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Edna O'brien Biography

Edna O'Brien comments:

Nationality: Irish. Born: Tuamgraney, County Clare, 1932. Education: National School, Scariff; Convent of Mercy, Loughrea; Pharmaceutical College of Dublin: licentiate, Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland. Career: practiced pharmacy briefly; novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. Awards: Kingsley Amis award, 1962; Yorkshire Post award, 1971. Agent: Robert Lescher, 155 East 71st St., New York, NY 10021, U.S.A.



The Country Girls. London, Hutchinson, and New York, Knopf, 1960.

The Lonely Girl. London, Cape, and New York, Random House, 1962; as Girl with Green Eyes, London, Penguin, 1964.

Girls in Their Married Bliss. London, Cape, 1964; New York, Simon and Schuster, 1968.

August Is a Wicked Month. London, Cape, and New York, Simon andSchuster, 1965.

Casualties of Peace. London, Cape, 1966; New York, Simon andSchuster, 1967.

A Pagan Place. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York, Knopf, 1970.

Night. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972; New York, Knopf, 1973.

Johnny I Hardly Knew You. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977; as I Hardly Knew You, New York, Doubleday, 1978.

The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue. New York, Farrar Straus, 1986; London, Cape, 1987.

The High Road. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York, Farrar Straus, 1988.

Time and Tide. New York, Farrar Straus Giroux; London, Penguin; and Toronto, HarperCollins, 1992.

An Edna O'Brien Reader (includes August is a Wicked Month, Casualties of Peace, and Johnny I Hardly Knew You). New York, Warner Books, 1994.

House of Splendid Isolation. New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, andLondon, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994.

Down by the River. New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997.

Wild Decembers. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Short Stories

The Love Object. London, Cape, 1968; New York, Knopf, 1969.

A Scandalous Woman and Other Stories. London, Weidenfeld andNicolson, and New York, Harcourt Brace, 1974.

Mrs. Reinhardt and Other Stories. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978; as A Rose in the Heart, New York, Doubleday, 1979.

Returning. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982.

A Fanatic Heart: Selected Stories. New York, Farrar Straus, 1984;London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985.

Lantern Slides. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1990.


A Cheap Bunch of Nice Flowers (produced London, 1962). Published in Plays of the Year 1962-1963, London, Elek, and New York, Ungar, 1963.

The Wedding Dress (televised 1963). Published in Mademoiselle(New York), November 1963.

Zee & Co. (screenplay). London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1971.

A Pagan Place, adaptation of her own novel (produced London, 1972;New Haven, Connecticut, 1974). London, Faber, 1973; Port Townsend, Washington, Graywolf Press, 1984.

The Gathering (produced Dublin, 1974; New York, 1977).

The Ladies (produced London, 1975).

Virginia (produced Stratford, Ontario, 1980; London and New York, 1981). London, Hogarth Press, and New York, Harcourt Brace, 1981.

Flesh and Blood (produced Bath, 1985; New York, 1986).

Madame Bovary, adaptation of the novel by Flaubert (producedWatford, Hertfordshire, 1987).


Girl with Green Eyes, 1964; I Was Happy Here (Time Lost and Time Remembered), with Desmond Davis, 1965; Three into Two Won't Go, 1969; Zee & Co. (X, Y, & Zee), 1972; The Tempter, with others, 1975; The Country Girls, 1984.

Television Plays:

The Wedding Dress, 1963; The Keys of the Café, 1965; Give My Love to the Pilchards, 1965; Which of These Two Ladies Is He Married To?, 1967; Nothing's Ever Over, 1968; Then and Now, 1973; Mrs. Reinhardt, from her own story, 1981.


On the Bone. Warwick, Greville Press, 1989.

Other (for children)

The Dazzle. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1981.

A Christmas Treat. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1982.

The Rescue. London, Hodder and Stoughton, 1983.

Tales for the Telling: Irish Folk and Fairy Tales. London, Joseph, andNew York, Atheneum, 1986.


Mother Ireland. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York, Harcourt Brace, 1976.

Arabian Days, photographs by Gerard Klijn. New York, HorizonPress, and London, Quartet, 1977.

The Collected Edna O'Brien (miscellany). London, Collins, 1978.

