Jan/Feb 2013 Nonfiction

The Influence of Edna O'Brien

by Paula McGrath

Synge Street, 1985. Six granite steps lead to the blue front door. No light comes through the grimed fanlight when the door is closed. Gradually, eyes adjust to the brown and calf-scour yellow of both wallpaper and carpet, the pay-phone on the wall. The intricate cornice-work, perfectly intact, goes unnoticed, as does the original lightshade. First door on the left, turn the key and enter a bright, airy room with all the modernity magnolia-painted-woodchip wallpaper can afford, a generous window, a huge gilt mirror over the (defunct) marble fireplace. New-released from boarding school in the midlands, I shared this, my first flat, with my best friend. We heated comestibles out of cans, Ambrosia Creamed Rice and Chili Con Carne and the ubiquitous baked beans, and huddled over the one-bar electric heater, the smell of the ancient, dusty coil adding to the dining experience. We ran out of 50 pence pieces for the meter, and sometimes we ran out of money for the rent, but my uncle Michael was the most understanding landlord in the world. It was heaven. From there we made our forays into the city and its treasures: Cassidy's, Winstons, The Coffee Inn, Simon's Place, Blazes, The Resource Centre. The Winding Stair (first incarnation) yielded a battered copy of The Country Girls, about Kate and Baba, escaped to Dublin, 18, "bored to death," wanting only "...to live. Drink gin. Squeeze into the front of big cars and drive up outside big hotels." It was curious to read about ourselves in a book that was 25 years old. It was hilarious to us that it had been deemed unfit for the Irish public to read by the Irish Censorship Board, on grounds of indecency. This was the first time I met Edna O'Brien.


I met her again, figuratively, in the nineties. Four years studying literature had included as many women writers, so I enrolled in an MA in UCD in an attempt to fill the gaps. In 1994 my thesis, Edna O'Brien Reassesed, began, "Edna O'Brien has been neglected as a serious writer by most critics, by the academy, and by feminist critics too." The relevant "literature" consisted mainly of newspaper reviews, many of which gave more space to O'Brien's appearance than her writing. A typical example:

Her bearing is like a dancer's, the eyes not green but lavender under a halo of flame. She is wearing the colours of moonlight, Yeats' blue and dim, and dark cloths of the night and half-light. Around her neck, turquoise stones and silver chains, fragile yet strong, like the fabric of the woman herself. There are many incarnations of Edna O'Brien. The incurable romantic who once put flower petals on her tongue, magical wafers of childhood. The passionate lover of words, reading aloud for me from Synge's Aran Islands where the storm-tossed waves strike blows like knotted rope. A disturbing writer, never more so than in...' —Sunday Independent, April 9, 1994

At this point the novel under review, The House of Splendid Isolation, finally gets a mention.

There was a limited list of critical writing which included Sean McMahon's essay from 1967, a biography by Grace Eckley from 1974, Shusha Guppy's interview in The Paris Review from 1985, and little else. O'Brien was clearly not accepted by the academy, and it seemed likely that her larger-than-life persona had played a part in this.


The third meeting took place at the Mountains To Sea Festival in Dun Laoghaire in 2011. I arrived early, and as I waited for the doors to open, two men and an elegant, third figure appeared up the steps. I was there because I admired her work, because I wanted to hear her read, and because as a writer I wanted to hear what she had to say about writing. But now, with Edna O'Brien standing both within, and somehow also apart from, her group before me, in a pair of flat, sensible shoes—her only concession to her eighty-odd years—I was thinking in the same gushing terms as the reviews which had romanticized and mythologized her.

Since the early '90s, academia has finally caught up, and there are several collections of critical essays on O'Brien and a study, Writers and Their Work, by Amanda Greenwood. The Internet heaves with theses and journal articles about her, and her achievements and awards now include a 2006 appointment as adjunct Professor of Literature at UCD, a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Book Awards 2009, the Frank O'Connor award in 2011 for her short story collection Saints & Sinners; and recently, the Irish Book Award 2012. Her place in the canon of Irish Literature is firmly assured.

That day in Dun Laoghaire, O'Brien read from Saints and Sinners to a full house. She responded to Rachel Cooke's (of The Guardian) well-chosen questions with eloquence, and though there were far more audience questions than could be taken, some more sensible than others, she answered all with equal patience and charm. As I listened, I began to wonder about this change in public perception of O'Brien, and about O'Brien as predecessor to other writers, myself included. Who was Edna O'Brien, and what was the extent of her influence?


