The Books: “The Country Girls” (Edna O’Brien)

country%20girls.jpgDaily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

The Country Girls Trilogy, by Edna O’Brien.

Published in one volume, the three books known as “The Country Girls Trilogy” – were what put Edna O’Brien on the map. Her first novel was “The Country Girls”, published in 1960. True to Irish tradition, her book was banned. Not just that book – but all the subsequent Country Girls books, as well as many of her other books. O’Brien just wasn’t “playing nice” with Irish sensibilities, and wrote openly about sex and the life of Dublin girls, and marriage, and religion – and so stepped right into hot water. As a young girl, Edna O’Brien read James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and it changed her life. She didn’t know what she wanted to do – but it had to be something to do with literature. She recently wrote a biography of Joyce (one of my favorite quotes from it: “He would carry his work ‘like a chalice’ and all his life he would insist that what he did ‘was a kind of sacrament.’ Father, Son and Holy Ghost along with Jakes McCarthy informed every graven word. On a more secular note he liked blackberry jam because Christ’s crown of thorns came from that wood and he wore purple cravats during Lent.”), and I believe at one point she also wrote a book about the marriage of James and Nora Joyce. Her artistic mentor, the star she followed. There’s a funny line in The Country Girls – Kate and Baba, the two best friends, hang out in Dublin in pubs (and this is 1950s Dublin) – and at one point Baba pulls Kate aside and says, “Stop asking the boys if they’re read James Joyce’s Dubliners.” Like – that is NOT a good courtship technique!

Edna O’Brien has been asked (of course) if the books are autobiographical. It’s about two girls from the country, who go away to a convent school together, before moving to Dublin – as single girls – to get jobs, and have love affairs, and eventually get married. These experiences make up the whole trilogy. Edna O’Brien was born in County Clare (to a family who sounds horrendous, frankly – judgmental, rigid, lots to rebel against) – and she also went to a convent school before moving to Dublin where she got a job in a pharmacy. She eventually became a pharmacist. She also got married, to a writer – who (according to my dad) was jealous of his wife’s burgeoning gift with the pen … a nightmare … O’Brien published her first book (“The Country Girls”) in 1960. So anyway. Of course she is asked repeatedly if the book is autobiographical. In one interview she replied, “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.”

The books are not long litanies of how horrible the men in the country girls’ lives are – but there is definitely a sense of isolation, and separation of the genders – which makes intimacy nigh on impossible. Men and women cannot connect. There’s the whole sex thing, too. The girls are, of course, Catholics, and have been raised in a homogenous rigid world, where the Church dominates everything – their education, their emotional lives, everything. But when sex starts to come up, all of their teachings are thrown into a tizzy … can it be reconciled? Kate and Baba don’t just want to get married in order to solve the sex problem. They try to struggle it out, in affairs which are pretty terrible at times – questionable – married men, awful people sometimes … but there is the struggle between living your own life FIRST, and then “settling down” … can you be a happy individual in a marriage? Remember, this is the late 40s, early 1950s – when choices were much more limited – and those who were NOT just yearning to get married had a helluva time making their way. Square pegs in round holes. The books are now seen as high works of feminist art (although I hesitate to label them because it might turn someone off – but hey, I’m just reporting the facts here – and the fact is that these books are hailed as major events in the history of 20th century feminism) – although many feminists had a problem with Edna O’Brien’s stuff because the main focus of the characters in the books was usually on men. So as you can see, Edna O’Brien doesn’t completely please anyone. She seems ornery enough that that would make her happy. If you please everyone, you certainly can’t be an artist of any import. She grew up in an environment where her mother found a book of Sean O’Casey’s plays in Edna’s bag, and burned it. Okay? So her mother was an ignorant ridiculously rigid and awful person – who must have been horrified at the free spirit she had given birth to. Sorry, I don’t know them – but Edna has spoken about that upbringing herself. And so to fight against that, to fight against family, church, tradition … well. I’m thinking of Joyce here, right? The age-old Irish artist’s fight. To live freely, and write what they want.

