Kathleen "Kate" Mary Louie O'Brien was born in Limerick City at the end of the 19th century. Following the death of her mother when she was five, she became a boarder at Laurel Hill convent. She graduated from the newly established University College, Dublin and then went to work at the Manchester Guardian. After the success of her play Distinguished Villa in 1926, she took to full-time writing and was awarded the 1931 James Tait Black Prize for her debut novel Without My Cloak. She is best known for her 1934 novel The Ante-Room, her 1941 novel The Land of Spices, and the 1946 novel That Lady. Many of her books deal with issues of female sexuality — several of them explore gay/lesbian themes — and both Mary Lavelle and The Land of Spices were banned in Ireland. She also wrote travel books, or rather accounts of places and experiences, on both Ireland and Spain, a country she loved, and which features in a number of her novels. She lived much of her later life in England and died in Canterbury in 1974; she is buried in Faversham Cemetery.
The Glucksman Library at the University of Limerick currently holds a large collection of O'Brien's personal writings. In August 2005, Penguin reissued her final novel, As Music and Splendour (1958), which had been out of print for decades. The Kate O'Brien Weekend, which takes place in Limerick, attracts a large number of people, both academic and non-academic.
In the film, Brief Encounter (1945), Celia Johnson speaks about collecting "the latest Kate O'Brien."
Kate O'Brien and the Fiction of Identity: Sex, Art and Politics in Mary Lavelle and Other Writings by Aintzane Legarreta Mentxaka
Paperback: 290 pages
Publisher: McFarland (April 29, 2011)
Amazon: Kate O'Brien and the Fiction of Identity: Sex, Art and Politics in Mary Lavelle and Other Writings
Kate O'Brien's work is now widely considered canonical in the English language, and the author herself an icon for Ireland seeking to reinvent itself. O'Brien's novel Mary Lavelle, banned upon publication in 1936, is a key work of the twentieth century that has suffered from critical neglect despite its wider popularity with readers. This book reexamines Mary Lavelle, exploring its role in the modernist canon and its importance to political and queer activism. The novel's biographical and autobiographical experimentation is of particular note. Through the lens of this crucial novel, the oeuvre of Kate O'Brien is recontextualized and reassessed.
The Land of Spices (Virago Modern Classics) by Kate O'Brien
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Virago UK; Tra edition (July 1, 2006)
Amazon: The Land of Spices
Behind the high, closed walls of a convent in the Irish countryside, the lives of its inhabitants are gently marked by the daily rituals of spiritual life. Watching over Anna, her sensitive and poetic young charge, the Mother Superior revisits her childhood relationship with her father. As Anna develops from a six-year-old to a scholarship candidate, Helen comes to understand her own heart and makes peace with her past.
Mary Lavelle (Virago Modern Classics) by Kate O'Brien
Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Virago UK (July 1, 2006)
Amazon: Mary Lavelle
Mary Lavelle, a young and beautiful Irish woman, travels to Spain to work as a governess and see a little of life before returning to Mellick to marry her fiancé, John. Despite the impressive surroundings and her three charming charges, she finds life as a governess to the Areavaga family lonely. But with the arrival of the family's brilliant but married son, Juanito, Mary finds her loyalties and beliefs challenged by his fiery politics and passion. With characteristic elegance and subtlety, Kate O'Brien, one of Ireland's most beloved writers, illuminates the anguish and ecstasies of a young woman at the heart of a family and a nation divided.
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