The Land of Spices by Kate O'Brien

Books discussed in this blog generally fall into one of two categories: they are well-known works from earlier times by writers with an established place in the traditional canon (Austen, Dickins, Conrad, etc.); or they are recent works by writers with a reputation as authors of serious fiction.

The Land of Spices by Kate O'Brien (1897-1974) does not fit easily into either category. It was first published in 1940 by an Irish writer who did enjoy a certain literary prestige in her time but who is far from a house name today. The fame she does enjoy is probably due in large part to her reputation as a feminist writer. The feminist publishing house Virago republished The Land of Spices in 2001.

Superficially the book is a school story. It is largely set in an Irish convent boarding school run by a French order of nuns in the early years of the twentieth century. One of its two central characters is a pupil, Anna Murphy, who is sent to the school from a disfunctional home at the exceptionally early age of six. A major concern of the novel concerns Anna's growth and development at the school, in the course of which she learns some hard lessons outside the classroom as well as within it. But unlike most school stories, this is not to any significant degree the story of its central character's interactions with other pupils. Anna is neither isolated nor immensely popular: she never becomes the heroine of the school, and we learn relatively little about schoolgirl friends and enemies.

O'Brien is more concerned about Anna's relationship with her other central character, the school's headmistress, Reverend Mother Marie-Helene Archer. The reverend mother is a highly intelligent women from a cultivated background in England and Belgium who has entered the religious life rather unexpectedly (for her and others) after a traumatic experience that is only gradually revealed. She brings great abilities to her religious career, but finds the task of heading a convent in the rather raw and unsophisticated Irish environment challenging and unsatisfying. Early in the novel we encounter her writing to her superior in Belgium asking to be relieved of the post. In a curious way the six-year-old Anna leads her to change her mind. It is the first of a number of occasions in the novel where one of the two main characters very significantly impacts on the other, and towards the end of the novel Mere Archer intervenes rather more dramatically to ensure that Anna gets the opportunity to go to university in the face of opposition from her domineering grandmother.

This account might well make the novel seem a bit predictable and sentimental: an intelligent teacher recognises intelligence in a young pupil, grows to like her despite their differences in background, age, and status, and eventually enables her to fulfil her potential. The reality in the novel is far more subtle. Reverend mother and pupil do not become close friends and allies: Anna is in fact not especially likeable, and their close interactions are not frequent.

Not all the action takes place in the school. We learn a good deal about Marie-Helene's early life in Belgium, and about the troubled home life of Anna and her relationship with a beloved younger brother. There may be parallels between the two characters,but they are far from obvious.

O'Brien's success lies in her creating of vivid scenes and convincing dialogue, and in her very shrewd and perceptive evocation of upper middle class Catholic Ireland, simultaneously smug and anxious, in the years immediately before the First World War. There are many memorable scenes, some of them very amusing in a quiet way. The book is not without flaws: the lengthy passages in which the characters are analysed can become a bit tedious, and O'Brien makes no concesssions to the linguistically challenged. The German quotations are short, but it is useful (though by no means essential) to have a reading knowledge of French, for several letters between the Irish convent and headquarters in Belgium are in that language and left untranslated.

It is strange to realise now that the novel was controversial, at least in Ireland, when first published. I understand that a copy was formally burnt in the grounds of the convent school O'Brien had attended (and on her experiences of which she drew). There is one brief 'sex scene' of the utmost delicacy, but one suspects the problem was actually the suggestion that the sisters in a convent are capable of jealousies, rivalries, and petty acts of meanness and snobbery.

I found this a beautifully written and evocative book. I believe it deserves to be far better known.


Faye said...

Dear John,
A very good read indeed and thank you for the review. This is the first book of Kate O'Briens I have read.
The book took a bit of getting hold of and I agree it is disappointing that O'Brien is not so well known in this country .
I think i do understand that the novel could have been thought to be controversial - as you note because of the way the realistic way convent life is depicted and also , I think , because the authors irony and humour and could have made religious traditionalists nervous - even though religious feeling is dealt with very sensitively in the work. I remember reading that Henry Handel Richardson's old school friends etc were upset by "The Getting of Wisdom" . Your mentioning the reaction from O'Briens old school sounds similar. However the overall characterisation approach and effects of school life in these two powerful works is quite different.
I particularly liked the way in "Land of Spices" , we are not seeing Anna as victim of the school system .
Finally,I found the writing very fine and the social and cultural depictions engrossing.

John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Faye. Yes, I believe Henry Handel Richardson's old school in Melbourne was not too happy with 'The Getting of Wisdom'. They probably had a bit more justification than O'Brien's readers, for her picture of the school is really quite sympathetic. The girls seem to have quite a good life at school, even if they are prepared for being wives and mothers, in accordance with the ethos of their time. It's a while since I read the Richardson, but I think there is rather more nastiness in its school life. (Perhaps we should look at it.)

Faye said...

Dear John,
I am a little late getting back to you on this but I do think "The Getting of Wisdom" would be fine to do also. It is a remarkable and strong work from my recollection and I would like to read it again - and we could compare and contrast the approaches of the two works to the social scene of the day and the school life because I think the period is sufficiently similar - both before WW1 if my memory is correct.

Again I enjoyed the "feel" of Land of Spices very much - I think of it at this distance as a very subtle work with clever ironical undertones too.

oh it is good to read a well imagined novel.


John Kennedy said...

Thanks, Faye. I do think it would be a potentially interesting comparison. Both works are set pre-World War I, as you say, in elite girls' boarding schools. Richardson, if I remember correctly, does focus rather more on her schoolgirl central character and her relations with fellow pupils than does O'Brien. I hope we can 'do' her novel.