O’Brien has said that she wrote her first novel The Country Girls– the first in the trilogy – like a bat out of hell. She just sat down and it streamed out of her. The book reads that way, too. A confident beautiful detailed personal stream of prose – exquisitely rendered at points – events moving us on, things happening, things halting … Kate and Baba in the country, in the convent … Who really cares if it’s autobiographical or not? What ever happened to just getting into the story? I like the first of the trilogy the best – with Kate and Baba as teenagers and young women, making their way. To me, it is most evocative. The writing!! When they end up getting married, life becomes a drag … and so do the books a bit. But still: it’s a major Irish work, controversial to this day (and you have to wonder: why? It must be seen in the context of the time to get how controversial it was – girls talking about their breasts, and sex, and money … going behind closed doors to hear what girls talk about when no men are around.) I mean, I won’t trivialize it by calling it Sex and the City Dublin-style – because there’s way more going on here – but there is a level of everyday reality, the ins and outs of life, the pubs, the dates, the dances … that seems pretty tame in comparison to coming-of-age stories nowadays. BUT. This is about girls. Coming-of-age stories about boys can have their controversies as well (as James Joyce found out) … but girls are always a more touchy matter, especially in a patriarchal conservative society. So Kate and Baba – who are not in any, way, shape or form – slutty girls … have experiences, nonetheless (with married men, with birth control, with sex) – that must have been tremendously shocking at the time. Knowing Edna O’Brien’s family situation, it is clear that writing, for her, was a blazing act of rebellion – and it shows. This isn’t maudlin “Yellow Wallpaper” stuff – or that terrible story about the woman who drowns herself at the end (I read that book and thought on, oh, about page 2 – “Jeez, hope this lady drowns herself soon. She’s a drip.”) … The Country Girls is vibrant slice-of-life stuff, with writing that verges on poetry.

I highly recommend these books to anyone interested in good writing. Also anyone interested in landmark moments in Irish literature.

Edna O’Brien said recently in an interview:

“I wrote The Country Girls in three weeks having blown the 50 quid advance. I was young, married with two small children, and whenever I met people, I was spouting poetry. I had this thing that writing was real – I mean other people’s writing – literature, great literature, not rubbish. There’s so much rubbish written now, so much garbage, and it’s extolled. But writing was to me animate; it was real; it was as real as the people I knew.

“I only thought of one thing – the country, the landscape, my mother, the people I had left. Now I was dying to leave, this is not nostalgia, and I feel permanently, in life, quite isolated. I both belong very intensely to that place where I come from and I’m running from it still. So when I sat down to write, I was extremely emotional and yet the language is not emotional; it just came out. I didn’t have to call on memory. To use the cliché – it wrote itself. And that is sometimes true for a first book.

“I knew there’d be a storm. I was accused of betraying my country, my locality, my sex. The nuns in my convent went bonkers with rage. But the books survived. I suppose that’s what counts.”

Here’s an excerpt from The Country Girls, the first in the trilogy. As you can see, it’s a simple tale, told simply … but it broke new ground nonetheless, and paved the way for a more honest and true depiction of Irish womanhood. Edna O’Brien was a trailblazer and it’s never easy for such people!! They always get the brunt of the criticism! But she’s right – “the books survived” and “that’s what counts”.

EXCERPT FROM The Country Girls, by Edna O’Brien.

“Will you fit on the brassiere, Miss Brady?” the shopgirl asked. Pale, First Communion voice; pale, pure, rosary-bead hands held the flimsy, black, sinful garment between her fingers, and her fingers were ashamed.

“No. Just measure me,” I said. She took a measuring tape out of her overall pocket, and I raised my arms while she measured me.

The black underwear was Baba’s idea. She said that we wouldn’t have to wash it so often, and that it was useful if we ever had a street accident, or if men were trying to strip us in the backs of cars. Baba thought of all these things. I got black nylons, too. I read somewhere that they were “literary” and I had written one or two poems since I came to Dublin. I read them to baba and she said they were nothing to the ones on mortuary cards.

“Good night, Miss Brady, happy Easter,” the First Communion voice said to me, and I wished her the same.

When I came in they were all having tea. Even Joanna was sitting at the dining-room table, with tan makeup on her arms and a charm bracelet jingling on her wrist. Every time she lifted the cup, the charms tinkled against the china, like ice in a cocktail glass. Cool, ice-cool, sugared cocktails. I liked them. Baba knew a rich man who bought us cocktails one evening.

There were stuffed tomatoes, sausage rolls, and simnel cake for tea.

“Good?” Joanna asked before I had swallowed the first mouthful of crumbly pastry. She was a genius at cooking, surprising us with things we had never seen, little yellow dumplings in soup, apple strudel, and sour cabbage, but how I wished that she didn’t stand over us with imploring looks, asking, “Good?”

“Tell jokes, my tell jokes?” Herman asked Gustav. He had taken a glass of wine, and always after a glass of wine he wanted to tell jokes.

Gustav shook his head. Gustav was pale and delicate. He looked unemployed, which of course was proper, because he did not go to work. He suffered from a skin disease or something. I was never sure whether I liked Gustav or not. I don’t think I liked the cunning behind his small blue eyes, and I often thought that he was too good to be true.

