(The
following selection is based on an essay on O’Brien from The Daughters of Maeve
by Gina Sigillito—available from Citadel Press, Amazon link below.)


Exclusive

EDNA
O’BRIEN

Writer,
Playwright

1932-

“When anyone asks me
about the Irish character, I say look at the trees. Maimed, stark and
misshapen, but ferociously tenacious.”—Edna O’Brien

 

Perhaps
more than any other female writer in modern literature, Edna O’Brien has laid
bare the dichotomy of the Irish character. With her fierce sensuality, deft,
supple prose and lyrical voice, she has explored sex, feminism, love, and the
female heart more adeptly than any author of her generation. Ironically,
although she reminds of Ireland’s finest writers, she also remains its most
tortured. At the age of twenty-eight, she published the Country Girls Trilogy, the novel that would introduce two girls
looking for romance and adventure in Dublin. While it took the world by storm,
it was banned in Edna’s own country for its “shocking” depiction of female
sexuality. Like her literary hero James Joyce, Edna would be shunned by her own
countrymen and be forced to leave Ireland to free her own voice. As she
explains about her fellow writer, “ James Joyce lived all his life away and
wrote obsessively and gloriously about Ireland. Although he had left Ireland
bodily, he had not left it psychically, no more than I would say I have. I don't
rule out living some of the time in Ireland, but it would be in a remote place,
where I would have silence and privacy. It's important when writing to feel
free, answerable to no one. The minute you feel you are answerable, you're
throttled. You can't do it.”

Edna
O'Brien was born in Tuamgraney, County Clare on December 15, 1932 in the West
of Ireland. It was a strict upbringing that would influence some of her
greatest short stories. Although little is known about her parents, she often
depicts a strict, somewhat joyless childhood in her works. Later, in her
novels, A Country Girls Trilogy and
short story collection, A Fanatic Heart,
she recalls a tyrannical, alcoholic father and a kind, but passive mother.  In later interviews, she described her father’s
drinking binges, which would last two or three days, and his crushing
depressions that often frightened her as a child. She has often commented that
her parents were opposed to any kind of literature. It was an opinion that
would influence the rest of her work. As she recalls, “In a country so
dedicated to the banning of books, it is amazing and maybe relevant that
literature is still revered.”

Nevertheless,
Edna was a gifted student and won a scholarship to the Convent of Mercy in
Loughrea. She then moved to Dublin to escape the stifling countryside where she
worked in a pharmacy, studied at the Pharmaceutical College at night, and lived
with her best friend. As she recalls, “Dublin was where I veered towards and
eventually I got there, arriving by train, the suitcase reinforced with twine,
the head full of fancy; concerning my destiny as being that of a heroine
who, upon being brought from Munster, faded into the city, for consumption has
no pity for blue eyes and brown hair.” 
During her time in Dublin, she fell in love with the works of James
Joyce and Shakespeare and began writing pieces of her own that were published
in the Irish Press. It is this time
in Dublin that would become the inspiration for what many consider to be
her greatest work, The Country Girls
Trilogy
.

A
brilliant coming-of-age novel, Country
Girls
traces the life-long friendship of Baba Brennan and Cait Brady, two
convent girls seeking adventure, love, and excitement in Dublin. In the novel,
Cait escapes her repressive, backward town in the West of Ireland and works in
a chemist shop. She also meets and falls in love with a married man named
Eugene Galliard, a filmmaker and writer of Czech descent. By some coincidence,
Edna met and married the Czech/Irish writer Ernest Gébler in 1954 in a
“metamorphosis from child to bride,” who must have greatly inspired the
character of Eugene in the novel.  Her
devoutly Catholic parents were vehemently opposed to her marriage to Gebler,
who was also Jewish. The two had a fraught relationship, and Gebler was jealous
of his wife’s growing renown as a writer. 
The couple had two sons and divorced ten years later in 1964.

In
1960, Edna published The Country Girls
Trilogy
, which was the first novel written by a female Irish author to
depict women’s sexuality openly and honestly. As she recalls, “"The novel
is autobiographical insofar as I was born and bred in the west of Ireland,
educated at a convent, and was full of romantic yearnings, coupled with a sense
of outrage."  Because of its
frankness, it was banned in Ireland. And just like her idol, James Joyce she
felt she had to leave her native country to freely express her voice as a
writer. And like him, she wrote of nothing else.  During this time, Edna would also explore her
passion for the theater with her first play, A Cheap Bunch of Nice Flowers. As Grace Eckley remarks in her
biography, Edna O’Brien, “reviewers’
remarks on its performance in London also indicate the audience was not yet
ready for the unpalatable feminine reality Miss O’Brien depicted.”

In
1971, Edna returned to the Ireland of her childhood in A Pagan Place, her homage to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Like Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus,
Edna’s protagonist must deal with her burgeoning sexuality, her artistic drive,
and the oppressive Catholicism that surrounds her, as seen in this passage.


You tried to whistle. Only men should
whistle .The Blessed Virgin blushed when women whistled and likewise when women
crossed their legs. It intrigues you thinking of the Blessed Virgin having to
blush so frequently. The bird that had the most lifelike whistle was the
curlew.

The
novel echoes Joyce’s stream of consciousness style and sense of
disillusionment, and remains one of Edna’s darkest and most poignant works. In 1976,
she published Mother Ireland, a sensual and unrelenting memoir of her childhood
in Ireland in which she writes, “To be on an island makes you realize that it's going to be harder to escape and that it will involve another birth, a
further breach of waters.”  In 1984, Edna wrote A
Fanatic Heart
, a short story collection that revisited her life in the
convent. In it we see all the brutality, oppression, and sometimes joy that she
experienced. The short story “The Doll’ depicts the cruelty of the nuns and tells
the story of one girl who is tortured by the sister who teaches her class. In
“Sister Imelda” she recalls her love for a young nun who has just entered the
convent. She also discloses some of the more bizarre aspects of convent life,
where baths were considered “immoral” and the girls had to undress under their
nightgowns in preservation of their modesty.

Throughout
the 80s and 90s, Edna continued to pen award winning stories and plays about her
native land. As she writes in her short story A Scandalous Woman, “I have always thought that ours was indeed a
land of shame, a land of murder, and a land of strange, throttled, sacrificial
women.”  She returned to her passion for
the theater and wrote and produced, Virginia,
in 1981, which explored the letters of Virginia Woolf and starred the
formidable Maggie Smith. Premiering at the Public Theater in New York, the play
was lauded for its portrayal of Virginia Woolf as more than just a feminist
icon. O’Brien chose to explore Virginia’s romantic life and her eternal quest
for love and her feelings of isolation and abandonment that stemmed from her
fraught relationship with her father.  It
was the perfect topic for Edna, whose own relationship with her father would
color so much of her own work. It was also during this foray into theater they
she encountered some of the challenges that plague female playwrights. “The problem is getting a play on.
It's much harder for a woman," she says. "I'm all for young writers
but I'm also for writers who don't have to be young. What should be judged is
the merit of the work, not whether it's by a black, white, old, young, gay,
androgynous or whatever writer. The rigidity by which things are judged in our
cultural world irks me very much. I would write a political play, I would write
about Darfur if I knew Darfur, but I don't."

(Read
more next Wednesday.)

©
2007, 2010 by Gina Sigillito.  All rights
reserved.

(View
The Daughters of Maeve on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Daughters-Maeve-Irish-Women-Changed/dp/0806527056/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1268836355&sr=8-1
)

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