Monday 25 September 2017

Edna: An upcoming documentary has new revelations from Ireland's most scandalous writer

Glamorous, mysterious, impulsive, scandalous -- Edna O'Brien has been all of these things and more.



Her books -- sensual potboilers set in Holy Catholic Ireland, back when it really was holy and Catholic -- prompted condemnation in the pulpits and book-burning in the streets.

In the 1960s, Edna was reputed to be one of the most beautiful women in swinging London.

Next week, a documentary will disclose new intimate details about the private life of the Clare author, who, in 1960, shot to infamy with her first book, 'The Country Girls'.

It was promptly banned in Ireland, though this didn't prevent it becoming a bestseller.

Speaking to filmmaker Charlie McCarthy, she confesses to having taken hallucinogenic drugs in therapy and recollects her wild years in London, when she was a fast-living socialite, entertaining Jane Fonda, Paul McCartney, Marlon Brando, Judy Garland, Robert Mitchum and others.

"In a way, she is almost a victim of having an extraordinary life," says Charlie. "It distracts you from her writing.

"She talks very excitably about life in 1960s and 1970s London, and all the amazing people she met and perhaps flirted with. In the end, she leaves us hanging. She isn't one to be crude about these things."

In 1960s Ireland, a place of rattling rosary beads, black tea and swivel-eyed clergy, Edna was a poster child for fallen womanhood.

She was sexually adventurous, falling pregnant by her future husband before they'd tied the knot, and sensationally divorcing him.

She was a TMZ star in an era before the celebrity gossip industry existed.

Sex was, without question, a defining influence through her life.

However, the author, now 82, is, in this one respect, uncharacteristically demure, keeping her counsel as to whose bed she did or didn't share.

Tuesday's documentary -- which precedes the publication of her memoirs in October -- does not unseal her lips.

"I did circle around that issue," says Charlie. "She said, on camera, 'It's my secret and I'm not going to tell you about it'.

She is not for naming anyone. She won't be naming them in her memoir, so far as I understand it."

The filmmaker defends Edna against the image people create of her.

"I think people project on to her in some ways," Charlie continues. "In the 1960s and 1970s in Ireland she was an emblem of everything you weren't supposed to be. People were fascinated.

"She would say herself, and I think it is true to say, that she couldn't have written all of those books if she was having all those affairs. She worked very hard and wrote so many novels. You do not toss off a novel if all you are doing is having affairs."

As to speculation about her love life, she has declined to comment in anything but the vaguest terms.

"I had one or two affairs, but they were clandestine," she said in 2011.

"I don't think I could have written so much if I were living with someone. I would have felt guilty about neglecting that person."

She was, then, an extremely sensual person.

Sex, she said in a conversation with writer Philip Roth in the early 1980s, "became the central thing in my life, the goal. I was very prone to the Mr Heathcliff, the Mr Rochester syndrome. My sexual life is pivotal to me".

A strong woman, Edna nonetheless often felt dominated and defined by the men in her world.

The first to so affect her was her father, who drank and gambled. Speaking to Philip Roth in 1984 for 'The New York Times', she seemed half in awe of, half angry towards him.

"Since he died I have written a play about him embodying all his traits -- his anger, his sexuality, his rapaciousness, etc -- and now I feel differently toward him," she said.

"I do not want to relive my life with him or be reincarnated as the same daughter but I do forgive him."

Of her mother, in the same interview, she said: "I loved her, over-loved her, yet she visited a different legacy on me, an all-embracing guilt. I still have a sense of her over my shoulder, judging."

The second man to define her was her husband, the Czech-Irish writer Ernest Gebler, who swept her off her feet when she was an 18-year-old assistant pharmacist in Dublin; he a 38-year-old published writer with a Hollywood aura and a successful career.

Theirs was a whirlwind relationship, which began when they clapped eyes on one another in a Dublin chemist's one fateful morning.

However, it ended in an ugly divorce, Ernest unable to accept that his wife was the greater talent, Edna craving escape from the dreary suburban life they were living on the outskirts of London.

"One of the things that attracted her to Gebler was that he was a writer and encouraged her to write," says Charlie.

"When she showed him the first draft of what would turn out to be 'The Country Girls', he basically said, 'You can do it, and I'll never forgive you'.

"That was a big turning point in her development as writer and wife. And it was the beginning of her knowing she had to get out of that marriage. And she did, very bravely, walk out of it," he adds.

It was, Charlie intimates, a classic romance that ended like a horror movie. "There was a 20-year age gap. He had the cachet of Hollywood. One of his novels had been made into a movie," he explains.

"When they met he was living in a beautiful house in Wicklow. He was an intellectual, she was working in a chemist shop as an assistant pharmacist, with notions of being a writer and no academic background other than having gone to a convent in Loughrea.

