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Edna O'Brien (b. 1932)


Irish writer, famous for her rich and sensuous prose. O'Brien made her breakthrough with "The Country Girls Trilogy" (1960-64). Several of O'Brien's books, dealing with childhood and disappointments in sexual love, have been banned in Ireland. Her works have gained wide acclaim, particularly among American readers.

"They used to ban my books, but now when I go there, people are courteous to my face, though rather slanderous behind my back. Then again, Ireland has changed. There are a lot of young people who are irreligious, or less religious. Ironically, they wouldn't be interested in my early books – they would think them gauche. They are aping English and American mores. If I went to a dance hall in Dublin now I would feel as alien as in a disco in Oklahoma." (O'Brien in Writers at Work, ed. George Plimpton, 1986)

Edna O'Brien was born in Twamgraney, County Clare. Her family was opposed to anything to do with literature and later she described her small village "enclosed, fervid and bigoted." There were no books in their house, except for one cookery book, bloodstock manuals and prayer books. However, from early on,O'Brien had developed a love of words; she believed they had magical associations.

When O'Brien was a student in Dublin and her mother found a book of Sean O'Casey in her suitcase she wanted to burn it. After finishing primary school O'Brien was educated at the Convent of Mercy in Loughrea (1941-46). In Dublin she worked in a pharmacy, and studied at the Pharmaceutical College at night. During this period she wrote small pieces for the Irish Press. In 1950 she was awarded a licence as pharmacist. She once said, that reading Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species dislodged much of her religious education.

Married in the summer of 1954, O'Brien moved with her husband, the Czech/Irish writer Ernest Gébler, and two sons to London. In Ireland she read such writers Tolstoy, Thackeray, F. Scott Fitzgerald. The first book O'Brien ever bought was Introducing James Joyce by T.S. Eliot. She has said that Joyce's Portrait of the Artist made her realize that she wanted literature for the rest of her life.

O'Brien wrote her first novel, The Country Girls (1960), in about three weeks. Originally it was commissioned by the publisher Hutchinson, where she was employed as a reader of manuscript. The story is partly based on the author's own experiences being brought up in a convent. "The novel is autobiographical insofar I was born and bred in the west of Ireland, educated at a convent, and was full of romantic yearnings, coupled with a sense of outrage." (O'Brien in Writers at Work: Sevents Series, edited by George Plimpton, 1986) Although some of the reviews were good, many readers were outraged in Ireland and the book was banned there.

The Country Girls continued in The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). These books catapulted O'Brien into international literary fame; she has made headlines ever since. James Wolkott called her in Vanity Fair (June 1992) "The "Playgirl of the Western World" and her name was linked to such film stars as Marlon Brando and Robert Mitchum. Private Eye parodied her public image with a fake promo for a show called Edna: "She came to London and drowned in a sea of men."

The trilogy traced the lives of two Irish women, Kate and Baba, from their school days in the Irish countryside to their disillusioned adulthood and failed marriages in London. The friends have a strict Roman Catholic upbringing, which comes into conflict with their sexuality and their dependence on men. Kathy's relationship with a married man is fruitless. She starts an affair with Eugene, whom she considers a great lover but not much else. Her marriage with Eugene is unlucky, and they separate. Baba marries a man who offers her financial security. Because of the graphic sexual content of the story, the whole trilogy, and six of the author's subsequent works, were banned in Ireland. "While feminists have not been fond of her work because of her heroines' chasing after men, ''The Country Girls Trilogy'' is a powerful argument for feminism. To watch Kate and Baba and their various partners making war, not love, reminds us of ignorant armies that clash by night." (Anatole Broyard in The New York Times, May 11, 1986) In 1986, the three novels with an epilogue were published in one volume as The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue.

Five of O'Brien's first novel were banned in Ireland. Casualties of Peace (1966) led to the formation of a Censorship Reform Society. In A Pagan Place (1971) O'Brien returned to the Ireland of her childhood. The novel told the story of a girl, who is seduced by a priest. Johnny I Hardly Knew You (1977) changes the roles of victim and oppressor: a woman turns into an avenger, and murders her younger lover for the past betrayals of her other loves. Before writing Night (1972), O'Brien was a patient of the Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing (1927-1989), and took LSD with him. "He was quite a beguiling man," O'Brien said later in an interview. "He was also nuts." Sean Connery warned her not to take LSD because he had a bad trip when he tried the drug himself. 

