The short stories in Mary Kenny’s collection are variously located in Oxford, Budapest, London and Dublin. But each one ends with the same message. It pops out of cupboards, it leers through windows, it swings in bellowing on the chandelier like Tarzan. And the Message is: don’t put your Playtex on the Aga, Mrs Worthington. If you shun men and babies, you will end up lonely, unloved and probably with a moustache. Promiscuous people who have lots of abortions are misguided and naughty, and must expiate their sins. Mother Nature, my dears, fashioned girls to lie on their backs in the labour ward.
Kenny’s style is slick and clever, but you read on because you are intrigued to see where she will slip the Message in this time. There is a brief glimmer of something different in the pungent tale ‘Why I am a Feminist’. The narrator is an Irishwoman, who has seen her female relations worn down by marriage and childbirth. ‘I’m 48 and I’m still angry,’ she says proudly. She has been put off sex by the experiences of her aunts. ‘The English had aunts by the dozen in Victorian times, and the Irish, of course, actually had Victorian times until about 1975.’ So far, so good. Poor Aunt Eithne was childless, and made herself a slave to housework to compensate. Sweet Aunty Florence was married to a ghastly Male Chauvinist Pig who wouldn’t let her go shopping alone. Aunt Delia was crushed by endless pregnancy, and May had to stay at home looking after an elderly mother. However, browbeaten Flo loved her awful husband (‘Women are fools .’) And Delia adored all that sex. Besides which, her unwanted ninth child was the apple of her eye and became a rich computer expert. So there you are. And at the end of the story, the ‘angry’ narrator turns out to be a lonely, garrulous, alcoholic old polony. I wasn’t entirely sure about the message here. Marriage is ghastly, so is spinsterhood-who then can be saved?
However, the other stories are more straightforward. There is one real collector’s item called ‘The European Spirit’, which has to be read to be believed. Brussels, 1973. Two young girls are sharing a flat. Briony is plain and good (The good ones are usually plain, incidentally). Helen is pretty, and she puts it about. ‘Careless, insouciant Helen uses abortion as a contraceptive, and has five of them. Pious Briony supports abortion in principle, but repeated abortion is just silly … A woman loses something.’ Like Burns on adultery, she concludes that it hardens all within, and petrifies the feeling . Eventually, naughty Helen keeps a baby, and gives it to a married lady who is sterile. This is the least palatable of all anti-abortion arguments – ie, that women should breed unwanted children for the benefit of Deserving Cases.
‘She [Helen] knew , too, when it was time to give to life what she had taken from it. In the end, she did a very honourable thing, and maybe the hardest thing that a woman can do: she gave a life and walked away from it, leaving it to someone better fitted to nourish it.’
Then there’s the one about the prim, narrow-minded elderly spinster who has to revise her rigid views on the sanctity of marriage, when she takes pity on a wretched fugitive wife, whose husband is so appalling that her children beg her to leave him. ‘It is a fact that some women – and maybe some men – are better being out of a tyrannical marriage,’ the spinster concludes. Halfway through the last page and where is the Message? Don’t worry – here it comes: ‘Of course, none of this changes the principle in question … I still do everything I can to support marriage and the family, to oppose easy divorce. But there are exceptions … Then of course, they say exceptions only really prove the rule, don’t they? Or do they?’ Please note the last question. Kenny often adds a little qualifier to the Message, as if to assure us that she has kept some souvenirs of her enlightened days.
I shall donate my copy of this book to some elderly nuns. It is so difficult to find suitable reading matter for them in these degenerate times, and they must be getting awfully tired of The Keys Of The Kingdom.