I must read more Maeve Brennan, she’s a fab writer. I’ve only read her novella The Visitor several years ago which I remember liking very much at the time about a young woman who returns to Dublin after six years (from Paris) to visit her grandmother, a cold unforgiving woman. The inner pages of The Springs of Affection reveal that I bought the book in 2012, and as a contribution to Cathy’s Reading Ireland Month 2023 (#readingirelandmonth23), it felt like the time was right to finally pick it up after a decade. What a brilliant read it turned out to be!
Maeve Brennan’s The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin is a superb collection filled with stunningly crafted stories of unhappy marriages and slices of Dublin life.
The book is divided into three sections, and the first section is possibly more cheery of the lot, mostly comprising autobiographical sketches of Brennan’s childhood in Dublin on Ranelagh Road. In the first, “The Morning After the Big Fire”, when a fire breaks out, Maeve revels in being the first one to deliver the news to the neighborhood; in “The Old Man and the Sea”, when Maeve’s mother buys a dozen apples from an old man, little does she realise that this act of kindness will turn into a burden. In “The Barrel of Rumors”, Maeve is fascinated by the Poor Clare nuns, their chapel with its barrel, and all the mystery surrounding it. These are lovely snapshots of family life in Dublin and some of these elements make their way into the two sets of stories to follow.
We begin with the Derdon section, which William Maxwell, in his introduction called “clearly her finest stories” and I cannot agree more.
HUBERT AND ROSE DERDON
The Derdon stories are savage and heartbreaking in their depiction of an unhappy marriage; these are six exquisitely crafted stories of loneliness, bitterness, and misunderstandings, encompassing more than forty years of Hubert and Rose Derdon’s married life. Each story unflinchingly examines the nuances of their relationship from different angles and perspectives, always focusing on the growing alienation and resentment between the couple.
In the first story, “A Young Girl Can Spoil Her Chances”, we are presented with a scene between Hubert and Rose that forms a sad touchstone of their married life – the desire to plot against each other, secretly that only highlights the increasing lack of communication and hostility between the two.
The couple is in their fifties; married for over thirty years living in a house in Dublin, and it is very clear from the beginning that despite living together under the same roof, Hubert and Rose lead different lives. Hubert is a man of routine, working as a salesman in a garment store; Rose’s entire existence has been defined by the confines of their home. Rose ensures that Hubert has his breakfast when he leaves for work and his tea when he is back home, but otherwise there is hardly a word spoken between the two, and for the most part Hubert is glad of the opportunity to be left alone and have his peace. The couple’s son John has left home for the priesthood and both father and mother are disappointed for different reasons – Hubert because he had high hopes for his son in terms of a meaningful career; Rose because she adored and doted on John and with him gone, her sense of remoteness is complete.
Part of the reason why the couple is so mismatched is their personalities. Hubert has a more refined persona and a sharp tongue; he is prone to mocking people. Rose, by contrast, is tentative, distinctly helpless, with a furtive air about her that increasingly irritates Hubert. Hubert also has a strained relationship with John, the two don’t get along and what frustrates Hubert is how mother and son seem to be constantly ganging up against him, secretly sharing jokes or conversations, a closed world into which he has been refused entry.
When the child was born she was much happier and she seemed easier in her mind, but then she became completely wrapped up in the child. It was unhealthy and wrong, the way she came to depend on John even before he was big enough to walk. Then she made John afraid of him, too. He would hear the two of them chattering away, but when he would open the door and go into the room where they were, they would both fall silent. He would catch them exchanging glances that excluded him.
Hubert is also ashamed of Rose, of her countryside roots, the affectation and false airs she assumes when they are with people, only reinforcing his view that the place Rose is most comfortable at is her home, although she is desperately unhappy even there. Rose is always on the edge, does not know how to handle criticism, gets hurt easily, and is subsumed by the view that the world is constantly mocking and judging her. Her only respite is her son John on whom she showers all her love, maybe too much; she is an utterly possessive mother who might be stifling John, although we never learn this from John himself.
One minute she would produce a smile of trembling timidity, as though she had been told she would be beaten unless she looked pleasant, and then again, a minute later, there would be a grimace of absurd condescension on her face. And before anyone knew it, she would be standing or sitting in stony silence, without a word to say, causing every- body to look at her and wonder about her. And if she did speak, she would try to cover her country accent with a genteel enunciation, very precise and thin, that Hubert, from his observation of the world, knew to be vulgar. He felt it was better to leave her where she felt at ease, at home. Somehow she wasn’t up to the mark. She wasn’t able to learn how things were done or what to say. She had no self-confidence, and then, too, her feelings were very easily hurt. If you tried to tell her anything she took it as an insult. Hubert thought it was very hard for a man in his position to have to be ashamed of his wife, but there it was, he was ashamed of her. And he was sorry for her, because her failure was not her fault. She had been born the way she was. There was nothing to be done about it.