O'Brien has written plays, children's books, essays, screenplays, and non-fiction about Ireland. "Countries are either mothers or fathers, and engender the emotional bristle secretly reserved for either sire. Ireland has always been a woman, a womb, a cave, a cow, a Rosaleen, a sow, a bride, a harlot, and, of course, the gaunt Hag of Beare." (in Mother Ireland, 1976) She has received several literary awards, including the Kingsley Amis Award for fiction in 1962, the Yorkshire Post Novel Award in 1971, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in 1990 for Lantern Slides, a collection of short stories, set primarily in Ireland. Virginia  (1981) her play about Virginia Woolf presented the softer side of the feminist writer, her need for affection. It was staged at the Public Theater in New York in the spring of 1985. As a short story writer she has published regularly in the New Yorker.

Mother Ireland  (1976), O'Brien's tribute to her homeland, includes seven autobiographical essays, in which O'Brien weaves her own personal history with local customs and ancient lore of Ireland. O'Brien's other non-fiction works include James and Nora, a study of James Joyce's marriage. She returned to the life of the great writer in her biography about James Joyce in 1999. In her short sketches she describes him as "a man of profligate tastes and blatant inconsistencies", "a bullockbefriending bard", who "went from childlike tenderness to a scathing indifference, from craven piety to doubt and rebellion." O'Brien's favorite novelist of al time is Leo Tolstoy.

In several of her works O'Brien has focused on the bitterness of women who have experienced failures in their relationship with men. Her women are often victims of their upbringing and her male characters violent or weak or treacherous, as in Time and Tide (1992), which tells of Nell Steadman, an Irish editor living in London, her disappointments in love, and marriage with a sadistic husband. The novel Dowen by the River (1997) is based on a true-life legal and moral battle in 1992, when a 14-year-old girl, the purported victim of rape, sought an abortion in England. The protagonist of the novel is Mary, almost 14 years old and pregnant by her widowed father. She tries to drown herself, but is rescued by a neighbor, Betty, who takes her to England for a legal abortion. Before the operation can occur, Mary is pressured to return to Ireland. There she becomes the focal point in a nationwide fruitless debate about abortion, until nature solves her problem.

O'Brien also fictionalized real-life events in the novel In the Forest (2002), the story of a mad, institutionalized boy, Michen, and his victims. "Skilful use of court records, psychiatrists' reports and Ms O'Brien's empathetic imagination, have resulted in a series of brief, juxtaposed, sometimes first-person chapters in which the dramatis personae propel the story forward. Particularly good is the way the two main characters – Michen and Eily, his victim – are balanced in a poetical, doomed dance, so that the narrative becomes their joint Greek tragedy." (Barbara Trapido, in The Independent, 12 May, 2002.)

The Little Red Chairs (2015), O'Brien's seventeeth novel, was about what evil does in the world. The central character is a Bosnian Serb war criminal, who has begun a new life in a little Irish town. "What is extraordinary and unsettling about O’Brien’s novel is the way that it begins in an atmosphere of something approaching pastoral comedy, and steadily darkens as we become acquainted with the buried but unrepressed war crimes of the town’s resident trickster." (James Wood, in The New Yorker, April 25, 2016 Issue.) Girl (2019), about the young girls kidnapped by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram in Nigeria, won the South Bank Sky Arts award. "I went to Nigeria twice – that was no fun and games. What was terrifying was to try and make a kind of mythic story from all this pain and horror." ('Edna O’Brien on turning 90: ‘I can’t pretend that I haven’t made mistakes’' by Sarah Hughes, The Guardian, 13 December 2020) 

