Born 15 December, 1930 at Tuamgraney, County Clare, Ireland
This birthday the Irish novelist, Edna O’Brien, is 87 and still writing. In fact, at the recent Frankfurt Book Fair her publishers, Faber, announced that they are thrilled to be publishing her new book, Girl, in 2019:
“I was a girl once, but not any more.” So begins Edna O’Brien’s majestic new novel, says Faber Editor, Lee Brackstone. “It is a brutal story of incarceration, horror, and hunger; an escape into the further terrors of the forest; and a descent into the labyrinthine bureaucracy and hostility that awaits a girl who returns home with a child blighted through enemy blood. How do we survive and keep love alive in a barbaric and unforgiving world? In Girl, Edna O’Brien once again proves herself to be one of our most compassionate, stylish, and fearless novelists…. In her ninth decade, she is producing the greatest work of her staggering career. There is no more urgent writer working today.”
Edna O’Brien has written more than twenty works of fiction and is the recipient of many awards, including the Irish PEN Lifetime Achievement Award, the American National Arts Gold Medal, and the Frank O’Connor Prize.
One wonders what kind of indomitable spirit gave Edna O’Brien, who grew up in Ireland in the 1930s and 1940s, the drive and courage to later portray the oppressive world as she had experienced it. Raised in poverty in Catholic rural Ireland and educated in a convent school, Edna O’Brien became maligned in Ireland for describing her experience. The youngest of four children, she was born to a profligate, hard-drinking father and a steadfast, hard-working mother. Literature was regarded as wicked, and hell was more real than heaven. Her family felt humiliated by her first book, The Country Girls (1960), written when she was 30. Some wanted it burned and called it “utter filth,” “the skittish story of two Irish nymphomaniacs.” The local postmistress said O’Brien should be “kicked naked through the town and then stoned.”
Maybe not surprisingly, Edna O’Brien escaped into a loveless marriage and moved to “bleak” suburban London in 1958 where at least she felt free to write. There “the words tumbled out, like the oats on threshing day.” The “wash of memory, and something stronger than memory” propelled her to write. She cried while writing, but they were “good tears” touching on feelings she didn’t know she had and her love for the countryside she grew up in. She completed The Country Girls in three weeks. Like James Joyce, who also went into exile, Ireland remained her subject and her longing for the countryside there remained a permanent grief.
Edna O’Brien was from peasant stock on her mother’s side and landowners on her father’s, although the family wealth had been gambled away by the time she was born. Her dual heritage, she believes, reveals itself in her “two sides”: she is both party animal and recluse; a sexually independent woman. Her life has been divided between England, where she has lived for more than 50 years, and Ireland, from which her writing comes and to which it endlessly returns. “That is the mystery about writing,” she would claim, “it comes out of afflictions, out of the gouged times when the heart is cut open.”
As a child, O’Brien’s longing for fulfilment was directed towards women, first her mother – “everything about her intrigued me: her body, her being, her pink corset” – and then a pale-faced nun with whom she fell in love at her convent school. Ed Vuillamy wrote that her particular feminism, while offending some, was not forged from philosophical doctrine, but from the realistic observations of the men and women around her. “Ours indeed was a land of shame,” she wrote, “a land of murder, and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial women.”
Considered ugly as a baby, to the point of having her mother try to hide her, she nevertheless is known for her elegance and beauty. In her 40s she was described as “beautiful in a subtle, wistful way, with reddish-blond hair, green eyes, and a savage sense of humor”. She said she had “a streak of submerged rebellion” which she never let out. “I was really too frightened, too meek.”
In her 20s and newly arrived in Dublin to train as a pharmacist, O’Brien linked arms with her girlfriends as they swung through the streets, but “girlitude,” as Emma Tennant calls it, is soon replaced by a fascination with the strange otherness of men, such as the “crooner” with the “dazzling smile” who unhooked her bra and reassured her that “he could go through me like butter.” Soon afterwards, the charismatic Ernest Gebler lifted her from behind the counter of her chemist’s shop and made her his “child bride.” A glamorous Irishman of Czech and German extraction, Gebler had published a book and been to Hollywood: O’Brien saw him as her ticket out of the airless Catholicism of Ireland and into the London literary world, but she had exchanged one prison for another. She had two sons, but her marriage broke down—-her husband a jealous and aspiring writer himself, unable to appreciate or enjoy her talent.
