Writing yesterday about a countrywoman with a lower case “c,” I recalled The Countrywoman with an upper case “c.”
Paul Smith’s novel, published in 1962, is a fictionalised biography of his mother, capturing her constant willingness to sacrifice herself for her children. It is a grim description of life in 1930s Dublin.
I read The Countrywoman on my summer holidays in 1986. The relentlessly bleak tale of a woman subject to the abuse of a loathsome husband now seems more a work of social history than one of fiction.
Pat Baines may have been the abusive husband and father to a Dublin family, his attitude and behaviour might just as easily have been that of men in many places. He is someone many people in many places would recognize:
Three things contrived to go wrong with Pat Baines that Saturday. The first was when the ward sister came up to where he lay on the broad of his back in the corner bed in St. Jude’s and told him in her concise voice that it was time he got up and out as they needed his bed. The second was that the minute the news of his departure spread from bed to bed and even across the landing into the next ward, men came running with demands for payment for tobacco and newspapers that he owed them. And this led up to the third, because by the time he met their demands, which were small but many, he had exactly one penny left out of the seven-and-six relief money that Mrs. Baines had collected the day before and sent up to him by Neddo. The result of his having no money meant that he had to walk all the way from what was called Number One James’s Street past endless pubs in Thomas and Francis streets through the Coomb, lined with more pubs, even past those in Kevin and Camden streets where on other days he had lorded it grandly while he downed whisky faster than the barman could pour it. But today he was forced to walk by them without as much as a drink of water passing his lips, although at a couple of pubs where he considered he was well known enough to be able to run up the price of a couple of drinks until another day, the barmen had politely refused, pointing out in case it had escaped his notice the cardboard propped against a row of bottles: “Do not Ask for Credit as a Refusal Often Offends.” Pat Baines was offended and said so but was unable to do anything other than mutter a cursed advice as to what they might do with the drink they refused him.
As usual he considered that his wife and children were responsible for the torture of his walk from the Union and for his agony of longing for even one drink. Filled with resentment, he kaleidoscopically attributed the rest of his bad luck to them also, starting from the moment the nun asked him to leave the hospital up to the last barman’s rebuff. It never dawned on him that his wife and children were more unaware of Sister Eustace and her existence than she was of theirs, or that even if they were not, they were still as powerless about getting him asked to leave as her decision that he should do so was unquestionably final in its authority. It would have suited him to lie up another week in his bed in the corner with nothing to do all day but sleep, eat and read and be waited on hand and foot by the remnants of men who for one reason or another found existence within the prisonlike walls surrounding Number One easier than trying to live outside.
One cannot but dance with delight on the graves of those one knew to be like Pat Baines.