Kate O'Brien's The Ante-Room is her second published novel, but the third of her novels that I have read, and although I found that it fell short of the expectations raised by Mary Lavelle (1936) and the nearly perfect The Land of Spices (1941), it did nothing to dim my appreciation of Kate O'Brien's art. The story, set in rural Ireland in 1880, is simple: while her mother lies dying of cancer, young Agnes Mulqueen struggles with her own love for her sister's husband. Agnes is a devout, conscientious Catholic—she takes seriously both the demands and the consolations of her religion. She is also loyal to her bourgeois family. The rewards and constraints of these loyalties—to church and family—are important recurring themes in O'Brien's novels.
Agnes Mulqueen is a fine and sympathetic character, with a complex and well-drawn inner life. Unfortunately, the people she loves most—her sister and her brother-in-law—are less appealing. Agnes seems foolish to love Vincent—her sulky brother-in-law—when she's being courted by sensible and appealing Dr. Curran. And the end of the novel is, unfortunately, overly melodramatic.
But Kate O'Brien's abiding greatness as a novelist lies in her belief that the novel can be "the instrument 'of an active and unblinking conscience.'" She takes issues of morality, of conscience, and of religion seriously, and the drama of the novel lies in the working out of moral dilemmas—of adjusting outward life to inward belief, and vice versa. In an essay on George Eliot, Kate O'Brien could have been appraising her own art when she said:
[S]he was always primarily concerned for the moral development of her characters whilst being able to expose their dilemmas with the purest possible detachment, yet tenderly. The right and wrong of each heart—its own right and wrong—was her quarry; and she would spare no trouble to catch up with it, and study it calmly in relation to its place and nature.O'Brien's novels are filled with cold and detached characters who are burned—and sometimes warmed and illuminated—by contact with human passion and human frailty. The Catholic faith, for O'Brien's characters, can be immensely consoling and reassuring, but it can also be like a frost to human sensibilities. When her confessor assures her that human love will die, leaving only the love of God, Agnes finds this both consoling and devastating.
As Agnes sits in church and prepares herself for confession, O'Brien remarks on her coldness:
So, resolutely cold and still, resolutely contemplating, for its effect of levelling the ego, the beautiful pattern of the Benediction, she took her place in that pattern, and refused herself to agitation. She was not herself. She was, much more fortunately, part of a formula. What was required of her was to be accurate in moving with that formula. Accurate, regular and cold. So conforming she would reach her own small objective, which was a part of the whole, and thus important.But, as humans do, Agnes finds it difficult to remain so quiescently frozen in her faith.
  Kate O'Brien, quoted in Adele M. Dalsimer, Kate O'Brien (Boston, Twayne Publishers, 1990), 23.