Sunday, June 10, 2012

A country mouse in Spain

No More Than Human, Maura Laverty

When I re-discovered Maura Laverty last year, I was reminded that I had never read the sequel to Never No More. Set in Ireland, in the County Kildare town of Ballyderrig, it tells the story of Delia Scully, who goes to live with her beloved grandmother after her father's death. When the story ends, Delia is on her way to take up a post as governess in Spain. As I had already learned from Kate O'Brien's book Mary Lavelle, Spanish families preferred to employ Irish women who shared their Catholic faith as "misses," chaperones and governesses, rather than the English women often found in other countries.

As soon as I opened this book, I realized that Delia's adventures would make a very different sort of book from Mary Lavelle's. She is much younger, not just in age but in experience. Mary is engaged, taking a temporary post in part to fill in the time before her wedding. With seven siblings at home, Delia has her way to make in the world. (It's an amusing coincidence that the nuns who find these two their jobs are both named Sister Liguori; apparently the sisters ran unofficial employment bureaus for their students.) While Mary is from the town of Mellick, Delia is a true country mouse. She arrives in the train station in Madrid on a November morning in 1924, wearing a coat that is too small and a light blue satin dress, which her Gran had bought for her first dance. "Well, it was my nicest dress. Of course, I can see now that it was really not suitable for travelling on the Continent in the winter." Her new employer, herself an Irish former governess who married into a Spanish family, "gave a quick sigh then, as if to say, 'Well, now that you're here I suppose I'll have to make the best of you.'"

Delia's education is rapid but not smooth. She learns how she is expected to dress and to behave (extremely quietly, in both cases). She meets not only the family who employs her and their servants, but also the community of her fellow governesses. Like Mary, she discovers a great warmth and friendliness among the Spaniards she meets, and she is drawn to the servants and to the kitchen. There she takes lessons in Spanish cooking. Food is a major theme for Laverty, who went on to write best-selling cookbooks that include the culinary history of Ireland, which are considered classics today. Maeve Binchy calls her a "food pornographer," and here she describes the rich cuisine of Spain in mouth-watering terms. I'm sure somewhere in Houston's United Nations of restaurants and groceries I can find the "gleaming amber cones of nun's cheese, a Catalonian specialty made with ground almonds, lemon, spice, egg-yolks and syrup."

Like Mary, Delia finds the other Irish governesses difficult to like. Many openly express their contempt for Spain and the Spanish, embittered by the poverty that keeps them tied to jobs and people they dislike. She does make one good friend, an older and more experienced governess, Miss Carmody, who gives her much-needed advice and support. Delia herself is often homesick for Ireland, and for her Gran, and her memories link this book back to the earlier one, as does her habit of comparing the people she meets in Spain with her neighbors in Ballyderrig.

Delia's naivité, friendly spirit, and youthful exuberance soon get her into trouble. Despite Miss Carmody's best efforts, she simply cannot confine herself to the narrow existence required of the "misses." In one grand misadventure, she spends an afternoon splashing around the beach with a young male friend, wearing a forbidden red bathing suit, only to discover her horrified employers sitting on the piazza of a near-by restaurant. Her job ends that afternoon. She begins to get the reputation of being "fast," particularly after she is seen with a young Spanish man, which means no reputable family will hire her. Her only recourse is to become a "professora," a free-lance tutor and sometime chaperone. This is much more to Delia's taste, giving her freedom and independence, but she finds it very difficult to establish herself, particularly at her young age. And even here, her madcap reputation causes her problems. She sets her sights on a goal that no Irish "miss" in Spain has ever achieved: to become an office worker, in jobs that are reserved for English women. Undaunted, Delia sets herself to studying shorthand and typing. Maura Laverty was writing from her own experience here. Like Kate O'Brien, she went out herself as a "miss" but later moved into secretarial work (including a stint with a princess) and then journalism before returning to Ireland, where she became one of the first prominent women journalists.

I loved this book, just as much as Never No More. I loved the connections back to Ballyderrig and the first book, and the contrast to Madrid. Mary Lavelle is set primarily in a small town on Spain's northern coast, also an interesting contrast to the Madrid setting here. I could not wait to see where Delia's adventures took her next. As you might expect of someone raised by the Gran of Never No More, Delia is a caring, compassionate person who wants to do the right thing, whose warm heart makes friends easily and remains loyal to them. Like Mary Lavelle she finds love in Spain, and if her first love proves unworthy, the love of friends is always there to support her. It is her innocence and her good heart that draw people to help her, and if they sometimes seem a bit like fairy godmothers and godfathers, I didn't mind a bit, any more than I minded that in this sequel Laverty has pushed the story back four years (Never No More ended in 1928, and this opens in 1924).

As with Mary Lavelle, there are political rumblings in this book, hints of the coming Civil War that would devastate Spain. Even in the sunshine and the warmth, Delia sees the problems in Spain, and as in Ballyderrig she sees the dark side of humanity. She sees them, she recognizes them, but she does not allow them to overshadow the good that is also there.

I just loved this book (I know I said that already), and I'm kicking myself for waiting so long to read it. I was lucky enough to find a 1944 first edition, with its "war-time economy" format. I've been trying to imagine what it must have been like, to read this warm, funny, loving book, in the dark days of 1944. It could only have been torture to read the luscious descriptions of food, but I hope it brought comfort in other ways.

My brother and sister-in-law are traveling to Spain in a couple of weeks. They had invited me to join them, but I couldn't manage it this year. If I'd read this book sooner, I'd have been sorely tempted to rig a ponzi scheme or buy lottery tickets or hold a bake sale or something, anything, to get myself over to Spain.


  1. I'd definitely loved this book :) so I'd be happy to, thanks.

  2. Great that you linked this in. Have a lovely day.

  3. Oh, Lisa, I am in love with this book just from reading your description! Just after reading your review I started looking up airfare to Madrid and doing calculations to see if I could afford a trip to Spain during my vacation in September.
    I find the experience of the Irish governesses in Spain absolutely intriguing. Now I am off to try to find a copy of both the Laverty books you've written about!

  4. Anbolyn, I will certainly expect a postcard from Spain :) I hope you can find copies of both, they are such beautiful books.

  5. Sadly, I won't be able to make it to Spain this year, but I plan to go to Santa Fe. Kind of similar...:)

  6. Spammers, you apparently haven't noticed that all comments are moderated. There's no point in leaving your spam comments, they won't be posted.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!