Literary Criticism and the Recovery of Banned Books: The Case of Kate O'Brien's Mary Lavelle

Article excerpt

In discussing a given work and writer, one of the critic's implicit objectives is to make a case for or against their inclusion in the literary canon. The political nature of this objective is heightened in the case of previously censored books that have remained relatively marginal and is especially emphatic in situations wherein a novel is banned almost immediately after its publication. Because of the rapidity of the ban, often the book does not receive an initial readership. As a result, the book in question becomes cloaked in a form of silence, its contents known to a select few who are connected in high cultural circles while the mass public remains largely ignorant of its existence. (1)

Kate O'Brien's Mary Lavelle is one such novel. Published in 1936 and banned in Ireland on 29 December of that same year, its Prohibition Order under the Censorship of Publications Act of 1929 was not revoked until 1967, when the passage of amending legislation released all titles that had been banned for a time of twelve years or more. (2) It is therefore not surprising to find that much of the critical work undertaken on the novel has been in the post-1970 period, although the establishment of Irish Literature as a serious field of study, the ever-increasing academic publishing industry, and the institutional acceptance of more women and women writers were further contributing factors. In his history of the Irish novel, James Cahalan makes the additional claim that O'Brien and other female writers of this period, such as Molly Keane and Maura Laverty, began to enter the canon in the 1980s due largely to reprints of their novels by the feminist presses Arlen House and Virago (204). This recuperative work by fringe presses has helped to spark scholarly interest in formerly overlooked and banned works and made them available for classroom teaching.

The academic reception of Mary Lavelle that has followed its reissue has been largely positive, suggesting that there has been a significant process of recovery involved in its critical treatment. Indeed, scholars have devoted a large amount of print to discussing the qualities of the book that challenged the dominant cultural mores of the Ireland of 1936. Of particular interest is the book's depiction of sexuality. Possibly because sexual acts and discussions of sexuality are foregrounded and recur with regularity, there is no comment on other potentially subversive aspects of the book. This situation, however, might also be a reflection of contemporary understanding of the legislation, as the Censorship of Publications Act allowed that the five member Censorship Board could ban a book if it "is indecent or obscene or advocates the unnatural prevention of conception or the procurement of abortion" (Article 6.1). To clarify matters, "indecent" was defined "as including suggestive of or inciting to sexual immorality or unnatural vice or likely in any other similar way to corrupt or deprave" (Article 2). The result of this, when examining the list of thousands of banned books, is undoubtedly an obsession on portrayals of sexual matters. But such a surface reading ignores the warning of Senator Sir John B. Keane, who during the debates over the impending legislation feared that books would be hidden behind a "camouflage of sex." In effect, the Censorship Board's true problem might be a book's treatment of social, cultural or political concerns, but it would only need to gesture towards the sexual to justify a banning. Critics who therefore fixate solely on the sexual in banned works are at risk of perpetuating the censor's perspective in neglecting other aspects. That is, by focusing critical commentary on only one or two potentially subversive facets of a book, supporters fail to make a significant case for its adoption into the canon of Irish Literature. 'Why, one might counterargue, should an already crowded canon with other noteworthy and deserving works and writers make place for a book with only one or two points of interest? …