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Girl Trouble

Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls was published by Hutchinson & Co in London in 1960.

In her recent memoir, Edna O’Brien recalls an early, pre-publication response to her first novel, The Country Girls. Buoyed by the enthusiastic praise she had received for the finished manuscript in the course of a celebratory dinner with her publisher, Iain Hamilton of the Hutchinson Group, and one of the manuscript’s readers, the novelist Clifford Hanley, O’Brien left a copy for her husband, writer Ernest Gébler, on their hall table. He surprised her a few mornings later “by appearing quite early in the doorway of the kitchen, the manuscript in his hand”. What she records as his reaction was one that would become general all over Ireland: “You can write and I will never forgive you.” That was in 1959, and by the end of the following year, many in Ireland would come to find the novel unforgivable, following the lead of Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, whose purity campaign had contributed to a brisk uptick in the business of the Irish Censorship Board in the 1950s. When, with the support of then government minister and moral guardian Charles Haughey, he declared O’Brien’s book a “smear on Irish womanhood”, McQuaid inaugurated a decade of controversial persecution of Irish writers, leading to, inter alia, the novelist John McGahern losing his position as a primary school teacher in 1965.

However, in the spring of 1960 when The Country Girls was first published, initial reviews and opinions in Ireland were favourable. Maurice Kennedy’s review in The Irish Times, for example, described the novel as having “a fresh dewy sincerity about it, a nice accuracy of observation and feeling … With any luck Miss O’Brien should have an immensely successful literary career.” Benedict Kiely, who saw the proofs in February of 1960, remained her staunch champion for the rest of his life. Frank McEvoy, getting ready to launch The Kilkenny Magazine with James Delahunty, wrote to O’Brien in June 1960, congratulating her on a “marvellous achievement” and asking for a chapter for his fledgling publication of the next instalment of what was already known to be the planned Country Girls trilogy. In the letter he also asks whether she expects the novel to be banned, suggesting that this would be a great boost to sales.

Banned it very soon was. The Country Girls was the first of six of O’Brien’s novels that the Irish Censorship Board would judge “indecent and obscene under section 7(a) of the Censorship of Publications Act, 1946”. It would also be banned in Australia and New Zealand, but was nevertheless enthusiastically received elsewhere in the Anglophone world. In the United States, where it was published by Knopf that same year, reviews called the book “brash and bright”, “delightful”, “charming”, introducing “a writer of zestful humour and humanity”. Even Dorothy Parker wrote a favourable notice for Esquire magazine. In the United Kingdom, especially after its second printing there by Penguin in 1962, it was received in similar terms. While O’Brien does not betray much concern about having been banned in Ireland in her correspondence with Hamilton about the future of her writing career, she was not happy with Hutchinson’s decision to issue the novel in 1960 in the experimental format of an expensive paperback rather than in hard cover, blaming this decision for a relative lack of early reviews. However, according to The Sunday Times, the novel was “a buoyantly youthful novel, with all the freshness in the world and undertones of something much more lasting”. The Evening Standard said the book offered an “excellent and highly unusual bland of bawdiness and innocence”. VS Naipaul in the New Statesman described it as “a first novel of great charm by a natural writer … fresh and lyrical and bursting with energy”, and Kingsley Amis awarded it his first-novel prize of the year.

While it was O’Brien’s first novel, it was not her first publication. McEvoy’s letter references an earlier piece by O’Brien that had appeared in The Spectator. Prior to the publication of The Country Girls, she had contributed several times to the Saturday Evening Post, beginning as early as 1955, and she was also being encouraged by Peadar O’Donnell, then editor of The Bell. It was on the strength of her “sketches”, published and unpublished, as well as the work she had been doing as a reader for Hutchison that she was offered €50 by Iain Hamilton in 1958 to write a novel. In the fifty-four years since, the novel made its author’s lasting reputation ‑ and it is the one text of O’Brien’s that makes at least some appearance in the official Irish literary canon ‑ The Country Girls has never been out of print. It usually appears as part of The Country Girls Trilogy, which was reissued with a newly written “Prologue” in 1988. The novel has continued to define O’Brien, a fact she accepts and appreciates, as is evident in the title of her 2012 memoir, Country Girl, different only in number from that of the first ground-breaking work. In 1986, she appeared on the cover of the magazine Irish America, under the title “Country Girl Revisited”. In 1989, Seamus Heaney interviewed her for the RTÉ radio programme Off the Shelf, a programme listed in the RTÉ Guide as an interview with “The Country Girl”. In 1991, the Irish Independent ran a feature entitled “Country Girl Goes Home”, reporting O’Brien’s receipt of an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland, Galway. O’Brien revisited the text herself when she produced a stage treatment of the novel for a Red Kettle Theatre Company production that toured the country in 2012. It may still not be safe out there for the text. Some online reviews from the Gaiety production run objected to the nudity onstage.