A year later, would Country Girl: A memoir provide answers? Memoir relies on novelists' skills for establishing voice and character, creating setting and drama, and weaving stories around a unifying theme, so it was a given that O'Brien's memories would be well told. Tell all the truth but tell it to me slant, says Emily Dickinson, and with memoir, degree of obliqueness is the thing, as is the question of the selection of material. But most pertinent to any Edna O'Brien memoir is the fact that the form combines writing and persona, reported history and subjective history. Might it finally separate out for us Edna O'Brien, woman, writer, persona?

Edna O'Brien was seven years old when Eamon de Valera revised the Constitution of Ireland, making special provisions for the Catholic church and incorporating Catholic teaching into articles on the role of women, the family, and divorce. In de Valera's Ireland, women were required to give up their civil service jobs upon marriage. With no access to contraception, they bore many children and thus were forced to remain where de Valera believed they belonged, in the home. This was the Ireland in which O'Brien grew up, and she has described Tuamgraney, the Clare town of her childhood, as "fervid" and "enclosed." Later, it was her own townspeople who took it upon themselves to burn three copies of The Country Girls, which had somehow found their way into a shop window in Limerick and been brought back by the Parish Priest. It was her own mother who blackened out every other word of her daughter's scandalous book. Like anyone sensible and with a creative bent, Edna was already long gone.

In Dublin she trained as a chemist, but she was "convinced that I would meet poets and that one day I would be admitted into the world of letters." She met writer Ernest Gebler, her future husband: "He spoke of James Joyce with a familiarity and referred to Leopold Bloom as Poldy. I was elated." Reports of O'Brien's sinful weekends with the older, separated Gebler brought threats from County Clare, so she did "the only thing I could do, which was to bolt," to Wicklow, and to Gebler. They married four weeks before she gave birth to son Carlo, and O'Brien, the scandalous woman, was born.

They moved to London, where O'Brien...

....would find both the freedom and the incentive to write... The words tumbled out, like the oats on threshing day that tumble down the shaft, the hard pellets of oats funnelled into bags and the chaff flying everywhere, getting into the men's eyes and their having to shout to be heard above the noise of the machine.

She hears the opening of a Farewell to Arms for the first time and saw "in a marvelous instance how Hemingway had separated the oats from the chaff."

O'Brien says memoir "must have the shimmer of fiction," and this is the portrait of the artist, beautifully drawn and just as we expect from someone as good as O'Brien. In part two of her memoir, The Country Girls is published, and O'Brien is newly single. She does what any self-respecting, beautiful and successful writer in 1960s London was expected to do: she parties. And in her memoir we meet Paul McCartney, Richard Burton, Sean Connery, Maggie Smith, Beckett, Harold Pinter, Marlon Brando, and Robert Mitchum, to name but a few.

The notoriety surrounding The Country Girls is well documented, but humorous as the brouhaha seemed to my 18-year-old self, it had its impact. And not just in the splash of the pebble, but in the ever widening ripples it created. This question of influence is difficult to define: is it limited to directly stated influence, or is it broadened to include writers exhibiting similarities in style or theme? Can it be broadened beyond writers to include other creative types? Can a writer influence even those who have not read her work? Are we influenced by the writing, or by the persona? Could it be that we are influenced by both? On her own literary influences, O'Brien is not reticent. Her female predecessors, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Bowen, Molly Keane, and Kate O'Brien were writing about the Big House. Otherwise they were thin on the ground, so O'Brien looked to Joyce instead. But the extent of Edna O'Brien's influence on us remains for us to decipher.

O'Brien was notorious because she was a ground breaker. In 1960, it was not okay for a woman to write about sexual awakening in the voice of a young girl, and it was not okay to have a go at the nuns at the same time. In The Country Girls, O'Brien was taking on de Valera and the Catholic Church. In a gentle sideswipe at the regime in which she grew up, O'Brien in her memoir has the last word when she gives the catch-phrase "As De Valera would have it" to a drunken, brawling "Shawlie," or fruit seller, who conducted her business at the base of the Dublin landmark, Nelson's Pillar. Poker-faced, she explains the phrase to any reader who might not be familiar with pillar of society, Eamon de Valera:

De Valera was our Taoiseach, an austere figure who sat in front of the Blessed Sacrament for an hour each day, and so devout was he that he brought gifts of blessed scapulars to distribute among the heathens at foreign delegations.

Ground breakers by definition prepare the way for those who follow. So, when Anne Dunlop's The Pineapple Tart appeared in 1992, we laughed, we cried, but we took it for granted that her young, female characters could drink and vomit and "shift" men, and Dublin could be called a "bastion of popery," without repercussions. Dunlop, or her publishers, pay explicit homage to O'Brien in the blurb of The Pineapple Tart:

Not since Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls have the experiences of a wild but essentially innocent girlhood been so effectively and elegantly captured.

