Monday, November 28, 2011

In the parlour with the aunts

Presentation Parlour, Kate O'Brien

With my rediscovery of Kate O'Brien, I started looking at the books of hers that I haven't read yet.  Presentation Parlour immediately caught my eye, because it was described as an autobiography and because the title reminded me of the convent setting of The Land of Spices, my favorite of her books.  Presentation Parlour was originally published in 1963, when Kate O'Brien was 66 years old.  When the book arrived, I was surprised to find it so short, less than 120 pages, which suggested a very brief account of her life.  As it turns out, this isn't really an autobiography, more a biography of a family.

One of nine children, Kate O'Brien was 5 years old when her mother died.  Her characters are often orphaned at a young age, or separated from their mothers.  Her five aunts, from both sides of the family, helped her father raise his large family.  This book tells the stories of their lives and their place in the children's lives. O'Brien writes in her Introduction that "our father, and we with him, became more than is usual dependent upon the five - for authority, fun, advice, or affection. And we would have been a lost and queer bundle of orphans without them. Anyway, they were there."

Three of the aunts were her mother's sisters.  O'Brien uses the first chapter, on her Aunt Annie, to explore the history of her mother's family, and I could see how she drew on that history in her first published novel, Without My Cloak.  The other two maternal aunts were nuns, members of a strictly enclosed order whose convent was in Limerick, where the family lived.  Visits to their convent were a regular part of the children's life, and the convent's parlours became a center of family life.  Holidays like Christmas were celebrated in the parlours, so the aunts could join in.  These visits kept the aunts in touch with the family's life, so they could advise and interfere.  They also gave the family a front row seat to watch the community's life unfold.  O'Brien herself was educated in a convent boarding school, and this with the experience that she had of her aunts' vocations must have shaped the setting and story of The Land of Spices.

The chapters on Aunt Fan (Sister Clare) and Aunt Mary (Mother Margaret Mary) brought back my own memories of parlor visits.  When we stayed with my grandmother in the small Idaho town where my mother grew up, just up the road was the Benedictine monastery where her sister, my great-aunt, was a nun.  We never missed a visit, sitting in the visitors' parlor until we kids got restless and went out (or were sent out) to play in the grounds.

O'Brien spends less time on her last two aunts, her father's sister and sister-in-law, who joined in the family celebrations in the convent but were otherwise less involved in their lives.  It was her father's sister-in-law, Auntie Mick, who was the first of the five to die, and in a final chapter O'Brien brings each of the aunts' stories to its end.  She writes, "So there they pass, my aunts. No one but I will care about their 'short and simple annals,'" yet short as the annals are, she made these women real to me, though she herself says, "And for all my searching back, for all my will to reach them, I have not found the very heart of any one of them."

This book was not what I expected, yet I enjoyed its portrait of life in Ireland in the late 1800s and early 1900s, its exploration of religious life and vocation, and its affectionate pictures of five very different women, as well as the glimpses it gives into the roots of Kate O'Brien's novels.


  1. I read The Land of Spices earlier this year and really liked it. I enjoyed reading about O'Brien's knowledge of convent life and now I know why it seemed so authentic!
    I also like anything that praises aunts as I am an aunt to 12 nieces and nephews and enjoy that role.

  2. I've loved Kate O'Brien's novels, and I've seen this in the library but I wasn't sure this would be of the same quality. It's lovely to have confirmation that it is.

  3. Anboyln, I think I'll be re-reading The Land of Spices before too long! I myself am an aunt, though only to five. Your comment reminded me of one of Jane Austen's letters, where she extolls the importance of aunts :)

    Fleur, I do think it is. And now I'm wondering if I should look for her book on Ireland, which was written about the same time.

  4. Ack, sorry for not proofing and spelling your name wrong!


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!