Nationality: Northern Irish. Born: Belfast, Northern Ireland, 28 January 1926. Education: Attended St. Mary's Training College. Family: Married Peter Gaffey in 1956; three sons, two daughters. Career: Teacher at primary schools in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 1945-56. Awards: Arts Award (Ireland Sunday Tribune ), 1987. Agent: Nat Sobel, Nat Sobel Associates, Inc., 146 East 19th Street, New York, New York 10003, U.S.A. Address: 24 Templeville Drive, Dublin, Ireland.
Give Them Stones. New York, Beech Tree Books, 1987.
A Belfast Woman and Other Stories. Swords, County Dublin, Ireland, Poolbeg Press, 1980.
A Literary Woman. London, Bloomsbury, 1991.
Orla at School (for children), illustrated by Carol Betera. Swords, County Dublin, Ireland, Poolbeg Press, 1991.
A Family Tree, illustrated by Ann Kennedy. Swords, County Dublin, Ireland, Poolbeg Press, 1992.* * *
Mary Beckett's two collections of short stories, A Belfast Woman and A Literary Woman, and her novel Give Them Stones, have earned her a place as one of contemporary Ireland's finest writers. The people she writes about are ordinary, and their lives mundane. Against the backdrop of Irish political dissonance and the constant, random threat of violence, their lives are shaped by a tragic undertone of loss and compromise. Beckett's writing is spare, and often disconcerting. Her Ireland is a crumbling edifice where life must go on, often at a great price, and the nation's political and public traumas are replayed in the family again and again, between the generations and between men and women. Beckett, a former primary school teacher and writer for the BBC, is a Roman Catholic whose non-partisan portrait of Ireland shows it to be a country with no victorious sides.
The thankless position of women, particularly those in the lower middle-class, comprises Beckett's focus in many of her short stories and in Give Them Stones. Beckett writes about women living on the precipice between middle-class respectability and lower-class suffering. As Frank McCourt has popularized in Angela's Ashes, the entrapment of Irish women due to the common stresses of (primarily male) alcoholism and unemployment create a nation of beleaguered wives, and Beckett's are no exception. They desire national unity not out of deeply felt political convictions, but out of a desire to more easily live their lives and better protect their children. The women in Beckett's stories offer case studies of the chronically depressed, told with the graceful hand of a poet.
Beckett's stylistic influences are an earlier generation of British women writers, including Rosamund Lehman, Elizabeth Taylor, and Muriel Spark, who like Beckett, deftly and economically capture the details of private, interior lives. She also shares the polite detachment of Anita Brookner, but Beckett's heroines seem one step closer to madness, fraught as they are by random IRA raids, fires, and harassment. Beckett's overarching tone of compromise is lifted, when least expected, by a sharp wit that counteracts the bleakness of the lives of these women and men, and infuses her stories with the calmness sometimes possible in the heart of a crisis.
Beckett's first collection of stories, A Belfast Woman, anticipates her later works in its recurrent theme of women learning to adapt to disappointing lives. One woman resents demands made on her with a telling reflection upon her place in the world: "I'm a woman. I'm supposed to be passive. I've got three small children. I'm expecting another." This woman's catalogue of troubles extends naturally from the assertion of her gender, and like many of her fictional counterparts, she endures by resignation rather than courage. The small acts of rebellion of many of Beckett's women are characterized not so much by bravery but by desperation, and for the protection of someone else—husband, children, or parents.
The resigned tone of A Belfast Woman is repeated in Give Them Stones, but Beckett's novel is an extraordinary document of one woman's struggle against the oppressive tide of poverty and political oppression. The longer narrative structure suits Beckett well, as she recounts in detail heroine Martha Hughes's life, from childhood through middle age. As with many of the women in Beckett's stories, Martha is a strong woman surrounded by weak men. Her father cannot find work and dies young, after virtually neglecting his family in favor of his political loyalties. Her brother is another disappointment, a ne'er-do-well killed young by the IRA. Martha decides to marry the passive but affable Dermot Hughes largely because his family house includes a well-appointed kitchen. Martha finds in this kitchen her deliverance from a lifetime of waiting for Dermot to provide for her and their children (which he does so only intermittently). Using her talent for baking, Martha sells bread from home to her neighbors, all while caring for Dermot, an unsympathetic mother-in-law, and her four sons.
But Martha's determination to take her life into her own hands is hardly a statement of empowerment. Her efforts to earn money are a mark of her desperation, and the aching fatigue that comes from her work is a predominant theme in the novel. In the only form of defiance she has access to, Martha refuses to sell her bread to IRA soldiers after experiencing their harassment and witnessing their haphazard murder of a young neighbor boy. The ending of Give Them Stones is unexpected because uplifting, and with it Beckett shows her talent for making narrow lives the subject of greatness, and for finding hope, love, and forgiveness in improbable places.
In A Literary Woman, stories mostly set in Dublin, Beckett expands her range by weaving in and out of these tales the maddening presence of an anonymous letter writer, a self-proclaimed "watcher" or "well-wisher" who takes it upon herself to write incriminating letters, anonymously. This woman, revealed in the titular story, translates neighbors' problems into misinformed and misbegotten rumors—a dead child motivates the charge of infanticide, a distant wife is accused of alcoholism. These letters unsettle their recipients, and the malevolence of the "literary woman" documents a noxious public spirit, a local version of Ireland's larger, political and religious enmity. These stories surprise and unnerve the reader in ways that inspire new attention to the seemingly plainest of people and events. Their canny ability to unsettle the simple domestic worlds that Beckett illustrates suggest that no private life, however modest, is without its private dramas and illicit secrets.
Critics have almost universally singled out Mary Beckett as an important chronicler of life in modern Ireland, and as a writer with a uniquely lyrical prose style. Give Them Stones has been called a "small miracle" and "immensely readable," and was awarded Ireland's Sunday Tribute 1987 Arts Award for Literature.
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