About ‘Nora Webster’

I just finished reading Colm Toibin’s ‘Nora Webster’. Although a companion book to the more commercially viable ‘Brooklyn’ which was made into a film, I found it an altogether more thoughtful and evocative novel.

Set in early sixties Ireland, it is the story of widowed Nora’s journey into some kind of independence and happiness following the death of husband, Maurice.

At the beginning of the novel I felt that Nora’s conservative, narrow way of life had everything to do with her staunch Catholic background but as I read on I began to see that the era in which the story is set was itself an era of conservatism. This will resonate with anyone who was born in the fifties as I was.

The story plays out against a background of the Irish troubles, when TV news footage impacts on Nora’s family life in their jittery responses and constant anxiety.

Nora struggles with bringing up her four children, with money and with every decision, since during her marriage she’d looked to teacher husband, Maurice to decide everything. ‘What would Maurice do/say/choose?’ she asks, constantly. My own mother was the same, an unwaged housewife, leaving every decision for my father to make. Her views, like Nora’s were my father’s views. We all holidayed in his preferred destinations, bought things when he wanted them, agreed with his political viewpoint and his wellbeing was paramount in the family. This, I believe was commonplace in the post-war era.

Nora’s children are her preoccupation, a constant worry as she has to find a job and keep it under some trying circumstances. At first she either relies on advice from family or makes knee-jerk decisions which she then regrets. But gradually she learns to trust her own judgement and gains confidence. She finds joy in the appreciation of music and takes singing lessons.

The older of Nora’s sons exhibits behaviour which we would now realise is autistic, being disruptive in class and obsessing about photography. The behaviour deteriorates in the time after Maurice’s death. One of her daughters, Aine becomes involved in the struggles and the other, Fiona, a student teacher wants to spread her wings and spend money that Nora doesn’t have.

Most of these difficulties are likely to plague any single parent today. Juggling the needs of a family and the imperative to hold down a job is a tricky business. The problems that Nora experiences are no more trivial for the children being older.

Nora is a complex character, reserved but at the same time feisty. I liked how she stood up to a difficult manager at work and manoeuvred herself into a better position. She is constrained by her religion and influenced by the religious figures in her life. In many ways this is a feminist novel. I wish I could say that life is completely different for women today but there are still too many outstanding inequalities to address.

Worldly Troubles? I blame God…

                When my brothers and I were small children we were sent to Sunday school. We would begin on Sunday mornings by undertaking a thorough cleaning of our shoes [in my case it was most likely Clarks sandals with the cut out flower in the toe] then have to walk down through the village to the church and into a small section of the vestry where we would listen to Bible stories and sing along to a hymn:

                ‘Jesus bids us shine with a steadfast light

                Like a little candle burning in the night

                In this world of darkness we can shine

                You in your small corner

                And I in mine’

was a favourite.

                The best part of Sunday school was the stamp, gravely distributed and stuck on to a card as proof of attendance.

                My parents did not accompany us to these privileged gatherings, preferring to stay at home and enjoy the Sunday morning free of us-and who can blame them? My father was, in those days an occasional Church goer. But my mother was an unabashed, self-confessed atheist- brought up a Catholic, schooled in convents where [allegedly] she was beaten with a rubber slipper, until all vestige of religious belief was truly eradicated.

                Having learned at Sunday school that life after death was a trip to heavenly paradise I would sit on my mother’s lap and seek reassurance from her that this was assuredly the case, only to be told that death was ‘like a candle being snuffed out’. There was that candle theme again.

                The hypocrisy of sending us to Sunday school whilst admitting died-in-the-wool atheism appeared to present no qualms for my mother. Presumably the opportunity to off load us for a morning was compelling enough to overcome them. In any case my father put in a sporadic appearance at church at that time.

                Some years later, long after I’d begun to acquire my own lack of belief an aunt wrote to tell me it was time for me to become ‘confirmed’-an undertaking I took very little time to decide upon. I wrote back [extraordinarily politely for a mardy teenager] explaining that I didn’t know if I wanted to be a member of the Church of England-or indeed any church, come to that.

                Later still, when my own children came into being there was pressure from family members to have them christened, as I had been. I held out. They might want to be Buddhists, Hindus or atheists. Who was I to choose a religion for them?- And if I did, what was to stop them from rebelling, as all self respecting teenagers should?

                Because that is what I find baffling about indoctrination. Yes, small children are little sponges who soak up knowledge, skills or gobbledegook indiscriminately, only to rage against everything they’ve been taught as soon as a hormone raises its head above the window sill. So how come fervent devotion to religion is still rampant in the world, causing mayhem, war and suffering? And what ‘God’ would allow it all to happen?