Reading The Country Girls today, it’s hard to imagine the outrage and scandal it generated when published in 1960. Criticised, banned and even burned, The Country Girls, with it’s tale of convent girls growing up in a small village in Ireland is often credited with opening up the discussion of social and sexual life from the viewpoint of women.
It’s frankness and honesty were unlike anything that had come before in post World War II Ireland and it shone a light on the lives of girls and young women who were growing up under the twin repressive influences of the Catholic Church and traditional rural life.
When asked in an interview with the Paris Review whether or not The Country Girls was autobiographical, Edna O’Brien said
The novel is autobiographical insofar as I was born and bred in the west of Ireland, educated at a convent, and was full of romantic yearnings, coupled with a sense of outrage.
As suggested then, The Country Girls is the story of Caithleen, or Cait, who we meet at the age of 14 living in the west of Ireland, with an absent father, a distant mother and a tumultuous relationship with her best friend Baba. Cait and Baba go to convent school and when the book closes, are 18 and navigating life in the city of Dublin.
Cait is a passive girl, obedient and romantic. She is girlish, cliched and although the narrative is written in the style of a memoir, there is none of the cynicism or disillusion about her younger life. Baba acts almost as her alter ego – defiant, cruel and domineering, determined to fight against what life has planned for her. O’Brien deftly captures the often painful nature of teenage female firendship with it’s petty jealousies and cruelties.
Coy, petty, malicious Baba was my friend and the person I feared most after my father
Cait’s passivity is the perfect vehicle for Baba’s forcefulness and it creates a need between them that seems to go deeper than affection. No matter how cruel Baba is, Cait remains and no matter how dull Cait seems, Baba returns to her.
Baba is the more knowing of the two, creating trouble at convent school and using her looks to her advantage. When Baba suggests they run away from school and join a travelling show, she suggests they advertise themselves as ‘two female amateurs’ to which Cait replies
‘But we’re not females, we’re girls’
However, Cait’s innocence is in contrast to the relationship she begins with an older married man in the town, Mr Gentleman who begins his flirtation with her when she is only 14. It is a sign again of the times in which The Country Girls was published, that the outcry over the book wasn’t really anything to do with how inappropriate their relationship is. This was a time when the word ‘grooming’ was only used in relation to the keeping of animals. Yet it’s hard not to feel a little uncomfortable at a passage like;
It was a happy time and he often kissed my hand and said I was his freckle faced daughter. ‘Are you my father?’ I asked wistfully, because it was nice playing make belive with Mr Gentleman. ‘Yes, I’m your father,’ he said as he kissed the length of my arm, and he promised that when I went to Dublin later on he would be a very attentive father.
The narrative style has Cait simply reliving these childhood experiences with no adoption of hindsight or wisdom, which makes this relationship seem more romantic and innocent than sinister.
But if The Country Girls is an ode to first love, it is also a love song for Ireland, an Ireland that O’Brien left behind following the publication of the trilogy. She has said
The emotional crux hinged on Ireland, the country I had left and wanted to leave, but now grieved for, with an inexplicable sorrow.
The descriptions of village life are filled with nostalgia and poetry and suggest a longing for simple pleasures and kind neighbours, the things that make life in a small place often suffocating but also uplifting, the things that make it home. The urge to leave, once fulfilled is replaced with an urge to return.
At the far edge of the lake there was a belt of poplar trees, shutting out the world. The world I wanted to escape into. And now that I had come into the world, that scene of bogs and those country faces were uppermost in my thoughts.
Even after moving to the city, Cait can’t quite escape the town that made her. In the freedom of Dublin, when she stays out all night with Mr Gentleman, the next day, her only thought is that it is the first time she has missed mass. For a non-Catholic, the unexplained references to saints and rosaries may be puzzling, but this is Catholic Ireland and these beliefs were a major and fundamental part of life.
The Country Girls may seem to be of it’s time, but it is a book that tells universal truths about growing up and finding your own way in the world – a very particular world of Ireland in the 1960s and it’s influence and reach are not to be underestimated.
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