclusion from Irish life. As the daughter of an ambassador, Maeve found herself at the centre of the Irish-American elite. She was beautiful and well-educated, and had she returned to Ireland with her family she could have easily settled into a comfortable middle-class life. However, Maeve was independent and ambitious, two traits that conservative Ireland found unappealing in its young women. In his 1998 article Fintan O’Toole outlines what may have motivated Maeve to stay in America rather than return to Ireland with her family:
“That decision was obviously, in one sense, a free choice. She belonged after all, to the new establishment of independent Ireland. She was the very image of a Gaelic princess, chestnut hair and green eyes, full of grace and charm. She could have been a social star in the cosy world of the south Dublin middle class. She was not, like so many others, forced into exile by economic necessity.
But in another sense, she had no choice at all, for she was two things that it would have been hard to sustain in the Ireland for which so many people seem suddenly nostalgic, an intellectual woman and a writer. If you read the early autobiographical stories of her childhood, you get a good impression of how impossible it would have been to be herself in that Ireland.”
After her family’s departure, Maeve moved to New York, finding a job at Harper’s Bazaar and later The New Yorker. Her most celebrated contribution during her time at The New Yorker was her “Long-Winded Lady” articles in the “Talk of the Town” section. These articles would appear in the magazine for more than fifteen years. They were published anonymously, and it wasn’t until 1968 that Maeve was identified as the writer (Hill Literary Hub). During her early years in New York Maeve seemed to fit comfortably into city life. She was very popular with her colleagues, and many people who knew her back then commented on her beauty and intelligence. She quickly cultivated her signature style, which usually consisted of high heels, black clothing, bright lipstick, a white flower on her lapel, her hair tied up in a high bun and a lit cigarette dangling between her fingers.
Although Maeve continued to live in the United States for most of her adult life, only returning to Ireland for occasional short visits, her fictional writing was greatly influenced by her memories of growing in Dublin and Wexford. In her short-story collection The Springs of Affection, Brennan returns to the Ireland of her childhood, capturing the lives of two middle-class Dublin families, the Derdon’s and Bagots’. However, as Hill points out, “her Dublin stories went largely unnoticed in Ireland where so many of them were set… William Maxwell (her editor at The New Yorker) said he thought her the best living Irish writer of fiction, but in her own country she was almost entirely unknown.”
Maeve never fit into the traditional, accepted view of Irish femininity. She seemed to have little inclination to settle down or establish a comfortable, stable home. Apart from a brief marriage during the 1950s, Maeve was single for most of her life and never had children. She lived a mostly transient life, staying mainly in hotel rooms and other temporary accommodation. In time her status as a travelling writer became “a habit, a preference, an identity” (Hill). In later years, when mental illness and financial hardship took hold, Maeve would find herself sleeping in places she had frequented as a younger woman, even occasionally sleeping in the women’s toilets of The New Yorker office.
Many of the reasons why Maeve was largely ignored during her lifetime have now become factors in the revived interest in her work. As younger generations of writers and academics, particularly female ones, seek out authentic Irish female voices, Brennan’s fictional work has been held up as prime examples of literature that captures the female experience in twentieth-century Ireland. In the article “Maeve Brennan. The Long-Winded Lady”, Ciara Fitzgerald points out the important place that Maeve’s work now occupies in our perception of Irish literature in the twentieth century:
“Brennan could not shake off the formative influence that Ireland had on her life, and thus it became the setting of her finest works… Brennan’s short stories relate in the most exacting details the pain, fear and anxiety that can underline middle-class life in Dublin, and her conception of the lives of her female protagonists gives the reader much to consider on Irish womanhood in the twentieth century.”
The isolation, anxiety and quiet desperation of many of her female characters are now a source of fascination for many modern readers. As Anne Enright explains in her introduction to the 2016 edition of The Springs of Affection, “Maeve Brennan didn’t have to be a woman for her work to be forgotten, though it surely helped… Brennan is, for a new generation of Irish women writers, a casualty of old wars not yet won” (vii). The Ireland of Brennan’s lifetime was not ready to accept and appreciate her work. However, in a modern Ireland where we are constantly questioning and challenging previous notions of what it means to be a woman in our society, Brennan’s writing provides us with a startling insight into the inner lives and experiences of Irish women in decades gone by.
Credit for cover photo to thejournal.ie.
Other photos to amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, independent.ie, irishtimes.com.
Bourke, Angela. Maeve Brennan: Homesick at The New Yorker (An Irish Writer in Exile). Counterpoint, 2004.
Brennan, Maeve. The Springs of Affection. The Stinging Fly Press, 2016. Introduction by Anne Enright.
Brennan, Maeve. The Visitor. Counterpoint, 2000.
Fitzpatrick, Ciara. “Maeve Brennan. The Long-Winded Lady.” Women’s Museum of Ireland. https://womensmuseumofireland.ie/articles/maeve-brennan. Accessed 4 September 2019.
Fitzpatrick, Ciara. Stoneface Films Podcast: Episode 4.47, 27 October 2017. http://www.sentinelaudio.com/stoneface-films-podcast.
Hill, Kathleen. “Maeve Brennan: On the Life of a Great Irish Writer, and Its Sad End.” Literary Hub, 16 March 2018. https://lithub.com/maeve-brennan-on-the-life-of-a-great-irish-writer-and-its-sad-end/. Accessed 4 September 2019.
O’Toole, Fintan. “Fintan O’Toole on Maeve Brennan: No fairy tale ending.” The Irish Times, 13 January 2017 (First published 1 January 1998). https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/books/fintan-o-toole-on-maeve-brennan-no-fairy-tale-ending-1.2934677. Accessed 4 September 2019.