Wild Colonial Girl: Essays on Edna O'Brien


    Since the 1960 publication of her first novel, The Country Girls, award-winning Irish writer Edna O'Brien has been both celebrated and maligned. Praised for her lyrical prose and vivid female characters and attacked for her frank treatment of sexuality and alleged sensationalism, O'Brien and her work seem always to spawn controversy, including the past banning in Ireland of several of her works. O'Brien's attention to "women's" concerns such as sex, romance, marriage, and childbirth has ...
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    Since the 1960 publication of her first novel, The Country Girls, award-winning Irish writer Edna O'Brien has been both celebrated and maligned. Praised for her lyrical prose and vivid female characters and attacked for her frank treatment of sexuality and alleged sensationalism, O'Brien and her work seem always to spawn controversy, including the past banning in Ireland of several of her works. O'Brien's attention to "women's" concerns such as sex, romance, marriage, and childbirth has often relegated her to critical neglect at best and, at worst, outright contempt. This essay collection promises to be a long overdue critical reevaluation and exciting rediscovery of her oeuvre.
    Wild Colonial Girl situates O'Brien in Irish contexts that allow for an appraisal of her significant contribution to a specifically Irish women's literary tradition while attesting to the potency of writing against patriarchal conventions. Each chapter's clear and detailed readings of O'Brien's fiction build a convincing case for her literary, political, and cultural importance, providing an invaluable critical guide for an enriched appreciation of O'Brien and her work.
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Meet the Author

Lisa Colletta is assistant professor of English at Babson College. She is the author of Dark Humor and Social Satire in the Modern British Novel and the editor of Kathleen and Christopher: Christopher Isherwood's Letters to His Mother. Maureen O'Connor teaches English at the National University of Ireland, Galway.
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Wild Colonial Girl

Essays on Edna O'Brien

The University of Wisconsin Press
Copyright © 2006

The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-299-21634-4

Chapter One "In the Name of the Mother ..."

Reading and Revision in Edna O'Brien's Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue


Prologar cuentos no leídos aún es tarea casi imposible, ya que exige el análisis de tramas que no conviene anticipar. Prefiero por consiguiente un epílogo.... Espero que las notas apresuradas que acabo de dictar no agoten este libro y que sus sueños sigan ramificándose en la hospitalaria imaginación de quienes ahora lo cierran.

[To preface still unread stories is an almost impossible task, since it demands the analysis of plots not yet convenient to disclose. I prefer, therefore, an epilogue.... I hope that these hasty notes which I have just dictated do not exhaust the meanings of this book; may its visions continue to unfold in the receptive imaginations of those who now close it.] Jorge Luis Borges, El libro de arena [The Book of Sand]

Lynette Carpenter has noted that Edna O'Brien "has been criticized for writing the same story over and over, and for not writing the story she writes best.... In short, O'Brien's literary reputation is anything but settled." Carpenter's observation certainly corresponds to the mixed critical reviews of what are perhaps O'Brien's best-known works-the novels The Country Girls (1960), The Lonely Girl (1962), and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964)-which were republished in 1986 as The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue. Along the way, O'Brien kept making revisions, rewriting, and thereby unsettling the story. In 1971, for instance, she dramatically altered the conclusion of Girls in Their Married Bliss, undercutting the optimism of the first ending. The epilogue to the Trilogy further annihilates any possibility of a stock happy ending by allowing us to see, twenty years later, exactly what has become of her two heroines. If O'Brien's reputation is unsettled, her treatment of her own works as a narrative in progress demanding revision challenges both the plots she works with and the critical impulse to find closure.

O'Brien made a conscious decision to have two heroines in the novels of the Trilogy. She explains: "Realizing that the earlier heroines [of the tradition of Irish writing] were bawdy and the later ones lyrical I decided to have two, one who would conform to both my own and my country's view of what an Irish woman should be and one who would understand every piece of protocol and religion and hypocrisy that there was." The 1986 epilogue seems to offer a definitive ending to this double plot, one which suggests that women's position had not changed drastically since 1960, the year in which the first novel of the Trilogy (The Country Girls) was first published. In the epilogue, we learn that Kate has drowned, like her mother before her. Baba suspects Kate committed suicide, but can't bring herself to think too much about this possibility. As for Baba herself, she has become nurse and mother to her once abusive husband, Durack, who has suffered a stroke that has rendered him completely dependent on her. In spite of Baba's less-than-happy marriage, she survives, in part because she is the heroine who understands "every piece of protocol and religion and hypocrisy that there ever was."

