It was the early Sixties and I was 17. With only a small bag of clothes and some loose change, I ran away from home and caught the milk train to London. When the sky lightened and the rooftops crowded in, I leapt out on to an empty platform because the station had a friendly name – Seven Sisters. A week later, with my first wage, earned by selling toys in a department store, I bought myself a pair of black stockings, a bottle of frosted pink nail varnish, and a copy of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls. My family believed books were ‘good for you’ and I’d gobbled up the classics: Dickens, the Brontës, Thackeray, Gaskell and Defoe, coping happily with long convoluted sentences and dutifully deploying them in my school essays. O’Brien’s brilliantly concise sentences were a revelation, her voice fresh and direct.
Born in 1930 in Tuamgraney, County Clare, O’Brien was the only child of a fiercely Catholic family who believed the written word to be not only sinful but also sacrilegious. At school, she obsessively pored over the only books available – a huge dictionary and a tome on mycology; it wasn’t until she arrived in Dublin that she discovered literature, reading James Joyce and the Europeans. In 1954 she eloped with the writer and divorcé Ernest Gébler, and moved to London where she fell in love with Fitzgerald and Hemingway and went to work for Hutchinson as a publisher’s reader. There, it soon became apparent that she had a special talent with words and, for £25, she was commissioned to write a novel.
The Country Girls, published in 1960, was both an attack on Ireland’s insularity and an impassioned farewell. O’Brien’s lyrical descriptions make it easy to imagine how homesick she might have felt, first in Dublin and then in post-war sooty London. Hedgerow flowers she remembers as ‘little drizzles of blue and white and violet – little white songs spilling out of the earth’. The novel’s narrator, gauche and naïve schoolgirl Caithleen Brady, lives on a 400-acre farm where the big house has been burned down by the Black and Tans and everything is mud-splattered and ‘going to ruin’ or, like the rolled-up rugs, kept strictly for visitors. While Caithleen’s mother struggles to hold farm and family together, her hapless father blows every penny on booze and gambling. ‘Bills never worried Dada, he just put them behind plates and forgot.’
Caithleen’s father is frightening, but so is her best friend, witty and worldly-wise Baba Brennan, the vet’s daughter. Baba, always on the make, uses strips of stolen sticking plaster from the surgery to draw attention to the round softness of her knees. She is both jealous of and unimpressed by Caithleen’s infatuation with a much older married man, ‘Mr Gentleman’. The latter, a Dublin solicitor, is French – hence his nickname (the locals can’t pronounce his French one). With his weekends in the country, his impeccable manners and satin waistcoats, Mr Gentleman embodies romance and sensitivity – at least for Caithleen. But then the girls are lumped together at a convent boarding-school and locked into a world of sexual repression and bodily denial – rubber-soled nuns, cabbage-water soup – until Baba comes up with a scheme to get them both expelled, a scheme that involves delivering in writing ‘the greatest shock of her religious
life’ to the Reverend Mother. Sent home in disgrace, they are packed off to Dublin to make a fresh start.
In Dublin, the girls share a room in a back-street boarding-house run by an indomitably aspirational German landlady, Joanna, who is ‘one solid front of outstanding chest’ and partial to home-made eggnog. Joanna’s dialogue is a masterclass in the well-placed ‘Mine Gott’ as in ‘Mine Gott Almighty save us!’ on being asked for a second slice of cake. Caithleen finds work in a grocer’s shop, Baba goes to college to take a course in Commerce, and Mr Gentleman shows up again, late one night.
Under the Censorship of Publications Act of 1929, the book was banned in Ireland, placing O’Brien in distinguished company. Books by Joyce, Hemingway, H. G. Wells, Daphne du Maurier, Emile Zola and even Barbara Cartland had also been banned, leading some opponents of censorship to re-name the Register of Prohibited Publications the ‘Everyman’s Guide to Modern Classics’. Being thought ‘likely to corrupt and deprave’ meant it was ten years before O’Brien’s books became legally available in her own country.
