Born into a once wealthy family that had fallen on hard times, an unhappy first marriage, two passionate love affairs ... the extraordinary life of the Country Girl
This week Edna O’Brien received the PEN/Nabokov Award, one of literature’s highest honours. Julia Molony on the fierce spirit and bohemian heart of the grande dame of Irish letters.
Edna O’Brien says the urge to write is “the product of a deeply disturbed psyche”. It is not, she is adamant, by any means “therapeutic”. It is a characteristically flinty view. But if not a salve for all the suffering that has been stitched like a seam into O’Brien’s life since her earliest days, her talent, at least, is consolation. “I would be so lonely on earth if I didn’t have the possibility and freedom to write,” she once told The New York Times.
Philip Roth called her the greatest living woman writing in English. Since her debut novel, The Country Girls, spilled out of her in three short weeks and made her an instant literary star, Edna O’Brien has spun all the longing and poesy and rebellion that burns within her, and there is plenty still, into literature that has been feted around the world.
Last Tuesday, three years shy of her 90th birthday, she received the PEN/Nabokov Award for achievement in literature at a ceremony in New York. The award is a crowning glory in a career spanning seven decades. And the $50,000 prize money will, no doubt, be welcome too. By her own admission, O’Brien has never possessed any real skill for managing or holding on to any of the financial rewards that her work has brought her. Profligacy is a family curse, handed down by her father, who squandered the vast estate he inherited on gambling and drink. “Money talks,” her mother used to say, “but tell me why all it says is just ‘Goodbye’.”
O’Brien believes that “any book that is any good must be, to some extent, autobiographical, because one cannot and should not fabricate emotions”. And more than most, she has personally been driven by a need for absolute, unwavering authenticity, no matter what complications might ensue. As a young woman, six months pregnant with her first child, she read Madame Bovary and found herself in tears. “I could not stop crying,” she wrote tellingly in her 2012 memoir, Country Girl. “Why could life not be lived at that same pitch? Why was it that only in books I could find the utter outlet for my emotions.”
O’Brien was born in Co Clare in 1930, the youngest of four on a farm that had once been a stately home. Her family had been rich, but by the time she was born, only “the relics of riches remained. It was a life full of contradictions. We had an avenue, but it was full of potholes; there was a gatehouse, but another couple lived there; we had lots of fields, but they weren’t all stocked or tilled. I remember fields high with ragwort. I remember my father giving them to other people”.
Her parents’ marriage took a predictable shape — almost a trope of the time; a heavy drinking, volatile father, propped up by a staunchly Catholic, hard-working mother. Her father’s drunken rages cast a long shadow over her childhood — on one terrifyingly memorable occasion, he let off a bullet in the dining room. “My father had gone in there with a bottle of whiskey and a revolver... in there he vowed havoc and slaughter on all of us and on families along the road who had refused him drink... the shot was the loudest I’d ever heard, not like gunshot from down in the woods... the bullet missed us and passed into the frame of the door, where white paint was crumbling and falling off in little shards,” she wrote in Country Girl.
In the midst of all this chaos, Edna was a highly emotional child, prone to anxiety and acute sensitivity. “It was the situation,” she explained in a profile for The Observer newspaper. “Money troubles, drink troubles, all sorts of troubles.”
Above all, she was intrinsically bohemian. She bridled against the rigid censure of the Catholic Church and the airlessness of rural Irish society.
Not surprising, then, that she remembers her early years as an unhappy time. “People’s lives were so hard,” she told The Observer. “My mother worked like a demon: feeding animals, carrying buckets.” Still, it was a scalding forge that formed her as an artist. “Unhappy houses are a very good incubation for stories,” she has said.
From her earliest days she was gripped by violent passions. At convent school one year, she became infatuated with one of the nuns. “That term,” she wrote in her memoir, “was one of ecstasies and doubt, the see-saw of love, the shiverings, depriving myself of the pleasure of seeing her in order to think about her and then flinging myself in front of her, like a fawning dog waiting for its reward.”
As a girl, she nourished her imagination with Tolstoy, Thackeray and Fitzgerald and dreamed of writing, herself. But her parents forbade it. So it became a secret pleasure, a forbidden thing. “I would go out to the fields to write,” she recounts in Country Girl. “The words ran away with me. I would write imaginary stories, stories set in our bog and our kitchen garden, but it was not enough, because I wanted to get inside them, in the same way as I was trying to get back into the maw of my mother.”
But her parents were resolutely anti-literature. She was firmly steered away from her artistic ambitions, and pushed into a more pragmatic career as a pharmacist. They insisted, she submitted, moving to Dublin in her late teens where she found work in a chemist’s and began night studies in pharmacy and ophthalmology. But she was secretly scouring for outlets for her writing talent, and eventually got her first paid commission, writing a weekly column in a magazine under the pen name Sabiola.