"It was like the plot of an opera. It should be an opera," he adds.

Unable to remain under the same roof as Ernest, and convinced life was flashing past her, Edna walked out.

With two sons, Carlo and Sasha, this was a terrible wrench. She was separated from them for more than a year.

"I interviewed Carlo, her son, and he talks about, at age nine, his father asking him to write a letter saying whether he wanted to go with his mother or father," says Charlie.

"His father made it sound as if it was a legal document. It terrified the boy. In the end, both of their sons chose to go with the mother."

Of his father, Carlo said in 2009: "He was very angry, very resentful, very undermined. He felt reduced by her literary success.

"He felt in some way the acclaim should be pointed towards him and that he was the person who helped her to become the writer she became.

"Later on, he came to believe that he had himself actually written the books," Carlo added.

Edna was born in 1930 and grew up in the east Clare village of Tuamgraney.

She remembers it as oppressive and anti-intellectual -- "fervid and enclosed".

An only child, she was brought up in the stultifyingly devout fashion of the time and, at age 11, dispatched to a Sisters of Mercy convent in Galway.

From as far back as she remembered, her deepest instinct was to push against the backwardness.

"I rebelled against the coercive and stifling religion into which I was born and bred. It was very frightening and all pervasive. I'm glad it has gone," she said.

'The Country Girls' made her a pariah in Ireland -- albeit a rather alluring one -- and a star in Britain, where books portraying Ireland as repressed and primitive always go down well, especially if written by an Irish person.

She was accepted into the bosom of UK high society, her home -- she had long since swapped the sticks for somewhere bohemian -- an unofficial hang-out for the famous and notorious alike.

"The glamour came after the marriage and the separation," Charlie says. "It seems to me it was the story of a woman who was liberated into life.

"Her Saturday-night parties were famous. She rattles off some of the names -- Marlon Brando, Judy Garland, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery.

"One of her books was adapted into a film with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton," he adds.

Of all the men in her life it was her father, resentful and abusive, who perhaps cast the longest shadow. Charlie says that, to this day, she is haunted by his memory.

"He was a complex figure. There was darkness, there was a complicated emotional relationship. Her mother used her as a 'protectress' against him.

"There was a lot of the usual stuff about drink and gambling. She talks about there being a mood of fear in the house. He was very influential."

As was Edna's mother, with whom, were it possible, she had an even more complicated entanglement.

"She was in love with her mother," says Charlie. "I think that was her first experience of actually being in love.

"Things became quite complex when she needed to break away, to become the woman she needed to be. It was one of the central relationships of her life."

One rumour the documentary debunks was that her mother participated in the ritual book-burning of 'The Country Girls' said to have taken place in Clare.

"I did a bit of research and could find no proof of it," says Charlie. "There is no doubt but that her mother had problems with what she wrote. The mother felt she was letting her people down by writing accurately about them."

Then there were the drugs. Marijuana was widely used in the circles in which Edna moved in the 1960s, though there is no evidence that she indulged.

However, she speaks frankly to Charlie about her dalliances with LSD, which occurred under the guidance of RD Laing, a controversial psychiatrist who championed hallucinogenics in the treatment of depression and other mental illnesses.

"I had taken LSD with RD Laing. He was a maverick as a doctor ... That I would not call therapy, it was a jolt to the mind. It was an axe going through the brain it was so radical in my case."

"They were friendly," says Charlie. "She talks about how it influenced her writing. It's interesting -- there aren't many Irish writers who could talk to you about the influence of LSD on their writing."

If her life reads like a soap opera, then it is one without a tidy ending. An inveterate spendthrift, in the 1970s Edna lost everything and had to start again.

"She had the posh house then lost it," says Charlie. "She is bad with money. She's a romantic and a woman with secrets."

For all her determination to cultivate an aura of enigma, Edna has occasionally let her guard drop. She has, for example, spoken of her regret at never marrying after Ernest.

Between the lines, there is a sense that the men who pursued her saw her as a lover, a sexual being, rather than someone to spend their lives with.

This, she has said, caused her heartache -- though, at 82, she is mostly over it.

"I don't think a man ever brought me to the pictures in my life. I never had courtships," she says.

"There are women in the world who have an ability, not to say a genius, to be given things: houses, jewellery, holidays. And there are other women who seem to be eternally the givers.

"I don't want to sound totally defeatist, but I would think I am in the second category. They are more clever at negotiating the dance of their lives," Edna continues.

"I'm not clever. I have intelligence, but that's quite a different thing."

'Edna O'Brien: Life Stories' is on

RTE One, Tuesday, 10.15pm

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