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In praise of Jennifer Johnston

Irish Times Blook Club: Novelist has chronicled the family across a century of troubled Irish history

‘Jennifer Johnston’s fiction reminds us of the indeterminacy of the past, and the dangers of idealising any one version of Ireland’s recent history, or our own family history.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill / The Irish Times

Widely regarded as one of Ireland’s foremost contemporary novelists, Jennifer Johnston occupies a curious place in Irish literature. Although her talent is widely recognised, and she has won many awards, her works have so far rarely appeared in critical studies of contemporary Irish literature.

Born in Dublin in 1930 to the playwright Denis Johnston and the actor and producer Shelah Richards, Johnston was educated at Trinity College Dublin, and lived for many years in Co Derry before returning to Dublin, where she now lives. Her first novel was published in 1972 when she was 42, and since then she has published 18 novels.

Her awards include The Evening Standard Best First Novel Award for The Captain and the Kings (1972), The Whitebread Prize for The Old Jest (1979), and her fourth novel Shadows on our Skin (1977), was shortlisted for the Booker prize. In 2012 she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Irish Book Awards and she was one of the writers nominated in 2014 for the position of first Irish Laureate for Fiction.

For the many fans of her work, Johnston’s skillfully constructed novels, with their elegant economic realism and tight storylines, constitute a distinctive and sophisticated voice in Irish literature. Writing about the impact that Johnston’s debut novel The Captain and the Kings, had on him, Dermot Bolger recently described how he loved the book for “its sparse intensity and intimacy and how the simplicity of the writing belied the complexity of her characters.”

The qualities that were evident to Bolger in Johnston’s first novel have manifested themselves to equal effect in each of her subsequent novels. Broadly speaking, Johnston’s work deals with family sins and human frailty within the context of the turbulent history of 20th-century Ireland. The scope of her novels includes examinations of gender, class, religion and politics. Her stories involve characters on both ends of the aging spectrum, from youth and adolescence to old age and inevitable decline. They are Protestant and Catholic, male and female, urban and rural.

As one critic has noted, her novels “record with great care the ways in which individuals recoil from, or attempt to meet, the political, economic and cultural exigencies that impinge so crucially, and so damagingly, on their lives”.

Big House

One of the narratives of Irish history that Johnston frequently draws upon is the literature of the Irish “Big House”. Fictional representations of the social and cultural organisation of the Anglo-Irish or Protestant ascendancy class dates back to Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent, published in 1800, with perhaps the most well-known exponent of the genre being Elizabeth Bowen.

Contemporary novelists such as William Trevor and John Banville have also used the motif of the Big House in their work; however, Johnston’s imaginative incorporation of this theme is far more extensive. Her Big House novels highlight the destructive effects of the religious, economic and class divisions on those who inhabit and also those who surround the Big House. In these stories, her characters appear to be prisoners of both personal and political history, trapped by family expectations and pre-ordained societal expectations. Often, these novels revolve around a female character struggling to establish a voice in post independent Ireland, with an elderly patriarch in the background, irreparably damaged by the events of war.

Irish independence dovetailed with the collapse of the social organisation of Anglo-Irish life, and by 1922 the events of the previous decade had rendered the Ascendancy class “nervously defeatist and impotent.” Terence Brown sums up the new political realty thus: “The establishment of the Irish Free State found Protestant Ireland in the 26 counties ideologically, politically, and emotionally unprepared for the uncharted waters of the new separatist seas, where they comprised what was seen by many of their nationalist fellow citizens as an ethnic minority.”

Wartime Ireland

Two novels, in particular, The Old Jest (1979) and Fool’s Sanctuary (1987), exemplify Johnston’s treatment of wartime Ireland and its aftermath. Set in 1920, The Old Jest centres on Nancy Gulliver, a young Protestant girl who unwittingly becomes ensnared in the conflict between nationalists and the British army during the Anglo-Irish war. Nancy longs to grow up, and her sheltered life is dramatically shattered when she befriends a mysterious stranger hiding in a deserted beach house near her grandfather’s home.

The man is Major Barry, an IRA commander on the run, and Nancy’s innocent attempt to escape her insular world results in tragedy when she agrees to convey a message from Barry to one of his contacts in Dublin. As a result of his instructions, 12 soldiers are shot in Dublin. In one of his few lucid moments, Nancy’s ailing grandfather, who spends his days mourning the death of his son on the battlefield of Ypres during the first World War, tells the authorities that he had seen his granddaughter talking with the fugitive.

The novel closes with Nancy witnessing the execution of Barry when he is discovered on the beach, and it is unclear to what extent if any this experience with galvanize her into political action.

Fool’s Sanctuary, which is also set during the War of Independence, is narrated in the form of a flashback by Miranda, a young Protestant woman who lives on a large estate with her parents. Her father Termon realises how unjust his position of privilege is and tries to compensate by devoting his life to preserving and improving the land for ultimate redistribution to the new Irish nation. Both he and Miranda are sympathetic to the republican cause, but they are not in favour of violence.