Her books were initially received in Ireland much as James Joyce’s books were. She has a special love for Joyce, but also for his wife Nora, herself a country girl. She praises Joyce’s letters to Nora, which deal with “her own sexual prowess, no small thing for a convent girl from Galway and a radical thing in defiance of that male illusion whereby women were expected to maintain a mystique and conceal their deepest sexual impulses.” (Kiberd)
The Country Girls was the first of six of O’Brien’s novels that the Irish Censorship Board would judge “indecent and obscene under section 7(a) of the Censorship of Publications Act, 1946.” But the book has never been out of print. It is the story of two girls who grew up in the Irish countryside, attend a convent school (from which they are expelled), and journey to Dublin and London in search of love and adventure. O’Brien’s subsequent novels—The Lonely Girl, Girls in Their Married Bliss, August is a Wicked Month, and Night—further explore the relationship between the sexes, often from the point of view of women who lose themselves in love, and later must struggle to regain their sovereignty.
As late as 1972, she was still identified in Pornography: The Longford Report, an official British government publication, as a “leading purveyor of insidiously pornographic and perverted views on sex,” but her international success (she has been translated into over a dozen languages) has little to do with the scandal or her reputation as a writer of “racy” novels. She has been winning important international literary prizes from the beginning of her career. Among Irish writers, Derek Mahon identified her as a “culture heroine”; Seamus Heaney applauded her “strong sense of the idiom of Ireland,” and Declan Kiberd recognised the fact that “O’Brien was arguably the writer who made many of the subsequent advances in Irishwomen’s writing possible, and … continued to craft a prose of surpassing beauty and exactitude.”
The Country Girls gives a vivid and moving description of the natural world, childhood innocence, the all-consuming love between mother and child, the thrilling enticements of Dublin, the delight to be taken in the first flush of independence and the joys and terrors of being female. It is, above all, often raucously funny and irreverent about all physical experiences: sleeping, eating, eliminating, and sex in many forms. Despite its reputation, the novel is not salacious, nor does it ever blaspheme, even if the girls innocently attempt to, but the one revered object it does fail to take seriously is the sanctity of the Irish female. In O’Brien’s novel, the Irish wife and mother is a resentful, unwilling slave to sexual demands and household drudgery. Older men prey on young Irish girls, expose themselves to women and girls, fondle them, demand kisses of them, and threaten more serious attacks. Girls experience sexual desire for each other, for older girls in school, for nuns, for remote, idealised men. The female body that O’Brien presented for the first time in Irish fiction is one shaped by its Irishness with an unblinking attention to every detail of that body, grubby and lovely, suffering and thrilling, rendering those country girls universal. Anne Enright has said that what was actually remarkable about her writing was not sex, at all, but honesty.
Over time, her subject matter evolved from the personal to the political: House of Splendid Isolation (1994) is about a terrorist on the run; Down by the River (1996) is about a teenage Irish rape victim seeking an abortion in England; In the Forest (2002) was inspired by the real case of a young man who murdered a woman, her 3-year-old son and a priest. The Little Red Chairs, she said, was loosely based on the Serbian, Radovan Karadzic, who was convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 40 years in prison. (The novel’s title refers to the chairs, standing in for the murdered, set out at the April 2012 memorial marking the 20th anniversary of the start of the siege of Sarajevo.) The book, she said, had been particularly hard to write: “You can’t write about mass murder and these terrible events, then go out for dinner….Our screens are filled with bodies, immigrants, ruined buildings, ruined cities. Those who start and perpetuate wars are not going to be changed by my book, but I wanted to write a story that combined the demonic and the human.”
Writing for Edna O’Brien remains as essential to her as breathing, “if less easy.” “I would be so lonely on earth if I didn’t have the possibility and freedom to write. I will go to my grave changing a word. And there is always the absolutely right word.”
- 1960: The Country Girls,
- 1962: The Lonely Girl, later published as Girl with Green Eyes,
- 1964: Girls in Their Married Bliss,
- 1987: The Country Girls Trilogy, collected with new epilogue,
- 1965: August Is a Wicked Month,
- 1966: Casualties of Peace,
- 1970: A Pagan Place,
- 1971: Zee & Co.
