O’Brien, Kate (1897–1974)
The Irish-born writer Kate O’Brien produced nine novels in a writing career lasting from the 1930s until the late 1950s. Although her working life was spent mainly in Britain, her fiction deals mainly with Irish protagonists or Irish settings. Her novels chart the emergence of a catholic bourgeoisie in Ireland in the late nineteenth century and she focuses on the aspirations of her young female protagonists for independence within this emergent and conformist class. As a result her fictions are produced from the conflict between her need to idealize her own class and a modernist interest in interiority and in the solitary imaginations of her characters. In a lecture on Joyce, she once defined her sense of the novelist’s task in the following way: “You take your material from outside. Once you settle with it, once you know what it says to you, it is yours and it is for you to re-create it in your terms, to give it back to life, illuminated and translated by you. That is the business of being an artist.” Ireland, illuminated and translated into idealized fiction, this was Kate O’Brien’s theme.
To a degree, she was a novelist of transition, relying on the realism of the nineteenth-century novel and her fictions adhere to the formal structures of the bourgeois novel. At the same time, within these civilized, reflective narratives, she formulated an aesthetic which challenged assumptions about the consoling nature of bourgeois art. In her novel Mary Lavelle (1936), she celebrated the disruptive potential of primitive ritual in the representation of the bullfight as witnessed by the eponymous heroine, Mary Lavelle: “Here was madness, here was blunt brutality, here was money-making swagger—and all made into an eternal shape, a merciless beauty, by so brief an attitude … Here was art in its least decent form, its least explainable or bearable. But Art, unconcerned and lawless.”
In her early novels, Without My Cloak (1931) and The Ante-Room (1934), she remade her native Limerick as the Irish town Mellick and dramatized the conflict between communal belief and individual imagination in the context of the bourgeois family unit. Kate O’Brien’s project as novelist was clearly feminist and these first novels portray female protagonists inhibited by the demands of catholic conscience in their quest for selfhood. Her fictions are strictly realist in form but, with her third novel Mary Lavelle (1936), Kate O’Brien began to move her fictive perspectives away from the limitations of the Irish bourgeois family novel and towards an imagined, bohemian Europe. In these novels, O’Brien extended her representation of dissident sexualities and thus subverts the catholic ethos of her native Ireland. As a consequence, Mary Lavelle was banned in Ireland for O’Brien’s considered portrayal of lesbian desire and adulterous pas-