There’s a wistfulness about Edna O’Brien. Those handsome features, which have bedevilled and beguiled for so long, suggest a yearning unresolved.
Maybe it’s the memory of her great doomed romance. The British politician with whom she had a long-running love affair. She still will not name him. But we know he slipped away, taking something of her with him.
Yet we cannot forget that, for all the loneliness she exudes, O’Brien is a great self-publicist and marketeer for her books.
The lovelorn Irish woman, abandoned and betrayed by her own, is a persona she cultivated for years.
For example, Ian Parker, in a now infamous article in the New Yorker magazine, suggested her family background was not as poverty-stricken as she would have us believe. The family lived in a substantial house, had land, cattle and horses. The funds were there to send Edna and her siblings to boarding school.
Her family may have come down in the world because of her father’s liking for alcohol and spendthrift ways, but Parker suggests he could afford to charter a private plane to chase his wayward daughter when she eloped with a married man.
Despite her critics, there is an enduring ethereal quality about the femme fatale of the Irish books world. Now aged 90 and facing the vicissitudes of old age, her otherworldliness is as palpable as ever. Hers is the well-worn story of the Irish of another time.
Burdened by a love-hate relationship with their home place, they sought sanctuary in the sights and sounds of London, and perhaps the comforting anonymity of big city life.
Edna’s story is a classic tale. She has spent a lifetime raging against a claustrophobic torture that forced her to leave. But through it all, she repeatedly tells us, she could never shake off the power and allure of those Co Clare byroads and hedgerows.
She speaks of passions and feelings and an unexplained fervour that fired her imagination, drawn from the twilight of Irish evenings or some such moments.
As she pursued her dream of becoming a famous writer, she was uncompromising and unforgiving in some of her public pronouncements.
What she framed as the frailties of her father and mother were endlessly put in public view. And her husband, Ernest Gebler, from whom she got divorced, was regularly depicted with his foibles and limitations. Her focus on an Ireland in a time warp was fixed; the place of her childhood and teenage years remained rigid in her imagination.
It was an image she would speak of again and again as she became a favourite on British radio and TV programmes. In time, she became a doyenne of the London literary scene, famous for the parties she hosted in her Chelsea home.
The rich and famous – and even royalty in the personage of Princess Margaret – sipped her Champagne.
She played up her image as a risque writer, spawned by a repressed and backward Ireland, where her books were repeatedly banned. She enthused about “occasional adultery, like once a year” on the BBC.
Yet Edna O’Brien’s long life has come full circle.
Through a mixture of talent and hard graft, she is now duly regarded as a literary star of some stature, both here and in Britain.
She has cast a significant footprint in America, and the French have awarded her one of their top honours.
I attended a reading she gave in London a few years ago. The admiration and affection from the audience was remarkable.
Our National Library has just acquired another batch of her personal papers.
She is glad they found a home in this country; it is the wellspring for her imagination and creativity.
“I am Irish – and where I want to be buried is in Ireland,” she says.
Well-worn threads of nine decades and more knit together – but there is still so much we don’t know about Edna O’Brien. A mysteriousness remains.
However, Ireland and its one-time troublesome daughter have now made their peace.
All debts have been paid. The slate has been wiped clean.