The Rising of Bella Casey

Published in Book Reviews, Featured-Book-Review, Issue 5 (September/October), Reviews, Volume 22

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I gaze as I write at two photographs, presented to me by their subjects’ grandchildren: one of Seán O’Casey’s sister Isabella (the ‘Ella’ of his semi-fictionalised autobiographies), and the other of her husband, Nicholas Beaver—or, as O’Casey called him, Benson. The photographs appear to have been taken in the mid-1890s. Her face, framed above her tightly buttoned collar, is soft and refined; his is darkly handsome. One can understand the mutual attraction.

Mary Morrissy’s fine novel, The Rising of Bella Casey, tells of their troubled union. That union was blighted from the start: a true Greek tragedy, with Isabella in the role of Iphigenia. She, a genteel schoolteacher, skilled in drawing, music and languages (she had read Iphigenia in French as a girl), was several months pregnant when they married. Her fiercely respectable mother, not always the kindly spirit whom O’Casey portrays, boycotted the ceremony. And Lance-Corporal Beaver seems to have brought his bride an unsuspected gift, from his past soldiering, which did not manifest itself until many years afterwards: a case of syphilis that caused him to brutalise her when the disease exploded into madness and to end his days in an asylum before he turned 40. The once-genteel schoolteacher ended hers a decade later as a charwoman, living in a cramped north-east Dublin shanty, where she struggled to raise five children. Whether the syphilis contributed to her death, at the age of 52, can never be known.

O’Casey, born John Casey, reports much of this in his autobiographies. But, perhaps inhibited by family pride or wishing to spare Bella’s then-living children, he does not mention the premarital pregnancy or the syphilis, although he hints at both. He treats his sister throughout with mixed pity and scorn. After all, as their mother tartly observed on the morning of the wedding, she had made her choices.

Morrissy, whose previous fiction includes Mother of Pearl and The Pretender, expresses the same pity without the accompanying scorn. This is because her Bella has not made choices. She is Iphigenia, yes, but with a trace of Terry Southern’s ‘Candy’ from the 1950s cult novel: guileless, luckless and imposed upon by successive males. To reveal more here would betray an ingenious story line, one that contains as many twists as a well-constructed mystery. Suffice it to say, therefore, that Morrissy’s tale, though faithful to the known facts, fills lacunae with imagined events that, if improbable, are by no means impossible. And the Bella of the tale is even more pitiable than her real-life counterpart—who, heaven knows, was pitiable enough. Yet both Bellas—the real and the fictitious alike—project character and spirit. Morrissy accurately recounts how bemused neighbours half-mocked, half-admired the erstwhile schoolteacher’s efforts to retain gentility amidst increasingly sordid surroundings.

Morrissy describes those surroundings well. One point must be made about them at the outset: contrary to the prevailing image (which his autobiographies foster), Seán O’Casey was not a product of the Dublin slums. The autobiographies cannot be taken literally on this score—or, indeed, on most others. He gives fair warning of this in his opening pages, which have him an eyewitness to his own birth. Thus warned, we should not cry foul when elsewhere he bends literal truths in the service of politics and art. Perhaps the exaggerated ‘poor-mouthing’ also reflects the author’s penchant for self-pity, which was ever among his less attractive qualities. On the other hand, he had many admirable qualities, including his capacity to feel intense pity for others’ sufferings—not just Bella’s—and his hatred of the social injustices that he attacked with his representational truths. And he had enablers in his self-reinventions: Yeats and Lady Gregory, who hyped him in Abbey Theatre advertising as a slum dramatist. Both of these Ascendancy figures dearly loved to patronise a labourer. Besides, the hype sold tickets.
That said, it is necessary to add that the Caseys were far from being Ascendancy Protestants themselves, though as communicants of the Church of Ireland they basked in the Ascendancy’s reflected glory. Rather, they were lower middle class, and their fortunes gradually declined as O’Casey reached manhood. The only Caseys who actually lived in a slum, however, were Bella and her children, after her feckless husband went mad.

Morrissy grasps it all: the shabby gentility, the struggle to maintain appearances, and Bella’s precipitous descent into poverty. The novel indeed conveys the family’s circumstances more accurately than a present-day walking tour, because most Casey homes—those that survive—have been gentrified. Morrissy portrays them and their occupants as they were.

Rising has another engaging feature: Morrissy inserts lines from O’Casey plays into the mouths of her characters. For instance, ‘A principle’s a principle’ (Juno and the Paycock) is spoken by Bella’s daughter Babsie. And familiar figures—Bessie Burgess, Mrs Gogan, Mrs Madigan, Rosie Redmond, Charles Bentham—appear in the story, as does a dog called Joxer. I doubt that Babsie (whom I knew in her old age) ever uttered the phrase that Morrissy imputes to her, or that there were actual people with those names. But O’Casey certainly did lift passages, and personalities, from real life. So here, too, we encounter representational truths.

The photographs haunt me: the young faces with serene expressions unmarred by any foreshadowing of the grim future. Alas that fiction can reimagine the past but cannot change it!

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