In the “Diary” that Anne Enright regularly contributes to the London Review of Books, in March 2013 she discussed the history of Ireland’s Censorship Board, suggesting that, in the case of John McGahern and Edna O’Brien in particular, it was the people at home in rural Leitrim and Clare, the ostensible subjects of the young novelists’ early literary productions, who took most vigorous offence and umbrage at their work. McGahern’s local library board banned The Barracks, according to Enright, when the Irish Censorship Board never got around to doing so. She also claims that while “Edna O’Brien’s erstwhile neighbours might have burned copies of The Country Girls in the churchyard … up in Dublin everyone who was a reader read it without a qualm”. O’Brien continued to feel unforgiven by her home place and her own family for decades, often recalling in interviews the discovery after her mother’s death of her copy of The Country Girls (initially dedicated to her mother), with blackened passages and torn out pages, stuffed into a bolster, hidden in a shed. O’Brien’s “elopement” with a divorced “foreigner” (Gébler was Irish-born but of Czech background) in 1954 had already caused scandal; the novel was one more betrayal. As Enright mentions, it was reported that a local priest burned the book in the chapel yard soon after copies first appeared in nearby Limerick. In an interview with Julia Carlson, O’Brien relates the experience of receiving anonymous letters in response to the novel, threatening and condemnatory, including claims to have been possessed by the devil as a result of having read it. Benedict Kiely has noted: “it was not to be tolerated that a young woman educated, as we used to say, at one of the best Irish convent-schools, should come out, even in a fetching County Clare accent, with home truths or sharp statements about what we used to call sex”.

The notoriety may have helped promote O’Brien’s career initially. As late as 1972, she was still identified in Pornography: The Longford Report, an official British government publication, as a “leading purveyor of insidiously pornographic and perverted views on sex”, but her international success (and she has been translated into over a dozen languages) has little to do with the scandal or her reputation as a writer of “racy” novels. She has been winning important international literary prizes from the beginning of her career, far too many to list, and has had the support and admiration of eminent writers from the start, including some notable Irish figures: Derek Mahon, who identified her as a “culture heroine” in 1970; Seamus Heaney, who applauded her “strong sense of the idiom of Ireland”; Declan Kiberd, who recognised the fact that “O’Brien was arguably the writer who made many of the subsequent advances in Irishwomen’s writing possible, and … continued to craft a prose of surpassing beauty and exactitude”; Clare Boylan, who argued that she was “the first Irish novelist who managed to encapsulate the emotions of Irish Catholicism and the Irish convent influence with both humour and realism … [I]n her early novels she changes the image of Irish women”; and Anne Enright, who insists on the importance of “praising O’Brien because she has taken enough insults in her day”. Enright makes this observation in a review of O’Brien’s 2012 memoir, where she also suggests that O’Brien “was a standing annoyance to the small-town Irish literary male. The accusations shifted over the years ‑ their content changed ‑ but the emotion behind them remained somehow the same”, that emotion being one largely shaped by sexism, if not misogyny.

