A room before, or forming an entrance to, another
A small room, especially a waiting room, that leads into a larger, more important room
The Ante-Room, Kate O’Brien’s second novel, was published in 1934, but is set in 1880. A deeply moral work, it focuses on the lives of the prosperous Mulqueen family over the course of three days – the Eve and Feast of All Saints and the Feast of All Souls – as they gather to pray for their dying matriarch Teresa Mulqueen.
Set around these three feasts of the Catholic Church, The Ante-Room explores a series of lives in limbo, where all the main characters are waiting for something else, something that may, or may not come and transform their stagnant lives.
The central drama of the novel is Teresa Mulqueen’s imminent, but underneath this, other tragic stories are being played out.
Teresa’s unmarried daughter Agnes is intelligent and forthright and has taken over the running of the household in the face of her mother’s illness. Her sister Marie-Rose is unhappily married and living in Dublin and is missed terribly by Agnes. Agnes eagerly awaiting the return of her beloved sister, but also dreads seeing her brother-in-law Vincent, with whom she is passionately in love. Dr Curran, Teresa’s GP, is torn by his visits to the Mulqueen’s home as he is, in turn, passionately in love with Agnes.
Teresa would be mentally ready to die, were it not for her worries about her son Reggie, who is ravaged with syphilis, and relies on his mother for guidance and equilibrium.
Reggie was 36, wasted, unhappy, dangerous- dependent for his own decency and for his whole interest in life on his devotion to her- and she was leaving him- and God had not answered her yet or told her where he was to turn then, so that he would do no harm in his weakness, and yet be a little happy, a little less than desolate.
All the protagonists are in a state of waiting – be it for love or death – but all know that something needs to change drastically for their lives to ever move on from this interminable state of confusion. Agnes sees no way of resolving her feelings for Vincent. Vincent and Marie-Rose see no way out of their loveless marriage. Teresa sees no possibility of a comforting death due to Reggie’s situation and Dr. Curran can see no way of winning Agnes’ affection when she is clearly in love with someone else.
Over the course of the three days, while the characters are all trapped within the confines of the Mulqueen residence, all these dramas will play out in a delicate and insightful manner in which O’Brien exposes the struggles between personal happiness, social convention and Catholic faith.
Catholicism and the tenets of faith play a large part in this novel. It is clear that O‘Brien had a strong intellectual grasp on complex ideas of theology and teaching and it is also clear that she had experienced and understood, the comfort and satisfaction that can come from the practising of faith. It is unusual to experience a novel from Ireland that seeks inherently to understand this belief system, rather than to castigate it. And while the musings on faith and belief at times slow the narrative here, they serve to add a depth to both the inner life of Agnes and the social conventions within which she was living at the time.
For Agnes, the idea of succumbing to her feelings for Vincent is unthinkable for many reasons – because of not only the pain and treachery that Marie-Rose would experience, nor because of the shame that would be brought upon her family. For Agnes the main consideration is on a personal level, what it would make her in terms of her faith.
The sin of adultery would be a damnation for her, an expulsion of her very self and this is the main driving force that keeps her from indulging in her love for Vincent, even when she knows that her feelings are reciprocated.
She had done what her belief exacted, and here, without fuss or probing, was the immediate reward- the cold comfort which assured her with gentle contempt that everything dies except the idea of God- even sin itself, being more mortal than the sinner.
Agnes is a fascinating character – self-assured and intelligent – and more than able to hold her own in any company and her faith is at the centre of her self-belief. Through her faith she find a way to make sense of the turmoil she finds herself in – it gives her a path to follow, whether that path is appealing or not.
Faith, a cold thing, a fact- that was what she must use to destroy fantasy.
O’Brien presents a series of incredibly interesting female characters here, who all reflect the different social positions of women in Ireland at that time. Teresa Mulqueen is the typical Irish matriarch whose main concern is for the son who will inherit the family home. Teresa’s love for the feckless Reggie is all consuming, eclipsing even her relationship with her husband.
Marie-Rose is the beautiful young daughter who has entered into a socially advantageous marriage. By the conventions of the day, she has everything that any woman could want, and is yet trapped within a failing marriage from which, because of those same conventions, there is no escape.
Teresa’s nurse, Nurse Cunningham, may be the most interesting of all. A working woman, she has no means of changing her social standing but through marriage.
Now, after thirteen years of slaving by sick beds and flirting carefully with doctors, she was known as one of the best nurses in Ireland. This pleased her, but it was not what she had really planned for. Security was her goal. Comfort and social standing were more worth conniving at than a success, which would wane with age, and leave her faced with lonely poverty.
Where Agnes and Marie-Rose seek love in relationships due to their advantageous social position, Nurse Cunningham is practical enough to seek an opportune union with Reggie, accepting the lack of romantic love for the benefits of wealth and security.
Agnes has a similar choice to make. Should she deny her feelings for Vincent and make a life with Dr Curran, a man she does not love, in order to satisfy social convention? For O’Brien it seems, there is choice for women in the 1800s – marrying for love does not bring happiness but neither does marrying for stability.
Love happens – out of the simple fact that one’s eye can see, that’s as yet – and in itself it is pure, it has no evil in it. Sin rings it round at once – ah, yes, because we are so weak and sensual that we cannot love and let be.
By the end of the novel, the waiting seems to be over, the larger room stepped into. There is a death, but it the one anticipated and it will bring with it a change on all these lives.
For such a dense, introverted novel, the ending smacks a little of melodrama, but on closer inspection, is completely in keeping with the characterisations that O’Brien has created.
This beautifully written novel explores human desire and its incompatibility with the Catholic faith and provides the reader with an intriguing and complex central character in Agnes, someone who is willing to sacrifice her own personal happiness and the foot of her staunchly held beliefs.
There was no space in it where a heart might scold against a private wound, and so, though Agnes had been mortally hurt on the day when she and Marie-Rose met Vincent, in three years she had learned to fix her eyes upon the griefs of others and, for her sanity’s sake, to ignore her own
The theology and self-examination make The Ante-Room a particularly Catholic novel, but one that is fascinating nonetheless.
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About the Author:
Kate O’Brien was born in 1897 in Limerick, Ireland, into a Catholic bourgeois family. Her distinguished writing career spans a number of genres including plays, novels, short fiction, travel writing and journalism. Her novels in particular were hugely popular in her time, both in Ireland and abroad. Her first novel, Without My Cloak (1931), which charted the lives and loves of a middle class family from Mellick, O’Brien’s fictional version of Limerick, won both the Hawthornden and James Tait Black Memorial prizes.
In later works, O’Brien would refine the scope of her narratives to consider more in greater depth the topics of personal desire and sexualities in the context of family, religion and society.
The Censorship of Publications Board in Ireland censored two of O’Brien’s novels Mary Lavelle (1936) and The Land of Spices (1941) for scenes of homosexual encounters and adultery and her work is seen as a form of activist fiction in that it promotes progressive politics and sexual liberation.
She died in Canterbury on 13 August 1974. In the years since, recognition of O’Brien’s importance to Irish and European writing continues to grow in the context of important works of feminist and queer scholarship, including a recent biography by Eibhear Walsh.
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