The Becker Wives, by Mary Lavin, New Island, 288 pp, €11.95, ISBN: 978-1848406940
The four stories in this collection were first published in 1946. Now republished by New Island, they are a reminder of Mary Lavin’s steady eye and perfect pitch. They vary in length and tone, but together offer a view of mid-century Ireland, a moment of slackness when things seem at once still unfinished and not really started. Each story forms a satisfying whole, tracing a reversal, an “unsteadying” ‑ the word occurs in the last story, “Magenta” ‑ as lives moored in sluggish waters are suddenly tossed onto the full seas of a crisis. The characters are cramped by the pressure to be respectable, to be of account in a narrow world, heavy with judgement. Power relations are overturned, usually irrevocably, between colleagues, siblings, husband and wife.
The big houses that feature in “The Joy Ride” and “Magenta” are shuttered, surrounded by neglected grounds and apparently indefinitely entrusted to the charge of a pair of servants. These butlers and housekeepers have long since begun to dream themselves into the status of owners. Meanwhile, the upper and lower middle class characters engaged in business ventures small and large, in “The Becker Wives” and “A Happy Death”, are preoccupied with their position in town society and are caught in the clench of respectability as much as the characters of Ibsen. In all four stories, long-held strains and mismatches are wound tighter as the pace speeds towards a collapse.
In “The Becker Wives”, Lavin satirises the provincial outlook and insecurities of a substantial merchant family, a smaller Irish version of Mann’s Buddenbrooks, with the same preoccupations about marriage and succession, the same treasured collections “of furniture, porcelain and silver”. The Becker wives, “fat, heavy and furred”, form a homogeneous group, “losing their youthful figures after the first pregnancy”, rapidly becoming indistinguishable from one another and from their mother-in-law. Her marriage to Becker senior, the deceased father, founder of the firm, was a genuine love match. None of his children achieve in their marriages the same quality of intimacy, nor do his sons demonstrate business acumen equal to his. The worldly wise, unmarried brother, Theobald, man about town, chafes at the mediocrity and lack of style of his in-laws. In an unexpected move he upstages them all by producing an exotic bride, a “little chaffinch” with a name (“Flora”) straight from operetta. She is everything the wives are not: small and fine-boned, confident in performing and entertaining. When Theobald first presents her at the family table, the scene turns to slapstick, as the Beckers blunder around, rising all at the same time to make room for her. Their gaucherie contrasts with Flora’s “poised authority”. She shocks and humbles them by dismissing their prized antiques, preferring to commission modern furniture for her home. Regarded as artistic, her “undiminished vitality leaves them breathless and her gift for impersonation especially emerges as a new source of family pride. All (save one of the wives), feel that “Theobald’s acquisition [the word is significant] of Flora was the best thing that had happened to the Beckers for a long time”. Then a deeply troubling, almost Gothic, denouement abruptly shifts the tone of the story into revelation and reversal.
The second story, “The Joy Ride”, also dramatises a letdown, but with a much lighter tone. Two butlers set out on a jaunt, thrilled to be breaking out of their roles, abandoning the duties they owe to their absent employer. A classic comic pair, they are co-conspirators and rivals. One, Purdy, is older, shorter, more compromised than Crickem. Usually cautious, suddenly heady with the spirit of defiance it is Purdy who raids the dressing-room and the cellar before he gets one over on his companion by expertly hitching a bay mare to the trap.
As they bowl along behind the “high stepping mare” through the rich Co Meath countryside, “its plains diversified by pasture and grain, and shadowed by the woodlands of its great demesnes” where so many of Lavin’s stories are set, the journey takes on timeless hues, like one of Thomas Hardy’s more upbeat harvest set pieces. The butlers both swagger as they pass young women at work in the fields who “pushed each other forward with false screams and a lot of laughing”. “Some offered themselves with a rowdy hand and a coarse gesture.” Yet the “two gallants” are less venturesome than their Joycean counterparts. Uncertain of their masculine allure, insecure in their rivalry, the butlers “could not risk stopping till they were sure of themselves”. “Perhaps there was better to be found along the road.” As evening falls, it is clear that they have wasted the day: “the day that has told on the mare”. The suspense just before the end of the story is expertly managed.
The most poignant and achieved story in the collection is “A Happy Death”. Again, a confrontation of some kind of artistic impulse and the world of business, as in “The Becker Wives”. But here the register is tragic, and the characters pay the price of having too much imagination about themselves, too little about others. We meet Ella and Robert, a couple each haunted and thwarted by “a past that never fruited”. Their relationship is shadowed by the cross-currents in their courtship, on which they still brood, but separately. Each has fixed their past in a narrative that is has little overlap with the other’s. Each reproaches the other for their disappointment, persistently assuming that they each know what the other wanted.
In the first part of the story, we have more of Ella’s perspective. She is determined that her husband, Robert, will cede mastery to her, to give up what she regards as his menial, badly-paid job. She wants him to flaunt to the town the glamour and grace that first drew her to him, and convinced her to marry him notwithstanding his lack of worldly prospects and her mother’s opposition. He, in contrast, wants her to honour, not despise, the small salary he lays on the kitchen table every Saturday. Most of all, he wants her to appreciate how much he loves her, to be again the young woman “with yellow hair”, who in a quaint phrase (he used to write poetry) is “decked out for love”.
Initially, Ella obsesses about making Robert stay at home and take his ease on the bench in their yard. It may seem touching that she longs to put him in the only bright and airy place in their rancid rooming-house. But Lavin’s eye is unrelenting: Ella wants him to sit outside in order to be seen by the town, to advertise that he has no need to work, and to raise the tone of the place. It seems that she married him because of his difference from coarser men, evidenced in his reading and writing poetry, his fine white linen. Now she wants to force him into an essentially decorative role. Once he is again well-dressed, she believes he will “regain his looks, his health and will be seen as a gentleman again”. She undermines and belittles his power, unmanning him. When she slaps down his hand, “just as she’d slap one of the children’s hands”, “he felt that her authority over him was going to grow into something enormous and unnatural that would shame his manhood”.
With a background of comfort and a well-developed commercial flair, Ella has taken on the role of breadwinner as martyr, not admitting how much she relishes it. “She would not please him by stopping. She would not give him the satisfaction of seeing her sit down for a few minutes to rest.” The power that she wields is expressed in the tin box of money, her earnings from the lodgers, which hugely exceeds Robert’s. When, in desperation to reach him, she surrenders the box to him, we might believe that she has now insight into how he might regain some authority, but it is too late. He continues to sit meekly in the kitchen, coughing. Lavin allows the reader’s sympathy to shift between the two, as they repeatedly pass each other by, dealing as they do in different currencies. It seems there is a fixed quantum of energy available between them. Hers seems to rise as his declines. Here is a bleak and ambivalent portrayal of a marriage within a broadly patriarchal society: a man suffering from consumption, physically and emotionally enfeebled, consigned to the meanest area of a squalid house, a couple who are real only to each other ‑ so wrapped up in their folie à deux that they pay scant attention to their children. Nonny (the youngest of the three girls) “wanted a father or a mother”. She has neither. In the crisis she clutches at the skirts of her sisters.
The crisis follows on Robert’s missing work one morning ‑ not because Ella has insisted but because he is too ill to go. It takes the older daughters to force the issue: Robert must go to hospital. Now Ella’s obsessions shift to demands that he be moved by the best ambulance, to the best ward, where he is to have the best grapes by his bedside, and eventually, the best death as prescribed by the rules of the church. But Robert’s physical weakness is finally his strongest power, as he ignores Ella’s insistence that he look at the crucifix, or utter an act of contrition, asserting in contrast the power of human love: “all he ever wanted was just to be with her, the two of them alone”. He recalls how he used to look down the street to see if she was coming. At the end, it is she who is frantic, and he who is serene. Now she sees it as her task to make him redeem his life by conforming, not to the norms of the town, but to the routines of a mechanistic repentance. She continues to be deaf about what actually matters to him ‑ his desire for her. When she urges him to parrot the Act of Contrition, to be “heartily sorry”, he contradicts her. “Sorry? There’s nothing to be sorry about, my darling.”
Lavin handles the hospital episode with a sure footed alternation of heartbreak with satire, and what is near to farce at times. The priest tells Ella to move away, then to move closer, as he is baffled by Robert’s focus on her at this time. The bedside scenes are unseemly as the nun, the nurses, the priest all abandon Robert and upset the screen around his bed, in their headlong rush to attend to another patient. In a neat contrast with Robert, this man is supposedly an atheist, but has suddenly has caved in to the unceasing prayers of his wife and at the last moment shouted for a priest. But to Ella’s chagrin, Robert denies them all such satisfaction. She is bitter that God has not heard her prayers, to carry Robert past the gate of heaven.
“Magenta” shows a pair of housekeepers vying for dominance, with one squelching her milder colleague, up to the point where the troubling power of fortune-telling is introduced. There follows an “unsteadying” of their relationship. The setting is an almost unoccupied country house where nature also contributes to the sense of stasis: “the growth of weed and shrub and underwood stifled the place with greenery, and all day long the humidity from all this foliage pervaded the air and lowered the vitality”. Like the characters in the other stories, these maids have a “false importance”, stemming from their being, “no longer Bessie and Annie, but Miss Perks and Miss Budd”. Owing to their long residence in the house, “They were as proud as any ladies.” And their pride extends to their tolerance of Magenta, daughter of a local herd, who does their heavy cleaning. She is “biddable”, but Miss Perks shudders at her dirty coat. “dun-coloured, buttonless, rent at the seams”, and advises the more soft-hearted Miss Budd against “making free with her”. Though Miss Perks considers her “an untrained, dirty little slut”, when Magenta announces she now has a job in the city, Miss Perks realises how inconvenient her departure is, but does not want “to give the impression that they miss her”.
Some weeks later, walking through the ripe countryside, they meet an initially unrecognisable Magenta, transformed by clothes of a most unusual cut, deemed fashionable by country people, but in this case, it is “hard to tell which colour predominated, so many frills and bows and feathers of different hues glinted in the sunlight”. Miss Budd thinks of her as fashionable, Miss Perks as showy, “a vulgar baggage”. As in “A Happy Death”, clothes stand for transformation, and here Magenta’s finery “has something wrong with it”. Magenta’s accent is as new as her clothes, and also slightly badly-fitting. Dazzled with city life, she patronises them about the country, how they live in a godforsaken place, with “nothing but trees around you”. Her artless warmth wins over Miss Budd, and disconcerts Miss Perks: “the oriental perfume had unsteadied her”. Given Magenta’s knowledge of the future hidden in the cards, even Miss Perks looks at her with new respect, so much so that “It was as if the two of them were alone in the world”. Miss Perks experiences a reversal of both the power balances, with Magenta and Miss Budd. Magenta’s fine outfits are soon soaked in sweat, which mixes unpleasantly with her oriental perfume. As elsewhere in this collection, the denouement is a collapse of illusions.
Pauline Hall is a regular contributor to the Dublin Review of Books. Her most recent novel is Eoin Doherty and The Fixers (2016).