Parrots and Catholicism: Irish Short Story Writers Bowen and O’Brien
Longer ago than I care to think, I promised Mel U at The Reading Life that I would join in the Irish Quarter: A Celebration of Irish Short Story event focused on bringing bloggers and readers together to discuss Irish literature. Today, I finally got down to it, reading an Elizabeth Bowen short story and one by Edna O’Brien.
The Parrot by Elizabeth Bowen in The Collected Short Stories of Elizabeth Bowen
Knowing that I loved Elizabeth Bowen, Mel smartly suggested that I write about one of her short stories. Although she lived much of her adult life in London, Bowen was Anglo-Irish, born in Ireland to an upper middle class, Protestant, landed family with an estate. Thus, she counts.
This story focuses on Miss Eleanor Fitch, the unhappy companion to the oppressive, elderly Mrs. Willedon, who seems the sort of overbearing, bossy, upper middle class tyrant so common in Agatha Christie novels. One day, Eleanor and the parlormaid, Maud, accidentally release Mrs. Willedon’s parrot.
The bird is apparently shocked but thrilled at his freedom, momentarily sticking close by in the garden, but then flying away through the neighborhood. Unfortunately, he lands in the back garden of the Lennicotts, of whom Mrs. Willedon has a firmly negative opinion, as they are very much not the right sort of people. Mr. Lennicott is the author of very slightly disreputable novels and she, well, is she his wife? No one really knows.
Fearing the loss of her job and home, Eleanor scales several garden walls to get to this far garden hoping that the Lennicotts, being louche, will still be abed so early in the morning. But no, Mrs.? Lennicott is very awake, happily ensconced in the garden reading poetry. She leaps at the chance of a new acquaintance, assisting in Eleanor in catching the bird and then offering up her husband to help when the parrot flies to their roof.
Ultimately, Miss Fitch, like the parrot, must choose: the insecure freedom of the Lennicotts and their garden, or the prison-like security of Mrs. Willedon’s. I won’t reveal what she chooses. But I will say that this powerful little story is classic Bowen: women oppressing other women, ne’er do well artists, and challenges to middle class norms.
The Connor Girls, 1981 from A Fanatic Heart: Selected Stories by Edna O’Brien
The narrator is an unnamed young Catholic girl in rural Ireland. Her family lives near Major Connor and his remaining two teenage girls, Amy and Lucy. Anglo-Irish (?) they are Protestants and all too loose and arrogant in their ways, allowing young men to stay the weekend and refusing offers of elaborate teas from the narrator’s family as they range over this family’s land with their beagles and horses.
The story describes the narrator’s and the villagers’ mixed feelings about the Connors – their wealth and power make them attractive, their Protestantism and freedom, repulsive. Ultimately, one Connor girl attempts to leave the village with a Catholic boy, only to receive her comeuppance when she is thrown over. The narrator moves away and is disinherited when she marries a Protestant. Ultimately, she comes to realize the irony of her personal choice to become “other” while the Connor girls, seemingly so “other” for so long, end up instead so solidly of the village.
Like Bowen, O’Brien’s themes hint at debauchery and sexuality against a backdrop of religious and class oppressiveness. Similarly, this story features women against women – seemingly powerless females choosing men and changing their lives as they are judged by those around them. O’Brien was a favorite of mine in the 1990’s when I was also reading lots of Alice Munro. Her work is solidly Irish – unlike Bowen, I don’t remember any of O’Brien’s work being written about any place outside Ireland. But all three (Munro, O’Brien, Bowen) are superlative short story writers with particular foci on women’s lives. They sketch the details, deftly and quickly, with practiced eyes for the essential and strong understandings of women’s interior lives and struggles.
Happy Reading! Ruby