It is disturbing when surveying the contemporary reviews of The Country Girls as well as the correspondence O’Brien received both in praise and censure of it, to note the repeated emphasis on the “youth”, “freshness” and “girlishness”, not only of the book’s content and characters, but of the author herself, a thirty-year-old married woman and mother of two at the time of the novel’s publication. This preoccupation with O’Brien’s constitutively “immature” femininity could be aggressively unpleasant, as when her own husband asserted that her talent “resided in her knickers”. He claimed to have written her first two books for her as she slept, rewriting and refining the silly gushing she had produced by day. He continued to insist up to 1988 that he had “held her hand, and taught her the ABC of narrative”. Gébler’s campaign was later taken up by his nephew, journalist Stan Gebler Davies, who repeated the charges as late as 1992 in a “review” for the Evening Standard of O’Brien’s novel Time and Tide. After categorising her work as “the sort of self-indulgent drivel written by housewives seeking to escape Wimbledon”, he commends his “former aunt’s” good sense in writing about herself, that is, having continued to take her husband’s advice that she run “her diaries through the typewriter … It is a literary technique well known to all scribblers, and while it may not often produce high literature, it is frequently lucrative.”

O’Brien is often linked with McGahern as having suffered similar difficulties at around the same time and for the same reasons, but there is an important distinction to be made. Decades before his death in 2006, McGahern’s reputation in Ireland had been thoroughly revised, and he has long been recognised as one of the most important Irish writers of the late twentieth century. O’Brien, on the other hand, is only very recently receiving long overdue acknowledgement in Ireland of her significant literary achievements. McGahern has been forgiven; it is taking much longer for O’Brien. Though McGahern’s novels are largely set in rural Ireland and he frequently revisits characters from his own childhood, especially the brutal, domineering father and the saintly, doomed mother, they do not draw the same accusations of over-reliance on autobiography, or of “being stuck in a rut”, that O’Brien’s works persistently receive. He escaped what Amanda Greenwood has identified as O’Brien’s critics’ “unrelenting conflation of author and character”. The sins McGahern committed do not appear to include having a range that is “narrow and obsessional”, in Julia O’Faolain’s phrase of 1974. This charge has been levelled against O’Brien’s fiction up to and including The Light of Evening, dismissed in a 2006 review in the Observer, for example, that complained O’Brien’s “tale remains the same”. In 1929 in A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf, the subject of a successful 1981 play by O’Brien, complained of the trivialisation of “feminine” values in literature: “This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop.” If since Woolf wrote these words there has been an effort to accord the same status to the “domestic” and “personal”, the private “feminine” concerns of sex, relationships, and family, as that granted “larger”, traditionally “masculine” concerns of history and politics, even when expressed by the male writer through family dynamics, the spheres remain strangely separate, if nominally equal.

But just what did this novel do to stir up so much trouble? The narrative, loosely based on characters and events from O’Brien’s own young life, follows the lives of two girls growing up in rural Co Clare. The narrator Caithleen (Cait) Brady is an insecure, nervous child terrified of her feckless, drunken, abusive father. Her father’s self-indulgence means that the family struggles to survive in a once grand but badly run-down house and minimally producing farm with the help of a single farm hand. Cait, dreamy and lyrical about flowers and birds and the Virgin Mary, clings anxiously to her put-upon mother. Baba Brennan’s father is a doctor, and so the prematurely jaded, wisecracking Baba enjoys rare privileges such as a shiny bicycle, new clothes, a modern house and motor car, and a cheeky attitude toward her own unconventional mother. Cait and Baba have a competitive, complex relationship that includes mutual sexual experimentation, providing Baba one of her many opportunities to threaten and torment shy, dependent Cait. The girls go to a convent school together ‑ Cait on a scholarship ‑ after Cait’s mother disappears, assumed drowned. Cait has become infatuated with an older neighbour, known as “Mr Gentleman”, an infatuation of which he takes advantage while the girls are away from home. Desperately unhappy, the girls get themselves thrown out of the convent by writing a dirty verse on a holy card, and must then make their way in life without completing their secondary education. They head off to Dublin, share a room, and have various adventures there with men and boys, including a planned weekend away on the continent for Cait and Mr Gentleman, a tryst that never materialises. The novel is unsparing in its depiction of cruelty, privation, filth, misery, exploitation, and violence. It is also vivid and moving in its description of the natural world, childhood innocence, the all-consuming love between mother and child, the thrilling enticements of Dublin, the delight to be taken in the first flush of independence and the joys and terrors of female embodiment. It is, above all, often raucously funny and irreverent about all physical experiences: sleeping, eating, eliminating, and sex in many forms. Despite its reputation, the novel is not salacious, nor does it ever blaspheme, even if the girls innocently attempt to, but the one revered object it does fail to take seriously is the sanctity of the Irish female. In O’Brien’s novel, the Irish wife and mother is a resentful, unwilling slave to sexual demands and household drudgery, a fate shared by downtrodden Mrs Brady and glamorous, “fast” Mrs Brennan. Older men prey on young Irish girls, expose themselves to women and girls, fondle them, demand kisses of them, and threaten more serious attacks. Girls experience sexual desire for each other, for older girls in school, for nuns, for remote, idealised men, all objects of longing superior to any of the men Cait and Baba regularly encounter who tend to provoke disgust or laughter or both. This laughter may be the novel’s greatest transgression.

