Brian Moore, I Am Mary Dunne. Vintage paperback, 1992. First published 1968
Some time ago I heard William Boyd being interviewed on the radio about the novel he’d recently published – I think it must have been Restless – in which he narrated in the first person from the point of view of the female protagonist. How did he manage so successfully to get inside a woman’s head, being a man? He said he began by reading everything he could by women writers, then asked all of his female friends about what made them tick, then sat down to write. And it didn’t work.
What did, he said, was to stop asking, ‘What would a woman think in this situation? How would a woman react to this event?’ and to ask instead, How would my character react or think? – the way he normally would about any character – and not to try consciously to bring gender into it.
Canadian-Irish writer Brian Moore does something similar but to more artistically, morally and socially serious purpose in I Am Mary Dunne. The novel is largely the interior monologue about a single day in the life of the titular protagonist – a latter-day Mrs Dalloway. Now married to the renowned English playwright Terence Lavery (odd to read about a fictional character with the same surname as my own), Mary, a former actress, now playing the role of dutiful wife, had previously been married twice before. Each marriage had ended when she started having an affair with the man destined to be her next husband, as her dissatisfaction with the current man became intolerable.
Mary is suffering from PMT, when her ‘Mad Twin’ is liable to take control of her mind and actions, or she goes into a ‘Down Tilt’ that threatens to take her over the ‘cliff edge’ of sanity, or to lapse into the ‘dooms’ of depression.
But this only partly explains her existential crisis: ‘Who am I?’ is her constant refrain as she replays this disastrous day in her head. She’s taken to forgetting her own name (she has had so many; her names are all those of the men to whom she belonged) – a clear indication of her incipient loss of identity. ‘If we are what we remember’, she reflects on the opening page, does that person die ‘because I forgot her?’ It’s hardly surprising that she’s suppressed some of the most painful of these memories, for to remember them calls into question her raison d’être, her agency as a sentient, adult being.
Her day had begun badly, with a smartly dressed man in the street (it’s set in New York) making a coarse sexual comment to her. It went downhill from there, each (usually sexually initiated) disaster exacerbating her sense of inadequacy. Several further encounters push her closer to that edge, including the news that her mother in Canada is about to have a rectal polyp, possibly malign, surgically removed. Early in the evening she finds herself almost hysterical back in her apartment with Terence, her ‘rock’ and salvation, she tells herself. Why feel afraid of the one man who she feels safe with? Surely she must be mad?
That’s pretty much the plot, apart from a long final sequence in which a former friend of hers and her second husband Hatfield’s in Canada comes to dinner with her and Terence and makes an extraordinary, drunken confession about his love for Mary, to which he adds a further bombshell about the death of Hatfield half a year ago, and about which she’d only recently heard.
As I read the book rapidly – Brian Moore tells a cracking good story in fluent, pacy prose – I found myself totally engaged by this troubled woman’s stream of consciousness. Her extreme mood fluctuations and tendency towards hysteria seemed understandable, and I felt for her. She castigated herself mercilessly for her instability, neurotic tendency, and volatility, frequently reciting the lacerating words of confession she’d learned at convent school: my fault, my most grievous fault. It was impossible not to empathise with her, or to judge her.
Yes, Mary had entered into some disastrous relationships with men – and made friends with some pretty unreliable women – which resulted in her loss of self-confidence and self-esteem.Was she really shallow and promiscuous, ‘the Un-Virgin Mary’, with ‘sex on the brain’, as her lunch partner and friend Janice had suggested? Perhaps Janice suffers from ‘autopsychosis’, thinks Mary, unaware of the term’s applicability to herself –
A disorder in which all ideas are centred around oneself.
If Mary was more Magdalene than Virgin, it was not surprising, given the gender relations and social conditions of the time; in 1968 when the novel was first published a sexual revolution was well under way, but was still very much in its early days (and arguably still is). For women of 32 like Mary, surrounded by educated alpha (well, perhaps beta in most cases) males, resorting to that default position was characteristic of – even incumbent upon – most women of her class and position then: to define themselves according to the male view them. Mary was measuring her life’s progress by her ability to please the men in it to whom she looked for salvation, lacking in herself the wherewithal to find it, she’d been socialised to believe – and what better means of pleasing those men than by using her sexuality?
The novel is very good on the male gaze, of women’s clothes and how they impact on their daily experience (underwear, and what to do with it, for example, at moments of passion – or how it feels when getting off a bus). Mary (and Janice) are very conscious of their good looks and the admiring, often lascivious gaze these inspire in the men around them. When told her husband had a reputation as a ‘letch’ at his workplace, Janice asks Mary if that were true, why didn’t any of the women complain, or why wasn’t he fired?
‘Oh, Janice, grow up. Nobody took him seriously. Besides, if men were fired for making passes at girls, most of the men we know would be out of a job’
We like to think that women are treated with more respect nowadays, not just in the workplace, but recent events have shown that this is still not the case. This novel is not, unfortunately, a dated period piece when it comes to its depiction of gender inequality. Just look at the recently published 2016 Vida Count on women and the media.
I could say so much more about this interesting, emotionally charged novel, but have gone on too long already. So: those reservations I mentioned just now. The Bechdel Test asks of a work of fiction (as Virginia Woolf did in her 1929 essay ‘A Room of One’s Own’) if two or more women are featured in it talking about something other than men, or are simply ‘shown in their relation to men’. I Am Mary Dunne consists of very little else. But by the end Mary has learned to do otherwise.
And of course, that’s its point. I initially had my own skewed, male take on her narrative and the shortcomings in Mary that it revealed, and I need to aspire to Brian Moore’s more generous sensitivity in taking a position here.
So let’s end with this: after an ‘unspoken argument’ with present husband, Terence, Mary reflects, with mounting despondency, that life is largely meaningless or lacks ‘purpose’:
Most women don’t even live lives of quiet desperation. (Quiet desperation is far too dramatic.) Most women live lives like doing the dishes, finishing one day’s dishes and facing the next until, one day, the rectal polyp is found or the heart stops and it’s over, they’ve gone. All that’s left of them is a name on a gravestone.
This is a brave, contentious and largely successful attempt by a highly gifted novelist to probe and delineate one woman’s struggle to locate and identify who and what she is in a world in which her identity is a commodity of little significance for most of the men she devotes her body and soul to. Unlike Thoreau, the source of that ‘Quiet desperation’ quotation, most women don’t have the luxury of being able to take themselves off to a cabin in the woods to find themselves.
The only other Brian Moore novel I’ve read and written about here is Black Robe, which could hardly be more different in style, theme and tone. I’d recommend both novels.
I Am Mary Dunne is also reviewed at John Self’s Asylum blog
And at the Lizzy Siddal blog
Both make powerful cases for Brian Moore to be considered a novelist of high importance. I agree.