“Let him tell jokes,” Joanna said; she liked to be made to laugh.

“No, we go to pictures. We have good time at pictures,” Gustav said, and Baba roared laughing and lifted her chair so that it was resting on its two back legs.

“There no juice at pictures,” Joanna said, and Baba’s chair almost fell backward, because she had got a fit of coughing on top of the laughing. She coughed a lot lately, and I told her she ought to see about it.

“No juice” was Joanna’s way of saying that the pictures were a waste of money.

“We go, Joanna,” Gustav said, gently nudging her bare, tanned arm with his elbow. His shirt-sleeves were rolled up and his jacket was hanging on the back of his chair. It was a warm evening and the sun shone through the window and lit up the apricot jam on the table.

“Yes, Gustav,” Joanna said. She smiled at him as she must have smiled when they were sweethearts in Vienna. She began to clear off the table and warned us about the good, best china.

“Ladies come nightclub with me?” Herman asked jokingly.

“Ladies have date,” Baba said. She lowered her chin onto her chest, to let me know that it was true. Her hair was newly set, so that it curved in soft black waves that lay like feathers on the crown of her head. I was raging. Mine was long and loose and streelish.

“More cake?” Joanna asked. But she had put the simnel cake into a marshmallow tin.

“Yes, please.” I was still hungry.

Mein Gott, you got too fat.” She made a movement with her hand, to outline big fat woman. She came back with a slice of sad sponge cake that was probably put aside for trifle. I ate it.

Upstairs, I took off all my clothes and had a full view of myself in the wardrobe mirror. I was getting fat all right. I turned sideways and looked around so that I could see the reflection of my hip. It was nicely curved and white like the geranium petals on the dressmaker’s window ledge.

“What’s Rubenesque?” I asked Baba. She turned around to face me. She had been painting her nails at the dressing table.

“Chrissake, draw the damn curtains or they’ll think you’re a sex maniac.” I ducked down on the floor, and Baba went over and drew the curtains. She caught the edges nervously between her thumb and her first finger, so that her nail polish would not get smudged. Her nails were salmon pink, like the sky which she had just shut out by drawing the curtain.

I was holding my breasts in my hands, trying to gauge their weight, when I asked her again, “Baba, what’s Rubenesque?”

“I don’t know. Sexy, I suppose. Why?”

“A customer said I was that.”

“Oh, you better be it all right, for this date,” she said.

“With whom?”

“Two rich men. Mine owns a sweets factory and yours has a stocking factory. Free nylons. Yippee. How much do your thighs measure?” She made piano movements with her fingers, so that the nail polish would dry quickly.

“Are they nice?” I asked tentatively. We had already had two disastrous nights with friends that she had found. In the evenings, after her class, some other girls and she went into a hotel and drank coffee in the main lounge. Dublin being a small, friendly city, one or the other of them was always bound to meet someone, and in that way Baba made a lot of acquaintances.

“Gorgeous. They’re aged about eighty, and my fellow has every bit of himself initialled. Tiepin, cufflinks, handkerchief, car cushions. The lot. He has leopards in his car as mascots.”

“I can’t go then,” I said nervously.

“In Christ’s name, why not?”

“I’m afraid of cats.”

“Look, Caithleen, will you give up the nonsense? We’re eighteen and we’re bored to death.” She lit a cigarette and puffed vigorously. She went on: “We want to live. Drink gin. Squeeze into the front of big cars and drive up outside hotels. We want to go places. Not to sit in this damp dump.” She pointed to the damp patch in the wallpaper, over the chimneypiece, and I was just going to interrupt her, but she got in before me. “We’re here at night, killing moths for Joanna, jumping up like maniacs every time a moth flies out from behind the wardrobe, puffing DDT into crevices, listening to that lunatic next door playing the fiddle.” She sawed off her left wrist with her right hand. She sat on the bed exhausted. It was the longest speech Baba had ever made.

“Hear! Hear!” I said, and I clapped. She blew smoke straight into my face.

“But we want young men. Romance. Love and things,” I said despondently. I thought of standing under a streetlight in the rain with my hair falling crazily about, my lips poised for the miracle of a kiss. A kiss. Nothing more. My imagination did not go beyond that. It was afraid to. Mama had protested too agonizingly all through the windy years. But kisses were beautiful. His kisses. On the mouth, and on the eyelids, and on the neck when he lifted up the mane of hair.

“Young men have no bloody money. At least the gawks we meet. Smell o’ hair oil. Up the Dublin mountains for air, a cup of damp tea in a damp hotel. Then out in the woods after tea and a damp hand fumbling up your shirt. No, sir. We’ve had all the bloody air we’ll ever need. We want life.” She threw her arms out in the air. It was a wild and reckless gesture. She began to get ready.

