Short Story Week: A Literary Woman by Mary Beckett #readingirelandmonth23

A Literary Woman by Mary Beckett is a collection of mostly interlinked short stories; all centred on the writer of a series of poison pen letters, the ‘literary woman’ of the title.  

Her stories are, in the main, concerned with the domestic sphere and in particular, the lives of women. She explores what it means to be a mother, wife and widow and lays bare the inner lives of wholly believable and relatable characters. Often these women are frustrated with their lot, hiding their true persona amid the trials of the everyday and attempting to make the best of a life in which they have little autonomy or control. The arrival of the letters however, reminds these often-unconventional women that their lives, no matter how they chose to live them, are dominated by shame and propriety.

In ‘Sudden Infant Death’, a woman getting over the accidental drowning of her son finds her life thrown into disarray when an anonymous letter accuses her of killing him intentionally. Hilary, in ‘Heaven’, loves the fact that her children have left home and that her husband goes out to work and refuses to look after her grandchildren, enjoying her solitude too much. That all changes when her husband receives an anonymous letter saying that it is well known that Hilary is an alcoholic. He decides to retire and Hilary discovers that the joys of solitude are no longer hers. ‘The Bricks Are Fallen Down’ explores the fall-out when a woman, originally from the North of Ireland, receives a letter warning her never to return to her native Belfast or she will be shot at the same time that she learns an ex-lover wants to meet up with her again.

In the title story then, the identity of the poison pen letter writer is revealed. She is a woman for whom life has been unfulfilling and difficult from childhood and her jealousy for the lives of others leads her to disrupt with her notes.

I did not hate these people I wrote to. I knew very little about them. They had too good a life, that’s all. Some of them were smug. They all had houses and families. When I get my own little house, I’ll have no more need to write letters of any sort.

The societal boundaries inscribed on the lives of these women come from both male propriety and from the jealousies of other women. Irish literature is full of women shamed by the Catholic Church, but in this collection, the judgement comes, not from God, but closer to home, from neighbours, friends and relations. Beckett skilfully conveys the interior concerns of her characters alongside their need to present a respectable public persona. They exist within a community that acquiesces to a strict social mores and any attempt to be unconventional is quickly shot down.

Beckett writes with a real directness and lack of sentimentality, exploring the human experience as it is lived from day-to-day – those disappointments and tensions that lurk under the surface of all families and all relationships. Beautifully structured, the stories feature often-slippery narratives in such a way as to suggest that had these letters not encroached on these lives, the outcome would have been entirely different.

Beckett eschews extremes, preferring to see the multitude of emotions contained in the ordinary – she is an extremely realist writer, teasing out the essence of what it means to be human.

The writers Jan Carson and Lucy Caldwell recently took part in a fantastic panel discussion on Mary Beckett’s work, along with upcoming Belfast writer Riley Johnston, and it is available to watch on YouTube.

Ireland Month Irish Literature The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

13 Comments Leave a comment

  1. What a fabulous sounding collection Cathy and an author unknown to me, though not one easy to get hold of it seems.I hope some publisher resurrects her work and makes it available for us to read.

    Thank you too for linking the talk, it started playing part way through and was very engaging and how wonderful to have a family member in the crowd, to share a few family anecdotes.

    I loved how Lucy Caldwell shared that motherhood cracked open her creativity and how Jan observed that Mary Beckett was most likely writing even when she was not at her desk, an acknowledgment of the creative process that is always at play on and off the page.


  2. Thanks for this post, I haven’t come across Mary Beckett before, so I will try to get hold of something. To your earlier poster (if Irish based) there are a few copies of this book (& Give them Stones, Belfast Woman & her children’s fiction) in the national public library catalogue so you can reserve to your local branch for collection.


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