Dan A O’Brien writes: In 1960, the Irish state banned Edna O’Brien’s book The Country Girls (1960) as a “slur on Irish womanhood”. It and its successors The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in their Married Bliss (1964) have been chosen as the titles for Dublin City Council’s One City, One Book initiative, launched at the Mansion House last week. While O’Brien’s Country Girls trilogy bravely exposed the false pieties of mid-century Ireland, why should we read it in 2019?
Sixty years after its publication, the trilogy still has the power to shock and unsettle, particularly its distressing scenes of teenage grooming, attempted rape, marital abuse, self-induced abortion, and forced institutionalisation. It is also, somehow, a wickedly funny book, though the humour has a whetted edge. As O’Brien once said of her friend and mentor Samuel Becket: “He jokes, of course, but the jokes are excruciating, as if in laughter he wishes on the reader some kind of fit.” No simple period piece, The Country Girls resonates today because contemporary Ireland is still addressing the legacy of its murky history.
There are other reasons the fiction of O’Brien is especially germane in 2019, as Ireland’s relationship with Britain enters the crucible of Brexit. As a Clare woman who has lived in London for almost seven decades, it is possible to view O’Brien not only as Irish but as British too, a hybrid identity given scope by the Good Friday Agreement and now under threat. After many years in the critical wilderness, she has received accolades from both nations, being honoured as Saoi of Aosdána by President Michael D Higgins in 2015 and granted a DBE by Queen Elizabeth in 2018. Her protagonists straddle the Irish Sea, with their divided loyalties generating some of O’Brien’s richest insights and sharpest ironies. Such is the case with Mary Hooligan, the heroine of the 1972 novel Night, who flees an inhospitable Ireland only to find employment with the Irish tourism board abroad: “My task was to lure the unfortunate exiles back to the Old Bog Road.”
It is true to say that O’Brien’s books traverse borders thematically, but they also do so in a very physical sense. Banned in the Republic in the 1960s and ’70s, her novels were often smuggled across the (then very hard) border, past suspicious British soldiers on one side and sanctimonious Irish customs officials on the other. O’Brien herself brought copies of her work home, personally challenging the Irish Censorship Board and helping bring about the reform of censorship legislation in 1967.
It was not just in Ireland, however, that O’Brien confronted censorship. In supposedly liberal London, a culture of self-censorship among publishers based on assumptions about their audiences’ moral tolerance levels imposed restrictions on artistic expression, particularly for women writers. In a 1964 letter to O’Brien regarding the publication of Girls in their Married Bliss, her editorial manager at Jonathan Cape asked her to cut a certain passage, “which is extremely blasphemous and will undoubtedly give offense … Also, I expect you already know that Boots have an absolute veto on books that contain four-letter words.”
The passage, in which O’Brien’s irrepressible character Baba contemplates life as she sits through a bullying male gynaecologist’s homily after a botched illegal abortion, bears reproduction at length:
I was thinking of women and all they have to put up with, not just washing napkins or not being able to be high-court judges, but all this. All this poking and probing and hurt. And not only when they go to doctors but when they go to bed as brides … Oh God, who does not exist, you hate women, otherwise you’d have made them different … I thought of all the women … saying their rosary with their rosary beads held over the side of the bed, and others saying, “Stop, stop, you dirty old dog, you’re hurting me,” and others yelling desperate to be jacked right up their middles, and it all adding up to nothing either.
Had O’Brien wished her novel to be included in the Boots lending library and to gain the large popular fiction audience that that market would all but guarantee, it seems likely she would have removed or altered this scene. However, she remained adamant and Jonathan Cape eventually decided to proceed with publication, but with a caveat that O’Brien “will be responsible for any costs or damages which might be incurred as a result of a case being brought against us”. Such a responsibility was not a light one for a woman who was paid a fifty pounds flat fee for her first novel and who was then in the middle of a bitter and expensive divorce.
Because of O’Brien’s artistic integrity, the Country Girls trilogy has stood the test of time, in Ireland, in Britain, and throughout the world. At the launch of One City, One Book, O’Brien reiterated: “Ireland was the womb, the dark foetus of all my work.” Yet, she added, it was only in England that she felt able to write, tempering the freedom of a new country with the loss of the old. As she writes in her 2013 memoir Country Girl: “it was as if the two countries warred and jostled and made friends, inside me, like the two halves of my warring self”. Torn apart by fears over migration, Britain would do well to listen to the testament of this old immigrant.
One City, One Book is running a series of talks, seminars, and workshops on the Country Girls trilogy and Edna O’Brien over the month of April. Find the full programme at dublinonecityonebook.ie. My own book, Fine Meshwork: Edna O’Brien, Philip Roth, and Irish-Jewish Literature, is to be published by Syracuse University Press in September, and I will be speaking along with head of special collections Evelyn Flanagan at “The Work and the Archive: Researching Edna O’Brien’s Papers” in the James Joyce Library, University College Dublin, on April 11th at 5 pm. Free tickets can be booked on Eventbrite https://www.eventbrite.ie/e/the-work-and-the-archive-researching-edna-obriens-papers-at-ucd-tickets-57348947245.