We washed and sprinkled talcum powder all over ourselves.

“Have some of mine,” Baba said, but I insisted, “No, Baba, you have some of mine.” When we were happy we shared things, but when life was quiet and we weren’t going anywhere, we hid our things like misers, and she’d say to me, “Don’t you dare touch my powder,” and I’d say, “There must be a ghost in this room, my perfume was interfered with,” and she’d pretend not to hear me. We never loaned each other clothes then, and one worried if the other got anything new.

One morning Baba rang me at work and said, “Jesus, I’ll brain you when I see you.”

“Why?” The phone in the shop and Mrs. Burns was standing beside me, looking agitated.

“Have you my brassiere on?”

“No, I haven’t,” I said.

“You must have; it didn’t walk. I searched the whole damn room and it isn’t there.”

“Where are you now?”

“I’m in a phone booth outside the college and I can’t come out.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m flopping all over the damn place,” and I laughed straight into Mrs. Burns’s face and put down the phone.

“Oh, darling, I know how popular you must be. But tell your friends not to phone in the mornings. There might be orders coming through,” Mrs. Burns said.

That night Baba found the brassiere mixed up in the bedclothes. She never made her bed until evening.

We got ready quickly. I put on the black nylons very carefully so that none of the threads would get caught in my ring and then looked back to see if the seams were straight. They were bewitching. The stockings, not the seams. Baba hummed “Galway Bay” and tied a new gold chain around the waist of her blue tweed dress.

I was still wearing my green pinafore dress and the white dancing blouse. They smelled of stale perfume, all the perfume I had poured on before going to dances. I wished I had something new.

“I’m sick o’ this,” I said, pointing to my dress. “I think I won’t go.”

So she got worried and loaned me a long necklace. I wound it round and round, until it almost choked me. The color was nice next to my skin. It was turquoise and the beads were made of glass.

“My eyes are green tonight,” I said, looking into the mirror. They were a curious green, a bright, luminous green, like wet lichen.

“Now mind – Baubra; and none of your Baba slop,” she warned me. She ignored the bit about my eyes. She was jealous. Mine were bigger than hers and the whites were a delicate blue, like the whites of a baby’s eyes.

There was nobody in the house when we were leaving, so we put out the hall light and made sure that the door was locked. A gas meter two doors down had been raided and Joanna warned us about locking up.

We linked and kept step with one another. There was a bus stop at the top of the avenue, but we walked on to the next stop. It was a penny cheaper from the next stop, to Nelson’s Pillar. We had plenty of money that night, but we walked out of habit.

“What’ll I drink?” I asked, and distinctly somewhere in my head I heard my mother’s voice accusing me, and I saw her shake her finger at me. There were tears in her eyes. Tears of reproach.

“Gin,” Baba said. She talked very loudly. I could never get her to whisper, and people were always looking at us in the streets, as if we were wantons.

“My earrings hurt,” I said.

“Take them off and give your ears a rest,” she said. Still aloud.

“But will there be a mirror?” I asked. I wanted to have them on when I got there. They were long giddy earrings, and I loved shaking my head so that they dangled and their little blue-glass stones caught the light.

“Yeh, we’ll go into the cloaks first,” Baba said. I took them off and the pain in the lobes of my ears was worse. It was agony for a few minutes.

We passed the shop where I worked; the blind was drawn, but there was a light inside. The blind wasn’t exactly the width of the window; there was an inch to spare at either side and you could see the light through that narrow space.

“Guess what they’re doing in there,” Baba said. She knew all about them, and was always plying me with questions – what they are and what kind of nightgowns were on the clothesline and what he said to her when she said, “Darling, I’ll go up and make the bed now.”

“They’re eating chocolates and counting the day’s money,” I said. I could taste the liqueur chocolates Mr. Gentleman had given me long ago.

“No, they’re not. They’re taking a rasher off every half pound you’ve weighed before going up to confession,” she said, going over and trying to see through the slit at the corner. I saw a bus coming and we ran to the stop thirty or forty yards away.

“You’re all dolled up,” the conductor said. He didn’t take our fares that night. We knew him from going in and out of town every other evening. We wished him a happy Easter.

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1 Response to The Books: “The Country Girls” (Edna O’Brien)

  1. Edna O’Brien on The Country Girls

    A terrific essay by Edna O’Brien about the publication of her first novel The Country Girls. Well worth reading but I’ll pull out the two parts I liked especially: The Country Girls took three weeks, or maybe less, to write….

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