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Jennifer (Prudence) Johnston Biography

Nationality: Irish. Born: Ireland, 1930; daughter of the dramatist Denis Johnston. Education: Park House School, Dublin; Trinity College, Dublin. Awards: Pitman award, 1972; Yorkshire Post award, 1973, 1980; Whitbread award, 1979. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1979; member, Aosdana. D. Litt.: University of Ulster, Coleraine, 1984.



The Captains and the Kings. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1972.

The Gates. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1973.

How Many Miles to Babylon? London, Hamish Hamilton, and New York, Doubleday, 1974.

Shadows on Our Skin. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1977; New York, Doubleday, 1978.

The Old Jest. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1979; New York, Doubleday, 1980.

The Christmas Tree. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1981; New York, Morrow, 1982.

The Railway Station Man. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1984; New York, Viking, 1985.

Fool's Sanctuary. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1987; New York, Viking, 1988.

The Invisible Worm. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1991; New York, Carroll and Graf, 1993.

The Illusionist. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1995.

Finbar's Hotel (serial novel, with others), edited by Dermot Bolger. London, Picador, 1997; Dublin, New Island Books, 1997; San Diego, California, Harcourt Brace, 1999.

Two Moons. London, Review, 1998.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Trio," in Best Irish Short Stories 2, edited by David Marcus. London, Elek, 1977.

"The Theft," in Irish Ghost Stories, edited by Joseph Hone. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1977.


The Nightingale and Not the Lark (produced Dublin, 1979). London, French, 1981.

Indian Summer (produced Belfast, 1983).

Andante un Poco Mosso, in The Best Short Plays 1983, edited by Ramon Delgado. Radnor, Pennsylvania, Chilton, 1983.

The Porch (produced Dublin, 1986).

Three Monologues: Twinkletoes, Mustn't Forget High Noon, and Christine. Belfast, Lagan Press, 1995.

The Desert Lullaby: A Play in Two Acts. Belfast, Lagan Press, 1996.


Critical Studies:

"Three Writers of the Big House: Elizabeth Bowen, Molly Keane and Jennifer Johnston" by Bridget O'Toole, in Across a Roaring Hill: The Protestant Imagination in Modern Ireland edited by Gerald Dawe and Edna Longley, Belfast, Blackstaff Press, 1985; Studies in the Fiction of Jennifer Johnston and Mary Lavin by Eileen Fauset. Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Nova Southeastern University, 1998.

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Jennifer Johnston is often described as a Big House novelist, writing in the tradition (beginning with Maria Edgeworth and continuing to William Trevor) of those who delineate the plight of the Anglo-Irish, strangers alike in Ireland and England, living an attenuated half-life of divided loyalties and allegiances in crumbling houses filled with the ghostly remains of better days and a broader culture, more and more alienated from the world of the native Irish around them, treated by their former inferiors with, at best, indifference, at worst, open hostility.

There are, of course, reasons for grounding Johnston in this tradition. All her novels focus on a situation in which a member of the Anglo-Irish is led to try to overcome their political and personal isolation by creating a relationship, across the barriers of national identity, class, religion, and political allegiance, with a member of the native Irish. This attempt is doomed to failure from the start; the barriers to be surmounted being too well entrenched in time and history.

Yet, in spite of the apparent familiarity of the setting and subject matter, and even the depiction of family relationships in her novels, it is far too limiting to regard Johnston merely as a Big House novelist. In a 1987 article she said:

What the characters in my books are trying to do … is to keep for a few moments their heads above the waters of inexorable history. "I know that in the end I will drown," they shout. "But at this moment I am waving."

This statement encapsulates a central aspect of Johnston's parable-like novels. The personal and the historical are so intertwined, with metaphors and allusions resonating from one sphere to the other, that it is impossible to say whether what is paramount is a portrait of class at a crucial historical juncture, modulated through the experiences of particular characters or the examination of personal situations of alienation, loneliness, choice, and the necessity for and function of art against the determining and limiting background of time, history, and tradition.

Most of Johnston's characters are would-be artists, musicians, or writers. They are concerned with the relationship between art and life; the formality and perfection of art and the shapelessness and failure of life. Many of them look for subjects for their art and, because she has a fondness for first-person, retrospective narratives, that subject is often their own lives and the crucial moments when the choices that determined the shape of those lives were made. To this extent, many of her novels are Bildungsroman—portraits of the artist as a young man or woman, even if recollected from age or at the point of death. The themes that are crucial in this, essentially personal, focus are the forces of family, society, and tradition that entrap the writer. As Alex Moore shapes his life before his execution (How Many Miles to Babylon?) he makes it clear that it is his rejection by his cold, manipulative mother and the social pressures that compel him, against his own inclination, to be "an Officer and a Gentleman" that have led directly to his impending death. The focus seems to be less on the background of World War I or the 1916 rising than on Alex's sense of silence and isolation in the murderous battle between his parents. However, it is also clear that Alex's parents represent different allegiances, different senses of history. He is caught in more than a personal impasse. He is torn between conflicting roles, identities, allegiances. His attempt to escape in his companionship with Jerry Crowe, cannot succeed. The "inexorable" force of "history" is against it. That history conditions Jerry Crowe, too. One of the achievements of Johnston's novels is her capacity to suggest levels of complexity beneath the apparent simplicity and lyricism of her prose. Jerry is not presented as the stereotyped "peasant" living in harmony with the land and his own senses, the opposite to Alex's repressed intellectualism. Jerry too is sent to his death by his mother and is, in his way, as alienated from his home and class as is Alex. In the presentation of these destructive mothers (and in the naming of the horse which the two young men train for the Morrigan, the Celtic Goddess of war), Johnston is extending the scope of her themes from conflicted nationalisms to a consideration of the human capacity for violence.

It is noticeable that all of her novels deal with war in one form or another. Two are set against the background of World War I. The Old Jest and Fool's Sanctuary deal with the period of the Black and Tans. Shadows on Our Skin and The Railway Station Man are concerned with the modern IRA. The Christmas Tree is centrally concerned with the holocaust. In one sense, Johnston's novels represent an answer to the question of whether it is possible to deal with the reality of contemporary violence in the north without being programmatic or strident. She is able to do this because the violence is seen as both almost unimportant and as a permanent part of human experience. The essential question about war and death is how the experience is used, and in this aspect, there has been a notable development in the novels. The early ones concentrate on defeat. The wave before the drowning is very subdued; the characters are in retreat from life, insulating themselves behind writing, drinking, or accepting that there is no possibility of a relationship with the world or with another individual. In the later novels, however, the outlook is more hopeful. Even though Constance Keating dies (The Christmas Tree) she has left behind her a child who will provide hope for Jacob's future, and she has got young Bridie May to arrange her papers into a, finally, publishable book. The latest novel, The Invisible Worm, is the most ambitious to date, providing in its story of incest and abuse of a daughter by her successful politician father, a chilling metaphor of the state of modern Ireland, and a new variation of Johnston's old reworking of the stereotype of "Mother Ireland." It also continues to suggest that moments of personal happiness can be snatched in spite of violence and madness and that the ghosts of the past which haunt all Johnson's characters, can be appeased.

—Anne Clune

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