I discovered Kate O'Brien's books over twenty years ago. The first that I read, The Land of Spices, is still one of my favorite books, and it was also the first Virago edition I ever bought. As I usually do, I then collected every book of hers I could find. But I never got around to reading Mary Lavelle, which I vaguely thought was a sequel of sorts to The Land of Spices. Reading the reviews of Kate O'Brien over at Verity's Virago Venture sent me to the TBR shelves in search of it, and I have spent the past several days lost in the story.
I very quickly realized my mistake: this isn't a sequel to The Land of Spices. As the book opens, it is 1922 and the title character, Mary Lavelle, is traveling from her home in Ireland to take up a position in Spain as a "miss," a combination of governess and chaperone. Like Mary, most of the "misses" in Catholic Spain are Irish Catholics. Unlike the other "misses" she meets, though, Mary has not come to Spain to make a career. She is engaged to a young man in her home town, John, but they cannot afford to marry yet. Rather than simply living in her father's house, waiting for her wedding, she seizes a chance to do something different:
"To go to Spain. To be alone for a little space, a tiny hiatus between her life's two accepted phases. To cease being a daughter without immediately becoming a wife. To be a free lance, to belong to no one place or family or person - to achieve that silly longing of childhood, only for one year, before she flung it with all other childish things upon the scrapheap. Spain!"
Determined not to let this opportunity slip from her hands, Mary overcomes John's opposition and her father's indifference. She takes her place as "miss" to the three daughters of the Areagava family, prominent citizens of the town of Cabantes on Spain's northern coast. At 21, she is only a few years older than the eldest, Pilár, but it is the youngest, 14-year-old Milagros, with whom she bonds most deeply. In addition to their parents, the family also includes a son, Juanito, who lives in Madrid with his wife and baby son. When Mary meets this second "John" they are immediately and irresistably drawn to each other. Mary also meets her fellow "misses," most of whom are loud in their complaints about Spain itself and their employers, but they lack the resources, financial or mental, to find other work or to return home. They cannot understand Mary's contentment, her growing attachment to Spain and to the people she meets.
Mary is a very sympathetic character, and it is fascinating to watch her metamorphosis in this coming-of-age story. O'Brien delves deep into the hearts and minds of her characters, switching her point of view between Mary and other characters, particularly Juanito and his father Don Pablo. Her language is elegant and yet easy, it never strains for effect. The story is so rich in emotion and character that I found myself putting it down at the end of almost every chapter, to savor it and to consider what had happened before reading on. This was not a book to be rushed through.
Like The Land of Spices, this book was banned in Ireland at publication, in part because of its frank sexuality (though not explict in today's terms), including sympathetic treatment of a gay character. And while all of the characters are practicing Catholics and people of faith, they struggle with their own beliefs, with living their faith, and even with the Church itself, which may also have been a factor in the ban. The strongly Catholic setting, richly evoked, was a pleasant change from the constant, almost reflexive anti-Catholicism that I have come across lately in so many 19th century English novels and letters.
I also have on the TBR pile O'Brien's Farewell Spain, about her own experiences of the country, including a year's stint herself as a "miss." Looking at the author's note in this book, I see several other of her books that I haven't read, including an autobiography and a book about Ireland. I am so glad to have re-discovered Kate O'Brien - on my own shelves, no less!