Fiction – paperback; Headline Review; 167 pages; 1998.
First published in 1973, The Gates is Jennifer Johnston‘s second novel, although at just 167 pages in length it feels more like a novella and can be easily consumed in one sitting.
It has a very simple linear narrative in which Minnie McMahon, aged 16, returns home to Ireland, where she is in the care of her elderly uncle, “The Major”, and his forthright housekeeper, Ivy. Having completed her “expensive education” in England it is now time to decide what she wants to do with the rest of her life.
Here, free from the domineering clutches of her English aunt who keeps thinking that “if she tidies me up a bit, and shoves me into the London social whirl, some ghastly chinless wonder will lose his head and marry me,” she unwittingly falls for Kevin, the local lad from a poor family who works for The Major. When Ivy points out that she’s wasting her time and would be better to return to England and a secretarial college, Minnie insists that she is merely following in the footsteps of her late father, a socialist journalist, who married “beneath him” and was ostracized from the family because of it.
When she hatches a plan to help Kevin steal the extravagant gates that belong to the English Italianate-style mansion house in which she grew up you know there’s a disaster in the offing…
In fact the gates are rather symbolic of her family’s slide from Protestant Ascendancy, 150 years earlier, to the current situation in which The Major struggles to pay for the whiskey that keeps him functioning while the estate falls into a state of “peaceful decay”:
Ornate, flamboyant, garlanded with carved flowers, they hung eight feet high between two stone pillars, topped by smiling lions. […] Nowadays the gates hung open, pale with weather and age. The avenue that curved for half a mile under the tunnel of elms, was rutted and overgrown. The tiny pillared gate lodge had not been lived in since 1922, when it had been the scene of one of the Civil War’s minor incidences. Nettles grew up now through the empty windows and in the height of summer foxgloves peered over the walls. No one any longer bobbed and smiled, or passed the time of day as the Major drove in and out.
This is a book about youthful naivety and misunderstandings between people. But it also explores the uncertain role of the Anglo-Irish in the new independent Ireland and how they grappled with changing attitudes to religion, wealth and class.
It is far from being Johnston’s most accomplished work, but it gives glimpses of her future talent and there are some passages in which Minnie talks to the ghosts of the house (a kind of metaphor for her troubled conscience) that are reminiscent of the magic realism in 1998’s Two Moons.