Johnston, Jennifer (Vol. 150)
Jennifer Johnston 1930-
(Full name Jennifer Prudence Johnston) Irish novelist, playwright, and short story writer.
The following entry presents an overview of Johnston's career through 2000. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 7.
An award-winning author, Johnston has built her career around writing about the cultural and social turmoil in her home country of Ireland. She has achieved wide critical acclaim for her tightly written, sparse novels, although her work has been slow to secure wide popular readership. Her thematic material has ranged from the political to the personal, but critics have particularly noted her strength at portraying the impact of social conflicts on family relations. Johnston's best known and most highly regarded novels are The Invisible Worm (1992), The Illusionist (1995), and Two Moons (1998). Several of her books have been adapted for the theatre and television.
Johnston was born on January 12, 1930 in Dublin, Ireland, the elder of two children. Her father, Denis Johnston, was a well known Irish playwright, and her mother, Shelagh Richards, was an actress, director, and producer. After her parents divorced when she was a child, Johnston had little contact with her father. During her youth, Johnston began to write small skits and pantomimes, but she did not return to writing until much later in her life. In the 1940s she attended Trinity College in Dublin, though she never graduated. She married solicitor Ian Smyth in 1951 and together they had four children. After pursuing an acting career, Johnston began concentrating on writing professionally, a decision which she credits with ending her first marriage. She was unable to find a publisher for her first novel, The Gates (1973), until after her second novel, The Captains and the Kings was successfully published in 1972. Johnston won the Pitman Prize that same year. In 1976 Johnston married David Gilliland, a solicitor and father of five children by a previous marriage. In 1979, Johnston won the Whitbread Award for The Old Jest (1979) and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize for her novel Shadows on Our Skin (1977).
Johnston has built her career around examinations of the issues surrounding the Irish movement for independence from Britain and the resulting political tensions and violence. However, in contrast to many of her peers, Johnston primarily focuses on the impact of these events on individual lives and on the well-being of the family. Johnston's characters tend to be creative figures such as aspiring writers, artists, and musicians. They seek to understand the relationship between life and art. Often, the subjects of their art forms are personal, drawn from their own families, societies, and choices. Johnston's second published novel, The Gates, focuses on Minnie McMahon, the orphaned daughter of a Communist journalist and his Irish wife. After attending school in England, Minnie returns to Ireland to live with her alcoholic uncle. Minnie wants to become a writer and to fund her new career, so she plots with a friend to steal the gates of her uncle's dilapidated estate and sell them to a wealthy American. Several of Johnston's novels are set on large country estates, sometimes referred to as “The Big House.” Against this backdrop, Johnston explores how her characters deal with the implications of lost innocence, betrayal, isolation, and the ramifications of living in a society that is filled with social and political divisions. In How Many Miles to Babylon? (1974) Johnston moves her setting from the rural estates of Ireland to recount the story of three soldiers in World War I. The novel is narrated by Alexander Moore, a young Irishman who is awaiting execution for killing a fellow soldier. Moore has shot the soldier to spare him from being executed for desertion. Many of Johnston's novels focus in some way on topics of war. Two of her novels are set during World War I. Additionally, Shadows on Our Skin and The Railway Station Man (1985) both examine the modern Irish Republican Army (IRA), and The Christmas Tree (1981) focuses on the Holocaust. However, throughout her career, Johnston's works have turned increasingly to the personal aspects of life in Ireland. In The Illusionist, Stella McNamara separates from her husband—a magician who enjoys keeping the details of his life a mystery from his spouse. Only years later, after her husband has died and she has become a writer, does Stella begin to realize the power of shaping her own reality and creating illusions with her words. The Invisible Worm focuses on a troubled young woman, Laura Quinlan, who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Laura's anxiety stems from memories of the horrors of her childhood and her family's checkered heritage. Johnston often uses turbulent family dynamics in her novels as a metaphor for the myriad social problems facing Ireland in the past and present.
