- Out of Home in the Kitchen:Maeve Brennan’s Herbert’s Retreat Stories
To step away from one's home renders one simultaneously an insider and an outsider; much immigrant literature arises out of such threshold spaces of divided affiliation. The Dublin-born writer Maeve Brennan (1917–93), who wrote for several magazines but chiefly for the New Yorker, operated for much of her life within this liminal zone of a shifting, amorphous identity—an instability aided in part by her family's temporary move to Washington, DC, in 1934 for her father's career, which for Maeve ultimately proved permanent. Her father's turbulent life no doubt underscored this dividedness; over the course of her childhood, he went from being a political prisoner on the run to being Ireland's ambassador to the United States. Always marked "Irish" because of her accent, Brennan was nevertheless popular and glamorous, and she enjoyed material American successes through her writing. Her fiction captures the exiled writer who "necessarily looks in from the outside while also looking out from the inside."1
Brennan's bifurcated view is especially evident in a series of stories that consider the Irish domestic servant's life in America, set in a fictional "bohemian enclave" called Herbert's Retreat outside of New York City.2 As Angela Bourke has noted, it is not insignificant that her Irish accent enchanted the New Yorkers among whom Brennan lived and worked; they would also find the voice of her writing charming. In the process, they managed to miss completely the sad realities that underlay everything she said.3
In his introduction to a posthumous collection of some of Brennan's stories set in Dublin, her longtime friend and editor William Maxwell dismisses Brennan's Herbert's Retreat stories in two sentences, labeling them merely satirical [End Page 73] and "heavy-handed" and lacking "the breath of life."4 Maxwell's praise of her other work—both earlier and later—suggests that he assumes her writing suffered as a direct consequence of her difficult five-year marriage to New Yorker editor St. Clair McKelway: "After she was living alone again," he concludes, "Maeve began to write what are clearly her finest stories."5 Maxwell's romanticization of the solitary artist is troubling, given Brennan's later decline and eventual solitary, homeless death, and misses the artistry and significance of the stories composed during a period of great personal change.6 While not set in Ireland, the Herbert's Retreat stories, in which Irish domestics feature as essential characters, do happen to fit—albeit obliquely, in a transplanted manner—Maxwell's criteria for the best of Brennan: "Her best stories . . . have no characters that are not Irish.7 In her stories set in America, Brennan explores the consequences of exile from this Ireland of memory.
One way of approaching Brennan's stories is to understand them as continuing the literature that attends a familiar figure throughout much of American history, the Irish maid. Brennan was surely aware of the hardships of this life. Many other women have testified to this hardship, among them the mother of historian Richard White; her life is recorded in Remembering Ahanagran (2004). Sara White, born in Kerry in 1919, was barely three years younger than Brennan and had a twofold understanding of domestic service. Her mother had emigrated to New York at the turn of the nineteenth century:
Margaret Hegarty went to New York, and she went into domestic service. She became a maid. So common were Irish female servants that they received a generic nickname: a Bridget. Swept up in this stream of Irish immigration, Margaret became a Bridget, lost in the work of cleaning up after the middle class and the rich. . . . She lived among their orders and condescension, and [End Page 74] what she distilled from it was her savings and her pleasure in the life of New York.8
Sara herself worked an equally difficult, typical six-day week as a domestic in Ireland, with only Sunday off to attend Mass and visit her own family. These undertones of class struggle will be picked up by Brennan. Hasia Diner has documented...