Study Guide

Edna O'Brien

Edna O'Brien Biography

Biography (Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111201655-Obrien.jpgEdna O’Brien Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Josephine Edna O’Brien is a prolific Irish writer in several genres. In general, she is more esteemed in the United States than she is in the British Isles, where the “Irishness” of her work is less of a novelty. O’Brien is either much admired as an archetypal fighting Irishwoman or much scorned for her melodramatic posturing; responses are rarely lukewarm. Writing almost always from a female point of view, she is a splendid illustrator of the Irish scene in the 1940’s and 1950’s. It is when her women grow up and join the cosmopolitan world of London and the jet set’s Europe, with its glitz and promiscuity, that some readers find her work less satisfactory.

O’Brien was born on a farm in County Clare, in the western region of Ireland, on December 15, 1930 (some sources say 1932). Her strict Roman Catholic upbringing in a household dominated by a tough, hard-drinking, improvident father and a passive-aggressive, long-suffering mother is central to all of her best work. The backdrop of this “pagan place” and the people in it, to whom she seems bound even as an adult, is best shown in her Country Girls trilogy and in the autobiographical Mother Ireland. From the oppressively close-knit village community of Scarriff, O’Brien first broke away to become a boarder at the Convent of Mercy, Lough Rea, County Galway. From there she moved to Dublin. In the capital she met and in 1954 married the established novelist Ernest Gebler, with whom she had two sons. The marriage was dissolved in 1964 after a bitter custody battle.

O’Brien’s relationship with Gebler was important in getting her started as a writer. They have disagreed in print about just what, or how great, his contribution to her early novels was, but the fact is that in England, to which they had moved, O’Brien began publishing at a furious pace, a pace which she maintained for almost twenty years. The Country Girls brilliantly introduced readers to the two female figures who would subsequently represent O’Brien’s concern for love and connection among people in hostile family, religious, and social environments. Cait is the first-person narrator and a sensitive romantic; Baba is her alter ego and a volatile scapegrace. The Lonely Girl continues their saga two years later. Cait is again the narrator. She describes her involvement with the cultivated snob Eugene Gaillard (whose initials, it has been noted, are those of O’Brien’s former husband) and her subsequent sailing alone to England. Girls in Their Married Bliss addresses the two women’s problems with the stresses of married life....

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Edna O'Brien Biography (Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

As the youngest child in a Roman Catholic family that included a brother and two sisters, Josephine Edna O’Brien was born on December 15, 1930, and grew up on a farm in the west of Ireland. She was educated at the local parochial school in Scarriff and was a boarder in the Convent of Mercy, Loughrea, County Galway. She went to Dublin to study pharmacy in the apprentice system then in vogue and began contributing to the Irish Press. In 1954, O’Brien married writer Ernest Gebler, author of Plymouth Adventure, 1950; they had two sons, Carlo and Sasha.

The family moved to London, where O’Brien established her permanent residence and wrote The Country Girls in her first month there. She followed it quickly with the other parts of the trilogy, The Lonely Girl and Girls in Their Married Bliss. Though O’Brien and Gebler have argued in print over just how much help he gave her with the trilogy (the marriage was dissolved in 1964), O’Brien was launched on a successful, high-profile career. The Lonely Girl was made into a film, Girl with Green Eyes, starring Rita Tushingham.

Based in London, very successfully bringing up her sons on her own, O’Brien had two most prolific decades of work, in a variety of genres. The novels accumulated: August Is a Wicked Month (1965); Casualties of Peace (1966); A Pagan Place, her favorite work; Zee and Co....

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Edna O'Brien Biography (Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Josephine Edna O’Brien was born to Michael and Lena (Cleary) O’Brien in Tuamgraney, county Clare, Ireland, on December 15, 1930. She has one brother and two sisters. Her father was an impractical man who bred horses and squandered his wealth; her mother worked in the United States for eight years, returning to Ireland to marry. O’Brien has characterized her mother as an ambitious, frustrated woman who mistrusted books and was unsympathetic to her daughter’s emerging literary interests. (Although O’Brien dedicated her first novel to her mother, she later found her mother’s copy with the inscription page torn out and angry comments written throughout.) O’Brien first attended Scarriff National School in 1936, then boarded at the Convent of Mercy, Loughrea, county Galway, in 1941 before going off to the Pharmaceutical College of Ireland in Dublin in 1946, where she worked in a chemist’s shop, or drugstore, during the day and attended lectures at night. One of her first purchases in Dublin was a secondhand copy of Introducing James Joyce (1944), edited by T. S. Eliot, which first exposed her to the influence of that Irish literary giant. In 1948, she began to write short pieces for the Irish Press.

