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O'Brien, Kate (1897-1974)  

The popular and critically acclaimed Irish playwright and novelist Kate O'Brien includes lesbian characters and relationships in some of her novels.

O'Brien was born in 1897 in Limerick, Ireland, into an upper-middle-class, Irish Catholic family. After attending University College in Dublin, she worked variously as a governess, translator, editor, teacher, and journalist.

In her late twenties, O'Brien began her creative writing career as a dramatist. Her first play, Distinguished Villa, had a critically acclaimed run in London's West End during the 1926 season. After several other plays were less-favorably received, O'Brien turned to the writing of novels. Beginning with Without My Cloak (1931), which received several literary awards, O'Brien's fiction enjoyed considerable popular and critical success during most of her lifetime. She also published two travel books, Farewell Spain (1937) and My Ireland (1962); a history and critical study, English Diaries and Journals (1947); a biography, Teresa of Avila (1951); and a memoir, Presentation Parlor (1963). She died in Faversham, England, in 1974.

Virtually forgotten in the years immediately following her death, Kate O'Brien has been reappraised in the past decade. Although little has been written of her personal life as an adult, except to note that she was married for a short time in 1926, attention has been paid to her exploration of feminist and lesbian themes in her writing.

Several of her novels--including The Ante-Room (1934), Pray for the Wanderer (1938), The Land of Spices (1941), The Last of Summer (1942), and The Flower of May (1953)--examine a variety of issues involving the difficulties faced by progressive women in middle-class Irish society. Other novels, such as Mary Lavelle (1938), That Lady (1947), and As Music and Splendour (1958), concern what John Hildebidle describes as "the great conflict . . . between intelligent detachment and passionate, sensual love."

Mary Lavelle, a frank and critical exploration of social issues in contemporary Irish society, contains a significant lesbian subplot in its depiction of Agnes Conlon and her unrequited love for the title character. The novel's lesbian content undoubtedly contributed to its being banned by the Irish Censorship of Publications Board, a fate also accorded The Land of Spices, which contains a brief allusion to a gay male relationship.

Written late in her career, As Music and Splendour is O'Brien's most explicit and fully realized exploration of a lesbian relationship. The novel traces the parallel lives of two women, Rose Lennane and Clare Halvey. Clare is clearly presented as a lesbian, and her love for an Italian opera singer, Luisa Carriaga, is especially memorable. Significantly, although O'Brien is as interested in exploring the sadness of separation and loss as she is in extolling the pleasures of relationships, Clare's lesbianism is presented in a positive light. Her sexuality is a given, and Clare (and consequently the reader) does not feel that she is "different" from the other characters, certainly not in a pejorative way.

O'Brien's novels are resonant in their depiction of the search for individual choice and freedom of expression. As Éibhear Walshe writes, "She was the most visibly sexually dissident writer of her society."

David Garnes


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Dalsimer, Adele M. Kate O'Brien. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.

Hildebidle, John. Five Irish Writers: The Errand of Keeping Alive. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Reynolds, Lorna. Kate O'Brien: A Literary Portrait. Totowa, N.J.: Barnes and Noble Books, 1987.

Walshe, Éibhear, ed. Ordinary People Dancing: Essays on Kate O'Brien. Cork: Cork University Press, 1993.


    Citation Information
    Author: Garnes, David  
    Entry Title: O'Brien, Kate  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated October 12, 2008  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, New England Publishing Associates  


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