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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Infamy before Fame: Edna O'Brien's first novel: The Country Girls

Ireland is the sow that would eat her farrow (piglets), writer James Joyce claimed.

Edna, who wrote a book on Joyce, amended his words to include herself, and the reaction to her first novel.

"Ireland wanted to eat the enigmatic 31 year literary bonham." (I had to look up 'bonham', which means a sucking pig.)

It is a statement of fact that Edna O'Brien was notorious before she became famous. The story often cited, whether true or not, is that an Irish parish priest in 1960 burned a copy of The Country Girls. O'Brien went from pen to pyre, in other words. In 1960 at the time of the novel's publication, the book was banned in Ireland under the 1929 Censorship of Publication Act; and Edna's novel joined 1600 books already on the list. Yet Edna and her first novel got their druthers. In 2019 the BBC, in its list of the 100 most influential novels, included The Country Girls.

What is remarkable to me about Edna O'Brien's beginnings as a writer is the following scenario.

In the late 50s she was living in lonely London suburbs with her two young sons and husband. Each day, precisely at 2 p.m., Ernest Gebler demanded his tea and toast in bed. It was his habit to sleep late because he was up all night, trying to write. At some point as wife and mother, Edna began reviewing books for a publisher (Hutchinson) and was offered 50 pounds to write a novel. She wrote one in three weeks! My copy of The Country Girls has 175 pages. A wildly fluent and lyric writer like Edna could have knocked out 60 pages a week easily. (Even now she writes only with a pen.) To succeed then, she only had to kill off Cait's mother early, so as not to complicate the story, relive her own early life in County Clare, years in a Galway convent school, the following years in Dublin, and create two memorable protagonists: the fearful, romantic Cait, and the fearless Baba with her gift of gab. In three weeks, O'Brien had achieved a coming of age novel for Irish girls and women (and the rest of us), which has never been out of print.

In her memoir, Country Girl, Edna recounts what Ernest Gebler said when he read the novel before publication. "You can write…and I will never forgive you." In the trilogy's next two novels, The Lonely Girl and Girls in Their Married Bliss, the real Ernest becomes the fictional Eugene. What followed in real life was divorce, and a nasty custody fight, which Edna won.

A signed first edition of The Country Girls is available from Abe's Books for $800.00!

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux offer the trilogy and epilogue for $18.00, with an excellent introduction by O'Brien scholar, Eimear McBride. TBC…



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