This week for Reading Ireland Month 23 the theme is classics. Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls is part of the Irish literary canon, a novel (and trilogy) it was an international bestseller when first published in 1960, that initially provoked controversy in Ireland.
The trilogy consists of three novels: The Country Girls (1960), The Lonely Girl (1962), and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). It was re-released in 1986 in a single volume including a revised ending to Girls in Their Married Bliss and the addition of an epilogue.
While it recounts the three phases in the girls’ lives, childhood, young adult and married women; it is also a commentary on how childhood pain and deprivation can arrest an individual’s development, turning life into a series of repetitive unresolved patterns that mimic the past, rather than providing opportunity for learning, improvement and positive change that new experiences can bring. All this within the context of moving from girl to womanhood in Ireland.
It takes the particular role and perspective of women, who dream of romance, independence and freedom, and then encounter selfish male desire, religious restriction and judgement and oppressive cultural conditioning that deepen the wounds and further diminish hope of rising above them. Through their marginalization, it explores themes of loss, identity and loneliness.
I have depicted women in lonely, desperate, and often humiliated situations, very often the butt of men and almost always searching for an emotional catharsis that does not come. This is my territory and one that I know from hard-earned experience. Edna O’Brien (Roth, 1984, p. 6)
A Transgression of Boundaries, Daring to Expose Home Truths
In the course of creating a frank narrative that mines the girls naivety, flaws and failed attempts to find love and happiness, O’Brien presents her characters openly and honestly, unveiling how situations occur and who is complicit, something the literary establishment and the state abhorred, for Ireland has a history of blaming and incarcerating girls and women for many of her evils. The book(s) risked undermining the nation’s ideal perception of innocent and pious Irish girlhood. They were punished.
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.” It would also be banned in Australia and New Zealand, but was nevertheless enthusiastically received elsewhere in the Anglophone world. The book has never been out of print.
The novellas are semi-autobiographical. Edna O’Brien grew up on a farm in County Clare. Her alcoholic father drank away the farm and the family’s money.
Her ambition to write was scorned by her husband, Ernest Gebler, an older screenplay writer and documentary filmmaker. There have been comparisons made to the French author Colette, not least due to the similarity in spousal attitude – initially O’Brien’s husband believed he deserved credit for helping her become an accomplished writer, intensely jealous of her success, Gébler came to believe he was the author of O’Brien’s books.
While in no way salacious, the novels are unsparing in their depiction of cruelty, privation, filth, misery, exploitation, and violence, creating a tapestry of themes for future scholars to delve into, for book clubs and readers groups to discuss, in search of answers to questions of the Irish psyche, identity and inter-generational trauma.
Book #1 The Country Girls
Childhood in the west Irish countryside, early adulthood in a boarding house in Dublin, marriage in London; the three books follow the lives of two girls Caithleen (Kate) and Bridget (Baba), who were neighbours, school friends and boarding house room mates. Though they were not girls who had much in common personality wise, they had a shared history; without that connection, their lives might have been much worse.
She had been nice to me for several weeks since Mama died, but when there were other girls around she always made little of me.
Caitheen loses her mother early on, in a drowning accident and spends time at her friend Baba’s house, due to the drunken binges her father goes on, his erratic behaviour causing them to lose their home and their financial security.
I was never safe in my thoughts, because when I thought of things I was afraid. So I visited people every day, and not once did I go over the road to look at our own house.
A scholarship helps her to attain an education, but Baba’s idea to get them expelled so they can be free, cuts short any opportunity Cait may have had to rise above the shop girl she will become. Though she had the capacity for higher learning, no one encouraged it.
Baba’s home life had been more carefree, her father was the local vet, her mother laid back. She yearned not for much, was used to home comforts and getting her own way. She could be unkind and had little empathy for others, she happily insulted her friend, was shallow, manipulative, less intelligent and avoided trouble unless using it for a specific outcome. She wanted to have fun and be entertained, free of consequence. She was a brazen character that had no issue subverting protocol, religious values and hypocrisy. A ruthless entitled survivor.
Dublin initially provides the girls freedom and excitement, a neon fairyland, it promises much to look forward to.
Forever more I would be restless for crowds and lights and noise. I had gone from sad noises, the lonely rain pelting on the galvanized roof of the chicken house; the moans of a cow in the night, when her calf was being born under a tree.
The first book is their coming-of-age, into this atmosphere of loss arrives one overly friendly neighbour Mr Gentleman, a married man who inappropriately eyes up the vulnerable young Caithleen, offering her a ride into town, buying her lunch, indulging her with first time experiences that attempt to make up for the loss and lack of love she has felt, not realising she is prey, knowing only how the attention makes her feel. It is the beginning of a pattern of disappointments concerning men in her life.
The girls move to Dublin marks the beginning of their search for love, a husband; with little or no guidance or protection than each other, they venture forth like lambs to the patriarchal slaughter.
Book #2 The Lonely Girl
Caithleen meets Eugene, something about him (half foreign, older man) reminds her of Mr Gentleman, whom she hasn’t seen for two years. The girls now live in Joanna and Gustav’s boarding house and become like family in this house, sometimes confiding in Joanna, who struggles to maintain rules and boundaries with the girls.
