Maeve Brennan: Homesick at 'The New Yorker', by Angela Bourke

Bitter fairy-tale of the diplomat's daughter
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The Independent Culture

In one of her spot-on New Yorker stories, "The Joker", Maeve Brennan considers the fate of poor people forced to go knocking on suburban doors in pursuit of a handout. What made these waifs the way they are, she wonders, and decides they had lost their tickets, "squeezed off the train because there was no room for them", or maybe were never equipped with a ticket due to negligence on the part of their parents.

In one of her spot-on New Yorker stories, "The Joker", Maeve Brennan considers the fate of poor people forced to go knocking on suburban doors in pursuit of a handout. What made these waifs the way they are, she wonders, and decides they had lost their tickets, "squeezed off the train because there was no room for them", or maybe were never equipped with a ticket due to negligence on the part of their parents.

By contrast, the author's own good fortune must have seemed unassailable in the early 1950s. The "ticket" assigned by her parents, and her talents, was surely first-class. But, as this sympathetic biography shows, at some point in Brennan's life, the seeds of disintegration must have been sown. The story of her vicissitudes makes compelling reading.

This is essentially an Irish story. Angela Bourke's opening chapters give an exhilarating account of the country in the early 20th century. Brennan's parents were involved in revolutionary activities, with secrecy, arrests and raids. When Maeve was born in 1917, her father was in prison in Lewes with other veterans of the Easter Rising. Her early childhood was dominated by the Black-and-Tan war and Civil War, in which her family took the Republican side. Her story "The Day We Got Our Own Back" describes a raid by Free Staters on the Brennan home in the Dublin suburb of Ranelagh: the place to which Brennan returns over and over in her fiction.

She was 17 when her father was appointed secretary of the Irish legation in Washington, and the family was uprooted. Maeve none the less acquired impressive qualifications, along with the social know-how essential for a diplomat's daughter. She moved to New York and, in 1949, joined the staff of The New Yorker. Clever, witty, glamorous, Brennan was confident enough to take her place among the magazine's hard-drinking, womanising male coterie.

What went wrong? A brief marriage to an already thrice-married drunkard didn't help to combat her own increasing oddity and - from the late 1960s - her need for medication and even hospitalisation. Neither the marriage nor its failure comes to life in these pages; it remains a shadowy event in a life abundant in inexplicable motivations.

What we get are the facts: Brennan's utter inability to manage finances or put down roots; the endless series of hotel rooms and holiday homes; the patience of colleagues who bailed her out of one predicament after another. As in a bitter fairy-tale, we see the young woman, loaded with every gift, turning into a virtual down-and-out.

Bourke is an adept biographer and social historian who shows considerable insight into the unspoken anti-feminism her subject had to contend with. But parts of Brennan's story simply evade reconstruction. We do, however, have the stories - by someone whom The New Yorker's fiction editor, around 1969, described as "the best living Irish writer".



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