“Two Irish Storytellers”
The Freeman, 2 August 1922
“I have just read a book which I think very well of. It tells the truth in so interesting a way that I could not put the book down, but kept on reading it for three or four days. If it were not for my own work I could write a prodigiously favourable article about it.” This quotation is not from a letter by Will Wimble to Sir Roger de Coverley, as might be imagined, but from a letter from Mr. George Moore, novelist, to Mr. Horace Liveright, publisher, advising that gentleman to publish a book called by Gerald O’Donovan. “Vocations” is an uncommon kind of book to come out of Ireland. In Ireland, people are hardly educated at all, or they are almost incredibly well-educated; so that the merely literate writer who in countries blessed with widely-spread popular education, turns out so many books has, up to the present, found there almost no soil from which to flourish. Mr. O’Donovan is one of the very first to appear.
“Vocations” is a novel with a thesis. Now, generally speaking, if a man is afflicted with the idea that he has to prove something, or show something up, in a novel, it is a sign that the gods have designed him for some other vocation. A theme or a thesis is a temptation to a writer with an eye on the public, for there are always a number of people more interested in a theme or a thesis than in anything else; witness Mr. Norris’s novel expounding the indissolubility of marriage – a poor book, but, if reports are true, a commercial success. Mr. O’Donovan has a mind not unlike Mr. Norris’s, more literate in some ways, though in others not so able or so nimble. His thesis, as it happens, can have no particular appeal outside Catholic countries; it is the folly and waste of girls becoming nuns. He sets out, in fact, to show up convents. The idea was undoubtedly pleasing to Mr. George Moore, and this, I am sure, was his reason for recommending the book to Mr. Liveright. There is, indeed, a vast amount of truth in the thesis; and if Mr. O’Donovan had only got the idea of writing an essay on it, instead of a work of fiction, he might have written an interesting and perhaps a sensational book. But a novel requires many things to make it appear real: a power of creating character, a power of telling a story, a power of managing dialogue, a power for the imaginative presentation of truth. Now, the fact that Mr. O’Donovan is but skimpily gifted with these powers does a deal of damage to his thesis, for one so little believes in any of his characters, and one so little believes in his story-though the story in outline is, to a certain point, very credible- that the antithesis obtrudes itself in one’s own mind at every step. The truth is that when women become nuns they do so not necessarily for the reasons that Mr. O’Donovan believes, but generally because that life appeals to them more than any other, and because they are less influenced by literature dealing with the love of life or the love of man, than with literature dealing with the love of God and the saints. There are other women who become nuns for more commonplace reasons, such as a liking for community-life or a dread of solitariness, or in the case of those who enter the stricter orders, through a passion for solitariness. An experience of ten years in various convent boarding-schools has convinced me that the life of a nun, in point of view of happiness and interest, is as desirable as the life of the majority of women in the world. Nuns, in Europe at least, are entrusted with the bringing up of children, the nursing of the sick, the tending of the poor; occupations in which women commonly find a great deal of happiness. Mr. O’Donovan’s nuns are the most silly and imbecile body of women ever assembled outside a home for moronic females.
This is due, not only to the necessity for making everything fit into his thesis, and to his inability to create character, but also to a noticeable strain of sex-antagonism; Mr. O’Donovan does not like or understand women; he thinks their ideals and ideas are foolish. Yet almost all his characters are women, the two principal ones being very young girls; and young girls are the most difficult of all for any man to draw. It is a remarkable fact that priests (Mr. O’Donovan has been a priest) who spend immersed in theology that part of their youth mostly spent by other men in studying women, should so often think that they are peculiarly fitted for writing about women. The only treatises on women that I have ever seen have both been by priests, and extraordinarily simple-minded works they were, though not any more simple-minded than Mr. O’Donovan’s notions about women. In “Vocations,” he takes the fashionably educated daughters of a wealthy shop-keeper and publican in an Irish country town, and shows them, partly through boredom, partly through the urgency of their mother and the nuns. joining the local religious order. The two girls are fitted respectively into the traditional pigeon-holes cut out for girls by generations of convent-school chaplains; Winnie is credulous, pious, simple, innocent, and unconsciously hypocritical; the other, who bears the saucy name of Kitty, is spirited, beautiful. warm-hearted, but of the enfant-terrible type. Winnie talks of her soul, and of the sacrifice she is going to make to God, in long, utterly impossible conversations with her sister Kitty; in school-girl fashion she is “gone” on Father Bourke, who is, in turn, in love with Kitty. The priest, we are given to understand, having failed with Kitty, entices Winnie out of her convent for some hours on the night of her religious profession, and seduces her. The seducing priest is that familiar, vain, heartless, sensual, Beau Brummell type of man which was presented in literature by the late lamented Mrs. Henry Wood in the character of Sir Francis Levison in At her profession-breakfast, Kitty falls in love at first sight with the new organist, about an hour after she has taken her religious vows; she insists on leaving the convent the next day, and making her way in the world.
The theme of a nun or priest falling a victim to love or sex, has been the subject of one or two of the great love-stories of the world; and if Mr. O’Donovan had not been burdened by his thesis, and had attempted merely to write a story on the subject, either seriously or scandalously, according to his taste, he had some fine models; in fact Mr. George Moore’s is such a story, and told so beautifully and so movingly that one wonders how Mr. O’Donovan, if he had ever read it, could have launched this work of his own. If he desired to be scandalous he had also a model in Mr. George Moore; for in one of his books Mr. Moore has made the story of the nun Liadain and the priest Curithir so perfectly and artistically scandalous that it may prove to be one of the immortally scandalous stories of the world. Mr. O’Donovan’s scornful prejudice and his adherence to a thesis are as locks on his mind : he tries to be serious, scandalous, and satirical in one breath; and he fails all round. Forced satire, in particular, is a sad trap for any writer to fall into; satire, unless it be the natural and inevitable expression of a man’s mind, and irony, unless it move on winged feet, had better be left alone. One clear merit, however, Mr. O’Donovan’s book has: the novelty of its setting in an Irish small town. The Irish small town has hardly yet made its debut in literature, and therefore one reads the opening of “Vocations” with genuine interest and pleasure.
In Mr. Daniel Corkery’s one encounters an altogether different mind; that of a genuine artist. Mr. Corkery is one of the rare examples of a romantic and adventurous personality writing a subtle and poetical book. He has been a leader and organizer of the Irish army, a hunted outlaw and an anti-treaty member of Dail Eireann. Of such a man must have been thinking when he wrote:
His harp was carved and cunning,
His sword prompt and sharp;
And be was gay when he held the sword,
Sad when he held the harp.