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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

The Country Girls: A "Skittish Story of Two Nymphomaniacs"

Nymphomaniac, the word used to describe Edna O'Brien's protagonists Cait and Baba, has been attributed to the Irish writer Frank O'Connor. Much as I appreciate this humorous short story master, I find his use of this word, preposterous. Yet I love the irony that 51 years after O'Connor mocked Edna O'Brien, she won the prestigious Frank O'Connor international short story award for her 2011 collection, Saints and Sinners. Had O'Connor not died in 1966, would he have come to admire the O'Brien stories and novels that followed her '60s trilogy about Cait and Baba? And would he have acknowledged O'Brien for giving a voice to the silenced Irish girls and women? Probably not. I say this because as a 1962 visiting lecturer to Stanford University's writing program, he did not adapt well to disruptive students like Ken Kesey and his merry pranksters! As the story goes, O'Connor's Irish physician told him to drink red wine for his heart, which is why he agreed to teach at Stanford, under the mistaken notion the university was close to Northern California's Napa Valley. Obviously, humans can be brilliant and woefully uninformed at the same time. Frank O'Connor died in Ireland in 1966. Three years earlier Edna had completed her trilogy with Girls in Their Married Bliss, which followed The Lonely Girl.

In contrast to Frank O'Connor's claim about Edna's frivolous first novel, the Irish writer Nuala O'Faolain had this to say: "In the mid '60s teaching night students in college, I used to sneak in mention of Edna O'Brien's Country Girl books… and it was as if her name was a secret sign. Afterwards women would be waiting to see me, to whisper tales from their true lives." Those true lives would have included decades of "suffocating conformity and stasis," "lifelong and dissoluble marriage," and anything spoken or written about sex, forbidden in Catholic Ireland.

By her own admission, O'Brien is fearful and fearless, as are her unforgettable characters Baba and Cait/Kate. Ravenous for life, these young women try to survive in a punitive, patriarchal country and keep something of their self-worth intact.

In her nonfiction Mother Ireland, Edna asks: "Am I Irish? In truth I would not want to be anything else. At least it does not leave one pusillanimous." And for her to have written the Country Girl trilogy in the '60s required a sturdy backbone and staunch convictions. Living in London at the time of her first novel's publication, what was Ireland's response to The Country Girls? "Bile, odium, and outrage," Edna has said. To be continued…

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