For once I was not lonely, because I was with someone I wanted to be with.
They have one rough friend Body, who is one of the few they can rely on to escort them to dances. Neither of them are in relationships, but Caithleen yearns for the enigmatic Eugene. News of this ‘dangerous man’ travels to her father in an anonymous letter.
One sadness recalls another: I stood there beside the new, crumpled coat and remembered the night my mother was drowned and how I clung to the foolish hope that it was all a mistake and that she would walk into the room, asking people why they mourned her. I prayed that he would not be married.
He brings her home and she is forced to have an audience with the bishop – to encounter a divorced man is the worst kind of ‘fall’ from grace, thus all kinds of terrible things are going to befall her in the afterlife.
“Divorce is worse than murder,” my aunt had always said- I would never forget it; that and their staring disapproval.
Running towards Eugene brings out all her insecurities and yearnings, her lack of purpose. His age, his independence, career, worldliness, his friends – all are far from her reality. She finds some kind of comfort in his detached way of caring for her. In her immaturity, she desires to be pursued by him, as if to prove his love. It backfires, she will again feel the wound of abandonment, having acted out its consequence, the clingy holding on, the fear of disconnection and imagining potential threats to their relationship. In her pain and deepest wish, she leaves him – wishing to be pursued – only to re-experience rejection inherent in abandonment.
Baba tells Caithleen she is leaving for London, Baba has always been loved, but she does not use this strength to foster good in her relationships. She exhibits an emotional superiority that has inflated her self-esteem. Easily bored she entertains herself through extrovert behaviour and belittling others, she is decisive because she rarely compromises.
Book #3 Girls in Their Married Bliss
Again time passes, so that when we encounter the girls next, they are on the cusp of marriage. Caith (now Kate) will marry the one who abandoned her and Baba, a man who can provide for her in the manner she craves. One desires love, the other security. Sadly, there’s not much in the way of bliss.
The third book has a different feel as it is the only one narrated by Baba, so there is more of distance from Kate, who we view in the third person.
She had plans for them both to leave their husbands one day when they’d accumulated furs and diamonds, just as once she had planned that they would meet and marry rich men and live in houses with bottle of grog opened, and unopened, on silver trays.
The girls drift away from each other and then come back as their lives hit various ups and downs. To some extent Kate is fulfilled by her son, but the disintegration of the relationship with her husband sets up more loss and abandonment in her life.
These are novels written in 1960’s that hold nothing back, they explore the psychological depths of these two young women who grew up in a conservative Ireland, with its social problems and moral expectations, which little equipped young women pushed from the nest into the world of destructive vice and little virtue, in their arrested development.
She said it was the emptiness that was the worst, the void.
I really enjoyed them all and find it astounding that they were banned, they provide such a rich foundation for discussion and understanding the very slowly evolving situation for young women growing up in Ireland.
Edna O’Brien, Author
Edna O’Brien was born in December 1930 in Tuamgraney, County Clare. She has written over 20 works of fiction.
In addition to The Country Girls trilogy, her novels include A Pagan Place (1970), the story of a girl growing up in rural Ireland, winner of the Yorkshire Post Book of the Year Award; Zee & Co (1972); Johnny I Hardly Knew You (1977), a story of love, murder and revenge; Time and Tide (1992), winner of a Writers’ Guild Award, the story of a young wife who faces a crisis when she leaves her husband and is forced to fight for the custody of her sons.
She is the author of a trilogy of novels about modern Ireland: House of Splendid Isolation (1994), she writes about Irish nationalism and sectarian violence; Down by the River (1996), based on the true story of a young Irish rape victim forced to travel to England for a legal abortion; and Wild Decembers (1999), about a farmer, Joseph Brennan, and his sister, Breege, living in an isolated rural community. In the Forest (2002), is based on the true story of a disturbed, abused young man who murdered a young mother, her infant son and a Catholic priest in the west of Ireland in the early 1990s. The Light of Evening (2006) and Byron in Love (2009), Haunted (2010), The Little Red Chairs (2016), Girl (2020), Joyce’s Women (2022).
She wrote Mother Ireland (1976), a travelogue with photographs by Fergus Bourke, and a biography of James Joyce, published in 1999. She is the author of several plays. In 2021 she was awarded the French Ordre des Arts et Des Lettres. She has lived in London for many years.
“I wanted to write from as far back as I can recall. Words seemed and still seem an alchemy, and story the true conductor of life, of lives.”
It’s years since I read these. Time for a re-visit!
“This is my territory and one that I know from hard-earned experience.”
I think this is why her writing is so powerful. None of it is theoretical for her.
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I’ve never read Edna O’Brien but I absolutely mean to – her voice sounds so clear and powerful. Great reviews Claire – you’ve definitely encouraged me to pick her up sooner rather than later!
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I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one, this was my first read as well, the more I read about her, the more I was reminded of the writer Brian Moore, another who left and wrote prolifically, somewhat controversially, but both with the courage to say and present what others viewed as deeply shameful.
There is an alignment with the work of Colette too, that habit of not holding back, of not self censoring, which women through the ages have been taught to do.
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