The Derdon marriage wasn’t always unhappy though. Flashbacks offer a glimpse of the earlier days of their marriage when they move into a two-room apartment helped by their friend Frank Guiney. We see the gaiety and hopes of a promising future, and Hubert’s decision to buy a bigger house seems to reinforce that optimism, but that turns out not to be the case. Rose misses those early heady days of their time in those two small rooms and slinks into despondency which angers Hubert who is also tentative about this big decision to move, and his sharp, unkind remarks greatly hurt Rose.
The second story, “A Free Choice”, takes place several years earlier, when Rose is a young woman, not yet married to Hubert. The scene of action is a dance held in the grand Ramsay ballroom, and it’s a setting that is special to Rose because it stirs up fond memories of her father. Rose’s father dies when she is just ten years old, and that loss affects her profoundly even during adulthood; she hasn’t entirely recovered from it.
Whatever she might have been, laughing, solemn, hopeful, melancholy, serene, unquiet, ambitious, or whatever she might have become, she was now only tame. She had turned tame when her father died, as she might have turned traitor to a cause she had once been ready to give her life for. She had known her father was dead but not that he was gone, and even when she began to know he was gone she refused to believe that he was gone out of sight, and she put the strength of a lifetime into her struggle to keep him in sight until she was sure he was safe. She had forgotten all that was familiar to her in her struggle to stand by the one who had made it all familiar.
Rose and her father shared a special bond, she adored him and he thought the world of her much to her mother’s chagrin who thought that Rose unnecessarily had false airs about her and was too gullible. The Ramsay ballroom holds significance for Rose because of the furniture and furnishings; her father was the interior decorator to Mrs Ramsay and her father’s vivid descriptions of the room and fine materials when she was a little girl come alive to her when she finally sees it for the first time in person. In this story, Rose loves being the centre of attention when she is asked to dance by Jim Nolan, a charming good-looking young man, and she is thrilled to be perceived as interesting to him, only to be ditched later. We also get an inkling of the beginning of a romance between Hubert and Rose, his daily visits to the family shop in Wexford, even when he resides in Dublin, he is struck by Rose’s beauty, although there’s a whiff of that mistrust even then – Rose is not sure about Hubert’s real feelings towards her, and Hubert remains tentative because he discerns Rose’s indifference.
There is something pitiful about Rose in “The Poor Men and Women”, a story that dwells on her propensity towards martyrdom, that craving for some modicum of appreciation that never seems to come her way. In this story, the poor and the destitute often knock at her door for alms and Rose cannot stop herself from offering them something, often regretting the things she has given away as soon as they are out the door. In one such instance, a young mother and her impudent child are allowed to come inside and take a look at the house, and in a sudden act of pity and without thinking she lends them her brooch given to her by her mother that has sentimental value; the duo makes a hasty retreat once they have received the gift before Rose can change her mind…Rose does regret her action but by then it is too late. There’s another episode where she spots an old man in the town centre, a man who had often come knocking at her door. She attempts to strike up a conversation with him, a move that drives him away leaving her bewildered.
We get a whiff of a lack of genuineness in Rose’s attempts at helping the poor; she seems to do it out of a desperate need to be acknowledged as a benefactress, a yearning to be a martyr. There’s a general air of hopelessness and despondency about her, particularly reflected in one episode when she is sick and confined to bed, and Hubert’s act of kindness is misunderstood.
“An Attack of Hunger”, was to me the finest of the Derdon tales – gut-wrenchingly honest and visceral as Brennan further twists the knife already deeply wedged into their marriage. We find Rose increasingly despondent about John having left for priesthood; she feels abandoned by him and longs for him to return. In a marriage where Rose and Hubert’s relationship is marked by furtiveness, the need to stay clear of each other, and secretly outmaneuver each other, this is a story where we see the couple honestly express their views but it’s a nasty confrontation rather than a healthy discussion. Rose accuses Hubert of driving John away, and Hubert reveals the real reason why John leaves their home, an unpalatable truth that Rose cannot bring herself to accept.
“Oh, of course you’d have to say that,” said Hubert. “Of course you can’t face facts. But I’ve had to face facts. He was sick of you and I’m sick of you, sick of your long face and your moans and sighs-I wish you’d get out of the room, I wish you’d go, go on, go away. I don’t want any tea. All I want is not to have to look at you anymore this evening. Will you go?”
That craving to be a substantial presence in her son’s life is probably a remnant of the close relationship she had with her father which she hopes to replicate with John. Rose daydreams and conjures up scenarios where she plays a pivotal life in John’s calling as a priest, where she can completely devote herself to his cause and be recognised by his lot for her sacrifice.