Now, when sexually explicit scenes barely raise an eyebrow, it’s hard to see why there was so much outrage. A young girl and an older man – Caithleen and Mr Gentleman – are alone together in the boardinghouse sitting-room; they get undressed and look at each other, nothing more. Seeing his penis, Caithleen allows herself a sly little laugh: ‘It was so ridiculous.’ And perhaps that’s why copies of the book were burned and O’Brien received hate letters. The stuff of melodrama, but O’Brien doesn’t write melodrama. She deals in complex, subtle ways with the stuff of real life: loss, love, jealousy, laughter.
With my next wage packet, I rushed out and bought the sequel, The Lonely Girl (first published in 1962 and later reissued as Girl with Green Eyes in 1987). Again this is narrated by Caithleen, who now calls herself Kate. The girls are living in the same Dublin boardinghouse, Kate is still working in the grocer’s shop, and Baba is still at college, but the girls are more sophisticated now. They hire long dresses and silver shoes, smother themselves in perfume and pancake, and seek out the best bars and dance halls, where Baba finds men to pay for drinks and dinner.
Once more, Kate falls in love with an older, married man – Eugene Gaillard, a film-maker (documentaries on sewerage) – and, even worse in her family’s eyes, a Protestant. But she is no longer a teenager; at 21 she may legally make her own choices. Nevertheless, when her father comes, mob-handed, to drag her away from Eugene’s house, like a child she hides under the spare bed in the study. Listening to the men argue, she is amazed at her lover’s coolly rational approach.
He doesn’t really want me, I thought as I took short, quick breaths and said an Act of Contrition, thinking that I was near my end. I don’t know why I stayed under there; it was stifling.
‘Would you turn?’ my father said, and of course Eugene did not know what he meant by that.
‘Turn?’ he asked, in a puzzled voice.
Despite saying that she is pleased the Church no longer retains such a hold on Irish life, O’Brien remains a Catholic. ‘There is a link between literature and spirituality. And to lose that would be to lose something very profound.’
In the final novel of the trilogy, Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964), the girls are living in London and this is another kind of novel altogether. If the first was Innocence, the second Experience, then this is Disillusion. Here the humour is bitter-sharp and, for the first time, the reader is given direct access to Baba’s thoughts. Now the bored trophy-wife of a wealthy builder, she narrates the opening chapter with characteristic brio and toughness, describing her new husband as ‘An Irishman; good at battles, sieges and massacres. Bad in bed.’
When the point of view moves back to Kate – also married – it is no longer in the first person, but the third, allowing the reader to feel Kate’s increasing distance from her own actions. The powerful story swept me along and, as in the other two novels, O’Brien never insults the reader’s intelligence, never explains. Kate struggles through a difficult separation from her husband and the small son she loves, but the resourceful Baba comes to the rescue, helping Kate find a bedsit
and, finally, a house.
Living very much on the sidelines of Swinging London, with two small children of my own to look after, I found it all too easy to empathize with Kate. ‘Come on, doll, you’re not swinging,’ complains a young man at a party.
She would have liked to say, ‘Teach me to dance,’ or ‘How many of these people sleep together?’ but he was exercising his shoulders and flicking his fingers to the beat of the very loud music.
‘You won’t,’ he said. ‘You’re not a primitive?’
‘Later,’ she said.
The trilogy is often described as autobiographical and, yes, O’Brien, like Caithleen, came from the west of Ireland, went to a convent school, and did work in a shop in Dublin (though a chemist’s, not a grocer’s). She also, like Kate, married an older man. However, for me, whether a story is true or imagined is neither here nor there. Much more important, and much harder to fabricate, is its emotional honesty. In O’Brien’s novels this is never in doubt. Caithleen and Baba might not be ‘swinging’ in the well-worn Sixties sense, but O’Brien’s prose never stops dancing. Light-footed and
scrupulously true to life, the trilogy describes the drive towards independent fulfilment, the choices we all have to make – about sexual relationships, families, friendships – and the obligations that accompany those choices, and their sometimes savage rewards. Here it is, neither heroic nor condemnatory, but a fictional world that once really existed – that still does.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 35 © Linda Leatherbarrow 2012