Tuesday, May 28, 2013

186: The Self-Empowered Woman: Edna O'Brien

Dear Followers,

Often when I lecture about The Self-Empowered Woman, listeners are intrigued by Edna O'Brien's life story (Chapter 17). Her latest book, Country Girl (Little, Brown & Company, $27.99, 357 pp)  is her first memoir, and a riveting tale of the challenges she faced on her way to becoming a literary icon.

O'Brien was born in County Clare (in a town that had no library, three groceries and 27 pubs) in the West of Ireland in 1930. Her mother had been a maid, and her father was a farmer who not only drank, but gambled as well (1: No Paternal Safety Net). Her family (like most of the people in the area) were devout Catholics--in her words, she came from "a strict, religious family". During her "suffocating" childhood she was educated by the Sisters of Mercy in Galway (3: Belief in The Unbelievable).

After graduation, she moved to Dublin and worked in a drugstore while studying at night at the local pharmaceutical college. During this time she discovered Tolstoy, Thackeray and T. S. Elliot's book Introducing James Joyce, which changed her life. Even though she worked as a pharmaceutical apprentice for four years, she had already made up her mind that  reading and writing would define her life (7: Magnificent Obsession).

Her first open act of rebellion was when she ran off with a much-older  (married) writer named Ernest Gebler. They were pursued by her father, her brother, two policemen and a Cistercian Abbot, but eventually got married anyway. The marriage lasted ten years and gave her two sons, but when she completed her first novel (The Country Girls) in only three weeks, her husband was furious. He told her "You can write and I will never forgive you." Their divorce turned out to be an epic battle (15: Forget About Prince Charming). 

As her writing became more acclaimed, she was forced to fight for custody of her two sons because O'Brien's husband falsely accused her of "abandonment."  Both boys asked the court to allow them to live with their mother instead of with Gebler, and the judge agreed (16: Intensive Motherhood).

Seduced by the power of words, O'Brien worked in London as a reader for the publishing company Hutchinson. At that time she read James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which helped her understand "where she might turn, should she want to write herself." Even though she was only "a reader," her reports were good enough to motivate the company to commission her--for 50 pounds--to write a novel (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

O'Brien made three major escapes in her life: From the restrictive rules of the Catholic Church, from small-town Ireland to London in the Swinging 60's, and from a tyrannical husband into a life of fame and flirtation (14: Selective Disassociation). 

A prolific writer, O'Brien has always had loyal fans, as well as harsh critics. Most of her writing, like her first novel (which was published in 1960), was considered too sexually graphic. It was burned in some places, banned from the pulpit and the postmistress of her hometown of County Clare felt that "the author of such filth should be kicked naked through the streets" (5: Life Is Not A Popularity Contest).

O'Brien received her first writing honor (The Kingsley Amis Award) in 1962, and her most recent was the Frank O'Connor International short story award in 2011. She has written successful novels, plays, poems and short stories, as well as her memoir. From the Irish PEN Award to the Writers' Guild Award and the European Prize for Literature, there is no doubt that the once-underestimated (and often disdained) daughter whose parents were "allergic to literature" has truly reached--at 82--the pinnacle of her profession.

Looking forward to your comments...

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