“Family Walls” opens with a scene that unsettles Hubert…As soon as he enters the home with his key, he observes Rose discreetly closing the kitchen door. There’s pin-drop silence in the house, and had it not been for Hubert observing Rose close the door on him, he would have thought there was no one home but him. It’s a moment that frustrates Hubert because he is suddenly gripped by mounting indecision – should she go into the kitchen and have it out with Rose, or should he pretend that nothing has happened? This story is mostly from Hubert’s point of view and focuses on his personality – his propensity to make scathing comments, and how he inwardly derides the customers he is required to serve as part of his job. Hubert laments that he “wished he had someone to talk to”, once again accentuating the chronic loneliness and alienation that has formed the fabric of their marriage. He is at a loss when it comes to the best way of having a conversation with Rose that does not make her feel cornered and is generally unsure of what he needs to do when he is around her.
In “The Drowned Man”, Rose is no more, and Hubert realises that he doesn’t feel the grief at his wife passing away; with such grave misunderstandings over the years in their marriage, what Hubert experiences is indifference. But the world does not know his true emotions and Hubert is sharply aware of the difficulty of expressing them. His closest family member, his sister, mistakenly assumes that he is grieving and he behaves according to what is expected of him in this situation; but his biggest grief is not Rose’s death but the fact that there is no one he can talk to or who can truly understand the unflinching truth about his relationship with Rose.
The day was almost worn out. The light was thin – fading light that left everything visible. That evening’s light was helpless, the day in extremity, without strength enough left to dissemble with sun and shade, with only strength enough left to touch the world as it withdrew forever from the world. The evening light spoke, and what it said was, ‘There is nothing more to be said’. There is nothing more to be said because what remains to be said must not be said. It is too late for Rose. Hubert was silent. He had nothing to say, and in any case there was no one to hear him.
As we read the stories, we increasingly wonder how Hubert and Rose stayed married for so long, a point which perplexes Hubert too in the final story…
What had kept them together all these years, or what kept any two people together, or what kept people going and doing as they had been told they ought to do. When had all this obedience begun and who had marked out the appointed way where men and women walked without protest, and most of the time without complaining?
Loneliness in a marriage, emptiness, feelings of unfulfillment and abandonment, disappointments in relationships, and life having not panned out as per expectations are some of the broader themes explored in this bleak but marvellous collection. These are some of the most sensitively written, poignant stories and what makes them remarkable is how Brennan evokes shifting loyalties in the reader towards both Rose and Hubert – they are tragic and frustrating in equal measure; yet despite being such flawed individuals, it is hard not to feel for them.
MARTIN AND DELIA BAGOT
In terms of tone, the Bagot set of stories is not as fierce as the Derdon bunch but are still beautifully rendered sketches of an unhappy marriage. In the first story, “The Twelfth Wedding Anniversary” we are introduced to Martin and Delia Bagot and their two daughters Lily and Margaret both aged below ten. The family is complete with a dog called Bennie (rescued by Delia from a group of boys who were tormenting him), and two cats (Rupert and Minnie). Delia and the girls love the animals, but Martin detests them, and while for the most part, Delia accedes to Martin’s wishes when it comes to the animals she resists. As a result, Delia is constantly anxious to ensure that the animals do not get in Martin’s way.
We also glimpse cracks in Martin and Delia’s marriage. Not wanting to be disturbed when he comes home from work, Martin sleeps in a different room, and what Delia perceived to be a temporary solution appears to have transformed into something more permanent. Martin has shifted some of his belongings and books there, and Delia is deeply confused about this development but can’t bring herself to express it clearly to Martin. Meanwhile, Martin feels like the family is a burden to him, he is a solitary man and for the most part, wishes to be left alone. He can’t stand the children making too much noise and he hates the animals. Even Delia’s thoughtful gesture of brightening his room with a vase of flowers on their twelfth wedding anniversary fills him with dread, unleashing a stream of bitter thoughts. The readers get the impression that Martin would have been happier as a bachelor rather than a family man.
But just like the Derdons, the Bagots were happy in the earlier days of marriage snatches of which are offered to us in the stories “Christmas Eve” and “The Shadow of Kindness”. However, tragedy soon strikes, their first baby, a son, dies when only three days old and marks the point from where rifts begin to develop. This is touchingly explored in the story “The Eldest Child”, the immediate moments of intense grief into which Delia is plunged and her yearning to be left alone. Martin, used to his wife’s quiet, obedient personality, is bewildered by Delia’s rage and outburst at the baby’s death and there’s a sense that the couple is lonely in their tragedy, each is affected but can’t quite navigate this period together and so suffer alone.