Johnston has earned a great deal of critical attention, and the brevity of her books and the sparseness of her prose have been at the center of most critical debates regarding her work. Some reviewers have praised her writing as precise, highly textured, and efficient. Julia Epstein commended the prose in The Christmas Tree, stating that Johnston “coils her language so tightly that she achieves the compression we usually associate with cryptic, photographic sort of poetry.” However, several reviewers have taken issue with numerous inaccuracies in her writing, such as misspellings and erroneous geographical and cultural details. Some critics have also cited Johnston's reliance on stock characterizations and inadequate plot development as elements that detract from the impact of her novels. Deborah Singmaster, for example, lamented the lack of character development in The Invisible Worm, calling it “the penalty paid for the author's pointillist method.” In general, critics have more favorably received Johnston's later works than her earlier novels.
The Captains and the Kings (novel) 1972
The Gates (novel) 1973
How Many Miles to Babylon? (novel) 1974
Shadows on Our Skin (novel) 1977
The Old Jest (novel) 1979
The Christmas Tree (novel) 1981
The Railway Station Man (novel) 1985
Fool's Sanctuary (novel) 1988
The Invisible Worm (novel) 1992
The Illusionist (novel) 1995
Three Monologues (play) 1995
The Desert Lullaby: A Play in Two Acts (play) 1996
Finbar's Hotel [with others] (short stories) 1997
Two Moons (novel) 1998
The Essential Jennifer Johnston (collected works) 1999
The Gingerbread Woman (novel) 2000
(The entire section is 74 words.)
SOURCE: “Female Economy,” in New Statesman, Vol. 93, No. 2404, April 15, 1977, p. 498.
[In the following positive review, Cunningham compliments Johnston's skilled prose in Shadows on Our Skin.]
More long-distance relations and soppy-minded well-wishers are poised maieutically about Jane Austen's unfinished The Watsons than medieval angelologists might decently have risked covening on the head of one of their theological pins. A. N. Other, assisted by a couple of great-great-great nieces, re-doing (the second re-do; the first was by the niece's grand-daughter) niece Catherine Austen's novel of 1850, putatively based on knowledge of what The Watsons was to have been, allegedly gleaned from Jane's sister Cassandra and Catherine's step-mother (Jane's friend) Martha: why must the pin-heads shore their ruins about a great writer's fragments? It's quite a different story when, say, Kafka has actually written all the bits Max Brod sorts out, or when Wives and Daughters is left with only a couple of steps still to totter so that almost any old editor could safely hazard their destination. But of our volume's 26 chapters Jane Austen has only supplied a disproportionately meagre five.
What a five, though. Pre-Mansfield Park and Emma stuff, admittedly, and so not quite managing to bring off the arrival of the aristocratic Osborne set at the fustian delights...
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SOURCE: “Fantastic,” in Spectator, Vol. 243, No. 7889, September 22, 1979, p. 24.
[In the following review, King offers a generally positive assessment of The Old Jest, but criticizes certain unbelievable elements in the story.]
We all have lists of things that, though there is nothing intrinsically wrong with them, just happen not to be to our tastes. My own list would include restaurants in which the service is better than the food and the décor than either; cars, however large or powerful, with only two doors ocean-cruises; and literary fantasies. The last of these aversions makes it impossible for me fully to enjoy Orlando, Lady into Fox or The Master and Margarita, much though I admire Virginia Woolf, David Garnett and Mikhail Bulgakov, and it also makes it difficult for me to be sure of being fair to Wild Nights, much though I admire Emma Tennant too.
This novel functions simultaneously on two levels: the realistic and the fantastic On the realistic level, this is an account of a family of landed gentry—father, mother, child—living on their estate in an inhospitable valley in the North. Each autumn, they receive a visit from the father's sister, Zita. Since she brings with her the ghosts of the past that she and her brother shared together but from which the brother's wife is excluded, her presence has about it a mingled attraction and...
