CBR14 Bingo: Scandal
“But we want young men. Romance. Love and things,” I said, despondently.
Edna O’Brien is kind of a giant in Irish fiction, so it was kind of embarrassing, really, that I hadn’t read any of her work before this summer. (Yes, this is another installment in my Summer of Irish Fiction.) She’s now in her nineties and only recently retired, and she’s published steadily ever since her first novel, Country Girl (included in this volume), which came out in 1960 and immediately scandalized a number of people in Ireland, resulting in her first novels being banned in her home country for some time. (Ireland had some pretty draconian censorship starting from the establishment of the Republic until well into the mid-century.) She had the audacity to be critical of the Catholic mores that had hold of Irish society, and also to depict young women and their desires frankly and without judgment, even if what those girls wanted was ill-advised affairs with older, often married men.
The Country Girls trilogy follows Caithleen “Cait/Kate” Brady and Bridget “Baba” Brennan, two girls from a small village in County Clare who have grown up together. The first book, Country Girl, is something of a coming-of-age story, narrated by Caithleen, and her codependent friendship with Baba: the girls often quarrel, make up, and quarrel again as they navigate adolescence. Cait is the brainier one, who wins a scholarship to the convent school they both wind up at; Baba is the real force in the relationship, the one whose antics (scribbling a dirty rumor about one of the nuns and the priest on a prayer card) gets the two of them expelled, after which they eventually get jobs in Dublin and share a room in a boarding-house run by an Austrian immigrant couple. They’re both pretty, objects of desire for the men around them, such as shopkeeper Jack who was in love with Cait’s mother, and when she drowns, transfers his affections to Cait; Cait herself has a mutual crush on the older, married (and partly foreign) rich man of the village, nicknamed Mr. Gentleman, who continues to pursue Cait once she is in Dublin. The next novels follow their adventures: The Lonely Girl follows Cait after her failed affair with Mr. Gentleman, as she falls in love with a Protestant documentary filmmaker and becomes his mistress; Girls in Their Married Bliss has both Cait and Baba after their respective marriages, Cait to her filmmaker, Baba to an upwardly mobile builder.
Their lives, while containing flashes of fun and happiness, are not really happy ones: O’Brien captures in painful detail the repressive, misogynist environment that the girls grow up in, which sees no real future for them beyond marriage, and makes no effort to acknowledge that they have goals or desires, let alone sexuality. The fairly frank (though not overly-explicit) sex scenes in the second two novels, and the fact that the girls aren’t punished for their desires, make it pretty easy to see how the novels wound up being banned: O’Brien remembers what it was like to be young and burning with all kinds of hungers, and while the girls aren’t happy, she makes it clear that it’s Irish society and Irish Catholicism that are the root of their suffering. Do they make some stupid, selfish choices? Absolutely–but O’Brien clearly sees that as part of being young and inexperienced, rather than a sin that demands condemnation. Her sympathy for her country girls is clear, her distaste for the Ireland of her youth equally apparent, and her disdain for the men who would prey upon young women desperate for more of life than what’s marked out for them–oh, that’s very clear. (The double-standards on sexuality come in for quite a bit of veiled and not-so-veiled critique.)
Life, after all, was a secret with the self. The more one gave out, the less there remained for the center–that center which she coveted for herself and recognized instantly in others. Fruits had it, the very heart of, say, a cherry, where the true worth and flavor lay. Some of course were flawed or hollow in there. Many, in fact.
It’s not always fun to read, particularly in the final installment as both women find deep unhappiness in their respective marriages, but you can see O’Brien’s influence upon the novelists who would come after her, and the way she seizes the power to write narratives about young people paralyzed by their lack of choices in the young nation from predecessors like James Joyce and Frank O’Connor, whose fiction was brilliant but heavily slanted towards the male experience: Edna O’Brien opens up that space to shock and surprise and criticize for young women, as well, without romanticizing, excusing, or unduly punishing her protagonists.