Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 02 Jun 2019

Country Girl by Edna O’Brien

O’Brien had resolved never to write an autobiography but at the age of 78 she relented and the result was this 2012 publication, Country Girl. I’m going to be upfront and say that I found this, in the old football cliché, a book of two halves. I absolutely loved the first half which deals with her early life in Ireland and I very much disliked the second – the years of fame - which degenerates into a seemingly relentless exercise in name dropping. While the first half demonstrates all the very best qualities of Edna O’Brien as a daring, often lyrical writer capable of shocking in the very best way, the second half feels like it’s playing to a wholly different audience, one more interested in celebrity gossip.

So I make no apologies here for focussing on the first half of the book which takes us from her childhood through her early attempts to break away from the overpowering influence of small town Ireland in the mid-twentieth century. This also leads the reader into the ultimately disastrous marriage that resulted in two children who she battled to keep with her.

I don’t think I really quite understood before I read this book just how much living in rural southern Ireland in the 1930s and early 1940s was like living in a Medieval village. The dominance of repressive religiosity seeps through the fabric of life and O’Brien is tremendous when it comes to capturing this in a sort of elegiac prose that speaks of the contradictions in uncompromising terms. For a young girl like Edna the contrasting emotions of religious duty and a growing awareness of her own essential sensuality – a lust for life – seem to be constantly battling for dominance.

O’Brien’s early years in rural Ireland are captured in way that is, at times, like a looking at someone’s old photographic album – a way of life that seems to belong to a time a hundred years before the photograph was actually taken. Other episodes are more physically and emotionally shocking like the time she is attacked by one of the unpredictable family dogs and only just saved from having her throat ripped open.

When she finally does head for the big city, it’s to become a trainee pharmacist assistant in Dublin where she also discovers the joys of literature and develops a smouldering ambition to write. All of this is somewhat knocked off track by an affair with a married man who whisks them both off to the Isle of Man where they seek refuge with – of all people – J.P. Donleavy and his wife. A delegation of family and priests descend on them with the intention of saving Edna from her sinful life and, magnificently, the whole encounter ends in a brawl led principally by Donleavy in ex-boxer mode.

Although the marriage fails – he is controlling and paranoid – O’Brien has crossed a bridge that leaves her old life behind forever. She starts to write and the result is The Country Girls which is hugely successful but condemned by those in her home country as depraved and sinful. The honesty about female sexuality that she writes about becomes a trademark of her work and this builds her both a fan club and detractors in equal measure. Moving to London further enhances the criticisms that she’s cashing in on her good looks and sexual promiscuity to become famous.

The storm of sexist criticism she faces is huge – as Stacy Schiff, writing in The New York Times notes:

“O’Brien has had to be forgiven for being seductive both on and off the page; there is a price to be paid for being a beautiful woman who produces beautiful prose. She is the writer run out of County Clare, also a monster, a nymphomaniac, a nutcase, a social climber, a spoiler of neighborhoods and children, a purveyor of clichés, a romance novelist, an Amazon, a Jezebel, a political naïf. She acknowledges the slights but allows the old insults to fly by, smudges on the windshield.” 

But it is at this point in the book that there is a noticeable change in the tone and direction of the book. Suddenly we’re into page upon page of name-dropping celebrity incidents that really gave me no idea at all of O’Brien the writer. Again Schiff captures this perfectly in her review:

“Robert Mitchum sees her home. Paul McCartney sees her home. Marlon Brando sees her home. (“We sat in the kitchen, where he drank milk and I drank wine.”) She asks Jack Nicholson to see her home. Richard Burton rings the doorbell. Jackie Onassis invites her in. Thornton Wilder and Norman Mailer volunteer writing advice. O’Brien offers the same to Walter Mosley, who she feels has won the trifecta: he grew up poor, black and Jewish. Prepped by Sean Connery, she drops acid with R. D. Laing. (She credits the adventure with having converted a primal howl into prose, a dividing line in her work.) Recovering later, she receives three visitors: Marguerite Duras, Peter Brook and Samuel Beckett.” 

Schiff is ultimately less bothered by this than I was. I found myself ploughing past this stuff in a bit of a huff – why on Earth would I want to know details of all this social dalliance?

To be fair, the final portion of the book does spend time dealing with how her writings about the Irish political Troubles were received and her state of mind as she enters her old age – but why wasn’t this given more prominence at the expense of the name-dropping?

I went to see O’Brien being interviewed at the Hay Literature Festival and these days she’s taken on the persona of the enigmatic grande dame. But her eyes still betray a sort of challenging defiance, a flash of the unconventional that suggests the spirit ignited in her early years burns on. Having read the memoir, it’s now clear to me why that is – as she says somewhere in the book, all writers are always on the run.


Terry Potter

June 2019