The Books: “The Lonely Girl” (Edna O’Brien)

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

The Lonely Girl, by Edna O’Brien.

Here’s my post about The Country Girls Trilogy as a whole, and Edna O’Brien as a writer. The Lonely Girl is the second book in this famous trilogy – it was published in 1962. And again, like the first in the trilogy, it was banned. This one is even more shocking – because Caithleen, the main character, the “I” of the book, has an affair with a married man. And there’s sex and stuff, and sex vs. religion – all of the hot Catholic topics. Eugene is the name of Caithleen’s love – and if I’m recalling correctly (it’s been a while since I’ve read the book), the romance blossoms for quite some time before it is revealed that he has a wife. The wife, I believe, is in California. Caithleen discovers a letter from her, I think. Sorry so vague – it’s been years. And there’s also a child in the picture, which complicates things even more. Eugene, obviously, is not presented as a prince among men … but he’s also not a blackguard villain. Life is a bit more complicated than that, and Caithleen gets sucked into a domestic drama, and because Eugene is her first and all that – she has no perspective. She can’t be like Baba, her more worldly best friend, and stroll away saying, “Oh well!! Lesson learned!” Caithleen’s family somehow finds out about the situation, and pretty much kidnap her. She is trapped at her house out West, and she is harangued, and harassed – her letters are opened, she is not allowed to go anywhere without a chaperone – a priest is called in for an intervention … Caithleen, more than anything, yearns for an escape. Who might be looking for her? If someone called the house, would she get the message? How will she get out of here? Edna O’Brien has made no secret about the fact that her family was pretty awful – not just ignorant but openly malevolent towards her and who she actually was. Literature itself was seen as suspect – so, oh well. That means they can’t have a relationship with their daughter, since literature is all she cares about. O’Brien really delves into the flash points of culture and sex and religion in The Lonely Girl – and, again, found herself in trouble. Her book banned, everyone furious at her … But here we are today, talking about The Lonely Girl, and Edna O’Brien is still writing, so I suppose revenge is sweet.

Here’s an excerpt from the “kidnapping” section of the book. I love the bleakness of her imagery … and how she totally captures the brown and grey desolation of the west of Ireland. She writes simply, there aren’t a hell of a lot of extra words or flowery passages – but it’s still so evocative, I think.

EXCERPT FROM The Lonely Girl, by Edna O’Brien.

I had been thinking of some way of escaping, but the thought of their chasing me made me frightened.

“This vale of tears,” my aunt said desolately. Burying the calf had saddened her. Death was always on her mind. Death was so important in that place. Little crosses painted white were stuck up on roadside ditches here and there to mark where someone had been killed for Ireland, and not a day seemed to pass but some old person died of flu, or old age, or a stroke. Somehow we only heard of the deaths; we rarely heard when a child was born, unless it was twins, or a blue baby, or the vet had delivered it.

“Th’ evenings will be getting long soon,” I said to my aunt to cheer her up, but she just sighed.

We ate dinner in the kitchen. We had salty rashers, a colander of green cabbage, and some potatoes reheated from the previous day. While we were eating in silence, a car drove up and around by the side of the house. My aunt blessed herself as she saw a stranger help my father out.

“Grand evening,” my father said as he came in and handed her a brown paper parcel of meat soggy with blood. The stranger had had some drinks but did not stagger.

“You’re settling down!” he said to me. I tried to ignore him by concentrating on peeling a cold potato.

“I met Father Hagerty over in the village, he wants to have a chat with you,” he said.

My heart began to race, but I did not say anything.

“You’re to go and see him.”

I put butter on the potato and ate it slowly.

“D’you hear me?” he said with a sudden shout.

“There, there, she’ll go,” my aunt said, and she linked him into the back room. The stranger hung around for a few minutes until she came out, and then asked for a pound. We had no money, but we gave him three bottles of porter which had been hidden in a press since Christmastime.

My aunt put them in a paper bag and he went off, swearing. We had no idea where he came from.

We sat by the cooker and listened for my father’s call. At about nine o’clock he cried out and I ran in to him.

“I think I’m going to die,” he said, as his stomach was very sick. The news cheered me up no end – I might get away – so I gave him a dose of health salts.

We went to bed early that night. I slept in the room opposite my aunt’s, and when I had closed the door I sat down on the bed and wrote a long letter to Baba, for help. I wrote six or seven pages, while the candle lasted. I had already written a postcard, but had no answer. It occurred to me that maybe they had told the postmistress to keep my letters.

