Kate O’Brien: The Ante-Room (1934; 1988 Edn.)

The selection has been made in the course of teaching the fiction of The Ante-Room as part of ENG507C2, a Third Year module in Irish Literature at the University of Ulster, and as such it constitutes a sample for purposes of electronic searching and not a substitute for reading of the original or a republication of the same in part or whole.

She wondered if other lives had more unity than hers, which seemed to have only a circumstantial and not a spiritual consistency. Her early childhood, for instance, except for a few comic and catastrophic memories, and a suspicion that then already her sister Marie-Rose had seemed specially to decorate the scene for her, might have been from her present vantage point someone else’s, uninteresting, normal, happy and unhappy. [5]

There was no space in it where a heart might scold against a private wound, and so, though Agnes had been mortally hurt on the day when she and Marie-Rose met Vincent, in three years she had learned to fix her eyes upon the griefs of others and, for her sanity’s sake, to ignore her own. [9]

the only unifying thread was Marie-Rose [9]

Prayer that should humble gave relief by self-inflation. Agnes often wondered how it was possible to accept and honour God, and yet steer clear of heroics. Would it be more honest, more prayerful, not to pray at all? But that would be a deliberate spiritual pride, and would lead her further into the desert than she had courage to go. [10]

In girlhood - it had been Marie-Rose’s habit to turn over all her griefs and difficulties to her [Agnes]; that the habit still lived and asserted itself in adult life had been both natural and consoling - Now, however, Vincent in his dumb and sulky fits of misery, was learning to turn for help to that source which had always been his wife’s - and when they were at Roseholm his eyes followed Agnes with an entreaty which, at his every coming, grew more imperative and angry. [31]

From gay he had grown sulky, from intelligent bored, from heavenly beautiful to mortally, so that time and pain could scar him. [35]

To her strong and honest faith this state of things was very startling [34]

Nurse Cunningham: ‘She would be a nurse then, for without blinking the uncertainties, vague status and small rewards of such a career, she was stimulated by its promise of perpetual changing scenes and contacts, its shocks and crudities, its many chances of association with men. [37]

Dublin genealogies [40]

Agnes could hardly believe the evidence of her eyes that anything so cruelly idiotic had been said, but [40] Reggie was leaning across the table, with a foolish glitter of pleasure in his bloodshot eyes. [41]

though for intellectual reasons unlikely to be elected Cardinal [42]

Canon Considine (Tom): it struck me that we have not prayed for her enough [45] His faith, more florid than her own, though not more natural, had power to move her, and constantly he touched her deeply by the tender, unceasing fret that he carried in his heart for his dying sister. An unimaginative man, imagination came to life in him before the spectacle of her suffering, just as, a prudish man, he mastered his prudishness in relation to Reggie, for Reggie’s mother’s sake. [46]

It was very terrible to him, very cruel that any child of Teresa’s should be neglectful of the routine of religion at this time when there was so much need of prayer and strength. [49]

Dr. Curran: The Mulqueen household stood high in the prestige of the Mellick bourgeoisie, and the doctor who attended them could safely be considered good enough to minister to other genteel bedsides. [54]

William Curran had always been clear in his views about women. Every inch a doctor, he deplored the mischief which the amorous instinct had done and continued to do to the human race. It would have to be reckoned with, he knew, but he did not see that it was worth its own high and often hysterical claims. The sane thing was to despise it, since you could never kill it. For his own part, women so far had been hardly more important to him than so many decorative toys. He had enjoyed himself abroad, and kept his head. Here at home he was continent, because he believed in continency and found it practicable. One day, and before he was very much older, he would perhaps want someone to keep his house and bear his children. [55; cited in Simon Waugh, BA Dissertation, UUC, 2000, p.4.]