As a young woman from the Ascendancy class, Miranda feels excluded from the political events taking place around her: “I felt briefly at one time a longing to fight for freedom, but I merely cried for freedom; an inadequate contribution to the struggles of a nation.” Miranda is in love with Cathal, a Catholic tenant whom her father is subsidizing through college. Tragedy ensues when Miranda’s brother Andrew and his fellow British army officer Harry return to Ireland and to the estate for a visit.

Cathal, a republican sympathiser, is also a childhood friend of Andrew’s, so when the local IRA men plan to kill the two British soldiers, Cathal comes to warn them and is himself killed for being an informer. This eruption of violence, which robbed Miranda of her chance for love, stunts her development and she remains alone on the estate for the rest of her life, trapped in a hyphenated identity, belonging to neither side of the class or political divide.

In her essay “Jennifer Johnston’s Irish troubles”, Christine St Peter’s reading of this novel underscores the impossibility of resolving the ideological contradictions and class barriers which the doomed lovers face: “Cathal is obliterated by an act of noble self-sacrifice that perpetuates class privilege, and by a narrative necessity that demands punishment for two violent acts: belonging to the republican cause during the civil war and daring to love a woman from the landed class.”

The theme of problematic and dangerous interactions between the Anglo-Irish and the native Irish is also evident in Johnston’s early work. In The Gates (1973), Minnie McMahon, a young woman on the verge of womanhood, returns to Ireland to the care of her elderly uncle, “The Major”, after completing her education in England. Free from the domineering clutches of her English aunt, who has ambitions to make a socially acceptable marriage for her, Minnie develops an attraction for Kevin, the son of one of the tenants on her uncle’s estate.

Between them, they hatch a plan to steal and sell the ornate gates that adorn the entry way to the estate. Minnie’s intention is to invest the money in the estate’s farming potential, whereas Kevin seeks only to escape from the grinding poverty of his family. The gates symbolise this Ascendency family’s slide into genteel poverty, as they are the only remaining item of value on the estate.

The position of the Anglo-Irish in the new independent Ireland is deftly conveyed with poetic symbolism: “Just off the road leading to the Major’s house, the Protestant church crouched like a little old lady, embarrassed at being found some place she had no right to be, behind a row of yew trees. The other end of the village, on a slight eminence, a semi-cathedral, topped by an orange gold cross, preened itself triumphantly.”

When the young couple succeeds in their plan and Kevin drives away to deliver the gates to their potential buyer, the reader guesses before Minnie does that only heartache and betrayal will be her recompense.

In the trenches

In one of her early stories, How Many Miles to Babylon (1974), Johnston moves the setting of the novel from the initial background of a rural estate, to the battlefields of Flanders during the first World War. The possibility of communication across class or religious divisions is usually explored in Johnston’s novels through two lonely individuals, and in this instance the protagonists are both male.

Alexander Moore, the only child of parents in a loveless marriage, grows up lonely and friendless on his family’s estate in Co Wicklow. When he befriends Jerry Crowe, a stable hand who works on the estate, his mother forbids all interaction with Jerry because he is socially inferior. When Jerry enlists in the British Army because his family needs the money, Alec impulsively enlists too.

Alec’s action is prompted by his mother’s revelation that his father is someone other than her husband. In the trenches the two friends are separated again by class and now also by rank. They are commanded by Major Glendinning, a ruthless officer who shares Alec’s mother’s belief in the class system. When Jerry is tried and convicted as a deserter after leaving his unit to search for his father, Glendinning orders Alec to command the firing squad. In an act of mercy, Alec privately kills his friend and he in turn is arrested and condemned to die.

The flare-up of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, which continued for several decades, prompted a number of interventions by a diverse range of writers, artists and intellectuals from both sides of the border. Johnston turned her attention to contemporary Northern Ireland, specifically the violence in Derry in the early 1970s and the machinations of the IRA in the early 1980s, with two novels, Shadows on our Skin (1977), which was shortlisted for the Booker prize, and The Railway Station Man (1984).

In Shadows on our Skin, Johnston explores the relationship between a young working-class Catholic boy in Derry, Joe Logan, and Kathleen Doherty, the teacher who befriends him. Joe lives with his beleaguered mother and an ailing embittered father who is living in the past with a heroic fantasy he has constructed to maintain his self-esteem. Mrs Logan, who has been hardened by poverty and a loveless marriage, is fiercely protective of Joe, and tries to shield him from the conflict that destroyed her husband and threatens to engulf her older son Brendan.

Her character is in many ways reminiscent of the inner-city mother figure featured in Paula Meehan’s poem, The Pattern, who also sublimates her frustrated energies into constant cleaning and scrubbing. When Brendan returns from England he encroaches on his younger brother’s relationship with Kathleen, and eventually confides in Joe that he dreams of a future life with her. In a jealous rage Joe tells Brendan something about Kathleen that only he knows: she is dating a British soldier. Unbeknownst to Joe, Brendan is involved with the IRA and having confided in Kathleen, he panics when he finds out about her boyfriend and disappears. Joe’s revelation results in a devastating punishment for Kathleen, similar to that described by Seamus Heaney in his poem Punishment.