More than merely showing women's struggle for self-affirmation in the face of constricting social and legal norms, O'Brien's Trilogy and Epilogue deconstructs the prescribed roles for women in patriarchal Irish society. Dealing with issues such as motherhood, sexuality, religion, and marriage, the Trilogy exposes the ways feminine gender roles are constructed, offering a radical critique of a capitalist patriarchy that is particularly Irish and Catholic. At the same time, O'Brien's text offers a commentary on the prescribed roles for women in literature, challenging the adequacy of the female romance plot for representing women's experience in fiction.

In her study of feminist writing, Nancy K. Miller outlines some of the problems women's writing has faced historically: "The attack on female plots and plausibilities assumes that women writers cannot or will not obey the rules of fiction.... It does not see that the maxims that pass for the truth of human experience and the encoding of that experience, in literature, are organizations, when they are not fantasies, of the dominant culture. To read women's literature is to see and hear repeatedly a chafing against the 'unsatisfactory reality' contained in the maxim." In other words, women writers are often criticized for not following the "rules" of fiction, especially when their work goes against the grain of the dominant (male) literary culture. Moreover, Miller contends, "the plots of women's literature are not about 'life' and solutions in any therapeutic sense, nor should they be. They are about the plots of literature itself, about the constraints the maxim places on rendering a female life in fiction" (43, emphasis added).

Much scholarly work on O'Brien contains such attacks on the "plots and plausibilities" of her fiction, while refusing to hear the "chafing against the 'unsatisfactory reality'" evident in much of O'Brien's writing. Darcy O'Brien, for instance, has described the "paradox of the strong, independent woman writing of women as victims." Two possible explanations are offered for this, both of which are equally simplistic. Either "the author is being insincere in her presentation of women as fragile and dependent on men" or "these heroines do reflect Edna O'Brien's sense of herself in relation not only to men but to the professional world which she inhabits and they control." Here, a literary analysis of characters is transformed into psychoanalysis of the author. Other critics have even gone so far as to "blame" O'Brien for her characters' miserable lives. Anatole Broyard has observed: "Like Kate's, Baba's extra-marital choices are conspicuously odd, and if Miss O'Brien means these men to stand for women's fate, she has certainly stacked the deck.... The women in the later books are attractive, intelligent, witty-surely they could do better if the author let them." Though O'Brien's characters are fictional, they certainly are realistic. And of course they could "do better" if the author let them, but that is not the story O'Brien chooses to write. Other times O'Brien's fiction is reduced to a sort of psychoanalytic case study: "It seems that the need to recover Ireland imaginatively and from a distance is more deeply a need for union with her mother" (476). Peggy O'Brien describes O'Brien's characters as mere "projections of a turbulent authorial psyche" and banishes the writer herself to near nonexistence: "Given her irrepressible, perverse humanity, the voice that we hear in [Edna O'Brien's] interviews is even more fictional than that of her fiction" (479, 477). In this light, the attack on "plots and plausibilities" of O'Brien's fiction extends to the "plots and plausibilities" of O'Brien's life.

A frequent critical emphasis on authorial persona has led to a tendency to ignore not only the "cultural and political contexts" of Edna O'Brien's writing but also, I contend, her narrative techniques. O'Brien's writing has only recently been seriously examined by feminist critics, and critical work on O'Brien has all but ignored the significance of the epilogue. Two notable exceptions are the essays by James Haule and Rebecca Pelan. Haule's analysis is primarily concerned with psychoanalytic functions of the mother/child relationship in O'Brien's work, taking the epilogue as an example. However, he does not examine other functions of the epilogue. Though Haule makes some interesting observations about the institution of motherhood in Irish society, his conclusion seems limiting and even more tragic than that of the Trilogy itself: "Perhaps the truth, then, is that there is no safe place for women born to a country that offers no chance for health or happiness. If so, to be born in Ireland at all is the worst of luck" (223).