In 1951, O’Brien married novelist Ernest Gebler and lived for a time in rural county Wicklow (the marriage ended in 1964). Two sons, Carlos and Sasha, were born, in 1952 and 1954. In 1959, the family moved to London, and O’Brien’s career as a published writer was quickly launched. In three weeks, far from county Clare, she wrote The Country Girls, tracing the development of fourteen-year-old Caithleen Brady. The trilogy begun with that first novel was continued in The Lonely Girl and Girls in Their Married Bliss (the three novels were published together, appended with Epilogue, in 1986). O’Brien composed a second trilogy in the 1990’s, made up of House of Splendid Isolation, Down By the River, and Wild Decembers. In these later works, O’Brien focused on modern Irish life and problems as they affect both men and women. In addition to her prolific career as a writer, O’Brien teaches her craft. She has lectured in numerous countries and has taught creative writing at City College in New York. In 2006, she was appointed adjunct professor of English literature at University College, Dublin, returning home after her self-imposed exile of many years.

Edna O'Brien Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111207417-Obrien.jpgEdna O’Brien Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The youngest child in a shabby, genteel farm family, which included a brother and two sisters, Josephine Edna O’Brien was born in Tuamgraney, County Clare, Ireland, on December 15, 1930, and grew up in rural western Ireland. If her fictions are to be believed, and in broad outline the facts are substantiated by her on-the-record comments, her father, Michael O’Brien, drank too much, and her mother, Lena, fully assumed the classic martyr’s role. O’Brien was educated at the local primary school in Scarriff and at the Convent of Mercy, Loughrea, County Galway. From this repressive, priest-ridden home and rural environment, with its many social and sexual taboos, she “escaped” in the late 1940’s to Dublin to study pharmacy in the work-study system then in vogue.

Always a reader, in the city of Dublin she encountered for the first time, and with great delight, the stimulation of venturesome writers, such as fellow Irish national James Joyce, and the realistic stories and plays of the Russian Anton Chekhov. She contributed pieces to the Irish Press newspaper. In 1951, O’Brien married the older, established Czech writer Ernest Gebler. Their sons Carlo (a novelist in his own right) and Sasha (an architect) were born in 1952 and 1954, respectively. In 1959 the family moved to London, where O’Brien established permanent residence.

O’Brien’s necessary physical departure from the community where she was raised and eventually from Ireland freed her—as it freed Joyce, Sean O’Casey, and other Irish writers in voluntary exile—to write about her homeland for a lifetime. Her best work, most readers agree, is set among the Irish and involves social and family relationships, searches and conflicts, not unlike O’Brien’s own experiences in a vanishing Ireland that she knows and re-creates extremely well.

During her first month in England, O’Brien wrote the very successful novel The Country Girls (1960), which was nevertheless burned in her village and banned throughout Ireland, as were her six subsequent books. She followed this novel with the other books in a trilogy: The Lonely Girl (1962; reprinted in 1964 as Girl with Green Eyes) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). O’Brien and Gebler, who divorced in 1964, have argued in print over how much help he provided with the trilogy; whatever the truth behind their dispute, O’Brien was launched on a successful, jet-set, high-profile career, receiving counseling with the celebrated psychiatrist R. D. Laing, and making frequent television...

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Edna O'Brien Biography (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Historically, Irish women writers have been marginalized, but as a rebellious woman and rebellious writer, Edna O’Brien was one of the early few who managed to succeed. At her best, she demonstrates over a long writing career in many genres the gift she has worked hard to perfect: the capacity to transport her readers into the felt situation of her women—whether they are sensitive, romantic losers, or pragmatic, realistic winners. However they may deal with life, her central characters seem uneasily aware of its deficiencies. With the frequent saving grace of her humor, as well as her flair for the vivid use of the English language for what people, at their best, might say, particularly if they are Irish, O’Brien opens for...

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