Having initially followed her parents’ design for her future, she soon found a way to betray, and thus escape, them. It came in the shape of Ernest Gebler, a handsome Irish-Czech novelist whom she met at a party when she was just 18 and he was almost twice that. He was, she wrote “handsome beyond words, sallow-faced, with dark brown eyes and granite features... He was so cosmopolitan and so cultured”.
They quickly embarked on a relationship, despite the fact he was already married with a son. Her family were mortified. As soon as Gebler was divorced, Edna eloped with him to the Isle of Man. Her furious father followed her on a private plane, with her brothers in tow. There were ugly scenes, which descended into a violent brawl. The writer JP Donleavy, a friend of Gebler’s who was travelling with the couple, was obliged to step in on his friend’s behalf, delivering a few blows.
But despite the Hollywood drama that launched the marriage, it was not a happy one. “There was this gulf between us, so much about him seemed strange and distant...” she wrote in her memoir. “There were things I feared about him.”
Looking back on it many years later, she said, “It was very hurried, and I didn’t know the man very long, and it was really hastened by the fact that my 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”.
Edna and Ernest had two sons together, Carlo and Sasha, and eventually settled in the suburban surrounds of Morden, south London, an environment she found marginally more stimulating than rural Ireland by virtue of the fact that she could take two buses up to the thrilling city centre.
She managed to talk her way into a job as a reader for the publishing house Hutchinson, and on the basis of her written reports for them, was commissioned to write a novel for the princely sum of £50. When Country Girls, her coming-of-age novel about two young Irish women, which included candid depictions of their inner lives and sexual desires, was published in 1960, it made her a star. It was hailed as a taboo-breaking work, a bugle call that announced the changing values that preceded the sexual revolution.
Back home in Ireland, however, the response to her work was of an altogether different character. The Irish censor banned the book and her six subsequent works on grounds of obscenity. According to one anecdote, four copies of the book were unearthed in a bookshop in Limerick, three of which were obtained by the O’Briens’ local parish priest in Tuamgraney, who set fire to them in public.
Despite (or perhaps, in part, because of) the incendiary reaction back home to her work, O’Brien’s fame grew, and she was awarded the Kingsley Amis Award in 1962. But behind the scenes, her marriage was in turmoil. Gebler could not countenance being overshadowed by his wife’s success. According to one profile, he told her, “‘You can write but I will never forgive you.’ As the royalty cheques arrived, he insisted that she gave them to him, while making her a weekly housekeeping allowance.”
Eventually she was emboldened enough to take the risk of leaving him. Gebler responded by refusing her custody of their sons. “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 told The Observer.
After a year, and a bitter fight through the courts, Gebler relented and her sons were returned to her. In the meantime, she had learned how to live an independent life.
Finally freed from those who wished to control her, she threw herself into the London arts scene with abandon. She became a legendary party girl, and close friend of a host of famous authors and Hollywood stars. Her little home in Putney became a fixture of Swinging London. Marianne Faithfull, Princess Margaret, Judy Garland, Shirley MacLaine all came. She had a tryst with Robert Mitchum.
Rumours of her affairs are legendary, but exaggerated, she says. When, in 2011 she sat down to write her memoir, it was spurred in part by the desire to dismiss the notion that “I was a sort of hormonal Mata Hari going from one adulterous room to the next,” she told The Scotsman.
“It’s not that I want to be flattered but I don’t want to be remembered as this lightweight who gave parties and had love affairs. It is ridiculous. I have written more than 25 books. I have earned my living through writing. No man ever helped me.”
Indeed, she resisted the charms of Marlon Brando, whose night spent in Putney was, she says, “chaste”.
She does admit to two passionate affairs in her lifetime, both with married men, but gallantly refuses to name either in full. The great passion of her life was a famous politician with whom she was involved throughout the 1980s. In Country Girl, he is codenamed Lochinver. She met him “at a party in a room in Pall Mall that emanated power, as did he”.
It is loneliness, however, that is the persistent, plangent theme that runs through O’Brien’s work and is at the very centre of her identity. Once, at a particularly low point, it almost drove her to suicide in a hotel room in Singapore.
“I have always felt alone in the world, even when I was married or with someone,” she told The Scotsman. “And the nature of my work means further loneliness and inwardness. And there was a feeling that love had fled, the way children flee the nest.”
She was pulled from the brink though, and lived to write another day.
“I suppose I have been in love,” she told The Observer. “Not often, but most definitely deeply. Somehow, though, it never culminated in living together. When I was younger, I used to weep over it, but now I’m not so sure. I don’t think I could have written so much if I were living with someone.”