In what is perhaps the first attempt to reconcile the differences between criticism of O'Brien's work and of O'Brien herself, Rebecca Pelan notes: "O'Brien's 'Irishness' offered for her critics an obvious strategy for keeping the cultural and political contexts peripheral.... The persona, then, allows the literary establishment to acknowledge the talent and success of a writer like O'Brien without ever having to investigate or interrogate the nature of either" (75). In their focus on the persona rather than the writing, Pelan argues, critics have overlooked the blatant sociocultural context and political critique imbedded in O'Brien's work. Pelan reads O'Brien's "stage-Irish" persona as an act of resistance, concluding that "an analysis of the personality cult surrounding O'Brien today indicates that the authorial persona became the critical focus in direct correlation with the perception of O'Brien as a writer who challenged the dominant discourses of Anglo-American literary criticism by failing to confine her work within the parameters set for it.... Too 'stage-Irish' for the Irish, too Irish for the English and too flighty and romantic for feminists, O'Brien continues to be neglected as a writer whose work merits serious critical attention" (68, 77-78).

Though the Trilogy and Epilogue should certainly be read as a critique of Irish society, we should also look carefully at the extent to which it represents an attack on the "encoding" of women's experience in literature. Form and content are tightly woven together in O'Brien's work. If we carefully examine the relationship between the two, we might understand the unhappy ending of the Trilogy and Epilogue to be much more than "a maudlin, melodramatic tale of woman's woe" as Peggy O'Brien once described it. Indeed, the epilogue of the Trilogy is the most logical place to begin such an analysis, for an epilogue marks a literal "writing beyond the ending," what Rachel Blau DuPlessis has defined as the "attempt by women writers to call narrative forms into question ... to scrutinize the ideological character of the romance plot (and related conventions in narrative), and to change fiction so that it makes alternative statements about gender and its institutions." O'Brien's text explores and challenges the narrative conventions of the female romance plot, and Baba's irreverent voice in the epilogue serves as an ideological amplifier of the issues explored in the three novels.

The epilogue offers the reader an opportunity to reflect on the Trilogy as a whole. O'Brien explained that she felt compelled to write an epilogue, rather than simply republish the three novels together: "The characters remained with me as ghosts, but without the catharsis of death. I had never finished their story, I had left them suspended, thinking perhaps that they could stay young indefinitely or that their mistakes might be canceled out or they would achieve that much touted fallacy-a rebirth" ("Why Irish Heroines," 13). If the epilogue is meant to provide a sort of catharsis for the author, it also functions as the key for the reader to reading the novels, or more specifically, to rereading them.

Literary critics, narratologists in particular, frequently define epilogues in a traditional way. One of the most standard definitions employed is that laid out by the French narratologist Gérard Genette: "The epilogue has as its canonic function the brief exposition of a (stable) situation subsequent to the denouement, from which it results: for example, the two heroes are reunited after several years, and they tenderly and peacefully gaze at their numerous offspring." This definition seems ironic if applied to O'Brien's text, in particular the "denouement" and subsequent "situation" of Kate and Baba. Though one of them is dead, the two heroines are reunited. The narrative situation, in this case, is anything but stable. In O'Brien's epilogue, the denouement of the end of Girls in Their Married Bliss is unraveled. O'Brien's epilogue embraces the doubleness of the term denouement, which can mean "unknotting" as well as "resolving" or "knitting together."

The present and its relation to the past are central to O'Brien's epilogue, and memory serves as the organizing force of its narrative structure. Baba narrates in the present tense actual events are taking place in the epilogue. Between these events (or more precisely, during them), she shifts into the past tense, recounting events of the past twenty years. Genette describes these types of narrating as simultaneous, "narrative in the present contemporaneous with the action," and interpolated, or "between the moments of the action." O'Brien's epilogue combines these two forms, making the narrative form highly intricate. According to Genette, the interpolation of past events with present ones is the "most complex [type of narrating], since it involves narrating with several instances, and since the story and the narrating can become entangled in such a way that the latter has an effect on the former." This is clearly the case in the epilogue, where Baba's act of narrating shapes the story itself. The readers' reception of the events is mediated by Baba's narrative voice, which controls how much of the story is revealed. Rather than provide a neat chronological summary of what has become of "our heroines," as a traditional epilogue might do, Baba jumps from "now" to "then" and back again. The duration (speed) and frequency of narrated events varies tremendously because the narrated events are triggered by and filtered through Baba's memory.

