EDNA O’BRIEN has lived in London for 52 years, but she speaks, as she writes, in a voice inflected with the rhythms and accents of the west of Ireland, where she grew up. She calls herself “an exile,” like her great literary forebears, Joyce and Beckett, whom she reveres, and points out that exiles “tend not to go back.” “The place I grew up in is my imagery, my geography of mind and pen,” she says. “But to live there again...” Uncharacteristically, she leaves the thought uncompleted, preferring to direct me to the final scene of her new memoir, Country Girl, in which she meets an Irishwoman in the street who tells her about her aunt in Dublin before adding, “But we live here now.” O’Brien concurs: “ ‘We do,’ I said, and it was as if the two countries warred and jostled and made friends, inside me, like the two halves of my warring self.”
For most of the latter half of her exile—some 25 years—O’Brien has lived in a “book-laden” house in the cosmopolitan district of Knightsbridge, a five-minute walk from Harrods, London’s most famous department store. Expensive sportscars and SUVs line the pavements, and the shops are exclusive boutiques. Most of the houses have steps leading up to glossy front doors, but O’Brien’s is reached by a dark alley that runs to a side entrance. Among the moneyed anonymity of the neighborhood, it feels set apart. There is a leather-bound edition of Shakespeare on the table in the first-floor sitting room, and a copy of Finnegan’s Wake occupies a prominent position on the shelf. Despite the spring sunshine, there is a fire in the grate. Edna O’Brien has always been renowned as a great beauty, and at the age of 82, she remains good-looking.
On the day we met, she had just returned from a series of literary festivals in Ireland, where she was well received—which has not always been the case. Country Girl not only revisits her childhood in County Clare, her convent education, and unhappy first marriage, but the scandal that ensued in Ireland when she fictionalized those episodes in her first novels. She has continued to explore her childhood memories in her fiction, but she says the memoir offers a different perspective: “Some of the material overlaps, but it’s differently rendered. The mother that exists in my fiction is the same mother as in my memoir, but it’s not the same aspects of her.” Besides, she does not apologize for returning again and again to her early years: “Childhood imagery, experiences, griefs, and joys—if they are there—are formative for a writer. Some people remember their childhoods in a generalized way, as rich or poor, happy or sad, but a writer’s early life is embedded and indented in them.”
She was born in 1930, in a house called Drewsboro, in County Clare, the youngest child of a once grand family. The “big house” on the estate had been burned down 10 years before to stop it from falling into the hands of the English militia, and her heavy-drinking, irresponsible father had given away much of the surrounding land. The convent she was sent to was supposed to teach her “to be immune to passions,” but that did not stop her from falling in love with one of the nuns.
She was working as a pharmacist in Dublin in the early 1950s when she met her husband-to-be, the writer Ernest Gebler. He was “so cosmopolitan and so cultured,” she writes. He was also married. Her family was alerted to O’Brien’s “sinful life” by an anonymous letter, left on the saddle of her mother’s bicycle during Mass, and they came to rescue her from the Isle of Man, where she and Gebler were on holiday. Their host, the writer J.P. Donleavy, “who had trained under outstanding boxing coaches in New York” settled the ensuing brawl, yet once the “impediments to marriage were overcome” and O’Brien and Gebler settled in London with their two sons, she realized she had traded the restrictions of her religious upbringing for an equally punitive domestic routine. Gebler was abusive and controlling, and O’Brien was “petrified” of him. The tensions were exacerbated when she began to outstrip her husband as a writer. She wrote her first novel, Country Girls, in three weeks: she said it was “waiting” to be written, partly because of her ambivalence about the country she had left behind. “I wanted to leave, but I was grievous at leaving, as well.” She relishes the old-fashioned richness of the word. “So it was easy—it was emotional, but the words set themselves in order more or less as they came out.”
Her mother wrote to her before publication, saying she hoped “she was not about to bring ignominy and disgrace on my own people,” but nonetheless, she was surprised by the vehemence of the response. The book was banned, and the local postmistress told O’Brien’s father that she deserved to “be kicked naked through the town.” Fifty years after publication, it is hard to understand why Country Girls should have caused such a furor, for it is a strikingly fresh and innocent account of a coming-of-age. O’Brien believes its directness was partly to blame: “It had the flavor of a diary—it had an intimacy that angered them even more. It seemed to be their story. And I came from a small village: there was no tradition of reading or books in that village, nor writers—let alone a woman writer, in her 20s. They saw it as a smear on Irish womanhood.” The success it enjoyed in London did not lessen the shock. “You want to be embraced by your own,” she said. “It’s a gut need. The fact that it opened doors in England in the literary world didn’t affect me as much, because I was still married, and there was disharmony about it at home.”
She openly defied her husband for the first time on the day she received a check for £4,000 for the film rights to her second novel, The Lonely Girl. The money would have allowed her to “flee with the children,” but she refused to sign the check over to her husband, as she always had before, and he assaulted her. “His hand came around my throat, a clasp so sudden that I thought I was already dead,” she writes. She left that evening without the check, but knowing “that she was walking from the past, from the twin governance of parents and husband.”
Country Girl describes the subsequent battle for custody of her sons. She says it was not an easy book to write, and in the prologue, she claims she “swore” she would never write it. It was partly irritation at the way she is perceived that prompted her to change her mind: she says she has led a studious life, mostly taken up with reading and writing, and yet people seem to think it has “been one long gaudy Mata Hari adventure.” Her agent told her that the only way to correct the misapprehension was to write her own account—yet Country Girl only confirms that her life has indeed been extraordinary.
The years after her divorce, in the mid-’60s, were particularly eventful. She was a successful writer living in London in the most celebrated era in the city’s recent history, and the pages of Country Girl are crammed with encounters with famous people: she takes LSD with the maverick psychiatrist, R.D. Laing, watches Paul McCartney improvise a lullaby for her son, and has a one-night stand with Robert Mitchum. Lawrence Olivier, Ingrid Bergman, Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Al Pacino, Gore Vidal, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Huston, and Jackie Onassis all make appearances.
She had several affairs, including one with a British politician she refers to only “Lochinvar,” though she never married again. It is one of the reasons she choose to remain in London: “You see, you get lonelier as you get older, and ironically, cities are a better place to be lonely in. No one asks you questions. They leave you alone.” The idea that she might find solace in the anonymity of the city underlines the undiminished strength of her vocation as a writer. She does not know yet whether her foray into memoir has brought her “through the gate to the next garden,” as she puts it, but she says she is still working as hard as she was 60 years ago: “I still feel I have plenty of the writing turbulence in me. It’s just a question of getting it out—finding a new way of touching on those timeless passions and obsessions and fears.”