Liminal Space and Minority Communities in Kate O'Brien's Mary Lavelle

Amy Finlay-Jeffrey

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Despite blatant references to homoerotic desire in Kate O’Brien’s oeuvre — two of her novels Mary Lavelle (1936) and As Music and Splendour (1958) contain lesbian characters, whilst gay male characters appear in Without my Cloak (1931) and The Land of Spices (1941) — it is only in recent years that scholarship has considered O’Brien as a writer of homosexual themes. There are obvious reasons as to why the lesbianism in O’Brien’s work and others who wrote about it during the mid-twentieth century has suffered from such neglect. It is only since second-wave feminism that an academic critique of sexuality has seemed appropriate to the academy. Tom Inglis notes that in comparison to British cultural history ‘the lack of research into the history of Irish sexuality is puzzling, although it corresponds to a general lack of interest in sexuality in Irish academia’ (10). Before 1990, there were few references to lesbianism in criticisms of O’Brien’s novels. Emma Donoghue explains this as ‘not so much by covering up her bonds with other women, as by denying those partnerships were of any relevance to her work … most of those who have written on Kate O’Brien have simply avoided the lesbian issues in her work’ (Out of Order 37). Drawing on anthropological ideas pertaining to liminal space, this article seeks to discover how twentieth century Irish author Kate O’Brien’s construction of queer communities in novel Mary Lavelle (1936) can be understood as liminal spaces that exist in opposition to governing heteronormative ideologies. I propose that Ireland is configured as a closeted space in Mary Lavelle, and upon leaving Ireland, O’Brien’s lesbian characters can experience and experiment with different facets of their gender identity and sexuality and enter into what I define as a space of queer liminality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)36-49
JournalJournal of International Women's Studies
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 15 May 2020


  • Kate O’Brien
  • queer
  • liminality
  • space,
  • gender


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