[Dr Curran:] He was a Victorian bourgeois, rationalist in the idiom of his mind, Catholic in tradition and practice, a man eager to harness feeling into usefulness. This unlooked-for love, once quick in him, he must examine his chance to satisfy and domesticate it, since it seemed now to be essential to his future ability and peace. What hope had he that Agnes Mulqueen would marry him? [57]

It was no part of my plan to fall in love with a femme fatale! I am a plain man of sense, a man with work to do, and I have always insisted that love should be kept in its place .. Because, after all, one can get its essential comforts cheaply. [62; see infra, p.125]

And in that field it seemed to him [Curran] that the Catholic Church provided as good a system as might be found for keeping the human animal in order - a necessity which he emphatically accepted. A good system because, through thick and thin, it exacted a soul of every man and still instilled in the very lowest of its creatures an innocent familiarity with things not apprehended of the flesh. [67]

Agnes: ‘But by a fluke! - [74] It’s only a maggot in my brain’ [75; vide 148, 149]

Respectable young ladies did not ring the emergency Confession bell; to have to do so proclaimed either religious morbidity or, God forbid, a state of sin. [77]

Love happens - out of the simple fact that one’s eyes can see, that’s all - and in itself it is pure, it has no evil in it. [80]; The common sin against the ninth commandment enhanced by all the pitiful complications of sister love. [80]

How simple! How formal and civilised was the method of the Church in its exactions. - Self would thin away if one pursued the idea of God. Oh, blessed absolution, which can absolve us not only of our sin, but of its occasions, by making out its own tranquillity nothing of them and of our confusion in them. [-; 90] God had absolved her from all that. She was loosed from sin. [91]

Withal, though he did not think she had much mind - and there lay the spiritual complement of her faint physical resemblance to her father - he sensed that her intuitions would no more seriously mislead her about herself than about other people. [93]

For some time now both were aware that their original power to drown mutual offences in passion, and build again on the oblivion that passion gives - that this power was going, if not gone. And one of them knew that the will to seek such periodic mending was gone out of him. But, having been infatuated with Marie-Rose and having failed in that infatuation, he was no longer the man he had been before he saw her. She had taught him much, and taken much away. There was no regaining his old imperviousness to feeling; there was no going back to contented isolation. [103]

‘How delicious to have this sister here again! And now with heart cleansed of offence against her, no cooled by antiseptic of confession, to be able to turn to her, with the old, deep, unstained affection - it was glorious! To have been able, after ten weeks of miserable dreaming and self-pity, to enter a room where he was and look at him and feel no fear or [hurt] or tenderness - God, that was bliss, that was a miracle.’ [106]

Youthfully in love, Vincent and Marie-Rose had entered married life, each unconsciously on guard against a passion which might submerge the beloved and familiar self, which might ask arrogance to die. And quick emotional antennae had not been long to find for each this hidden harshness, this antagonism in the other. Delight made little enough of it at first - indeed exulted sometimes in its stimulation - and found no trouble in subduing it to natural rapture. But the aftermath was always bitter - neither could see why; neither could bear to have it so. Resentment, always quicker in both than tenderness, spread itself, evolving a game for them to play, so that if Marie-Rose, in temper to punish her own softness as well as her husband’s, ignored or jibbed from his moods of amorousness, he had his vengeance when in turn she played the lover. [109]

a cat-and-dog life, the only real escape from which for Marie-Rose was return to this sister who had always rejoiced to take her as she found her [110]

They had been talking of Washington Square, which everyone was reading in the Cornhill. [123]

‘Worried about the Land Leaguers, Father?’ [125]

[Agnes on Dr. Curran:] ‘It was no part of my plan to fall in love with a femme fatale!’ How angry his voice had been! ... How long ago it seemed since he had said it - that almost irresistible phrase! [125]

Vincent: his sudden quarry to-night was non-reality [127] he understood that this man desired [Agnes] and was in good trim to fight for her. [129]

Schumann’s Widmung [145; also 233, &c.]

No, for her own and his unhappiness, Marie-Rose had in her keeping for ever the man who from her first sight of him had been able to explain to Agnes all the follies and extremities of human passion. [146]

Now that he [Curran] had the obvious fact, it screamed its authenticity from so many moments of this night and of the immediate past that he could hardly believe he had not always known it. It was a truth which now her eyes, her face and every word and attitude of Vincent’s seemed most shamelessly and recklessly to advertise. [149]

Nothing too silly or wasteful to be a fact. Nothing too destructive to be true [150]

their chill islands of self-assertion [156] the life they led was not a love life [156]

The pain that crept upon him was so vile and sickening that he wondered if it was anything like the approach of death. - Agnes, he groaned - and then, remembering that her [Agnes’] attention was now deflected to his wife, he burst out laughing. [161]

consecrated stone - a lovely altar [166]

Of Nurse Cunningham: Agnes had to ignore the curious coarseness that could beckon the gallantries of such a man, and keep her mind fixed on the question of a grown woman’s irresponsibility. [170]

