- Passion’s Possibilities: Kate O’Brien’s Sexological Discourse in Without My Cloak
Without My Cloak (1931)1 seems the least revolutionary of Kate O’Brien’s nine novels, including neither the overtly homosexual romance narrative that led to the censorship of Mary Lavelle (1936) or Land of Spices (1941) nor the sharp critique of Catholicism so central to The Anteroom (1934) or That Lady (1946). Unlike figures in several of O’Brien’s subsequent works, the protagonists of Without My Cloak remain—no matter how ambivalently or reluctantly—tied to the ideals of marriage and family. O’Brien’s first novel, a multigenerational account of the upwardly mobile Considine family, is set primarily between the 1860s and 1877 in Mellick, a city that stands in for the author’s hometown of Limerick. It has been read as a family narrative on the model of Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, developing themes of family loyalty, romance, and the individual’s role in Catholic Irish bourgeois society (Dalsimer 7). O’Brien s emphasis on the pitfalls of heterosexual sex throughout Without My Cloak suggests a deeply subversive agenda, but significantly, the novel remained uncensored in Ireland. The passionate [End Page 118] Molly Considine dies in childbirth, while another Considine wife, the sexually repelled Caroline Lanigan, fails in her attempt to leave her husband. Because of his reciprocal passion for his beautiful wife, Molly’s guilt-ridden husband Anthony cannot prevent her early death in childbirth as a result of a dreaded ninth pregnancy. In addition, we hear of Anthony’s sister, respectable Teresa Mulqueen, and her syphilitic son Reggie, who has “kidney problems” (213)—and, most subversively, of two covertly gay family members, Eddy Considine and Tony Lanigan, each of whom lives contentedly, isolated from Mellick’s family values. O’Brien avoids any overt narrative assertions of how the Considines’ failed or aborted love lives challenge the institution of heterosexual marriage and its imperative of fecund procreation; such a challenge would have placed her in direct conflict with the Irish Censorship of Publications Board, established only two years before the publication of Without My Cloak. But the novel implies the failures of conventional heterosexual family structures through a language recognizably emerging from an early twentieth-century English sexology discourse—particularly the language of popular sex advice writer and birth control advocate Marie Stopes.
Marie Carmichael Stopes was a botanist by training who embarked on a career as a sexologist and birth control advocate after a brief marriage to an impotent man. Frank discussions of orgasms and the mechanics of arousal, as well as descriptions of the barrier methods of birth control, brought significant attention to her first volume, Married Love (1918). Within a year of its publication, Married Love went through six editions, and it eventually sold more than a million copies worldwide (Chesler 80–81). Whereas writers like Havelock Ellis and Sigmund Freud effected a paradigm shift in scholarly and popular views of sexuality in the early twentieth century, Stopes was among the first to direct sex and contraception advice to an audience of (as she put it) “nearly normal” English readers (Stopes, Married Love 10). Their enthusiastic response can be gauged by her book sales and by the thousands of letters she received from women wanting information about contraception, orgasms, and marital happiness. Although Stopes was by no means the only British writer addressing issues of birth control, sexual fulfillment, and sexual identity before the publication of Without My [End Page 119] Cloak, her popularity remains an underexamined cultural phenomenon—a neglect undoubtedly resulting in part from her distressing commitment to eugenics ideology. Stopes’s advocacy of birth control, her emphasis on spiritualized sexual fulfillment, her condemnation of male sexual partners who neglected their wives’ needs, and her subtextual references to the pleasures of same-sex union make her an apt reference point for O’Brien’s depiction of the repressed, overfertile Considines.
O’Brien, Stopes, and Catholicism
In 1920, two years after Stopes published her first bestseller, Married Love, Kate O’Brien left her home in Limerick to work for the Manchester Guardian, beginning her long career as an Irish literary expatriate. O’Brien...