Nationality: Irish. Born: East Walpole, Massachusetts, 11 June 1912; moved with her family to Athenry, Ireland, 1923. Education: East Walpole schools; Loreto Convent, Dublin; University College, Dublin, B.A. (honors) in English 1934; National University of Ireland, Dublin, M.A. (honors) 1938. Family: Married 1) William Walsh in 1942 (died 1954), three daughters; 2) Michael MacDonald Scott in 1969 (died 1991). Career: French teacher, Loreto Convent, early 1940s. President, Irish PEN, 1964-65. Awards: James Tait Black Memorial prize, 1944; Guggenheim fellowship, 1959, 1962, 1972; Katherine Mansfield-Menton prize, 1962; Ella Lynam Cabot fellowship, 1971; Eire Society gold medal (U.S.), 1974; Gregory medal, 1974; American Irish Foundation award, 1979; Allied Irish Banks award, 1981. D.Litt.: National University of Ireland, 1968. Member: Irish Academy of Letters (president), 1971-73. Died: 25 March 1996.
Tales from Bective Bridge. 1942.
The Long Ago and Other Stories. 1944.
The Becker Wives and Other Stories. 1946; as 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. 3 vols., 1964-85.
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.
Selected Stories. 1981.
A Family Likeness and Other Stories. 1985.
The House in Clewe Street. 1945.
Mary O'Grady. 1950.
Other (for children)
A Likely Story. 1957.
The Second-Best Children in the World. 1972.*
by Paul A. Doyle, in Papers of the Bibliography Society of America 63, 1969; Lavin: A Check List by Ruth Krawschak, 1979.
Lavin by Zack Bowen, 1975; Lavin by Richard F. Peterson, 1978; "Lavin Issue" of Irish University Review, Autumn 1979; Lavin, Quiet Rebel: A Study of Her Short Stories by A. A. Kelly, 1980; "Mary Lavin, Elizabeth Bowen, and a New Generation: The Irish Short Story at Midcentury" by Janet Egleson Dunleavy, 1984; "The Goddess Resurrected in Mary Lavin's Short Fiction" by Martha M. Vertreace, in The Anna Book: Searching for Anna in Literary History edited by Mickey Pearlman, 1992.* * *
Mary Lavin was one of Ireland's most prolific and accomplished short story writers. The author of 11 collections of short stories, she became a master of the form, though she seldom received the critical recognition or attention accorded Frank O'Connor, Liam O'Flaherty, or Sean O'Faolain. Although often compared to Ireland's revolutionary writers, Lavin was not a part of their literary generation, and her stories are rarely about Ireland's political troubles. Born in the United States in 1912, about a decade after O'Connor, O'Flaherty, and O'Faolain, Lavin did not live in Ireland until 1921, when she settled with her mother in the small town of Athenry. When she decided to become a short storywriter, she turned to her mother's family and Irish middle-class life for her subject matter, and during her university days she found her literary models in the stories of Turgenev, Chekhov, Woolf, Mansfield, and Jewett.
For Lavin the only possible condition or standard for a short story writer was the quest for the truth. She admired Katherine Mansfield's statement that the truth is the only thing worth having and the only thing that cannot fail the writer. In her own short stories Lavin often exposed the truth of her characters' lives through an intimate study of opposed sensibilities. Usually told from the perspective of her introverted characters, her narratives focus on the failure of human beings to understand each other's emotional needs. Emerging out of these stories is a portrait of Irish small-town life populated by lonely, unhappy characters who, like their city counterparts in Joyce's Dubliners, are paralyzed by the emotional and spiritual emptiness of their lives and are capable of little more than discovering that they have been denied life's feast by their own nature.
One of Lavin's most finely crafted stories, "A Cup of Tea" is also one of her most representative in its portrayal of the conflicting emotional needs and frustrations separating her characters from each other. The plot of "A Cup of Tea" appears to be relatively simple and insignificant. A daughter, who has returned after three months at the university, argues with her mother over whether or not boiled milk spoils the taste of tea. This key narrative event, however, merely serves as the flash point for the emotional problems buried within the family. While the mother, frustrated by her unhappy marriage, desperately tries to control her emotions, it takes only a small incident of disagreement for her jealousy of her daughter's life to boil to the surface. Her daughter, however, refuses to be drawn into her mother's circle of emotional failure and, after the argument, still clings to the innocent and youthful hope, rarely actualized in Lavin's stories, that people can get along if they become alike and feel the same emotions.
A major reason for the emotional intimacy of Lavin's stories was her frequent use of autobiographical material. In the middle period of her career, for example, she wrote several stories, including "Frail Vessel," that follow the lives of a merchant family based on her mother's relatives in Athenry. The Grimes family stories, dominated by the ambitious and interfering Bedelia Grimes, represent Lavin's most extensive treatment of the Irish middle class. By the time she had finished the Grimes cycle with "Loving Memory," she had exposed and developed the emotional failure of an entire family. Lavin also had retained the intimacy of her narrative by tracing the emptiness of the lives of the Grimes family not just to the conventions of small-town life but also to a mother who refused to share her emotional life with her children.
As remarkable as the Grimes family stories are in capturing the emotional circumstances of Lavin's life, her later stories, especially those written after the death in 1954 of her first husband, William Walsh, represent her most personal and, in several cases, her most compelling fiction. Her widow stories, featuring Vera Traske, her most autobiographical character, form a pattern of emotional events in which women struggle to find a new life and identity after the deaths of their husbands. The pattern begins with "In a Cafe," in which a widow bearing Lavin's own first name reclaims her self-identity only after she faces her most intimate fears and needs. "In the Middle of the Fields" and "The Cuckoo-spit" appear to form a chronological and emotional sequence with "In a Cafe," in which Lavin's widow moves through phases of grief, loneliness, and emptiness until, through an emotional reawakening, she realizes the value and strength of the memories of her lost life in helping to form a new life. This discovery anticipates "Happiness," in which the autobiographical Vera dies, but only after passing along to her daughter a vision of life hinting that Vera's happiness had as its source the very struggles in which she had experienced so much of the pain and suffering of her life.
While "Happiness" could easily serve as a summary of her adult life and her career, Lavin continued to write about the most painful and intimate of human experiences. In A Family Likeness, for example, several of her stories explore the emotional problems of growing old, especially the feeling experienced by her autobiographical character that she has no real place or value in her daughter's life. These stories also display the same narrative control and intimacy characteristic of Lavin's earlier fiction. It remains this careful balance of narrative integrity and emotional insight into the loneliness of the sensitive heart that most defines the Lavin short story and that best illustrates why she deserves a place with the most accomplished short story writers produced by Ireland in the twentieth century.
—Richard F. Peterson