A wind blew down the chimney, causing the candle flame to blow this way and that. There was electricity in the house, but we were short of bulbs. I hid the letter under the mattress and undressed. The sight of my purple brassiere made me recall with longing the Sunday morning Baba and I had dyed all our underwear purple. Baba read somewhere that it was a sexy color, and on the way home from Mass we bought five packets of dye. Sneaky old Gustav must have been peeping through the keyhole of the bathroom, because suddenly Joanna had rushed upstairs and pushed the door in.

“Poison color in the basin,” she shouted as she burst in.

“You might have knocked, we could have been doing something very private,” Baba said.

“Poison water,” Joanna said, pointing to the weird-colored water in the basin. Our underwear turned out very nice, and some boy asked Baba if she was a cardinal’s niece.

I kept a jumper on in bed. We were short of blankets. I had only an ironing blanket over me and a quilt that my aunt had made. The candle had burned right down to the saucer as I lay on my side and closed my eyes to think of Eugene. I remembered the night he asked me to do some multiplication for him. He knew all about politics, and music, and books, and the insides of cameras, but he was slow to add. I totted up the amount of money he should get for one hundred and thirty-seven trees, at the rate of thirty-seven and six per tree. He had sold some trees to a local timber merchant, because the woods needed thinning. There were blue paint marks on the “sold” trees, but he said that at night the timber merchant had sent a boy along to put paint marks on extra trees.

“Nearly three hundred and fifty pounds,” I said, reckoning it roughly first, the way we were taught to at school, so that we should know it if our final answer was wildly wrong.

“And out of that he’ll make a small fortune,” Eugene said, detailing what would happen to the tree from the time it was felled until it became a press or a rafter. I could see planks of fine white wood with beautiful knots of deeper color, and golden heaps of sawdust on a floor, while he fumed about the profit which one man made.

I went to sleep wondering if I would ever see him again.

In the morning my aunt brought me tea and said that the priest had sent over word that he was expecting me. I dressed and left the house around eleven. My father had stayed in bed that morning and Mad Maura ran to the village for a half-bottle of whiskey, on tick.

Always when I escaped from the house I felt a rush of vitality and hope, as if there was still a chance that I might escape and live my life the way I wanted to.

It was a bright windy morning, the fields vividly green, the sky a delicate green-blue, and the hills behind the fields smoke-gray.

It’s nice, nice, I thought as I breathed deeply and walked with my aunt’s bicycle down the field toward the road.

I did not go to the priest’s house. I was too afraid, and anyhow, I thought that no one would ever find out.

I went for a spin down by the river and with the intention of posting Baba’s letter in the next village.

The fields along the road were struck into winter silence, a few were plowed and the plowed earth looked very, very dead and brown.

If only I could fly, I thought as I watched the birds flying and then perching for a second on thorn bushes and ivied piers.

I cycled slowly, not being in any great hurry. It was very quiet except for the humming of electric wires. Thick black posts carrying electric wires marched across the fields and the wires hummed a constant note of windy music.

At the bottom of Goolin Hill I got off the bicycle and pushed it slowly up; then halfway I stood to look at the ruined pink mansion on the hill. It had been a legend in my life, the pink mansion with the rhododendron trees all around it and a gray gazebo set a little away from the house. A rusted gate stood chained between two limestone piers, and the avenue had disappeared altogether. I thought of Mama. She had often told me of the big ball she went to in that mansion when she was a young girl. It had been the highlight of her whole life, coming across at night, in a rowboat, from her home in the Shannon island, changing her shoes in the avenue, hiding her old ones and her raincoat under a tree. The rhododendrons had been in bloom, dark-red rhododendrons; she remembered their color, and the names of all the boys she danced with. They had supper in a long dining room, and there were dishes of carved beef on the sideboard. Someone made up a song about Mama that night and it was engraved on her memory every after.

Lily Neary, swanlike
She nearly broke her bones
Trying to dance the reel-set
With the joker Johnny Jones.

“Who was Johnny Jones?” I used to ask.

“A boy,” she would say dolefully.

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2 Responses to The Books: “The Lonely Girl” (Edna O’Brien)

  1. Im guessing its an interesting book!!! im doing a 3 page report on the lonley girls

  2. sheila says:

    Sarah – it’s a fantastic book. Unbelievably assured for a first novel. Good luck with your report!

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