The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Land of Spices

Posted on: June 5, 2007

On completion of The Land of Spices by Kate O’Brien I wonder, and still do, what precisely goes into deeming a book a classic. In the days of Virago and Penguin Modern Classics and the New York Review of Books line, all of which publish a notable number of novels that have not weathered the centuries, indeed have even published the books of living authors, who has the say? How do they do it?

In the novel’s introduction Clare Boylan, an “acclaimed novelist, short story writer and journalist“, wrote that the book came very close to a “work of art” but it was “too polemical” and “intellectually arrogant”. I have little use for the second reason because, as presented here, is based solely on two untranslated French letters, two telegrams in the narrative and one or two German words. I can’t say that was much of a hurdle as translations of the correspondences were at the back. I don’t know anything about the Irish publishing world in the 1940s but it would seem odd to me if something like that were not possible then, but you never know. I’m just not comfortable with the idea that if you put a couple of letters in your story written in a foreign language you lose “classic” points.

The idea that O’Brien was too polemical, too overtly critical of some of her characters has some merit. From her unsympathetic portrayal of the “unusually stupid” Mrs. O’Doherty to Mère Marie-Hélène’s fierce criticism of what she considered to be the “self-insularity” of the Irish the judgement can seem merciless. It’s true that O’Brien is not subtle in her commentaries on Irish nationalism, sexism, the co-option of religious institutions for political ideal; and it is the lack of subtlety, no allowance for any negotiation, any sense of the ideas being worked out in the story, as opposed to it being settled at the outset, that partly prevents The Land of Spices from “ever fully taking flight”.

Mère Marie-Hélène is the head of a French teaching order, Compagnie de la Sainte Famille, that runs an all-girls boarding school in the Irish countryside. She was born in England, raised in Brussels where she attended a school run by the same order, and had no real intention of taking the veil until she discovered a family secret that shattered her illusions about the loving, intellectually exhilarating life she had had with her father.

To run away, to take cover, to hate in blindness, and luxuriously to seek vengeance in an unexplained cutting-off, in a seizure upon high and proud antithesis — that was stupidity masquerading offensively before the good God. She saw that — with the long view of the years; even became detached enough to plead with herself that the girl who had had been such a fool was only eighteen, and absolutely innocent; that she had worshipped as perfect the author of her disillusion, and that the blow had been agonising pain, would indeed always leave her limping, no matter how she strove with wisdom.

What I enjoyed most was O’Brien’s skilful construction of the Reverend Mother’s character. Flashbacks to her past eventually fleshed out this complicated, intelligent woman who constantly struggled with her own feelings about sin and grace in relation to her father, herself and to those now under her charge. She is compassionate but her strict, austere facets obscure it from most of those around her. Indeed her traumatic break from her father, and the ascetic life of the convent, hardened and even cowed her in some respects. When she served in Poland, the Reverend Mother there mentioned in her reports to Mère Générale (leader of the entire order) in Brussels that Helen “is afraid of love, even the love of God”. It is her recall to Brussels which facilitated renewed relations with her father and then her later contact with Anna Murphy at the Irish school that soften her and make her, at times, openly affectionate.

Anna Murphy is the only daughter of four to Maud and Harry Murphy. She is sent to the school at 6, about three years younger the youngest pupil at the school, because Maud wants to remove the children from the father’s influence. He is an alcoholic, earns little it seems, and his behaviour has prevented the household from keeping a governess. It is the mother and grandmother’s money that is funding Anne’s education.

Her mother, her grandmother, Mother Agatha, Father Doolin, the whole pious Cabal who disapproved of him…and scattered them in babyhood to holy prison-houses where his drunkard breath could not contaminate them. He raged…but he knew he would not take Anna home. He loved her, but he had sold her to the Cabal. He would sell her again, he would do many things he was ashamed of, for the sake of some peace and quite now.

Anna, unaware of family strife, is fascinated by her new residence. It is her grave, intent observations of her environment, unusual in one so young, that catches Mère Marie-Hélène’s attention. She exhibits a quick intelligence from early on, unconsciously saying a student’s forgotten line during a recitation of a poem, which she learned when she was present during a practice. Reverend Mother notices and asks her, if she had taught herself any others, to recite one. It is Anna’s recitation of Peace by Henry Vaughan, the “gentle thread of the little voice” along “the remembered poem” — her father was a scholar of 17th century Protestant poetry — and Anna’s task of learning poems to recite every Sunday that sealed the bond between nun and student.

