Thursday 20 June 2019

Mary Kenny: Parallel lives? The fascinating similarity between the literary beginnings of France's Colette and our Edna O'Brien


Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

Do men always have the advantage over women? Are men always the winners and women the victims? That tends to be the narrative that we favour today - sometimes for plausible reasons - but it isn't always the case.

And the stories of two eminent writers, Colette, the French novelist and essayist, and Edna O'Brien, could be an illumination of women's triumph over male partners.

Colette's early life is recounted in the current movie of the same name, starring Keira Knightley. Ms Knightley is a more ladylike version of the earthy Burgundian author who, as one biographer notes, was "a voluptuous beast…smelling of men in rut." Colette's language was crude and she liked to fart in public. But still, the storyline is substantially true: Colette, born Sidonie Gabrielle Colette, was a country girl who married an older man then at the height of his fame and literary influence.

This older man, known as Willy (Henry Gauthier-Villars) came to realise that his wife had literary talent, so he locked her in a room and forced her to write. She produced a sensational story about the artless ways of a 15-year-old schoolgirl name Claudine. Willy spiced it up a little with a few lesbian allusions, and then published it under his own name. Sequels followed and a Claudine craze took hold, not all of it prompted by literary tastes. Tales of naughty, sexy schoolgirls have always had an appeal, even in 1900s Paris - perhaps especially then.

The movie's theme is essentially about how Colette rebelled against her controlling and duplicitous husband, who was also a faithless libertine. She establishes her own name and her own identity, leaves him, runs off with a female theatre performer, and is eventually recognised as one of the greatest French writers of the 20th century. Her later life is arguably even more interesting: seducing her 16-year-old stepson; marrying twice more; bearing a child at 40, and penning her greatest success, Gigi, at the age of 71.

Her first husband, Willy, who had known Proust, Maurras, and Anatole France as literary colleagues, died poor, obscure, embittered and forgotten. Archive manuscripts show he did have some input into Colette's early work - more as a guide and editor than creator.

The early life of Edna O'Brien - whose first book, The Country Girls, is in a major new drama production at the Abbey Theatre opening next month - bears similarities to Colette's beginnings. A country girl from Co Clare comes to Dublin to train as a pharmacist. In her autobiography, she describes how a friend introduced her to "a famous author", whose own book was being turned into a movie starring Spencer Tracey.

The young Edna, very pretty, but by her own description, "void of intellect or cognitive powers" at the time, is dazzled by Ernest Gebler - an older man, a successful author, handsome, glamorous, and Hollywood-wise. He riffed sophisticatedly about Ulysses and was pals with J.P. Donleavy and his set; literary Dublin in the 1950s.

Edna's first novels describe vividly how she fell for Ernie - "Mr Gentleman" - and how horrified her parents, and her home town was, when she went off to live "in sin" with a divorced blow-in. (Ernie's father had been a Czech musician with the RTÉ orchestra). And then she started to write regularly and fluently.

Ernie called it "scribbling", but when he saw her work he realised that she had a God-given talent. He told her: "You can write and I will never forgive you." Just as in the storyline of A Star is Born, Edna's star began to rise as Ernie's started to fall.

Subsequently, as recounted in the memoir written by their son, Carlo Gebler, Ernie repeatedly claimed that he had "written" Edna's first two books. He said he did a deal with her: he wanted children and she wanted to publish. So it was "a book for a child".

He wrote the books, he said, as Carlo reports in Father and I, and she gave him the children he wanted. "She wrote - he re-wrote", he claimed. Carlo says this is nonsense and lies, though Edna admits in her own memoir that Ernie "had played an important part in the change in me". And she also understands how she had "taken the ground from under his feet".

She finally broke with Ernie, and there was a divorce, and a contested child custody case, which she describes with scorching honesty.

Ernie, like Willy, ended his life alone, embittered, alienated from his family, and finally, demented and incontinent. His ex-wife's success had gnawed at every generous instinct. He scrawled all over a young photograph of Edna: "Before I made her famous and the rot set in." He described her as "a fame addict", her mother "a God addict" and her father "an alcohol and tobacco addict".

Ernest Gebler didn't write Edna O'Brien's first two books, but it's probable that the literary ambience in which she moved stimulated her ambitions and energies. It was no disadvantage, anyway, for Edna's life to change from pharmacist's assistant to writer's wife.

In these life-stories, both these alpha-males started by being in control, but both became the losers. There could be a movie or play to be made from their viewpoint: sometimes failure is just as interesting as success.

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