A life well lived, well told
MEMOIR: MARY ROBINSONreviews Country Girl: A Memoir By Edna O’Brien Faber and Faber, 352pp. £20
WHEN AN ACCLAIMED writer and flamboyant character such as Edna O’Brien pens a memoir, we have the delicious prospect of reading the story of a life well lived, well told.
O’Brien brings the reader on a journey that begins with a young girl’s childhood in a small rural community in the Co Clare of the 1930s and 1940s, a period and place in her life that would provide a rich source of material for her writing. Her family had the trappings of wealth, living in a large house with a gate lodge and avenue, but money was scarce. Her mother, a devout Catholic, had an air of glamour about her, having lived in the US for a time before getting married. Her father’s alcoholism had its destabilising effects.
Already we are shown glimpses of the embryonic writer: “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.” Hers was not a home that encouraged literary aspirations, however. “Paper never refused ink,” she tells us, was one of her mother’s more sarcastic sayings.
After convent school and the move to Dublin, where she worked in a chemist’s shop while studying pharmacy, there follows a heart-rending account of breaking with her parents to elope with the writer Ernest Gébler, a divorcee many years her senior, only to find herself a young mother of two boys, Carlo and Sasha, trapped in a loveless marriage.
The family moved to London in the late 1950s – arriving at Waterloo Station, which she found to be “grimy and sooted, the waddle of the pigeons so ungainly, not supple like birds at home” – and she has lived there ever since, except for a relatively brief sojourn in Co Donegal in her later years.
In London she found “both the freedom and the incentive to write” her sensational debut, The Country Girls. “My novel,” she says, “was completed in three weeks. It had written itself and I was merely the messenger . . . The words tumbled out, like the oats on threshing day that tumble down the shaft, the hard pellets of oats funnelled into bags and the chaff flying everywhere, getting into the men’s eyes and their having to shout to be heard above the noise of the machine.”
While The Country Girls, published in 1960, was well received in Britain and the United States, the reaction to it (and to a number of her subsequent novels) in conservative, Catholic Ireland was to ban it as “filth”, candidly tackling, as it did, those taboo subjects of female sexuality and desire. I can remember, as a teenager, reading, hidden under a false cover, a dog-eared copy of The Country Girls that one of my schoolfriends had managed to get a hold of and passed around among us, and being astonished that she would write these things, and somehow grateful for the insights and revelations the book held.