Of Vincent [anent ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit -’]: If this writ ran - there was little hope for Vincent here or hereafter. - He was not meek, he was not poor in spirit; he would sulk rather than mourn; neither justice nor mercy was especially his affair - He was the walking negation of beatitude. [172]

Thirty-five years of priesthood, years as imperfect as they were virtuous, years in which his vocation had as often failed as conventionally upheld him and in which his period-philosophy had revealed confusing differences from his eternal one; years in which the fanatic in him had learnt to keep step with the bourgeois, but which had also given curious moments of self-distrust and wistfulness; years in which he had unconsciously trained vanity to reward more than to wound him, thirty-five years in which he had been at least as faithful to his own idea of himself as to the eternal idea of God - had yet not taken from him a central wonder before this recurring moment [the eucharist] of his priesthood. [174]

she liked always to play comedy in Mellick as the luxurious and spoilt young matron from the [177] capital

shoddy for despair [179]

Curran: he descended to his work in deadliest mood of rationalism, a creature of flat prose, a Victorian bourgeois in a temper, an overworked man in need of sleep. [186]

Marie-Rose: ‘I’ve been married to him - and I - I don’t want anyone else! That’s the terrible thing! That’s what makes me hate him!’ [198]

Descending then to the drawing-room, Sir Godfrey [Bartlett-Crowe] was at his most urbane, though still on the look-out for indigenous drolleries. He advanced in his very best manner towards the graceful creature who was his hostess, and she, belwildering enough in her beauty, presented him at once to a ovely blonde flower at her side, her sister, Mrs. de Courcy O’Regan.

Sir Godfrey was a connoisseur of women up and down the social scale, but he had never met a colleen. Amusedly in the train he had wondered about the species. Shy and wild, no doubt perhaps even barefoot - and in need of masterly coaxing. He had an idea his technique would serve. Perhaps a little teasing - a playful reproduction of their quaint brogue - / These ladies were not shy and wild, and though they had a brogue, Sir Godfrey felt that its movements were too subtle for imitation. [203]

He began to perceive that, contrary to his expectations, he would need skill if he was to get the true essence of this company in which he found himself - and that even then it very likely would elude him. Surprising! In this painfully old-fashioned drawing-room, and among people who did not dress - that is to say, really dress for dinner! - But, indeed, the black suitings and white linen of all these men were perfectly presentable, and the ladies, though, of course, their décolletages were not ceremonial, were exquisite in silks and jewels. [-; 204] So this was Ireland! Surprise was still naively in his face, and still there was a nervous desire to make a joke of the surprise, and yet again the uneasy feeling that he had better not do that. [205]

Box and Cox [208]

Expectancy [209; also 211, 213, 236]

‘Today is the ante-room - It’s only this moment struck me, but that’s what it is. That’s what I feel.’ [213; see also 236, infra]

Parnell [209f.]

Among her qualities was a self-control which the exercise of her profession had not yet hardened into callousness -. Its absence always seemed to her very disgusting, and she reflected now, not for the first time, that this man [Reggie] must have been born without a vestige of it. But he had been born lazy too, and that should have kept him from the mischiefs of the first defect. - Her realist’s eye, helped by professional training, took in all the details of his appearance - [of which] had made this ruin, and he was the second son. But his elder brother was a priest. [221]

Agnes had only one desire - to run down the steps with undignified and desperate explanations, to stamp with shameless cruelty upon sane love, and soothe this insolent sneer. [229]

An ante-room - well, perhaps to truth, or fate, or any of these useful abstracts. And she was all of them, entangled in their moonshine, making both sense and nonsense of their echoes. [237]

Here were Christian and social duty combining with sisterly love to make one foolish craving of hers impossible. And she with brains and blood and training found them justified and her desire insane. It followed it must die. It would die - but how quickly? [240] -. though conscience might be somehow tranquillised, though purity might be preserved and a technical loyalty to sisterhood remain - that death of love would be at an immorally high price. For even if she was prepared to sacrifice her early womanhood to the strains and silliness of an unexpressed infatuation, even if she was prepared to pray herself resolutely into an enfeebled spinsterhood, the careful process would react on others, and be too slow to give them a fair chance to recapture life. - violence must drive out violence. A desperate remedy must be found - No point in long, enfeebling treatment. - Let them face each other and decide on the cleanliness of a complete good-bye. [241]

