Many introductions to Edna O’Brien start out by stating excitedly that when her first books were published in the early 1960s, they were banned because she so “scandalised her native Ireland”.
I remember when Edna’s novels first appeared, and nobody I knew was at all scandalised by the beguiling stories of Cait and Baba in The Country Girls and The Lonely Girl (afterwards called The Girl with Green Eyes).
But then, that was Dublin. Those who were “scandalised” were, possibly, people in Co Clare. This was not a flattering picture of Scarriff, and Cait’s father is portrayed as the primitive, brutal, drunken Irishman who intervenes in a violent way to stop his daughter shacking up with her sophisticated, cosmopolitan lover.
Yet when I re-read this episode more recently, as a parent, I saw it differently. In his own maladroit way the father was trying to protect his young daughter from a married man who neighbours called “a dangerous type”, and who, it was rumoured, lured young girls to his house to “dope them”.
And if the story is autobiographical – as it is, in part – the subsequent marriage that Edna made to the sophisticated and cosmopolitan Ernest Gebler, a Czech-Jewish migrant to Ireland, did indeed end in tears (although it produced two much-loved sons). Edna, who is discreet about her real life, in contrast to the honesty of her fictional narratives, has never bad-mouthed the late Ernie Gebler, but Stan Gebler Davies, Ernie’s nephew often talked to me about the Gebler version of the story.
Stan claimed that Ernie, a novelist himself, was virtually the co-author of Edna’s early books, because he had mentored her so brilliantly. Subsequently Ernie became bitter that, as in the movie of A Star is Born, the mentor fades, as the disciple overtakes the master. And Ernest Gebler’s novels are today unknown, while Edna was recently hailed as Ireland’s Solzhenitsyn.
I don’t believe that Ernie did co-author Edna’s early books: her own literary gifts shine out of her writing. But he was an experienced older man, and a published writer, and he did help to guide her and to structure her early work. If she had stayed in Scarriff and married someone her parents might have preferred, her life would have been very different.
I admire and indeed love Edna – I worked for a few months as her secretary in the mid-1960s, and she was kind, solicitous and thoughtful – but her fate was not quite in the Solzhenitsyn line. Far from being despatched to a frozen Siberian saltmine, Edna migrated to London where she was soon the toast of the town, and seemed to know everybody – Peter O’Toole, Peter Sellers, Lady Antonia Fraser, Lord Snowdon and Princess Margaret, Margaret Drabble, Ken Tynan and a full cast of Chelsea glitterati.
Being “banned in Ireland” brought great kudos, although few people understood, or understand, what this entailed. Irish censorship regulations were ludicrously over-democratic: only two people needed to object to a book to get it “banned”.
It was not unusual for an author to have a book prohibited because of other writers’ jealousey, submitting a rival’s work anonymously. In Edna’s case, I suspect that certain local Co Clare people submitted The Country Girls and The Lonely Girl because they disliked the portrayal of ignorant culchies outwitted by the sophisticated blow-in.
Perhaps they also disliked the message of a young woman breaking free from old controls, although the sexual content was quite delicately handled – in contrast to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the main topic of literary controversy in the years around1960.
The biographical facts of Edna’s life are well known. She was born in December 1930, which makes her an astonishing 82 – and I have never seen anyone look so amazing in her 80s.
But if she had cosmetic “work” done, she wouldn’t tell you anyway: she’d laugh off the question and say something enigmatic. I once asked her if it was true that she began every day with a cold shower, a habit from her convent formation, just for the discipline of it, and, then, the glowing effect on her skin. She laughed it off, making little of it. “I might let the water run a bit lukewarm….” Yet I think she probably does bring to any beauty routine the discipline of a nun.
For Edna, appearance has always been important. When the London-based journalist Maureen Cleave first interviewed Edna she found her a “fresh-faced Irish girl of no very striking appearance”: but by the time Maureen met her subsequently, Edna had blossomed into a beauty. She learned how to dress and found that the flowing, high-class hippy styles of Thea Porter expressed her personality; she grew her hair into its full abundance.
She was also, by then, divorced, and a single mother, which gave that air of vulnerability and loneliness which nurtured her writing.
Edna – who has a sister, who became a nun in South Africa – really did feel that her parents’ lives were rough and repressive. She has described her parents’ values as being a “coercive and stifling religion….very frightening and all-pervasive.”
A couple of years ago I asked her about her childhood and how her parents treated her: she replied with a chilling quote from T.S. Eliot – “A cold coming they had of it.” We shall see, when she publishes her autobiography, how she views those formative years now: if she still sees her mother as “strong” and “controlling”, and her childhood “suffocating”. (And yet she dedicated her first novel to her mother – who never approved of the writer’s life.)
When I asked her about the report that a priest in Scarriff had burned her books, Edna said, “It was a priest who stood up for me.” (That would probably have been Fr John Kelly, a liberal priest who spoke out against the censorship in the 1960s.) Edna did say that she retains some sense of “spirituality”, and finds it warming to sit quietly in a church and light a candle.
As a young, divorced woman, and in her middle years, Edna often searched for love – as her stories make clear – and sometimes she found it. But sometimes again, it eluded her, and a man she had set her heart on proved faithless: or returned to another woman.
One of the most sexually compelling characters who appears in her work has been identified as the television journalist John Freeman – still alive in his nineties. (In his ground-breaking TV programmes “Face to Face”, he interviewed Carl Jung, Bertrand Russell and Martin Luther King, among others.)
Edna was sought-after and desired by many men. I remember the late Editor of the London Evening Standard, Charles Wintour (father of Anna Wintour of American Vogue) being altogether smitten by Edna. He adored her, though I don’t believe there was ever an affair. Charles was completely uninterested in Ireland but he took to talking to me about Ireland because of Edna.
But, though attractive to many men, Edna never married again. She was always serious about her work, and also about her sons, and she was a fond mother. One of the reasons why Edna has never been rich is that she gave what she could to her family: she sold a beautiful house in Montagu Square, Marylebone – just before the property boom too – to help out one of her sons.
And although in later life, she sometimes felt that she was being edged aside by a new generation of tougher male writers, Edna never stopped working. She published biographies of Joyce and Byron as well as well as experimental forms mixing fact with fiction. In the Forest was a fictionalised version of the Brendan O’Donnell’s case – the disturbed man who murdered a mother, her child and a priest. Some critics felt that Edna had projected too much of her own novelist’s imagination into the O’Donnell character, rather than sticking to the facts.
Writers have to rise to different challenges as they grow older: and women have to adjust to the fact that as they enter their senior years, they will be viewed differently by men, and by society. Later on again, if they can make to the golden years, they may enter the pantheon of “national treasure”, and Edna has done just that: as is her due. She has made peace with her native Co Clare. The people who once objected to what she wrote have now gone, and their values are in the past too.
Last time I spoke to her I asked her – delicately – about sex in the senior years. Did she believe in romance in old age? She answered with an allusive metaphor. “I might not be able to climb Mount Errigal any more,” she said, dreamily. “But I can still look at it!” ENDS. May 2012. I.I. Mag