Marian Keyes, widely regarded as a "chick-lit" pioneer, took the baton from Dunlop with Watermelon (1995) and shifted gear a notch, addressing dark themes—alcoholism, depression, domestic violence and abortion—through humor. Without the controversy and the banning history of The Country Girls, it seems unlikely that Keyes's books could have made it into the marketplace. Keyes preceded the appearance of Bridget Jones across the Irish Sea, and Sex and the City came soon after across the Atlantic. If there is a downside, it might be that, by the same argument, O'Brien gave permission to generations of women to write about crying over their lot into their chardonnay, and she remarks, "Feminists and academics... were tearing into me for my supine, woebegone inclinations." However, the same accusation could be leveled at many a male novelist, substituting throwing-up for crying, and whiskey for wine, while they wrestle with their urges, but it tends not to be.

In 1996 Declan Kiberd summarized to date O'Brien's role as forerunner to the writers who followed her:

From the heart of the rural community came a Clarewoman, Edna O'Brien, a fine storyteller and gifted stylist, who focused in her work on the sexual passions and betrayed emotions of a whole generation of Irish women. Books like The Country Girls won their author an early reputation as a scandalous woman, a sort of Irish Francoise Sagan; but the unerring accuracy of her eye and the deft rightness of her phrase convinced many that here were believable, fallible, flesh-and-blood women, neither paragons nor caricatures. That some of the male characters portrayed in these books were based on noted "pillars of Irish society" added to the cream of the jest. Although a later, openly feminist, generation would become somewhat critical of her fondness for "wounded women" stereotypes, O'Brien was arguably the writer who made many of the subsequent advances in Irishwomen's writing possible: and she continued to craft a prose of surpassing beauty and exactitude. (Inventing Ireland: The Literature of a Modern Nation)

One suspects a "Mother-Superior of Chick-lit" mantle might amuse O'Brien, insofar as we are prepared to differentiate "chick-lit" from "serious" literature, were it not for her lifelong struggle to be taken seriously as a writer. She had her share of harsh criticism over her long career, not least from her embittered ex-husband who complained that she was receiving "undue praise," and that her "talent resided in (her) knickers." O'Brien attributes the vitriol to her "being perceived as glamorous." Here, both Gebler and O'Brien are acknowledging the important role her persona has played in O'Brien's career, both a beneficial and a negative role. In her selection of material, that key to the writing of memoir, O'Brien sometimes chooses to present herself as somewhat silly and frivolous, as if she can't quite decide whether to live up to the glamorous persona, or to denounce it.

In her first novel, O'Brien was responding to the formidable obstacles that faced women in Ireland in the fifties. First novels tend to be deeply personal animals. My own was borne out of the alternate universe faced by sleep-deprived first-time mothers; fortunately mine remains under the bed. As a writer, O'Brien's looks and gender and lifestyle became part of her response to her world, whether or not this was her intention, and for many a lazy reviewer she would forever be associated with her looks and her first novel. And while The Country Girls is a fine debut novel, this is a fate many writers would prefer to avoid.

Throughout the memoir, O'Brien never allows us to lose sight of the writing itself. The life she chooses to present to us is one that has revolved around her writing, one might say at the expense of living itself. She repeatedly chose relationships with unavailable men, perhaps for that reason. One is left with the impression that O'Brien was, at some level, unwilling to commit to anything but the writing.

Already in Girls In Their Married Bliss, the writing had changed. This, the third book in The Country Girls trilogy, "was deemed a departure from my earlier, lambent, lyrical tone." Darker themes were creeping in: their gender and sexuality are working against Kate and Baba to expose the traps of sex and marriage for women. With this divergence, O'Brien precedes feminism, at least Irish Feminism. In these first three novels there is progression and development, but it can't be compared with the huge shift which was to come, courtesy of psychiatrist R.D. Laing, whom O'Brien describes as "half Lucifer, half Christ."

I owed him a debt; he had sent me packing with an opened scream, and that scream would become the pith of the novel I would write. It was called Night, the story of Mary Hooligan, in nocturnal lather, her mind ravelled and excoriating, with all semblance of niceness gone. It was the dividing line in my life, between one kind of writing and another.

