It’s week two of Reading Ireland Month and this week I will be highlighting classic Irish literature.
Last week saw the launch of the programme for the 2019 Dublin One City One Book festival, which this year features The Country Girls Trilogy by Edna O’Brien.
The Country Girls Trilogy joins a long list of illustrious titles as this year’s featured book in the Dublin One City One Book Festival, which is a Dublin City Council initiative, led by Dublin City Public Libraries, which encourages everyone to read a book connected with the capital city during the month of April each year.
Published by Faber & Faber, this new volume is introduced by Eimear McBride and includes The Country Girls and its sequels Girl With Green Eyes and Girls in Their Married Bliss, which changed the temperature of Irish literature in the 1960s and inspired generations of readers and writers. The passion, artistry and courage of Edna O’Brien’s vision in these novels continue to resonate into the 21st century.
Reading The Country Girls today, it is hard to imagine the outrage and scandal it generated when published in 1960. Criticised, banned and even burned, The Country Girls, with its 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.
Its 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. The moral outrage that greeted the books means that the trilogy has become somewhat of a symbol for the struggle of Irish women to have their voice heard from behind the misogyny and conservatism of Church and State.
The first of the trilogy – The Country Girls – traced the lives of Cait and Baba through their childhood friendship at boarding school under the stifling atmosphere of 1950s rural Ireland through to their sexual awakening and their move to Dublin.
Girl with Green Eyes, or The Lonely Girl as it is sometimes known is set two years after the first book, as Baba and Kate are still rooming at Joanna’s and still feel like they are waiting for life to begin. Baba is still the livelier of the two, attending parties and trying to meet men from whom she can get something for free. Cait remains the more romantic of the two, hoping that someday marriage will take her away from the rooming house and her shop job.
Her romantic notions are about to be tested, as is her friendship with Baba, as she falls for the mysterious Eugene Gaillard a wealthy film director who happens to be already married. This kind of behavior would be expected from the wild and impetuous Baba and it is a masterstroke by O’Brien to turn the tables and test Cait’s romantic idealism against the hard reality of life as a mistress.
As with her relationship with Mr. Gentleman in the first book, Cait feels at a disadvantage opposite this worldly older man. He rechristens her as Kate and seems to not notice how awkward she feels amongst his friends. He talks openly about his ex-wife, who may not be as ex as she seems, and he cloisters Cait away in his somber home far from the city.
I felt very lonely and did not want to be with them. Eugene and I were all right alone, but when anyone else came I lost him to them, even to the poultry instructress with her knitted stockings. I had nothing to talk about really, except things about my childhood, and he had heard all of that.
Cait’s discomfort at trying to fit in with Eugene’s world is matched only by her excruciating dread of losing her virginity, which feels more like Eugene’s wish than Cait’s. Her agency within the relationship is further undermined by her father’s farcical attempts to extricate his daughter from this shameful coupling and return her to the family home to repair her dwindling reputation.
Stay at home! Who was going to be the first to say that I should enter a convent? Why did everyone hate a man they’d never met? All those unhappily married people wanted to be sure that I came home and had it happen to me?
The hypocrisy of the situation is beautifully exploited by O’Brien and despite the humour to be found within it, she slices to the core of the male attitude to female sexuality. Cait’s needs, or wishes are never taken into consideration, she is property and is treated as such by her father and by her suitor. While effectively being held prisoner in the family home, Cait receives an unwelcome marriage proposal from a man in the village.
“I’m not a bad match,” he said, “I’ve a pump in the yard, a bull, and a brother a priest. What more could a woman want?”
Therein lies the crux of the novel. There is so much more that a woman could want, but in 1950s Ireland they are not allowed to vocalise what that is. Baba and Cait have had a taste of freedom, but it is clear that their freedom will always be subject to the whims and the will of the men in their lives.
The Lonely Girl feels like a more pointed critique of Irish society than its predecessor does, yet O’Brien is never heavy-handed in her treatise. At one point in the novel Baba tells Cait that she thinks she might be pregnant.
“But you can’t,” I said, in a panic, “You’re note even living with anyone.”
“Can’t! It’s the simplest bloody thing, I mean it’s simpler than owning two coats or getting asked to a party.”
It is hard now to think how revolutionary The Country Girls trilogy must have seemed at the time, with its depiction of female characters who yearn for more from life than the domestic sphere and more than that, take steps to achieve what they want.
While focus inevitably falls on the societal aspects of The Lonely Girl, it is also worth noting that O’Brien is an exceptional writer with a real gift for capturing people and places through her poetic prose.
There are moments in our lives we can never forget: I remember that early morning and the white limbs of young birches in the early mist, and later the sun coming up behind the mountain in crimson splendour as if it were the first day of the world. I remember the sudden effect of suffused light as the sun came through the mist, and the dew lifted, and olater the green of the grass showed forth very vividly, radiating energy in the very form of colour.
It is also worth noting that O’Brien may have been fighting necessary battles against the intellectual abnegation and sexual constraints within which Irish women were being forced to live, fifty years on similar battles are still being fought in Ireland and O’Brien remains a writer as current as any.
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To kick off Classics week of Reading Ireland Month, I am giving away a copy of the new Faber edition of The Country Girls Trilogy. Simply comment below and my cute twin helpers will draw a winner on Saturday at 4pm!
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!