St. Bernard’s prayer - Oh Mother of the Word Incarnate [242]

[Vincent on his mother:] She used to make me feel something that you do [...] a kind of finality of appreciation [...] a stillness, as if her mere being alive justified everything. It’s a lovely, cool sensation, and although it’s love, I suppose, it has nothing to do with the other feeling, of wanting to touch you. Perhaps it’s the sort of thing some absolutely perfect work of art should cause [...] but, still, it’s warmer than that, and it’s surer. [244]

Line for line, bone for bone, they seemed to fit together as if by heaven grooved to take each other, as if the platonic split was mended here, and a complete creature stood united to itself at last. - this danger merited love. [245]

Vincent of Marie-Rose: ‘I’ve treated her vanity as if it were a loathsome thing - oh, there isn’t a mental humiliation or torture that some devil in me hasn’t tried on her at one time or another - but, heaven be praised, she hasn’t understood! She hasn’t imagination, you see, and so I’ve really never done anything more serious than enrage her -’ [248]

Agnes: "My real duty is to God, and Marie-Rose, [250] and should take me miles from here.’ [251]

Vincent: ‘if you’re ever mother of a son,’ he sobbed, ‘oh, don’t die until he’s hardened to the idea!’ [255]

[-] He saw ancient, sunlit world of the further Mediterranean, white-shored islands and blue waters, broken temples, red-sailed ships. he saw his love amid these things that she thought strange to her, while muleteers and fishermen and beggars marked her rare grace with smiles an atavistic reminiscences. - The voice of the sea, like an old god [257] counselling, would guide them through their passion into sleep. [258]

Her beauty would be their fatal explanation everywhere on those shores where men have eyes, and in any case he would love her so much that it would be obvious he had no right to her. - She would grow old and he with her, and then there would be death and for their sin whatever theologians meant by hell. [259]

Was she ignoble then? Was all her struggle falsity, and she content to lose her spirit’s virginity whiles saving her ridiculous, mortal body? Did she love this man at all? [259]

Silence swelled hideously, but she had to let it be. She marvelled that it held so vast a shock, so much sense of bitterness and grievance. - Had they so nimbly taken for granted the romantic fate of lovers for ever banished to the sun? [263]

[Vincent on Marie-Rose:] ‘I whirled her into marriage, and adored her for a while’ [264]

[Agnes on religion:] But God could surely take some fraction of responsibility for the needs He planted in His helpless creatures? He gave you Grace and the moral law and the True Church. And put him in my path, she retorted softly and gladly, thrust him into my life and gave me eyes to see him. [266]

She loved him with passion, each contact proclaiming their aching physical sympathy. But she was a virgin and could not foresee the real [267] claims of the senses. [267]

He understood. Violence and passion could have there tortured minute if he insisted, but they could not retrace, unplait, unravel the long slow weaving of [267] childhood [268]

Agnes: ‘I’m sick of the mess of things’ [269]

Then she understood her sentimental mistake. There was no pacification here, or freedom. There was no such thing - she ought to have known - as kissing him good-by and saying "God bless you". Love had been painful in fantasy, but here in its clumsy truth it was anguish, with the worst of it that its moment must pass, that there must be an end of the pang of insatiability. / Open-eyed, they kissed. [271]

In her kiss he was able to measure the finality of his desire for her, and its rightness. [272]

That coming had been a fool’s errand; it had done no more than prove to her, in one silly kiss, that she could not do without what she much never have. [273]

Godfrey: The sooner an ageing, restless, conceited man, with an ageing, restless, conceited wife, forgot the soft, sweet Irish rose, the little fair fleck of sea foam that had carried him too far in foolish excitation overnight, the better. The sooner he lost sight of the worrying, tempting, irremediable, or perhaps entirely imaginary hint he caught of unhappiness between that lovely, virtuous creature and this cold and glorious-seeming god, her husband, the better for the peace of his quick but elderly mind. [283]

Vincent [on his imminent suicide:] There’ll be great sadness for a while and then it will be over. You’ll see. Sadness for a while, Marie-Rose, and then no sadness. Anything that ends misery is bearable for a while. Only a little sadness ... Then none. [284]

Oh Agnes - understand! Don’t cry! Don’t cry! be merciful, and promise not to cry! My love, forgive me! / He leant upon the gun - [305] - He pulled the trigger, his thoughts far off in boyhood. [306; END.]
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