THEY BURNT HER BOOKS
Edna O’ Brien (born 1930) arrived with a considerable fanfare in 1960 with her first book The Country Girls. Born and raised in Tuamgraney, Co Clare, in the west of Ireland, she wrote vividly about the claustrophobia of rural Irish life during WW2 (when Ireland significantly was neutral) and for the first time ever a female Irish novelist was to write candidly and with authority about passion generally and sex specifically. In her native land, where the Catholic church wielded immense secular as well as religious power, her fiction was deemed incendiary, and under Irish censorship her books were banned, denounced from the pulpit, and even publicly burned in several places, including her native Tuamgraney. Later, one of the most flagrant crooks in the history of Irish politics Charles Haughey (1925-2006) pronounced that the novel was ‘filth which should not be allowed in any decent home’.
O’Brien was educated by the Sisters of Mercy between 1941 and 1946, and she described the experience as coercive and stifling, frightening and all pervasive, so that she couldn’t wait to get away from it. By the age of 20 in 1950, she had a licence to practice as a Dublin pharmacist, and a few years later found herself in London where she married a minor and older novelist called Ernest Gebler (1914-1998). Gebler eventually became jealous of her meteoric success, and proved to be tyrannical and controlling, even making out that it was he had half written her books, so that the marriage was to end by 1964. In fact, her first book was helped by the fact that she was a publisher’s reader at Hutchinson’s at the time she wrote it, and they had commissioned her with a £50 advance to write a novel. Once published, it was loudly acclaimed by Kingsley Amis (1922-1995) who was a major cultural arbiter of the day. Amis with his irreverent and sardonic first novel, Lucky Jim (1954) had been granted that post-war iconoclast category known as the Angry Young Man, alongside writers like John Wain (author of the 1953 Hurry on Down) and the dramatist John Osborne with his splenetic Look Back in Anger (1956). These Angry Young Men were deemed notionally leftist at the time, though by the mid-60s Amis had metamorphosed into a far right satirist tainted by misogyny and racism, and a few years later Wain was to be made the Oxford Professor of Poetry. In O’ Brien’s case, politics are to a certain extent beside the point, for she and her characters are so painfully shaped and fragilely defined by their claustrophobic upbringing, that their mere physical survival is an achievement in itself.
That said, in latter years O’Brien has touched courageously on matters so sensitive in the Irish context, that she can be defined as a true radical. In 1997, based on real events from 1992, in Down by the River she writes of an underage Irish victim of her father’s sexual abuse fleeing the country to seek an abortion in the UK. Later in 2002 there is In the Forest where we have the fictionalised account of the real life Brendan O’ Donnell who abducted, raped and murdered a woman, her 3 year old son, and a priest in rural Ireland. By contrast The Country Girls Trilogy that also includes Girl with Green Eyes (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964) seems almost like a world of lost innocence, even though the last one in particular reveals not only a sardonic and sceptical take on marriage, fidelity and parenthood, but is also downright blasphemous at times, albeit delivered in a context of comic farce rather than one of earnest ideology (e.g. Kate down on her knees praying during Baba’s fumbled abortion attempt, much to the latter’s chagrin).
In Girls in Their Married Bliss we are once again with Kate and her friend Baba, both now living in London, and both married to Irishmen. Kate like Baba is in her mid 20s and is wedded to Eugene, a documentary maker, and has a small child by him, a son called Cash. They live in some splendour in a large house, and with a maid called Maura who is a hopeless cook, as is Kate. Kate is having a covert affair with a rather dull and staid British politician called Duncan, and in order to meet him one night lies that she is going to stay overnight with Baba. Eugene is suspicious and goes part of the way on the bus with her, where things reach a crux of alienation when Kate suggests it would be more comfortable if they sat on separate seats. In fact, Eugene follows her to see her liaising with Duncan, and later unearths their clandestine love letters which he passes on to his solicitor. Before that at Christmas, he gives a present to Cash and one to Maura, but nothing at all to his wife, and their mordant exchange is economically done.
‘“You forgot me,” she said to him, sullenly
“I give presents when I want to,” he said, “not out of duty.”
“You’re quite right,” she said, but in the wrong tone.
“I see you’re getting your persecution complex back, put a sign out,” he told her.’
Once he has removed her love letters, Kate rummages frantically through his desk, and inside an accounts’ ledger reads his diary entry about herself
‘So this is her, my special handpicked little false heart, into whose diseased stinking mind, and other parts, I have poured all that I know about living, being and loving.’
Kate’s tragedy is that when they had first met, Eugene was the epitome of romantic tenderness. But now that she has betrayed him, he regularly unleashes the opposite, of a loaded and limitless venom.
‘“I must say it took quite a time to get to know you…I must congratulate you on your simpleton’s cunning, and your simpleton’s servile ways.”