Delia hasn’t quite recovered from her son’s death and remains protective of her daughters. She is often sleepy during the daytimes, subconsciously warding away her fits of anxiety. Her life is defined by her children to the point that she often feels adrift in their absence…
Even if she had children, a woman should have a life of her own that would stand up when the children were out of the house for any length of time. She knew that. It was not right to let yourself get so lost in your children that you could find no trace of yourself when they were gone. What would she do when they grew up?
The Bagot section is full of little sketches of domesticity which beautifully blend the physical descriptions of their house – the garden, sitting room, bedrooms – with the interior lives of its inhabitants. The neatness and coziness of the house is vividly evoked, especially during Mrs Bagot’s hours of quiet solitude at home…
Mrs. Bagot turned from the street and from Minnie and from the ferns, and was surprised to see how like a mirror the big naked window in the back room was, but like a mirror that you could see through, a mirror that went both ways and showed both sides. It was like a painting. She saw the wet, reluctant day – light air out there in the garden, and the rain was falling so strong and straight that she was sure she could make out every separate driving line of it. Beyond and through the rain, as in a dream, there were the indistinct colors of the garden…
As for the stories themselves, in “The Sofa”, the arrival of a new couch for the front sitting room is a matter of much excitement to Delia and her daughters, a day when her daily duties are abandoned in eager anticipation. “Stories of Africa” sees an old Bishop, a close friend of Delia’s grandmother, pay a visit to the Bagot home, while in the “The Shadow of Kindness”, Delia is comforted by her shadow which she sees for the first time in the children’s bedroom, a shadow that reminds her of her mother, something like a guiding force.
The last and the longest story of this section called “The Springs of Affection” lending the collection its name, is a fine one – an astute, razor-sharp character study, unlike the relative gentleness of the previous Bagot stories.
In this story Martin has just died, Delia had passed away eight years earlier, and the protagonist is Min Bagot, Martin’s eighty-seven-year-old twin sister. Min had been staying with Martin in Dublin out of a sense of duty after Delia’s death but now with him gone too, she is glad to move back to her flat in Wexford albeit with most of Delia and Martin’s furniture and possessions which she self-righteously feels she is entitled to for some misplaced sense of grievance all these years.
Through Min’s memories, we are given a window into the Bagot family’s past; their seemingly close and harmonious lives, before Martin meets Delia. Consisting of the mother, Min, Martin, and two more sisters; it’s a close-knit family and Min resents Martin for breaking the family code of sticking together for life and instead abandoning them to marry Delia. The other two sisters, subsequently, push off to lead their lives too, and Min seems not to have forgiven Martin for breaking them apart.
Now everyone’s dead and Min is content with being the last one standing in the family. Min is one of those people who is happy with the way things are without moving forward and through that limited yardstick judges the decisions and the lives of those around her. Her so-called acts of sacrifice appear false and are tinged with streaks of selfishness; she’s often seeking appreciation but faces contempt instead when her hypocrisy is visible to others but herself.
Min, particularly, can’t get the day of Delia and Martin’s wedding out of her mind; she is mesmerized by the gloriously beautiful weather, the lush surroundings, and the grandeur of Delia’s family’s country mansion, the rooms transforming into dazzling spaces of air and light. But what is an occasion of happiness for everyone present is something else entirely for Min – she feels trapped and suffocated.
What Min remembered of that day in the garden by the Slaney was that she felt worn out and dried up, and trapped, crushed in by the people who were determined to see only the bright surface of the occasion. They could call it a wedding or anything they liked, but she knew it was a holocaust and that she was the victim, although nobody would ever admit that.
At the end of the day, Min might not grudge her own modest, limited existence when viewed by itself but she seems jealous of others having moved on, which in sharp contrast throws a harsh light on her stifled life…reaching a point where she feels vindicated for outliving all of them.
To watch the end of all was not much different from watching the beginning of things, and if you weren’t ever going to take part anyway, then to watch the end was far and away better. You could be jealous of people starting out, but you could hardly be jealous of the dead.
What’s terrific about the Derdon and Bagot stories is how the essence of both marriages is viewed from various angles akin to observing each facet of a prism. The stories don’t unfold linearly. Rather, each story is a world unto itself where facts, thoughts, physical surroundings, and personalities that form the foundation of both marriages are often repeated, but explored differently and uniquely like old wine in a new bottle. The couples in Brennan’s stories are unhappy and tragic, lonely even when together. They don’t quite know how to communicate with each other, all the more heightened by the impression that one honest conversation can snap an already fragile relationship. The women, particularly, are consumed by nameless fears and anxieties, they don’t have a purpose of their own outside the home, and their lives are mostly governed by men and a deep sometimes overbearing love towards their children. All of these elements possibly reflect Irish society at the time, a milieu that was deeply religious and frowned upon divorce.
In a nutshell, the stories in The Springs of Affection are quietly devastating, but they are thrilling to read because of the sheer depth of their themes, Brennan’s psychological acuity and exquisite writing. Highly recommended!