To an extent, the denouement, or resolution, of the women's story has already occurred in the twenty years between the end of Girls in Their Married Bliss and the (present) epilogue. Unlike traditional epilogues, which provide narrative closure, O'Brien's epilogue further delays closure, playing instead with the idea of disclosure. Allison Booth has observed the importance of disclosure in novels written by and about women: "How women 'end up' is so often the story, just as 'How does it end?' is the readiest question (most pleasurably deferred in the answering) about narrative." O'Brien's text plays on the tensions between suspense and revelation, past and present. We ask less how the story ends than how the protagonists "ended up" there. In this sense, I would argue, O'Brien's text resembles Jorge Luis Borges's definition of an epilogue quoted in my epigraph-it expands, rather than condenses, meaning. Instead of providing neat closure, it offers new ways of reading. It surprises, inviting the reader to return to the beginning, to reread. It has a revelatory function, yet it suppresses as much as it reveals, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps.

This revelatory function, this play with disclosure, asserts itself throughout Baba's narrative. We see it clearly in the opening lines of the epilogue: "It goes on, by Jesus, it goes on. I am at Waterloo again, the railway station where Kate gashed her wrists, thinking daftly that someone might come to her rescue, a male Florence Nightingale might kneel and bandage and swoop her off to a life of certainty and bliss. Nearly twenty years ago. Much weeping and gnashing in between. They've cleaned this place up; it's morbidly bright and neat" (511). "It goes on" could be read at two levels-literally, the "weeping and gnashing" that continue, and metafictionally, the epilogue that continues the narrative structure of the Trilogy. The Trilogy resists closure because the epilogue postpones it. O'Brien had already tampered with the narrative outcome of the traditional female romance plot, boldly suggested in the cutting irony of the title of Girls in Their Married Bliss.

Moreover, the opening lines of the epilogue contain narrative delays and gaps that further postpone closure in the text itself. Some of these are simply rhetorical, while others are real information gaps. In Baba's opening remarks, for instance, "I am at Waterloo again" prompts the reader to think back, as it were, to Baba's previous visit to Waterloo. Yet Baba has never said, "I am/was at Waterloo"; the previous event-"Kate gashing her wrists"-was narrated by a third-person omniscient narrator in the second part of Girls in Their Married Bliss (chapter 9). Baba had simply recounted Kate's phone call "from some hospital. She'd had a little argument with a weighing machine at Waterloo Station and took this to be the end of the world" (Bliss, chapter 10). Neither version of the event recounts Baba's presence at Waterloo. Here, in the epilogue, Baba briefly alludes to Kate's suicide attempt-an event already narrated twice in the previous text-but delays divulging the purpose of her present visit to Waterloo. She instead shifts back to the present tense, describing changes in the station itself: "They've cleaned this place up; it's morbidly bright and neat." Already the reader faces a past-oriented delay. Why is Baba again at Waterloo Station? What sort of "weeping and gnashing" has been going on for nearly twenty years? The following paragraphs not only withhold the answers to these questions but also pose additional ones. For the time being, the reader is left in suspense to wonder not only what will follow but also what has already happened in the previous two decades.


Excerpted from Wild Colonial Girl Copyright © 2006 by The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

"In the name of the mother ..." : reading and revision in Edna O'Brien's Country girls trilogy and epilogue 14
Hysterical hooliganism : O'Brien, Freud, Joyce 31
Edna O'Brien's "love objects" 58
Edna O'Brien and the lives of James Joyce 78
Godot land and its ghosts : the uncanny genre and gender of Edna O'Brien's "Sister Imelda" 92
Blurring boundaries, intersecting lives : history, gender, and violence in Edna O'Brien's House of splendid isolation 110
On the side of life : Edna O'Brien's trilogy of contemporary Ireland 143
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