- 1972: Night,
- 1977: Johnny I Hardly Knew You,
- 1988: The High Road,
- 1992: Time and Tide,
- 1994: House of Splendid Isolation,
- 1996: Down by the River,
- 1999: Wild Decembers,
- 2002: In the Forest,
- 2006: The Light of Evening,
- 2015: The Little Red Chairs,
Short story collections
- 1968: The Love Object and Other Stories,
- 1974: A Scandalous Woman and Other Stories,
- 1978: Mrs Reinhardt and Other Stories,
- 1979: Some Irish Loving, an anthology which includes some translations,
- 1982: Returning,
- 1985: A Fanatic Heart,
- 1990: Lantern Slides,
- 2011: Saints and Sinners,
- 2013: The Love Object: Selected Stories, a fifty-year retrospective
- A Pagan Place
- 1980: Virginia. A Play
- Family Butchers
- 2009: Haunted
- 1976: Mother Ireland
- 1999: James Joyce, biography
- 2009: Byron in Love, biography
- 2012: Country Girl, memoir
- 1989: On the Bone
- 2009: “Watching Obama”, poem, The Daily Beast
Awards and Honours
- 1962: Kingsley Amis Award for The Country Girls
- 1970: Yorkshire Post Book Award (Book of the Year) for A Pagan Place
- 1990: Los Angeles Times Book Prize (Fiction) for Lantern Slides
- 1991: Premio Grinzane Cavour (Italy) for Girl with Green Eyes
- 1993: Writers” Guild Award (Best Fiction) for Time and Tide
- 1995: European Prize for Literature (European Association for the Arts) for House of Splendid Isolation
- 2001: Irish PEN Award
- 2006: Ulysses Medal (University College Dublin)
- 2009: Bob Hughes Lifetime Achievement Award in Irish Literature
- 2010: Shortlisted for Irish Book of the Decade (Irish Book Awards) for In the Forest
- 2011: Frank O”Connor International Short Story Award, Saints and Sinners
2012: Irish Book Awards (Irish Non-Fiction Book), Country Girl
2018: PEN/Nabokov award for achievement in international literature, intended to reward “a living author whose body of work, either written in or translated into English, represents the highest level of achievement in fiction, nonfiction, poetry and/or drama, and is of enduring originality and consummate craftsmanship”.
- 2021: Named a Commander in the “Ordre des Arts et Lettres,” France's highest cultural award.
Author: Mary Adams
“The most gifted woman now writing in English.” Philip Roth
The following quotes are from novelist Eimear McBride:
“Edna O’brien was both cause celebre and national pariah.
The moral hysteria that greeted the book ensured that both it and O’Brien have become era-defining symbols of the struggle for Irish women’s voices to be heard.”
“O’Brien was not only giving voice to the voiceless but also washing Ireland’s dirty laundry in public – laundry that is still proving in need of a rinse.”
“I fell in love with the deep, beautiful humanity of her prose and the incautious honesty of her portrayal of the Irish female experience.”
“O’Brien slices into the notion that male honour and satisfaction lie in direct opposition to each other between the legs of the same women, simultaneously.”
Lots of wonderful tributes to Edna O’Brien at 90:
Literature & Sources
Carlson, Julia. 1990. Banned in Ireland. Censorship and the Irish Writer. Univ. Georgia Press.
Cooke, Rachel. 2011. “Edna O'Brien: A writer's imaginative life commences in childhood.” The Observer. February 6, 2011.
Eckley, Grace. 1974. Edna O’Brien. (Irish Writers Series). Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell Univ Press.
Enright, Anne. 2012. Review of Country Girl. The Guardian. October 12, 2012
Kiberd, Declan. 1995. Inventing Ireland: The Literature of the Modern Nation. Cape.
Kiberd, Declan. 2005. “Growing Up Absurd: Edna O’Brien and The Country Girls.” In Munira H. Mutran & Laura P. Z. Izarra, eds. Irish Studies in Brazil. Sao Paolo: Associação Editorial Humanitas.
—————————. 2017. “Edna O’Brien’s ‘rigorous, beautiful’ The Country Girls.” Irish Times. September 16, 2017.
O’Brien, Edna. 1984. Interview by Shusha Guppy. Paris Review. Issue 92, Summer 1984.
O’Connor, Maureen. 2017. “Girl Trouble.” Dublin Review of Books. July, 2017.
Roth, Philip. 1984. “A Conversation with Edna O’Brien.” The New York Times. November 18, 1984.
Vulliamy, Ed. 2015. “Edna O’Brien: from Ireland’s cultural outcast to literary darling.” The Observer. October 10, 2015.
Wilson, Frances. 2012. “Country Girl: a Memoir by Edna O’Brien: review.” The Telegraph. October 8, 2012.
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