The chapters of this novel are structured in roughly alternating fashion, with Baba’s dour and irreverent first person recollections, alongside a more sombre and troubled third person account of Kate’s marital anguish. In some ways it reads like the story of two separate and distinctive émigré friends, straightforward young Irishwomen both with healthy sexual appetites, both adulterous, and both of them rebels of a kind. But at other times, and with O’Brien being such an autobiographical writer, it comes across as being the two halves of the authorial personality, one guilt free and relatively liberated, the other tormented with contrition, so that it could almost read as some sort of attempt at private reconciliation. Baba like her friend Kate has married an Irishman, but nothing like the cerebral and wordy Eugene. She is wedded instead to dumb Frank, a wealthy London builder who splashes his money about, and especially if there are people with titles or artistic credentials, however modest, at the frequent parties he throws. Kate’s sad descent into dissolution as she reels from her husband’s refusal to forgive, is skilfully offset by the comic counterpart of Frank, a man so ignorant and unworldly he doesn’t have a clue what is happening when he first sees Baba menstruate.
‘“It must be the food,” he said…
“Don’t you know about women?” I said. He just looked at me with his big, stupid, wide open mouth. He didn’t know. What sort of mother had he? He said to leave his mother out of it, that she was a good woman and baked the best bread in Ireland. I said there was more to life than baking good bread.’
Eugene is now threatening Kate with solicitors and limited parental access to Cash, so that she panics, takes her son, and lands up on Baba’s doorstep. Baba is not at all pleased, as she knows that Frank who is a good Catholic, will not appreciate the scandal, and especially when Eugene comes knocking at his door in the middle of the night demanding to know where they are. After futile attempts to find accommodation for them both, Kate soon realises how limited her options are. She hands Cash back to his father and eventually ends up alone in a bleak and godforsaken place where the wiring is so bad there is no electricity, and she has to survive by candlelight. Cash on his first visit to his mother, cannot bear the cold, the dark, the lack of TV and toys, and cries to go back to his father and Maura who seemingly is now cohabiting with her employer.
Frank who does not understand the phenomenon of menstruation, also needs to have the business of lovemaking explained to him (what do we do now?) so that understandably Baba feels the need to spread her wings and have some excitement. In her case, she meets her lover at a party, a drummer in a band called Harvey, who by agreement comes to the house when Frank is away. As pure farce he turns up wielding a massive drum and clutching drumsticks. Harvey is theatrical in other ways, and having taken a mouthful from the brandy she has offered, he subjects her to a species of regurgitation which Baba finds the last word in erotic stimulation.
‘Then he beckoned me to come over near him, and I leapt across and he put his lips to mine and gave me brandy from his mouth. I nearly passed out with the thrill. I don’t want to get all eejity about nature and stuff, but it was just like the way birds chew the food and feed it to the mouths of their young. He could twist me around some barbed wire if he wanted to.’
Being a percussionist, Harvey can also impress her by using her body for drumming practice. He starts with his drumsticks across her breasts, which Baba finds the opposite of aphrodisiac, more like painful pummelling, then turns her round and drums her backside, so that she begins to worry how she can lie to Frank about the bruises.
Harvey as it happens is a reckless boaster.
‘“I’ve studied the art of lovemaking since I was fourteen,” he said. He said he had his muscles under such control that he could make love to twenty-five women in an evening. He pointed to a little line of hair on his chin and said that it was put to use in lovemaking too. “My hip bones, every part of me is brought to bear,” he said. Talk about the secrets of the orient. I was rearing to get upstairs.’
Once in the sack Harvey proves less than proficient, and even walks out on her in the small hours, to see some other woman, Baba surmises. Fidelity aside, she ends up pregnant and Harvey promptly vanishes to Budapest. Later, with Kate in attendance, she tries to abort herself using a hot bath and castor oil. When that fails, and with Kate once more in tow, she confesses the truth to Frank who at first threatens to kick the arse off her, then subsides and decides he is pleased to have an heir after all.
Kate makes one final attempt to be reconciled with Eugene, and they meet at a train station where he curtly refuses to take her back. Thoroughly traumatised, she then enters a bizarre mental state, where she stands on a weighing machine and hallucinates the voice of a friendly Irishman talking to her in a warm, consoling voice. Suddenly and without warning, all her backlog of suffering and petrified emotions starts to shatter and pour forth.
‘Then something broke loose inside her and she started to scream and bang the glass that covered the numbered face. She hurled insults at it and poured into it all the thoughts that had been in her brain for months. She lashed out with words and with her fists and heard glass break, and people run, and say urgent things.’
An ambulance comes to takes her to the casualty ward, and later her GP sends her to a psychiatrist for fruitless discussions which Kate abruptly terminates. In the interim Eugene slyly takes Cash out of his school and they plus Maura the maid emigrate to, of all places, Fiji. Kate, mad with panic, is angry enough to approach a bumbling old, hand-pawing solicitor, but the cost involved in pursuing them to Fiji is beyond her. In a kind of shutdown stupor, she contents herself with writing letters to Cash, while Baba to her surprise suggests she come and live with her and Frank and the baby. After that Kate takes the symbolic step of having herself sterilised, whereupon she enters a state of emotional remove that somehow seems to rescue her from complete vulnerability. And so, to the novel’s final sentence.
‘It was odd for Baba to see Kate like that, all the expected responses were missing, the guilt and doubt and sadnesses, she was looking at someone of whom too much had been cut away, some important region that they both knew nothing about.’
The next post will be on or before Thursday 24th October