Late in the The Country Girls, Mr Gentleman proposes that he and Cait see each other naked as preparation for their trip to Vienna, so, he explains, “we won’t be shy when we get there”. The scene, which takes place in the boarding house sitting room late at night, is not easily categorised as erotic. Cait is embarrassed and cold. Divested, Mr Gentleman emerges “not half so distinguished”. The fear of someone walking in on them renders the scene absurd to Cait:

I thought what horror if Joanna [the landlady] should burst in in her nightdress and find us like two naked fools on the velveteen couch. … I looked down slyly at his body and laughed a little. It was so ridiculous.
“What’s so funny?” He was piqued that I should laugh.
“It’s the colour of the pale part of my orchid.” … I touched it. Not my orchid. His. … It reminded me when it stirred of a little black man on the top of a collecting box that shook his head every time you put a coin in the box.

Mr Gentleman pulls his trousers back on and briefly fondles Cait’s bare bottom, before they both finish dressing, go into the kitchen, and make a pot of tea. This is the novel’s sexiest scene. The real outrage perpetrated by O’Brien’s representations of sex is their resistance to prurience.

Is it fair to see the way in which the Censorship Board and many Irish readers treated The Country Girls in 1960 and for years afterwards simply as evidence of post-independence Ireland’s benighted ignorance, now something safely relegated to the past? There are other fictional girls in popular culture at the moment subject to similar scrutiny and objections: the young women characters in the controversial American television series, Girls. Its creator, Lena Dunham, who writes, directs, and stars, and who has won two Golden Globes and been nominated eight times for an Emmy for her work in the series, appears naked frequently on the show. Not only does Dunham’s body fall somewhat short of the ideal telegenic female physique, but her character’s nudity is casual and only rarely occurs in an explicitly sexual context. Like O’Brien, Lena Dunham the writer is conflated with the character she plays, Hannah Horvath. Hannah is a spoiled, immature narcissist, a writer like Dunham, who claimed in an early episode to be the “voice of a generation”. Derision followed as a result of confusing the fictional creation’s boast for an assertion on the part of its creator, who was parodying Generation Y (or “Millennial”) self-absorption. What causes even greater consternation among critics, however, is the fact that, in the words of a typically disapproving (male) television critic, Hannah “is often naked at random times for no reason”, although it is Dunham whom he identifies as the one who is gratuitously nude. A (female) blogger more recently asked “how could anyone film ‑ or inflict upon viewers ‑ such gratuitous, relentlessly grubby sexual content? It’s not romantic, it’s not erotic, it’s not even entertaining”, a complaint that echoes criticism O’Brien has endured for decades. With The Country Girls O’Brien made possible, for both male and female writers in Ireland who followed her, a right to self-determination in representing sexuality and the body, potential release from the cultural and social expectations that traditionally determined Irish identity. The female body O’Brien presented for the first time in Irish fiction over fifty years ago is, nonetheless, one shaped by its Irishness, especially its rural specificity. Her unblinking attention to every detail of that body, “grubby” and lovely, suffering and thrilling, has rendered those country girls universal, however, and, possibly, immortal.

Maureen O’Connor lectures in English at University College Cork. She is the co-editor of two essay collections on Edna O’Brien and is currently working on a book-length literary study of O’Brien’s fiction.



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