Night is the experimental novel O'Brien wrote after taking LSD with Laing, in which she disrupts language, in the Kristevan sense, and subverts her own writing and that of her predecessors. It was well said by critic Frank Tuohy that while Dublin had been recreated by James Joyce, the world of Nora Barnacle had to wait for Edna O'Brien. "With Molly Bloom, Joyce Succeeds in Accurately Representing a Woman's Psyche: Discuss." This, or something like it, was the title of an undergraduate essay I wrestled with in the '80s, and with the arrogance of youth, I concurred,with Nora Joyce (in Ellmann's biography) that "He knows nothing at all about women." When, years later, I discovered O'Brien's Mary Hooligan, I found her more credible than Molly, in that she is not stupid, nor stereotypically intuitive, and unlike Molly, she does not caricature herself.

Experimenting for O'Brien did not stop with language. She took on the critics who complained that she wrote on narrow themes, and wrote about politics and history and murder. The House of Splendid Isolation (1994) tackled Northern politics. O'Brien was accused of "sleeping with the Provos." Down by the River (1996) was inspired by the contentious "x case" of a young Irish rape victim seeking abortion in England, now back in the news again. In the Forest (2002), which was based on a real, and relatively recent murder (1994) of a young woman, her son, and a priest, led to more controversy for O'Brien. In an interview about her forthcoming memoir she said:

Fintan O'Toole [the Irish Times columnist] said that I was morally criminal. Of course, it would have been all right if it was a man who'd written that novel, if I had been Sebastian Barry, or Roddy Doyle, or John Banville. There are still certain no-go areas for women writers.

One suspects O'Brien was becoming adept at handling controversy.

In form, O'Brien diversified widely, and as well as the novels and short stories, her oeuvre includes personal history/travelogue (Mother Ireland), biography (Joyce, Byron), poetry, plays, and now memoir. As always, O'Brien has risen to the challenges the form presents. She writes each section of Country Girl almost like a short story, an entity within itself, and there are few her equal in understanding "the tug and traction of a perfect short story." Alice Munro enumerates her among her influences, saying that she "writes the most beautiful, aching stories of any writer, anywhere."

One of the moving parts of her memoir is when, despite all her achievements, O'Brien "hit a nadir" in 2011. She seriously contemplates—even plans—suicide, only to be rescued by a note from her son. Heart matters were part of it, the rest, her writing:

As a writer I was deemed wanton and irrational, my range was thought to be narrow and obsessional, a mere concoction of clichés aimed at foreigners. I could not, according to my critics, get any experience into perspective; the story was forever the same.

Always, she comes back to the writing.

Like the best rock'n'roll memoirs, Country Girl has its share of sex and drugs and movie stars (one suspects the voice of the editor with an eye on publicity in parts), but it is not a kiss-and-tell-all. "The point is not whether it was Tom, Dick or Harry. The point is the journey," O'Brien says in an interview. Though we might not agree—if we're honest, we read the memoirs of the famous partly for the juicy bits—it is the journey of a writer that she gives us.

So what, after more than 50 years of rebellion and experimentation, is the legacy of Edna O'Brien? Can we isolate the writing from the persona, or do we need to? Did de Valera create the persona? Was it the media? Was it O'Brien herself? The answer is that it doesn't matter. What we get is what we get. When Sinead O'Connor tore a picture of the Pope on the Late Late Show in 1992, her rallying cry was the continuation of a conversation O'Brien started. When Dexy's Midnight Runners sang about Edna O'Brien, it was as part of a continuum from Sterne, Shaw, O'Casey, Wilde, Behan, and Beckett. My colleague, action writer Laurence O'Bryan, describes O'Brien as the most important living Irish writer, and his hero. Her legacy, it would seem, extends far beyond the obvious. Unlike her writer-peers, O'Brien has breached a barrier between literature and the popular arts, something which rarely happens. As far as I know, no one has ever mentioned William Trevor in a song.

I've come to know Edna O'Brien again through her memoir. Country Girl sits on my bookshelf, right beside my battered paperback copy of The Country Girls. Because I brought Edna O'Brien with me, from Synge Street, and through all the moves and all the years. The Winding Stair is a fancy restaurant now, and the room where I write has proper central heating. I pick up an O'Brien book when I need to write a sex scene without risking bad sex awards, when I want to meld character and problem with place, when I want to remind myself what the perfect short story looks like. I cast an eye in her direction when I need courage to keep going after a not-nice rejection slip, or when I need the courage to take on a new writing challenge. And if I get to the stage where a little controversy, or a little media presence, might be beneficial, it is to Edna O'Brien I will turn. The bookshelf above my desk is the one I reserve for my most important books, the ones I turn to again and again. There sits O'Brien, with Munro and Trevor, because that's where she belongs, at the top of the pile.


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