The Railway Station Man begins in Derry with the news that Helen Cuffe’s husband has been accidentally killed by a terrorist when visiting a pupil whose father was in the RUC. Helen leaves Derry for the quiet costal village of Knappogue, in Donegal, a move calculated to insulate her from the violence she suffered in Derry. Helen retreats from the world through her painting, and avoids all efforts by her son to jolt her into political awareness.

In this isolated area she meets an Englishman, Roger Hawthorne, who is devoting himself to reconstructing a disused railway station. Roger, who was pressurised into fighting in the second World War by his imperialist family, is both physically and psychologically damaged as a result. A tentative friendship grows into a more serious bond, and for a brief moment it appears that these two characters will be able to find peace and exorcise their ghosts.

Like the character of Mrs Logan in Shadows on our Skin, Helen wishes to avoid any interaction with the politics of Northern Ireland, but when her son and lover are accidentally killed in an IRA explosion, she is forced to confront the political realities of the world around her.

Writing about Shadows on our Skin and The Railway Station Man, Neil Corcoran points out Johnston insists on drawing attention to “the complications and confusions of motivation, desire, and involvement which should corrupt any stereotyped conception of ‘terrorism’.” In Corcoran’s view, “these novels draw their strength from Johnston’s long engagement with transgression, rapprochement, and catastrophe in Irish history”.

Politics and personal life also intersect in a more modern context in The Invisible Worm (1991). In this novel, which is another story about arrested female development, Johnston explores the intersection of various conflicting ideologies: Catholicism, nationalism, Protestantism and unionism. Like the character of Miranda in Fool’s Sanctuary, the female protagonist of this novel lives in a fog of reminiscence because of a past trauma. Laura Quinlan has become emotionally crippled by her father’s sexual abuse. Johnston places Laura’s rape within a specific political context as her father is a former IRA man turned senator, and Ireland is presented as run by men like him. As Heather Ingman points out, “Laura comes to symbolise all the abused children, battered women, and incest survivors whose stories bear witness to the underside of Irish nationalism, stories that men like her father wish to suppress because they do not fit into the image of a glorious new nation.” And in fact, Quinlan warns her not to tell anyone about the rape, stating: “we have to keep our suffering to ourselves”.

Ageing

A recurrent preoccupation for Johnston is the subject of aging. For the many elderly characters that populate her novels old age is not a dignified state; they have trouble, moving sitting, sleeping, eating, and remembering to stay focused on the present instead of the past. The limitations of old age are elaborated on in typical Johnston style, with great economy of language and a refusal to either sentimentalize or patronise.

An example of what it’s like to live in an aging body appears in Two Moons (1998). This story, which involves three generations of women, two of whom live together, continues Johnston’s interest in female relationships in multi-generational Protestant families. Mimi, the elderly grandmother is typical of Johnston’s heroines in that she is quirky, outspoken, fragile and brave. She lives with her daughter Grace, a stage actress, who is preparing for an upcoming role in Hamlet.

Mimi spends her days drinking too much and communicating with an angel she names Bonifaccio, whom only she can see. This fairy-tale conceit does not detract from the rich portrait Johnston draws of an aging character confronting the pain of her past and the inevitability of her future demise.

Family secrets

Recent work deals with families struggling with secrets in contemporary Ireland. In Grace and Truth (2005), Johnston writes about incest, a subject rarely broached in Irish literature. Her skill as a master storyteller prevents the drama that unfolds from descending into lurid sensationalism. One of Johnston’s strengths as a novelist is that she always makes her characters matter, no matter how reprehensible their behaviour, and the subtle cameo portraits one finds in this novel are drawn with great skill and control. Her characters are psychologically convincing, even when engaged in self-deception.

The uneasy accommodation that Protestant families have had to make in Catholic Ireland is subtly conveyed in Shadow Story (2012), in which the typically benign grandfather of the central character Polly, rails against the possibility of his son marrying a Catholic woman. What concerns the old man is the thought that future generations of his family would be brought up Catholic because of the Vatican’s Ne Temere decree, which demanded that children of mixed marriages be raised in “the one true faith.”

In his mind, the minority thus becomes further marginalised through forced indoctrination into the Catholic Church. Although set during the second World War, the impact of the Ne Temere decree was felt for many generations in Ireland, and remained a source of resentment for the Protestant community.

Johnston is a chronicler of Irish families, and her imaginative preoccupation with family dynamics and relationships has resulted in a body of work that ranges across a century of Irish history. Individual life is often emblematic of national struggles, ranging from the Irish volunteers who fought alongside the British in the battlefields of the first World War, to the recent “Troubles” in Northern Ireland.

Very often in her work the past reshapes the present, and family secrets are shown to be just as damaging as a corrosive political legacy. Johnston’s fiction reminds us of the indeterminacy of the past, and the dangers of idealising any one version of Ireland’s recent history, or our own family history.
Throughout June, we shall publish a series of articles looking back over Johnston’s career, culminating with a podcast on June 30th of an interview with the author by Eileen Battersby, which will be recorded at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin’s Parnell Square on Thursday, June 22nd, at 7.30pm. Admission is free and all are welcome to attend and meet the author