That the work of Maeve Brennan was mainly out of print until the 1990s is surprising, to say the least.
Maeve Brennan was born in 1917 in Dublin. Her father, Robert was deeply involved in the Easter Rising of 1916 and the political upheaval that followed and her childhood life was unsettled, with regular raids and turmoil leading to her belief that home was always a place of uncertainty, a space under constant threat.
In 1933, her father was appointed Secretary of the Irish Legislation and the family moved to Washington when Maeve was seventeen. Six years later, the family returned to Dublin, but Maeve remained in America, moving to New York to pursue a career as a journalist. She was a stylish and attractive woman and began writing fashion pieces for Harper’s Bazaar, under the auspices of Carmel Snow, the magazine’s Irish editor. She fit into this cosmopolitan world well and in 1949 was hired by The New Yorker primarily to cover women’s fashion.
Brennan moved in well-to-do literary and artistic circles and is often credited as Truman Capote’s inspiration for Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She contributed reviews, essays and short stories for The New Yorker, but it was her regular ‘Talk of the Town’ column, written under her pen name ‘The Long-Winded Lady’ that caught the imagination of New York readers.
Each column detailed a snapshot of city life in Maeve’s witty and charismatic style and her identity as the author of the column was not revealed until 1969. That the most beloved chronicler of New York City should turn out to be an emigrant was a surprise to many, but Brennan brought an outsiders eye to her writing that allowed her to understand her adoptive city while at the same time observing it dispassionately.
She briefly married St Clair McKelway, a fellow writer on The New Yorker, who moved her to the bohemian enclave of Sneden’s Landing, a community of artists and writers that lived alongside the Hudson River in upstate New York. The marriage was neither long nor happy, but Sneden’s Landing gave Brennan the inspiration for ‘Herbert’s Retreat’, her fictional world where privileged and rarefied New Yorkers partied, preened and argued to the amusement of their mainly Irish servants. What makes the ‘Herbert’s Retreat’ stories so fulfilling, is that Brennan had a foot in both camps – her status as a sophisticated woman of letters and her marriage gave her entrance into New York’s high society, yet she felt a kinship and solidarity with the women who had come from Ireland to work, just like her.
The unsettled nature of Brennan’s childhood was echoed in her adult life and she never had a permanent address for long. She lived in hotels, with few possessions – always between places, both literally and metaphorically. Her short stories and novella The Visitor are often set in Dublin or Ireland, her characters often part of the diaspora. She may have chosen to remain in America, but part of her still belonged to Ireland.
In her later years, she suffered from mental illness and was often disheveled and paranoid. She stayed with friends and slept occasionally in a room at The New Yorker. When she died in 1993, in hospital as a ward of the state, she was as forgotten as her ‘Talk of the Town’ column. In the last 20 years though, there has been a revival and an interest in her work. A collection of stories set in Dublin ‘The Springs of Affection’ was published in 1997 and has been followed by her novella The Visitor and more short stories in The Rose Garden.
The Rose Garden contains 20 stories that were all originally published in The New Yorker or Harper’s Bazaar during the 1950s and 60s. Including the ‘Herbert’s Retreat’ collection, The Rose Garden features social climbing housewives, solitary New Yorker’s who bond with their pets, insecure and lonely Dubliners and Irish servants who serve themselves as much as their New York employers.
Many of the stories are of a domestic nature, but Brennan turns a scathing wit on her characters to skewer their pretensions and self-belief. The Herbert’s Retreat stories could well be a novella, with its recurring characters as Brennan uses black humour and a delicious sense of cruelty to rival Dorothy Parker.
In The Joker Isobel Bailey relishes her self-designated position as benefactor, inviting ‘waifs’ and lost souls in to her beautifully appointed home for Christmas dinner.
It was a shameful thing to be a waif, but it was also mysterious. There was no accounting for it or defining it, and over and over again she was drawn back to her original idea – that waifs were simply people who had been squeezed off the train because there was no room for them.
Isobel’s plan to invite some waifs into her own ‘first class carriage’ doesn’t exactly go as she hoped and she winds up, to her horror, on the receiving end of her charges sympathy.
In The Anachronism Liza Frye aims to get one up on her neighbours by hiring the perfect English maid, at great expense, all the way from London, only to have said maid join forces with her detested mother in law against her.
Liza and Mrs Conroy detested each other, but it suited them to live together – Liza because she enjoyed showing her power, and Mrs Conroy because she was waiting for her day of vengeance.
The moneyed housewives of Herbert’s Retreat are not the only women with power though, and there is a lovely juxtaposition between their lives and the lives of their Irish maids, who put up with their whims and tantrums and share the gossip about the households behind their backs.
It was seldom that one of the houses at Herbert’s Retreat was not in an uproar with a maid just gone or about to go, a dinner planned and the hostess frantically phoning her neighbours to discover which of the remaining maids would be available to help out for the evening. All this gave the maids a great sense of power, of course.
One of the funniest stories The Divine Fireplace is told entirely from the point of view of Stasia, the maid of the Tillbright’s as she regales the other maids with a story of a dinner party gone awry, courtesy of too much alcohol and petty jealousy that leads to the destruction of part of her master’s house.
Brennan is an acute observer of human nature, and seems to be able to pin point the very centre of human weakness. There is a cold detachment to these stories though, a loose cruelty that suggests that her characters are bringing their downfall upon themselves, hoist by their own pretension.
The stories in the second section of The Rose Garden have a little more warmth, but still feature characters who are lonely or solitary, unsure of how to get what they want and often making the wrong decisions for the wrong reasons.
In The Bride, Margaret finds herself on the eve of her wedding day, marrying a man show doesn’t love to spite her sister back in Ireland who does not care.
She wanted to scream at him that he was beneath her, and that she despised him, and that she was not bound to him yet and never would be bound to him, but instead she spoke civilly, saying that she would be ready in a minute, and warning him not to come up into the room because her wedding dress was hanging there and she didn’t want him to see it ahead of time, for fear of bringing bad luck on the two of them.
In The Holy Terror, Brennan’s first published short story, a terrifying toilet attendant at a New York hotel plays her hand too soon and inadvertently loses the job she was trying to save. In The Rose Garden, a deformed woman wishes for something she can never have – a garden of roses that is open only to the public one day a year and ends up losing the family she never thought would be hers.
Brennan gives the readers stories with ambiguous endings, which explore lives of quiet desperation, where the surface sheen is all important but can be easily cracked by outside forces or by ourselves. The stories contain many battles of wills between parents and children, husbands and wives and men and their cats. The writing is sharp, piercing almost and clear-eyed to the foibles of the human mind, if at times it can be just a little too cynical.
A recurring character in the Herbert retreat stories named Leona Harkey marries a man so that she can knock down his cottage which spoils her view of the river. Later, a character looking for his lost cat asks;
And what is a view?
A view is where we are not. Where we are is never a view
Brennan’s characters are always looking for the view, never concentrating on what they have. There is an overwhelming sense of home never being quite good enough, or never being quite where one should be pervades all the stories in The Rose Garden. Like Brennan herself, they are all homesick for a place they cannot define and a place they cannot create.
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