On the front cover of my copy of this book, Moore’s second novel under his own name, there is a quotation from The Times stating that ‘Brian Moore is astonishing’; after reading two books by him (the other one was his first novel, The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne) I would have to agree. If I describe Judith Hearne as being about the futile attempts by the titular heroine to improve her own life in a repressed society then the same could be said for The Feast of Lupercal except with a male protagonist; but it’s not simply a re-run of Judith Hearne, it’s more of a companion piece to it.
Diarmuid Devine is a thirty-seven year old schoolmaster at a Catholic boys’ school, Ardath College, in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is a bachelor who lives in some dingy digs and is very set in his ways. He’s largely ignored at the school by fellow teachers and students alike and is treated as being of no real importance. He enjoys helping out with an amateur dramatic group, with some behind the scenes work, but even there he is either ignored or taken for granted; for example his name is missed off the programme for five years running; it’s not certain if this was deliberate or not. He is also a virgin though no-one else knows this. Despite all this Devine (or Dev) gets a shock when he overhears two colleagues talking about him in the lavatory where they describe him as an ‘old woman’ who wouldn’t ‘understand what a fellow feels about a girl’. Devine is shocked to realise that people think of him in this way and begins to ponder his situation.
As for girls, well, he had never been a ladies’ man. He was not ugly, no, nor too shy, no, but he never had much luck with girls. It was the education in Ireland, dammit, he had said it many a time. He had been a boarder at this very school, shut off from girls until he was almost a grown man.
And he is still there, only now as a teacher. So, Dev decides to change things and try to talk to women and he gets the chance at a party hosted by a colleague and friend, Tim Heron, where he starts a conservation with an attractive young woman who turns out to be Heron’s niece. She is called Una Clarke, she’s from Dublin, she’s a Protestant, and is staying with her uncle before starting her nursing training at a local hospital. At the party Devine has to endure the teasing from his colleagues for being seen talking to a young attractive woman, and he hears the gossip that she left Dublin because she was involved with a married man and was sent to her uncle’s in Belfast by her mother. He’s not sure whether to believe the gossip but when he wonders what a twenty year old Protestant could possibly see in a thirty-seven year old Catholic schoolteacher he decides to leave the party early.
Devine, as organiser of the amateur dramatic group, is asked by Father McSwiney to put on a play to help raise funds for a charity. After a meeting with Una and another member of the drama group it is agreed that Una will audition for a part in the play. As she hasn’t had much acting experience the others in the group are not too keen on her taking the part but Devine offers to help her out with some tuition. Devine and Una get to see quite a bit of each other and Una reveals that the gossip about her is true; that she was in love with a married man back in Dublin and was shipped off to her uncle’s in Belfast to keep her out of trouble. When she reveals that she may still be in love with the man Devine is distraught but outwardly reassures her. Devine now becomes self-conscious of his unfashionable appearance. He shaves off his moustache and decides to get some new clothes. There are a couple of amusing scenes where Devine goes to a tailor’s to buy some clothes but hasn’t a clue about fashion and another where he has some intensive dancing lessons as he’s promised Una that he’ll take her dancing.
Una’s uncle, Tim Heron, is not pleased that Devine and Una are seeing each other and tries to put a stop to it and threatens to get her pulled from the play. Tim tries to bully him and Devine, unused to confrontation, only meekly defends himself. Moore’s narrative highlights the total lack of any private life for the students and teachers: The teachers know about Una’s past; Heron finds out about Una and Devine; the boys overhear the conversation beween Heron and Devine; the teachers overhear and punish the boys when they are found gossipping about the same things the teachers are gossipping about. And the Dean of the school is informed about everything.
Una doesn’t get the part in the play as an actress who has played the part before becomes available—it’s not certain whether this was down to Heron’s interference or not. When Devine lets Una know about not getting the part she’s preoccupied about something else and is unconcerned about ‘the silly play’ as she has had some bad news. Devine feels that she is slipping away from him as he believes that she is pregnant. He is distraught but desperate; this is his only chance of love. Walking home Devine, in his desperation, reasons to himself that everything is not all lost:
Supposing the worst were true? Well then, the Dublin fellow could not marry twice, could he? A husband would have to be found, a husband who would take the child and breed legitimate brothers and sisters to keep it company. She would not refuse him. She could not.
Later in a pub, on his own and in a maudlin state, he ruminates further on his own lack of experience with women.
He signalled for another double. Another double was served. But drink was no substitute, was it? He was like a flower that had never opened. He felt foolish when he thought of that, but it was true. Like a flower that had never opened. He had been afraid to open, afraid. He was ashamed to think how few girls he had gone out with more than once. He would not have confessed it to anyone, not even a priest, but he could count only four. And none of those girls would even remember him today. Not one of them. No girl had ever found him interesting. And he had his pride, dammit, he was not going to plead and beg with them. He could get along rightly, so he thought, without any silly girls. Or so I thought then, he thought now. But it’s no more true today than it ever was. I was always lonely for a girl to find me interesting, to know one girl half as well as I knew my only sister.
Initially I was going to post on the whole of the plot as the rest of this novel is expertly handled by Moore but I think I will stop here. Devine is a character whom everybody feels they can push around. Moore makes us empathise with him and realise just how confined he is—both by society and his own personality. Devine was ridiculed for having no love life but when he does have a glimpse of love he’s opposed, ridiculed and humiliated by just about everyone in the novel. The ending is simply superb and there is a scene with Una and Devine that is tragic and, if you have a nasty streak, could be considered comic. Moore has an amazing way of subtly portraying weak personalities; Devine, totally out of his depth, fails at everything, he doesn’t have the strength to stand up to people and misjudges everything. He realises, when it’s too late, that he’s done the wrong thing and his attempts to correct it are equally disastrous.
It is explained in the book that the Feast of Lupercal was an ancient Roman feast of expiation. After the offerings the priests ran through the streets striking those they met with thongs. Barren women would let themselves be struck by the priests in the belief that their barrenness would then disappear. The symbolism in the novel is blatant whereas the characterisation is subtle, which is how I like it. I should also add that it’s not quite as humourless as I’ve portrayed it.