James and Nora: A Portrait of Joyce's Marriage. Northridge, California, Lord John Press, 1981.

Vanishing Ireland, photographs by Richard Fitzgerald. London, Cape, 1986; New York, Potter, 1987.

James Joyce. New York, Viking Penguin, 1999.

Editor, Some Irish Loving: A Selection. London, Weidenfeld andNicolson, and New York, Harper, 1979.


Critical Studies:

Edna O'Brien by Grace Eckley, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press, 1974.

I quote from two critics: William Trevor and John Berger. A Pagan Place: "Constitutes a reconstruction of a childhood experience which so far as I know, is unique in the English language. In this respect, though otherwise it is different, it invites comparison with Proust; a book whose genius is memory" (Berger).

The Love Object: "Rarely has a woman protested as eloquently as Edna O'Brien. In sorrow and compassion she keens over the living. More obviously now, despair is her province" (Trevor).

My aim is to write books that in some way celebrate life and do justice to my emotions as well as form a connection with the reader, the unknown one.

* * *

The major theme of Edna O'Brien's fiction is the ineffable pain of loneliness, guilt, and loss. Her works record a bleak odyssey from naive optimism, through rancor, bitterness and hatred, to the scarred wisdom that comes from having wrestled with her suffering. Her insights into the conflicting dilemmas that beset women today have won her international acclaim.

Her fiction grows out of the trilogy which follows Caithleen and Baba from their initiation into life and love to their chilling disillusionment with both. At the outset, innocent and intelligent Caithleen Brady (Kate) wants every story to have a happy ending. Baba is so brazen that even her father, Mr. Brennan, prefers Kate: "Poor Caithleen, you've always been Baba's tool." The Country Girls and its sequel represent a woman's version of a traditionally masculine motif: that of an ego tempted by an alter ego to enjoy forbidden fruit (like Faust and Mephistopheles). The entire trilogy operates around this theme. Kate has "one mad eye," but her softness, daftness, and wantonness are not her essential nature. They come to her from an alter ego whose influence she is unable to resist. Baba promotes Kate's decisions, and the story follows their consequence: their expulsion from the convent school, an affair with Mr. Gentleman in The Country Girls, and an affair with Eugene Gaillard in The Lonely Girl. Because Kate is so influenced by her friend, she is always restless. She feels "lonely" without the weight of Eugene's body, but she cannot commit herself to him: "Before she left Eugene she had often thought of being with other men—strange distant men who would beckon to her." She recognizes that she is disloyal to anyone who is "real" for her, and that what she yearns for is a "shadow"—but she cannot stop herself. This weakness is reflected in the shift in narrative perspective. In Girls in Their Married Bliss, Baba, the temptress, has become the narrator and Kate, the ego, is correspondingly unable to determine her actions. She becomes increasingly introverted, afraid of giving herself: "Life was a secret with the Self. The more one gave out the less there remained for the centre." The novel ends with Baba regretting the loss of "some important region that they both knew nothing about." In the epilogue that O'Brien added when her trilogy was republished in 1986, Kate, utterly wasted by life, has committed suicide, and Baba, while waiting to meet the coffin at Waterloo Station, reflects on the conflict between her own desires and the emptiness of her own life. It is a bleak ending to what is still O'Brien's finest work.

The sense of being divided also lies at the heart of O'Brien's next novel. "This is not me, I am not doing this," thinks Ellen, the heroine of August Is a Wicked Month. While the "Not-I" has her "jaunt into iniquity"—a holiday in France following her separation—her son, on holiday with his father, is killed. Unable to discover an adequate reaction to the loss of part of her essential self, she returns to England, anxious only about whether she has contracted gonorrhea. Worry about the "Not-I"—which proves needless—replaces concern about the "I." This mechanism anticipates the next novel, Casualties of Peace, in which the insubstantial ego (Willa) is accidentally killed in place of the alter ego figure (Patsy). The motif is further explored in Zee & Co., the only work in which it achieves even a tentative, though unstable, resolution.

