Banned, burned and reviled: what was so radical about Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls?

The story of one of the most famous, infamous and beloved Irish novels of the 20th century.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

I wakened quickly and sat up in bed abruptly. It is only when I am anxious that I waken easily and for a minute I did not know why my heart was beating faster than usual. Then I remembered. The old reason. He had not come home.

So begins The Country Girls, one of the most famous, infamous, beloved and influential Irish novels of the 20th century. Even in a century notable for Irish novels satisfying the criteria for each of those categories, The Country Girls’ formation and publication in 1960, along with the resultant public outcry, holds a singular position in literary lore.

First there is the incredible speed of its creation (“The book wrote itself,” O’Brien has often remarked of its miraculous three-week gestation). Then there is its notorious – by now legendary – reception (banned by the Irish censor for sexually explicit content, publicly burned by a local parish priest in search of some post-rosary drama, and O’Brien herself subjected to a series of anonymous, malevolent letters), which in turn led to the author being hailed as both cause célèbre and national pariah. The moral hysteria that greeted the book’s appearance has  ensured that both it, and O’Brien, have become era-defining symbols of the struggle for Irish women’s voices to be heard above the clamour of an ultra-conservative, ultra-religious and institutionally misogynistic society. Seán Ó’Faoláin’s description of Ireland, in this now much-reviled period of its history, as a “dreary Eden” does little to capture the force of outrage and public disapprobation O’Brien was subjected to.

Born in Tuamgraney, Co Clare in 1930, O’Brien had grown up within the confines of a strict, traditional Catholic family and received, as she has described it, both “no education and a very rich, chaotic education” from the Sisters of Mercy in Galway. On finishing school, she moved to Dublin where she acquired her pharmacist’s licence in 1950, and in 1954, against the wishes of her family, she married the Czech-Irish writer Ernest Gébler. They moved to London where she began working as a reader for the publisher Hutchinson. On the strength of her book reports she was commissioned, for £25, to write a novel. The Country Girls was the result.

To her critics in Ireland, O’Brien then added insult to injury by becoming an international success. Fêted wherever she went, she was suddenly taking up precious space in the room where only the great men of literature were supposed to dwell, and they did not take kindly to her presence there. Frank O’Connor and LP Hartley particularly embarrassed themselves with dismissive comments about her characters being “nymphomaniacs” and the author simply displaying “a poor taste in men”. Gébler’s resentment of O’Brien’s literary achievements later led to divorce, with O’Brien receiving sole custody of their two sons.

Furthermore, The Country Girls, followed shortly by two almost equally controversial sequels, The Lonely Girl and Girls in their Married Bliss, was shining an unwelcome light on the human cost of the cultural, social and intellectual stagnation that was suffocating the country by the beginning of the 1960s. With every aspect of women’s lives invaded by, and subject to, the whims of a state machine ideologically opposed to female emancipation – under the direction of a meticulously prurient Catholic Church – O’Brien’s invocation of female characters who dared desire more from life than domestic and sexual servitude, emotional disaffection and intellectual abnegation, was nothing short of revolutionary. Not only was O’Brien giving voice to the voiceless, she was washing the nation’s dirty laundry in public, laundry which has proved so dirty that, more than 50 years later, it is still proving in need of a rinse.

The book’s journey from pen to pyre and thereafter to the status of a cherished classic  frontloads any approach to it with political meaning. But it would be a shame to allow the book’s tumultuous history to distract from its literary and artistic treasure. By turns beautiful and bawdy, funny and haunting, The Country Girls, often referred to as the quintessential tale of Irish girlhood, is not the novel that broke the mould, it is the one that made it.

In essence the trilogy comprises the intertwined and, latterly, internarrated stories of Caithleen/Cait/Kate Brady and Bridget/Baba Brennan, two girls – sometimes allies, sometimes enemies – who have grown up together in the stifling religious atmosphere of 1950s rural Ireland. When we first encounter them, both are still schoolgirls. Cait lives with her gentle, adoring mother, who is something of a martyr to the antics of her violent alcoholic husband, who terrorises them both with his binges and financial ineptitude. The family’s sole preserve is Hickey, the underpaid farmhand who keeps the place going and, only occasionally, helps himself to a free chicken. Hickey’s simple warmth and reliability are balm to the drink-torn household, and mother and daughter alike live in fear of his moving on to better-paid work.