For further reading: Fine Meshwork: Philip Roth, Edna O'Brien, and Jewish Irish Literature by Dan O'Brien (2020); Conversations with Edna O'Brien, edited by Alice Hughes Kersnowski (2014); The Role of Irish Women in the Writings of Edna O’Brien: Mothering the Continuation of the Irish Nation by Helen Thompson (2010); Edna O’Brien: New Critical Perspectives, eds. Kathryn Laing, Sinéad Mooney, Maureen O’Connor (2006);Wild Colonial Girl: Essays on Edna O’Brien, edited by Lisa Colletta and Maureen O’Connor (2006); Edna O'Brien by Bernice Schrank (1999); 'O'Brien, Edna,' in Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Vol. 3, ed.  Steven R. Serafin (1999); The Comic Tradition in Irish Women Writers, ed. by Theresa O’Connor (1996); Writers at Work, ed. by George Plimpton (1986); Twentieth-century Women Novelists, ed.  Thomas F. Staley (1982); 'Edna O’Brien' by William Trevor, in Contemporary Novelists (1976); Edna O’Brien by Grace Eckley (1974) - Note: Edna O'Brien's and Ernerst Gébler's son Carlo Gébler has also gained fame as a writer. His first novel, The Eleventh Summer was published in 1985. In his early novels Gébler has explored family difficulties. He has published non-fiction, children's books and written for film. In 1993 he made a six-part documentary for the BBC entitled Plain Tales from Northern Ireland. Works: The Eleventh Summer (1985), August in July (1986), Work and Play (1987), Driving through Cuba (1988), The TV Genie Malachy and His Family (1990), The Witch That Wasn't (1991), The Class Curtain (1991), Life of a Drum (1991), The Cure (1994). Gébler's book of memoir, Father & I (2001), was about his brutish father. 

Selected works:

  •  The Country Girls, 1960 (Country Girls Trilogy)
    - Maalaistytöt (suom. Maini Palosuo, 1961)
  • The Lonely Girl, 1962 (Country Girls Trilogy; as Girl With Green Eyes, 1964)
    - Films: The Girl with Green Eyes (1963), prod. Woodfall Film Productions, dir. by Desmond Davis, screenplay by Edna O'Brien, featuring Peter Finch, Rita Tushingham, Lynn Redgrave; TV film 1984, dir. Desmond Davis, screenplay by Edna O'Brien, featuring Sam Neil, Maeve Germaine, Jill Doyle, John Olohan
  • Girls in Their Married Bliss, 1964 (Country Girls Trilogy)
  • August Is a Wicked Month, 1965
    - Paheellinen elokuu (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 1970)
  • Casualties of Peace, 1966
  • The Love Object, 1968
  • A Pagan Place, 1971
    - Pakanallinen paikka (suom. Heidi Järvenpää, 1971)
  • Zee & Co., 1971
    - Film 1972, prod. Columbia Pictures Corporation, dir. Brian G. Hutton, featuring Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Caine, Susannah York, Margaret Leighton
  • Night, 1972
  • A Scandalous Woman and Other Stories, 1974
  • Mother Ireland: A Memoir, 1976
  • I Hardly Knew You, 1977 (US title: Johnny I Hardly Knew You, 1976) 
  • The Collected Edna O'Brien, 1978
  • Mrs Reinhardt and Other Stories, 1978
  • Some Irish Loving, 1979 (ed.)
  • Virginia, 1981 (play about the life of Virginia Woolf)
  • Returning, 1982
  • A Fanatic Heart: Selected Stories, 1984 (foreword by Philip Roth, 2008)
  • Tales for the Telling: Irish Folk & Fairy Stories, 1986 (illustrated by Michael Foreman)
  • The High Road, 1988
  • Far from the Land, 1989
  • On the Bone, 1989
  • Lantern Slides, 1990
  • Time and Tide, 1992
  • House of Splendid Isolation, 1994
  • Down by the River, 1997
  • Irish Dreams: Photographs, 1998 (introduction by E. O'Brian)
  • James Joyce, 1999
  • Wild Decembers, 2000
    - TV film 2009, prod. Touchpaper Television, dir.  Anthony Byrne, featuring Lara Belmont, Owen McDonnell, Matt Ryan, Hugh O'Conor
  • In the Forest, 2002
  • Triptych: A Play, 2004
  • The Light of Evening, 2006
  • Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life, 2009
  • Saints and Sinners: Stories, 2011
  • The Love Object: Selected Stories, 2015
  • The Little Red Chairs, 2015
  • Girl, 2019

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