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Abroad and at Home: The Question of the Foreigner in Kate O'Brien's Mary Lavelle

Wanda Balzano
Affiliation:
Wake Forest University
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Summary

Or should one recognize that one becomes a foreigner in another country because one is already a foreigner from within?

—Julia Kristeva, Strangers to Ourselves (14)

Like other important questions, the question of the foreigner is a question of perspective. Who is this stranger, the foreigner? What does his/her foreignness represent to the native? Whether in this definition we include travelers, clandestines, enemies, or refugees, we are referring to individuals of a certain race, ethnic group, nationality, religion, or culture, who are in an area other than their permanent homeland. The question of the foreigner looms large in the literature of all times. In Kate O'Brien's Mary Lavelle (1936) the notion of the foreigner, together with the concept of hospitality which stems from it, is expressed on different levels, all variously connected with the namesake protagonist. In this essay I analyze the ways in which the namesake protagonist of the novel, Mary Lavelle, appears to be a stranger to the home, as governess, and a stranger to the language, both as non-native speaker of Spanish, and as a speaker of English abroad. I also discuss the notion of love and hospitality when strangers meet, and how uncanny is the communion of sexuality and death.

STRANGER TO THE HOME: THE GOVERNESS

Among the European women of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there emerges a particular kind of stranger, one who—by a certain contradiction in terms—lives in strict contact with a family, having been employed to educate and train the children of a given private household: it is the figure of the governess, whose many memorable and different versions abound in the literature of the period as well as in real life. An outsider to the family unit and to the middle and upper-class world, and sometimes a foreign national, with a good education but no worldly wealth, the governess was usually considered taboo to almost any gentleman because of her inferior social status. In a Victorian painting by Rebecca Solomon (1832-1886) entitled The Governess (1854), the attractive but somberly dressed governess is portrayed in the act of reading to her pupil, her lot being contrasted with that of her mistress who plays the piano while her husband gazes adoringly at her (see Fig. 1, below).

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Writing Modern Ireland , pp. 194 - 206
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2015

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