As Anna grows she forgets this moment of childhood, or at least the warmth and pleasure of it, and begins to resent the label of “Reverend Mother’s pet” as early as age 8. She is not anyone’s pet, she feels, as she enters her teens, and does not have nor does she seek close friends at school, secure and satisfied with the deep love and perfect companionship of Charlie, her younger brother by two years, at home. This and reading is all she needs to be content. Books became even more of a haven after an unjust episode with Mother Mary Andrew, Mother Scholastic, who vindictively deprived of an academic honour. Her peers and even her family found her conceited and all felt her cold (except Charlie). But the reader knows better. Boylan wrote that though Anna lacked “conventional childish appeal…emotions and vulnerabilities are revealed like a play of shadow and light”. The reader privy to Anna’s thoughts, knowing of her behaviour with Charlie, her brave public defence of Molly, an older student from a wealthy bourgeois family, when Molly was verbally attacked by the aristocratic Ursula for the scandalous publication of her parents’ private turmoil, cannot think her cold.

This novel was an eye-opener for me on the lives of nuns. I had never thought of thinking of them as professional women, at least of the sisters (not the properly so-called nuns who lead a secluded and solely contemplative life), who run schools, charities and hospitals. To do these things well one must be highly educated, capable, with leadership skills…even wise. And at this period the convent was the only institution in which women could earn this kind of success. In fact this particular teaching order was independent and not under the rule of the local Bishops, reporting only to the Mère Générale in Belgium. For most of the students graduating the best they could hope for was marriage, nursing, or a clerical job. Women could attend university but it was still rare and still looked down upon by many.

To get back to the issue of what makes a novel a classic, I addressed content but not style. The truth of the matter is that though O’Brien’s writing is elegant and engaging it is not really remarkable. It’s good enough, even excellent in parts, it moves the story right along, but any sentence that ever struck with me with particular beauty was always from poems. The design of the story feels fairly conventional as well, good, illuminating, but there’s no pow. I think it is this, combined with what I said before, that left me with a vague, dissatisfied air after I read the book, when I considered it’s labelling as a “classic”. My experience wasn’t transcendent. I was never overly impressed or amazed. Whether I like the book or not has little to do with it in this particular case — I feel way more affection for The Land of Spices than I do The Good Soldier but there’s no doubt in my mind that the execution of the second is leagues above the first. (My chest even feels a bit fuller now just thinking of the Ford novel.)

There are certainly classics that are nakedly polemical (The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born), that show the author being a tad judgemental in the way she plays things out (Mansfield Park), and no book is perfect. (Well, I dunno TGS seems about perfect, so does Dreamtigers.) In such books there is a major, inextricable element that saves it; and I don’t think The Land of Spices has it. Which still leaves me puzzled about the nuts and bolts of how imprints like Virago come to these decisions, especially in this case where it pairs the book with an introduction in which the writer expressed that the book wasn’t a classic. Did the people at Virago really think the O’Brien novel deserved the title and thought the other parts of the introduction were good enough to make Boylan’s opinion negligible, or perhaps it would serve to stir up the reader’s neurons? Or is the label “modern classics” simply a nice marketing tool to interest readers and the imprint had no intention to strictly adhere to the meaning intrinsic to the words?


3 Responses to "Land of Spices"

Wow – fabulous review, imani! I’ve often seen this book and wondered what it was about – and now finally I know! Actually, your account was so good and so clear, I don’t really think I need to read it now!

Hahahaha oh but that’s terrible, litlove! I’ve left out so much really, the wonderful humour of the students and 3/4 of the plot points and really there’s nothing like reading it for yourself. Hahaha, I’m going to have to post an excerpt now in case anyone else feels the same. 😉 But thanks for the compliment.

[…] had a somewhat keen interest in this chapter because of The Land of Spices by Kate O’Brien. I read it earlier this year and really like it. The protagonist is an English-born, Belgian-raised nun who […]

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