January 2005

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Maeve Brennan: Homesick at the New Yorker by Angela Bourke

I’m a sucker for a good biography, particularly one of a relatively unknown or forgotten female figure. Give me Katherine Routledge in Easter Island or the Mercury 13 members of the astronaut corps and I’ll happily collapse on the couch to read for hours. Angela Bourke’s biography of writer Maeve Brennan is the perfect subject for me and a book that I looked forward to reading. What I’ve learned about this direct and dynamic writer is fascinating, but also very, very sad. I’m an Irish American interested in women writers but I had never heard of Brennan. I have to wonder just how many other people are as equally unaware of her as I was.

Maeve Brennan was born in Dublin in 1917 and came to Washington DC with her family in 1934. (Her father, Robert Brennan, was Ireland’s first Ambassador to the U.S.) While her sisters and brother eventually settled into the traditional roles of their gender and social background, Maeve became a very unexpected maverick. Bourke herself can not explain exactly why she did not marry at a predictable age and raise a family as her sisters did, only that Maeve had her heart broken while in college which might have led her to strike out further than her siblings. Regardless of the reason, Maeve ended up in New York, first writing for Harper’s Bazaar until she landed at The New Yorker in the early 1940s. She remained a columnist and writer for the magazine for thirty years recording her own observations of city life while simultaneously writing fiction that reflected her own Irish upbringing and actually bordered on memoir. She did eventually marry, but as her friend and coworker, writer William Maxwell wrote, “It may not have been the worst of all possible marriages, but it was not something you could be hopeful about.” Maeve lasted with St Clair McKelway for several stormy years before eventually divorcing. She never married again.

She did keep writing, though through heartbreaks, divorce, loneliness and eventual mental illness. Her columns for the magazine were under the guise of the “the Long-Winded Lady” and consisted of breezy send-ups of society and social tradition while also touching on Maeve’s own feelings about travel, holidays and home. Her fiction was always about life in Ireland and could be both biting and heartwarming when detailing the lives of people in a country that still clung stubbornly to traditions steeped in the church and strict convention. When she traveled home to visit her family -- all of whom except her brother returned to Ireland -- Maeve always stuck out among the more conservative Irish women. She did not attempt to fit in however, which might be the hallmark of her life; Maeve Brennan never for a moment thought about trying to fit in anywhere.

Bourke has an excellent subject in Maeve Brennan and from the level of detail in the book she has clearly done voluminous research. She states at the beginning that because Maeve’s life was so influenced by her upbringing it was necessary to write several chapters about her parents and their lives before Maeve was born. As both Brennans were heavily involved in the struggle for Irish independence I found this early section to be fascinating. But after continuing on to read about Maeve I began to think that she was a bit short changed by the author. I honestly think that Bourke found the lives of Bob and Una Brennan to be more interesting than that of Maeve. Or perhaps there was just more information to draw on when writing about them. Regardless of the reason, the sections on Maeve seemed to be packed with unnecessary details about characters who appear and disappear for only a page or two (and truly contribute little) whereas there are bombings and political intrigue aplenty when writing about her parents. Ultimately I think this book should have been split in two separate volumes to give both generations justice. Rather than suddenly ending the story of her parents and shifting to Maeve’s life, Bourke would have had the luxury to explore their marriage further and to also provide more information on Maeve’s own personal life which also seems to occasionally receive the short shrift.

This is probably the only book that will ever be written about the Brennan family, however. They were unique and unusual people, particularly Maeve, but they are not the kind of marquee names that typically receive a great deal of attention in the publishing world. I ended this biography with questions, which is not necessarily a bad thing as it does mean the subject kept my interest until the end, but it is also certainly frustrating. I would like to know more about Maeve’s relationship with the critic Walter Kerr whom she apparently was engaged to, and I’d like to know what happened to her husband. But from what Bourke has suggested, the answers to most questions about Maeve Brennan can be found in her own writing. So instead of lamenting the absence of a longer biography, I think I will turn instead to recently republished collections of Maeve’s own work. Maybe there I will find out how this bold and amazing woman could choose to live such a sad and overwhelming life and why she had to live it so alone.

Maeve Brennan: Homesick at the New Yorker: An Irish Writer in Exile by Angela Bourke
Counterpoint Press
ISBN: 1582432295
333 Pages