Wednesday 18 September 2019

Who's still afraid of Edna O'Brien?

As the Abbey prepares to present a stage version of Edna O'Brien's 'The Country Girls', Liadan Hynes charts the life and times of one of Ireland's most compelling talents

Poet, novelist and playwright Edna O'Brien at home in Chelsea, London. Photo: Eamonn McCabe/Getty
Poet, novelist and playwright Edna O'Brien at home in Chelsea, London. Photo: Eamonn McCabe/Getty

Liadan Hynes

'A headline in The Irish Times asked 'Who's afraid of Edna O'Brien?' over an interview with the controversial author in 1967. All official Ireland, it seemed at the time.

O'Brien, who has been referred to as Ireland's most scandalous woman, famously kicked off a literary career that has earned her an unimpeachable place in the nation's literary canon with the publication in 1960 of The Country Girls, a book which was banned by the censor (Charles Haughey was involved) for being indecent and obscene, and burned by the church.

The story of two friends growing up in 1950s Ireland, two incendiary sequels would follow shortly after, to complete the trilogy, and cement O'Brien's reputation in the eyes of many as the woman who brought sex to Ireland.

At the time, Edna by then a mother of two small boys, was living in what she has referred to as "outer, outer suburbia" in London, married to Ernest Gebler, an Irish author of Czech origin whom she had defied her family to wed.

Now 88, Edna was raised in Tuamgraney, County Clare. She was the fourth child of Michael O'Brien, whose family had seen wealthier times, and Lena, who came from a poorer background.

"I sometimes attribute my two conflicting selves to my contrasting grandparents, one a lady, the other a peasant," O'Brien wrote later in her 2012 memoir, Country Girl.

She described her early life as "at once beautiful and frightening, tender and savage". The family lived in Drewsboro, a large two-storey house. Her father was a profligate who drank and gambled the family fortune away. "By the time I was born we were no longer rich," wrote O'Brien, whose memoir opens with scenes of her dying mother trying unsuccessfully to disinherit her son in favour of her daughter.

Her mother, who had spent time in America, from where she brought with her glimpses of a more glamorous world, did what she could to keep things together. A young Edna would help keep the bailiffs at bay, and the house from falling down around them.

In one episode, her drunken father raged at his wife, aggressively searching through her bodice for the possibility of hidden money. Incensed, he picked up his revolver, and fired it. For a moment, his daughter thought she and her mother were dead. In fact, the bullet had narrowly missed them and embedded itself in a door frame.

"Those lulls while he was away were the happiest times in our house," O'Brien would later recall. Her mother was, she revealed in the 2016 documentary Life, Stories, "the first person I was totally in love with". The two were close, sleeping in the same bed.

"When I was biddable and her child, she was happy," O'Brien reveals of her mother in Life, Stories. "But once I showed signs of wanting to break away, she was very, very suspicious and prying. She felt, with cause, because I was so close to her, that she owned me. She didn't understand the love with your child; You have to let them loose a bit. My subsequent history, eloping, da da da, was very much the result of that."

If nothing else, O'Brien's childhood was to prove a fecund source of inspiration for the woman who into her eighties has shown no sign of flagging - her 2015 novel The Little Red Chairs was declared by Philip Roth to be her masterpiece.

"A writer's imaginative life commences in childhood; all one's associations and feelings are steeped in it," O'Brien once told The Guardian. She was, she went on, a "serious little girl: anxious and sensitive. It was the situation. Money troubles, drink troubles, all sorts of troubles". People's lives were hard, her mother worked "like a demon".

Her parents and brother insisted she pursue pharmaceutical studies. Famously, this did not pan out.

In Dublin, 18-year-old O'Brien met Ernest Gebler, the Irish writer of Czech origin who was almost 15 years her senior. He was divorced. They eloped.

Her rebellion, she has said, was not the work of an instantly made decision, but rather an act that had slowly accrued. The decision to marry Gebler though, whom she saw as a path out of stifling Catholic Ireland, from a Dublin where "you always felt watched", was "hurried"; the couple had not known each other long, and hastened by the fact that her family were against it.

"I just did that thing that Victorian novels remind us of: I went from them, to him; from one house of control, to another," O'Brien, who was pregnant by the time she got married, recalled in an interview.

Thinking of the girl she was then makes her cry, she revealed. Not out of sentimentality, but the thought of how little armour her young self had.

The marriage did not last. Her husband turned out to be a "rather imperious man", she once told an interviewer. The couple had two sons, Sasha and Carlo.

Once in England, Edna managed to find work as a reader of manuscripts. So impressive were her reports that the company commissioned her to write a novel, The Country Girls. The book, published in 1960, took her just three weeks to write, beginning each morning after the school run.

It was a huge success in New York and London, but not in Ireland, where it was banned by the censor for its sexually explicit content, denounced by the Catholic church, and burned by a parish priest.

O'Brien's parents were deeply shamed by their daughter's work, which told the story of Cait and Baba, growing up in 1950s Ireland, and longing for the kind of freedom O'Brien herself went after.