Baba’s life could hardly be more different. Daughter of the local vet, Mr Brennan, and his wife, Martha – who loves nothing more than a night down the local hotel enjoying a few G&Ts in the company of travelling salesmen – Baba exudes all the self-confident brattishness and ill-founded snobbery of a child of the rural bourgeoisie. Alternately jealous of and infuriated by Cait’s superior intellect and dreamy artistic unworldliness, Baba bullies and picks on her.

After the untimely death of Cait’s mother, however, when both girls are packed off to a joyless convent education across the county, Baba’s reliance upon Cait becomes more apparent. The pair make an odd couple but support each other through the next few years of bad dinners and burgeoning adolescence. Matters only come to a head when, at Baba’s instigation, they manage to get themselves expelled for a well-planned act of obscenity (“Poor Sister Margaret, she has suffered the greatest shock of her religious life”) and they head off to Dublin in hot pursuit of all the romance and glamour they imagine life in the big city will bring.

Having set themselves up in a boarding house, run by the sympathetic but tight-fisted Austrian émigré Joanna, Baba is soon seeking out adventure and persuading Cait of the wisdom of dyeing their underwear black. Cait, too, settles into her new job in a grocery shop with relative content until the re-emergence of a ghost from back home in the form of Mr Gentleman – so called as he is French and “de Maurier” has proved too great a challenge for local tongues to overcome. Years older, unhappily married and just the right amount of world-weary, Mr Gentleman is the very embodiment of the kind of old-world elegance guaranteed to capture the imagination of a dreamy, literary girl like Cait. As luck would have it, having shown an ever-increasing interest in her since she was 14, he is also keen for the relationship to progress.

O’Brien’s writing revels in the young woman’s fetishisation of the outward symbols of Mr Gentleman’s sophisticated otherness: his handsome car, his foreign accent, thin cool mouth, even temper and genteel aura of culture, all of which lie in diametric opposition to the emotional mayhem her early life has prepared her to expect from men. The scenes between the would-be lovers as they steal brief moments together, away from prying eyes, while in no way as graphic or explicit as their furious reception implies, remain among the most sexually charged in literature.

Cait’s romantic and, later, physical longing, combined with the fear of her own inexperience and potential for proving a disappointment to him, make exquisitely agonising reading for anyone who has ever loved beyond their reach. As the novel progresses, with bitter inevitability, provincial malice misses no opportunity to show off its cruellest self.

The Lonely Girl – filmed and later published as Girl with Green Eyes – picks up the story two years later. The two girls are still rooming at Joanna’s. Baba is now spending much of her time seeking out men who will either show her a good time or provide her with a free meal. Cait, however, is reintroduced mid speed-read of Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night, dying to discover if “the man would leave the woman or not”, the implication being that her romantic illusions remain intact, which indeed they soon prove to be.

While out on the trawl with Baba one night, she is introduced to Eugene Gaillard, a strange, sad-faced documentary director. His mysterious self-containment gives Cait such a dose of the Mr Gentleman’s that, upon bumping into him again in a Dublin bookshop, she takes the uncharacteristically brazen step of asking him out to tea. Eugene accepts and an awkward romance ensues.

Having again plumped for an older, more worldly man Cait/Kate soon finds herself rechristened (“He called me Kate, as he said Caithleen was too ‘Kiltartan’ for his liking – whatever that meant”) and out of her depth. The spectre of Eugene’s still vaguely beloved but seemingly “ex” wife looms large over the relationship and is cultivated with Mrs Danvers-esque assiduity by his housekeeper, Anna.

Kate’s mortifying inability to overcome the practical business of ridding herself of her virginity is masterfully counterbalanced by the farcical chaos subsequent to her drunken father’s discovery (by anonymous letter) of the still unconsummated relationship. With a posse of louts and misfits in tow he sets out physically to recover his daughter from the clutches of this Protestant divorcee who is imperilling her very soul. It’s here that O’Brien most incisively slices into the double-bind of male attitudes towards female sexuality: the proprietorial notion that both male honour and male satisfaction lie in direct opposition to each other between the legs of the same women. So furiously is the battle between these incompatible principles fought that Kate’s rights and wishes, even the direct assertion of jurisdiction over her own mind and body, are considered subservient to the male prerogative for self- and social respect.