The humor, so intrinsic to the early work, is gradually replaced by sharp and sometimes acid observations. But the most notable tendency in O'Brien's fiction is the progress from the "realism" of the trilogy to the introverted monologues, reminiscences, and reconstructions of her later work. The author has declared that her favorite is A Pagan Place, which tells the problems of a young girl very similar to Kate. Its second-person narrative voice is a bold but sometimes disconcerting device. Night, a disturbing and impressive novel, traces Mary Hooligan's reconstruction of her past. In Johnny I Hardly Knew You, bitterness and invective detract from its technical merits. The High Road' s heroine, Anna, on holiday to a Spanish island to forget an affair, is drawn into a circle of characters that includes a waitress called Catalina, who falls in love with her. When Catalina's husband discovers this, he kills her. Anna, devastated by the realization that it might have been her that Juan meant to kill, determines to return to Ireland. For all the brilliance with which the various scenes are painted, this is an angry, claustrophobic book.

All these works rest on the assumption that there is an inevitable conflict between men's and women's needs, and that the only way for a woman to come to terms with this is to learn to be independent. At the end of Girls in Their Married Bliss, Kate says: "What Baba doesn't know is that I'm finding my feet, and when I'm able to talk I imagine that I won't be alone." The subsequent novels represent ever bolder experiments in talking—that is, in narrative technique. They lean on words to ward off an increasingly desperate inner loneliness.

Her finest novel since The Country Girls is Time and Tide, which tells the story of Nell, who runs away from home to live with a man. Their marriage goes sour, he becomes brutal and tries to prevent her from having custody of their two sons. As they grow from children to young men, she struggles to discover a sense of her own identity. Pared of all inessentials, each of the short episodes takes a scalpel to the shattering ironies that pass for life.

House of Splendid Isolation, which is set in contemporary Ireland, represents a new direction in O'Brien's writing. McGreevy is a Republican activist on the run: he hides for a few days in the house of an elderly woman called Josie. The partisan is made subservient to the personal; the personal, to the integrity of motivation. It is a work infused by a numbed awareness of the waste of human worth. O'Brien's short stories are among her finest work. They explore very much the same ground as her novels—the various kinds of misfortune and loneliness that beset the lives of her Irish characters—and reverberate freely in the reader's imagination. Her weakness is that her characters can often seem only vehicles for the dilemmas that confront them. Her strength is the lyricism of her language. No other contemporary novelist has better captured, and with as much poignancy, the agony brought about by confused longings.

O'Brien's acknowledged major literary influences are William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Anton Chekhov. While her prose style often reveals a debt to Joycean sensuousness as well as to his prolixity, in her later novels themes she explores often approximate the concerns of Faulkner with life in the rural South. O'Brien's setting is rural village Irish life in Down by the River and mountainside remoteness in west Ireland in Wild Decembers. The rural dilemmas faced by Mary, the fourteen-year-old heroine of Down by the River, include the guilt laden dogma of her village church when she finds herself pregnant by her abusive father and the political agendas of those who would deny her an abortion. O'Brien based her novel on events in 1992 that led to political turmoil and a national referendum on abortion for those in distress, such as the heroine of O'Brien's novel. Fathers, church, state, judicial rulings, and anti-abortion foes represent an oppressive political system's response to a young girl's personal dilemma in this novel. As Mary flees from the reach of a grasping and exploitative system, O'Brien's characteristic pessimism about the possibilities of happiness gives way to hope and the possibility of community in those good people who rally to support Mary.

Wild Decembers focuses less on repression caused by church and state than it does on characters primal identification with the land itself. Here a land feud erupts between an Australian, Mick Bugler, returned to claim his ancestral Irish lands, and an Irishman Joseph Brennan and his devoted sister Brege Brennan. The tractor Mick introduces signals the clash between modernity and traditional ways of life, a conflict that cannot avoid catastrophe when Joseph's sister, Brege, falls in love with Mick. O'Brien's description of the tractor's first appearance captures both its appeal and its menace: "Heraldic and unflagging it chugged up the mountain road, the sound, a new sound jarring in on the profoundly pensive landscape." Above it, crows are "blackening the sky, fringed, soundless, auguring." Here O'Brien captures sensibilities and the values organizing those characters hearts and minds that she has not previously explored, marking a new direction in her work.

Terence Dawson,

updated by Roberta Schreyer

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