The author received anonymous hate mail full of "bile and odium and outrage", she once told The Irish Times. Her father didn't mind as much, she later admitted, but her mother felt that by her openness she had humiliated them.

Years later O'Brien would discover her mother's copy of the book hidden away in the family home, offending sections blacked out.

Gebler, disappointed in his own efforts, was said to have been jealous of his wife's talent. "You can write, and I will never forgive you," he told her on reading the manuscript of her first book. She left him after 10 years of marriage, "get out, or go mad", she later recalled.

A ferocious three-year custody battle for the couple's two boys followed. "I was separated from them for some years. It was terrifying. I didn't want to take them from their father utterly, I did not. That's the truth. But I wanted them with me," she revealed to The Guardian.

For the sake of her sons, she was hesitant about new relationships. "They had been through enough traumas without - knowing my taste - some new putative monster around."

She would never live with a man again, something she has said she wept over when young, but now views as a means of having cleared the way for her impressive output.

"It was easier, to have been a writer and a mother, than a writer and a wife," she once admitted.

Still a great beauty to this day, O'Brien denies having been the object of much traditional male courtship.

"I don't think a man ever brought me to the pictures in my life. I never had courtships. I had one or two affairs, but they were clandestine. 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. I'm not clever. I have intelligence, but that's quite a different thing."

For a time in the 1970s, when it still felt like the 1960s and London was a village, she recalls in Life, Stories how she loved to throw Saturday night parties, her boys enjoying helping to prepare the house, bring up crates of drink, she undertaking to cook a feast, as her mother would have.

There was an affair with a politician (unnamed in her memoir), who broke her heart. Rumour has it she slept with the US film star Robert Mitchum. In Life, Stories she smiles to herself and says: "Robert Mitchum was a wild man, I'm leaving it at that."

A patient of the psychiatrist RD Laing, he monitored her taking LSD, an experience she later told The New Yorker magazine was akin to her mind being "on stilts".

Guests to her parties included Ingrid Bergman, Princess Margaret, Jane Fonda and Judy Garland (who arrived then immediately turned and left after taking in the scene). Paul McCartney, Samuel Beckett and Marlon Brando were also visitors.

Brando dismissed his chauffeur and insisted on driving her home himself one night. "Don't, you won't get a taxi", O'Brien admonished him, before tartly adding, he slept in the kitchen. He was, she says to camera, "an amazing person to talk to". She befriended Jackie Onassis who tells her that she is "one of the three people on the planet whom she loved most", Sean Connery, and holidayed with Gore Vidal.

In the end though, she decided she didn't think much of the artistic world. Success as a writer depended on a hermetic existence; going into the trenches and living there, she has said. Her writing required her to isolate herself, both from Ireland, and from further marriages.

Hers is, she says "a happy house, a little nest. And the world outside, when I want to meet it I meet it, and when I want to avoid it, I avoid it".

She is lonely living in London, she reflects in Life, Stories, but it is likely she would also be lonely in Ireland.

As many commentators of her work, including the author Anne Enright, have pointed out, it was not just her gender O'Brien had to apologise for. It was her glamour, her seductiveness (on the page as much as in life), her unabashed delight in personal freedom, all of which meant O'Brien was early on labelled something of a voraciously wanton Jezebel.

Viewed from the vantage point that the passage of time allows, such reactions to her work now speak more about the misogynistic patriarchal society from which O'Brien sprang than the creations of the woman herself. Considered in this light, depictions of O'Brien as a woman-hating, married man temptress seem more like the usual arrows aimed at a clever woman flouting the unspoken laws of her world.

She herself once reflected that a woman did not have "the franchise" to write what she wrote, telling The Irish Times that she thought the response to her work "showed up the country more than it showed up me. It showed up a society whose psyches were in great need of improvement".

She was a woman ahead of her time, exposing the hypocrisies of a society which tried to control women in every possible way. In a conversation with her friend, the novelist Colum McCann, recorded by The New Yorker last year, McCann reflects "You've been #MeToo-ing for the last 50 years".

A victim of that familiar trope of misogyny, the branding of a clever, successful woman as an oversexed woman hater, destabiliser of marriage, while also victim to her own lust, Edna's writing was also accused of being too interior: this about a woman who was one of the first to reveal Ireland for what it really was; politically, socially, sexually, and spiritually. It's a barb often aimed at putting down female creatives - too personal, too of the home. Not dealing with the larger issues, like their male counterparts.

It's nonsense; O'Brien's books are utterly revealing about the society of which she writes.

"I wish in my early life I had stood up a bit more," O'Brien told the Financial Times in an interview at the age of 86, "but all things considered I was pretty brave. You know, if you start off with a pretty terrifying start, you have many handicaps… I would say, as regards my inner self, I am happier than I ever was, while naturally aware of death and decay and decrepitude. I am full of darkness, but I am also full of light. Do you know what I mean?"

Who's afraid of Edna O'Brien? The patriarchy, that's who.

'The Country Girls' plays at the Abbey Theatre, Feb 23-Apr 6.

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