In the midst of all this O’Brien never abandons her gift for social satire or resists pricking at artistic pretensions. Rather, she wields them both to powerful effect throughout, making The Lonely Girl a far more pointed critique of Irish society – whose sense of itself was, at that time, utterly dependent upon the disenfranchisement of women – than The Country Girls. And she is disturbingly accurate about what life within such societies does to a woman’s sense of agency or personal volition. In a country where both law and culture deny your right to make a life of your own choosing, how do you go about getting what you want? O’Brien is merciless on the mutilation of self-worth inherent to the problem and the emotional manipulation required in order to survive.

Survival is even more central to the last, and saddest, novel in the trilogy, the ironically titled Girls in their Married Bliss. The action has jumped forward several years and across the sea to London. Baba Brennan is now Baba Durack and married to a boorish millionaire builder with a penchant for badly aimed attempts at social climbing. Cait, now completely subsumed into Kate, is entombed in an affectionless marriage with Eugene in their cold, grey house. Her only relief is the love she feels for their son and, after falling back on her old habit of romantic escapism, a brief, unconsummated affair with a married man.

Eugene’s discovery of the affair causes the final collapse of the marriage and proves to have catastrophic consequences both for Kate and her child. Eugene’s pitiless irrationality and pious egotism is detailed with excruciating exactness, but also intriguingly counterweighted by the oafish, yet ultimately more forgiving, attitude Baba’s husband takes to the news that her much-anticipated pregnancy bears no connection to any effort on his part.

While this second, often unfairly undervalued, sequel marks a decisive shift in O’Brien’s approach (with Baba given her own voice and Kate, now in the third person, no longer sole provider of what becomes a much darker narrative), it is never less impressive than its predecessors. The skill required to make two such diverse voices work in concert – Baba’s, relentlessly ribald and bathetic (“He’d got my arse in an uproar and left me high and dry”) contrasting with Kate’s increasingly elegiac self-excoriation – to create such a moving meditation on grief, loss of love and the attendant loss of self, reveals a novelist maturing into the wealth of her powers.

O’Brien has gone on to create many rich and poignant portraits of women, and men, over her career but the magic of Kate and Baba has never faded. Such is the affection they are held in that when Time and Tide was published in 1992, O’Brien was still being asked if this new book could, in some way, be read as a kind of epilogue to The Country Girls trilogy. (Her actual epilogue is provided in the new edition.) Older, wiser, bowed but blaspheming still, it is Baba’s final say on the outcome of both girls’ lives. To add more would be unfair.

So how is it possible that these three slim novels – which caused such a degree of moral pandemonium that they were condemned by a (subsequently disgraced) politician to a (subsequently disgraced) archbishop as “filth” – have survived their scandalous genesis, outlived all their chauvinistic critics and only continued to grow in stature?

One answer is that they set a precedent. With their creation O’Brien gave voice to the experiences of a previously muzzled generation of Irish women. Into bodies raised to the expectation of violence, rape, forced pregnancy, innumerable dangerous childbirths, domestic bondage and the ever-present risk of institutionalisation for intentionally or unintentionally bringing social shame on male relations, she breathed the radical oxygen of choice, desire and sensual delight. To minds shackled by the many Machiavellian impositions of religious prohibition, institutional contempt and unquestioning denigration of female intellect, she sang the song of awareness, of dissent and the necessity of searching out better, and more.

O’Brien’s girls succeed, and do not succeed, in overcoming their internal and external obstacles. The point is that they never stop grappling with the terms of their lives, and the author, in her turn, never relegates their status within those lives to that of best supporting actress. These are always the stories of two young women going out into life, what histories they bring along with them and the futures they create for themselves on the way.

The other, probably more significant, reason for the longevity of The Country Girls trilogy is of course that, beyond all the tales and tellings of how the novels came into being and made their progress throughout the world, they are a work of art. Sometimes painful, often funny, O’Brien lifted the linguistic play she so loved in James Joyce and, taking note of his relish in the interchange of the high and low in human nature, she went away and fashioned something wholly her own. These are novels of heartbreaking empathy, rigorous honesty and peerless beauty. So now they stand: humane, true and beautifully true forever, no matter how literary fashions change or how many years go by.

“The Country Girls” trilogy is published in a new edition by Faber & Faber, with an introduction by Eimear McBride 

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem