I am now back into writing mode, having taken a wee bit of a mental holiday over the last few weeks. I’ve commenced a new project and am fairly immersed in it, so as a result at bedtime I want to read something short as I don’t really have the energy to get into something doorstop-sized. I went into Hodges Figgis a couple of weeks ago in order to stock up on some short stories and ended up with Maeve Brennan’s collection The Rose Garden and Edna O’Brien’s The Love Object. I had long wanted to read Brennan and so I started with her.
One of Ireland’s foremost short story writers, Maeve Brennan was born in Dublin in 1917 and grew up in Ranelagh. Brennan’s father was appointed as the Irish Free State’s first minister to the United States and so the family moved to Washington when Maeve was seventeen. She went on to get a degree in English and moved to New York where she began writing fashion copy for Harper’s Bazaar. She was soon noticed by the New Yorker magazine and she went to work there in 1949, first as a social diarist and then as a short story writer.
Brennan was beautiful, stylish and a glamorous fixture on the New York literary scene. She married once to St. Clair McKelway, the New Yorker’s Managing Editor, but he was not a safe bet – alcoholic, manic depressive and already divorced three times – and the marriage disintegrated after five years. Brennan remained single for the rest of her life and never had children. Towards the end she became badly alcoholic and struggled with mental health issues. She became something of a bag lady, sleeping in the toilets at the New Yorker, or occasionally staying in one of the hotels for transients on 42nd Street. She died of a heart attack aged seventy-six and is buried in Queen’s, New York.
Many of the stories in The Rose Garden are set in the upmarket New York suburb of Herbert’s Retreat, based on Sneden’s Landing where she lived with McKelway. Brennan often uses the same characters in these stories: an overbearing theatre critic called Charles Runyon, the maids working in the kitchens of the grand houses, social climbing wives and their put-upon husbands. These stories are brilliant; scathing, beautifully observed and very funny. Five of the stories are set in Dublin, including “The Holy Terror”, a study of a ladies-room attendant in a hotel, whose contemptuous attitude finally leads to her downfall.
While I haven’t yet finished the book I am interested in reading more of Brennan’s work, particularly The Springs of Affection. In common with other great short story writers, she has a way of compressing huge amounts of detail into deftly crafted sentences, making her stories rich and layered. Much can be learned!