In Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Anne Elliot reflects on her refusal of Captain Wentworth’s marriage proposal some seven years prior to the opening of the novel. She has rejected the attractive and charming Wentworth strictly on the counsel of her deceased mother’s friend, the self-involved Lady Russell. Insightfully, Anne looks back on that life-altering decision as “one of those cases in which advice is good or bad only as the event decides.” Because in the intervening years Wentworth has turned out to be a successful and much respected officer in His Majesty’s navy – a man to make any woman proud – Lady Russell’s recommendation proves to be egregiously off the mark.
Less clear-cut are the consequences of advice taken in Irish writer Colm Tóibín's engaging and understated 2009 novel, Brooklyn. In this case the 20-year-old central character, Eilis Lacy, follows the advice of her much older and sophisticated sister, Rose, and emigrates from the small town of Enniscorthy in Ireland’s County Wexford to New York. An Irish American priest, the Reverend Flood, visiting from New York, plants the idea in Rose’s head, offering to act as Eilis’s sponsor in Brooklyn. He assures her that he will arrange for Eilis a job in a department store and accommodations at a boarding house for respectable young Irishwomen.
We don’t know with any certainty how Eilis’s life would have played out had she remained in her hometown living with Rose and her widowed mother in the “once-imposing” family house. With the perennial Irish themes of exile and alienation underpinning his novel, Tóibín makes it clear that Eilis’s transplantation to Brooklyn was not without pain. Immeasurable homesickness and a debilitating sense of regret and loss are a high price to pay for the improved life-style she achieves.
Apparently Rose never stopped to wonder how her young sister might fit in with the Irish in New York, for the most part descendents of immigrants who had possessed the resolve to leave behind all that they knew, the daring to begin new lives. As the novel opens it is 1954, and Enniscorthy is an uninviting town of “shrinking opportunities” and “familiar rituals.” Tóibín’s masterfully delineated heroine is a docile young woman who can’t seem to muster the courage to say “no” to the glamorous, authoritative Rose. Humility and duty shape her response. Tóibín’s portrayal – consistent throughout the novel – of the consciousness of a passive, unworldly young woman with limited sensibilities due to a restricted life and minimal education is remarkable. Wise when it comes to encountering buried emotions, Tóibín notes that the Lacey women could not speak candidly to each other. “They could do everything except say out loud what is was they were thinking.”
“Eilis had always presumed,” writes Tóibín, “that she would live in the town all her life, as her mother had done, knowing everyone, having the same friends and neighbors, the same routines in the same streets.” He continues, “She had expected that she would find a job in the town and then marry someone and give up the job and have children. Now she felt she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared.”
It never occurs to Eilis that her life is her own business, that she might have grounds for complaint, and consequently she finds herself in Liverpool where she will board a liner to America. Eilis takes heart from the fact that her three brothers live in Birmingham: after all, hadn’t they too left home to find work? And at some level she recognizes that her demeaning Sunday job waiting on customers in Miss Kelly’s Enniscorthy grocery store won’t do. Eilis’s mother describes the hypocritical Miss Kelly as “the devil incarnate.”
After her brother Jack deposits her on the ship bound for New York, Eilis descends deep into the belly of the vessel in search of her third-class berth for what turns out to be a journey from hell. The agony of nausea and retching is cruelly exacerbated because she is locked out of the bathroom adjoining her dismal cabin. Tóibín uses the turmoil of the crossing to represent the chaos in Eilis’s subconscious over leaving so irrevocably her home and all she knows. He uses the misery she endures on the voyage to foreshadow the wretchedness she will experience in Brooklyn.
The Reverend Flood makes good on his promise, and Bartocci’s, an upscale department store, hires Eilis as a saleswoman. As Tóibín’s plot leisurely and seamlessly unfolds, Eilis, while remaining timid, adapts to the boarding house’s offensive odors, to central heating, to her unfathomable housemates, and to the throngs of pedestrians she must navigate going to and from her job. But letters from home – from her mother, Rose and Jack – threaten her equilibrium.
“She lay on the bed,” writes Tóibín, “with the letters beside her…It was as though an ache in her chest was trying to force tears down her cheeks despite her enormous effort to keep them back… She kept thinking, attempting to work out what was causing this new feeling that was like despondency, that was like how she felt when her father died. She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and no family, it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor.”
Realizing that Eilis’s adjustment depends upon her staying busy, Father Flood steers her to night classes in bookkeeping and accounting at Brooklyn College. The classes represent her salvation, and after two years Eilis qualifies as a certified bookkeeper.
During this time, at a dance at her parish hall she meets a young Italian-American plumber named Tony who is immediately attracted to her. Tony’s patient and kind courting of Eilis pays off, and soon she, too, is in love and planning a future with him. With this turn of events Tóibín underscores the notion that “once scattered, a seed grows where it lands.” But then, in a pivotal plot twist, a tragedy occurs in Enniscorthy, and Eilis must return to Ireland at once.
Once again Eilis’s proclivity for inaction surfaces, and she gradually settles back into the routines of her town. Significantly, she fails to fend off the attentions of a local suitor. Tóibín holds our attention through the final paragraphs of his impressive novel as we discover if she remains in Ireland or returns to Brooklyn.
No one understands better than Colm Tóibín the herculean strength of an Irish person’s umbilical cord. As critic Martyn Bedford observes, “The pull of even the most diasporic Irish family is a fierce one.” In an early novel, The Heather Blazing, Tóibín examines this idea as he would in Brooklyn. His 2004 book, The Master, however, marks a departure. It is fiction based on the life of Henry James, the quintessential American expatriate Anglophile. In this award-winning work Tóibín proves what a gifted stylist he is. Eschewing his characteristic stripped-down style, he employs instead the long, complex sentences so prevalent in James’s own writing.