Here are nine stories, one set in London, five in Ireland, three in Spain, three focusing on women, six on men, one set in the nineteenth century, the rest more or less in the present, all but two ending in a stoically endured unhappiness expressed with Colm Tóibín’s now familiar quiet and rhythmical delicacy. So dominant is the unhappiness, so exquisite the prose, that the reader cannot but wonder about the relationship between suffering and style.
“Silence,” the opening story, is prefaced with an anecdote that Henry James recorded in a notebook as possible material for fiction. Discovering, only hours after his wedding, that his wife had previously been passionately in love with another man, an “eminent London clergyman” refuses to consummate the marriage but nevertheless spends the rest of his life with the woman. The cruelty and sadness of this situation work the more powerfully on the reader’s imagination for being left unstated.
We then pass to the story’s main character, Lady Gregory, a historical figure who, like Henry James, has been the object of Tóibín’s admiring attention in the past.1 Not as pretty as her older sisters, she married a man thirty-five years older than herself, achieving respectability but not happiness:
In the night…as she tried to move towards him to embrace him fully, to offer herself to his dried-up spirit, she found that he was happier obsessively fondling certain parts of her body in the dark as though he were trying to find something he had mislaid.
Later, after the birth of a son, Lady Gregory had an affair with the highly politicized poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, a man whose “talents as a poet,” in Tóibín’s version of events,
were minor compared to his skills as an adulterer. Not only could he please her in ways that were daring and astonishing but he could ensure that they would not be discovered.
This genius for deception is not entirely an advantage. Tóibín is convincing as he evokes the growing dismay of the person whose most intense and intimate relationship can never be acknowledged to others:
The fact that it was not known and publicly understood that she was with him hurt her profoundly, made her experience what existed between them as a kind of emptiness or absence…. When the affair ended, she felt at times as if it had not happened.
This is what interests Tóibín, not just in this story, but throughout The Empty Family: how to respond to a painful sense of absence at the core of life, where family and belonging should be; how to avoid the feeling that there is no difference between “life now and the years stretching to eternity…in the grave.”
Lady Gregory was resourceful. She wrote a cycle of love sonnets and convinced Blunt to publish it under his name, relishing the thought that people could read her story without knowing its source. When this subterfuge is not solace enough,…
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