“is quietly revolutionary” SYP IRE reads Mary Lavelle

Posted on May 20, 2021 in Ireland

For April’s book club SYP Ireland decided to dive into the world of Kate O’Brien and take on her 1936 novel Mary Lavelle. Set in pre-civil war Spain, the book tells the story of Mary, a young Irish woman who goes to Spain to work as a governess and ends up falling in love with the eldest son of the family that employs her. Touching on issues of sex, politics, religion and gender; the book gave us plenty to talk about.

Our first point of discussion related to the position of the romance in the story. Was this a depiction of true love or, rather, a romance that happened in the context of a more important personal awakening for the heroine? Rather pointedly, Juanito doesn’t show up until halfway through the book. At that point Mary has already been in Spain for a number of weeks, has built relationships with her young pupils and has had a very profound experience at a bullfight. Interestingly, none of us really saw Juanito as a romantic hero. Rather, Mary’s infatuation with him seemed to be more of a side effect of her falling in love with Spain itself.

Some of our members were disappointed by the emphasis placed on Mary’s beauty. The point was made that this is quite a typical convention in romance novels and may have been something that Kate O’Brien considered necessary to insert into the book in order to make Mary a believable romantic heroine. Nonetheless, the preoccupation with looks was slightly disheartening and made some of us wonder whether it would be possible for a less attractive girl to have a similarly romantic adventure?

Indeed, the book made us all think of the limited possibilities open to women in the 1920s, specifically conservative Catholic women. We are given a rather depressing description of the precarious position of the ‘misses’ who teach English to Spanish families; they can either go back to their home countries and get married or remain where they are, dependent on their employers. In light of this the ending that Kate O’Brien chooses for her heroine, to leave Spain, break off her engagement in Ireland and then go out into the world to carve her own path, is quietly revolutionary.

The character of Conlan, Mary’s fellow governess who later confesses to having developed romantic feelings for her, was a particularly popular one with the group. Although she arguably has quite a sad existence, struggling with Catholic guilt and unable to live her life as an openly queer woman, we still admired her honesty and independence of mind. Her interest in the bullfight towards the start of the book particularly marks her out as an individual in a sea of Irish and English governesses.

Overall this was a hugely popular book with the group, leaving us with a marked interest in the life of Kate O’Brien and, of course, eager to read more of her work.

Please join us for our next book club pick where we will discuss Acts of Desperation by Megan Nolan in collaboration with SYP London on Tuesday 11th May 8-9 pm. You can register for the book club here. Compared to Sally Rooney and Eimear McBride, Nolan’s debut novel has been heralded as a ‘blistering’ anti-romance.