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SOURCE: “The Victims,” in New Statesman, September 18, 1981, p. 26.
[In the following excerpt, Poole praises the dignity and skill with which Johnston portrays death and illness in The Christmas Tree.]
Susan Sontag, in Illness as Metaphor, described illness as the ‘night-side of life.’ She went on to quote the American psychiatrist Karl Menninger: ‘Illness is in part what the world has done to a victim, but in larger part it is what the victim has done with his world and with himself.’ This existential understanding opens up a bleak perspective. Illness becomes a sort of contemporary equivalent of the mystic's dark night of the soul, a condition that calls everything into question.
This week's batch of fiction sees two very different novelists attempting to explore illness as a metaphor for change, revaluation and, paradoxically, renewal. As the dying cancer victim in Jennifer Johnston's The Christmas Tree puts it, ‘there has to be a pattern,’ and recovering it can be almost as important as ‘recovering’ in the medical sense.
Jennifer Johnston's spare, economical style marks her work off from the rather lush, elliptical mode now fashionable with younger Irish novelists such as Neil Jordan and Desmond Hogan. And here, in her sixth novel, it accords perfectly with her subject: the deathbed narration of a failed writer trying to make sense...
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SOURCE: “Peeking Order,” in Spectator, Vol. 247, No. 7997, October 17, 1981, p. 27.
[In the following excerpt, Moorehead offers a positive assessment of The Christmas Tree.]
Jennifer Johnston's great strength has always been that she makes her characters matter: however confused, they are strong people, with clear and sympathetic identities. Her spare, tight novels, with their few people and scenes, also always manage to convey a larger canvas, a great deal more, usually about her own country, Ireland.
Having said that, The Christmas Tree could well have turned out unacceptably bleak. It is, with little respite, the story of a woman dying of leukemia. More than that, she is 45, alone, having just given birth to an illegitimate daughter, who now she will never see again. The baby was a conscious decision, a plan for the coming 25 years. That she will not live to enjoy this future does not particularly appal her: Constance Keating, as she says repeatedly, is not afraid of death itself. It is how she handles the last weeks that is the subject of the novel.
If The Christmas Tree manages to avoid relentless horror, and it does, it is due to Jennifer Johnston's particular gift for combining convincing cynicism with pathos. She is a skilful writer, using short flashbacks—most often dreams and memories produced under the influence of pain-killing drugs—in...
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SOURCE: “‘Finish, Good Lady; The Bright Day Is Done,’” in Washington Post Book World, Vol. XII, No. 19, May 9, 1982, p. 4.
[In the following positive review, Epstein compliments the efficient and textured prose in The Christmas Tree.]
Not well known on this side of the Atlantic, the Irish writer Jennifer Johnston has a solid, and well-deserved, readership in Great Britain. The Christmas Tree is her tense, spare, highly-textured sixth novel. In it Johnston coils her language so tightly that she achieves the compression we usually associate with a cryptic, photographic sort of poetry. Her language intercepts with Emily Dickinson's, a “certain Slant of light” that anatomizes landscape and memory.
The Christmas Tree unfolds in a series of vignettes, flashbacks, and waking dreams that define its dying narrator, Constance Keating. A solitary wanderer, Constance has recently returned to her family's home in Ireland from a trip to Italy. There she had an affair with Jacob Weinberg, a Polish Jew and stateless fellow-wanderer who has survived the Nazi concentration camps and possesses the same need as she to remember and memorialize. When Constance leaves Italy, she is pregnant. Her discovery that she is dying of leukemia occurs shortly after the birth of her daughter. She wishes to die at home, in the dark, on her own terms. “I don't want to have to be brave and...
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SOURCE: “Blending the Old and New Irish,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4586, February 22, 1991, p. 19.
[In the following review, Singmaster offers a mixed assessment of The Invisible Worm, noting that the novel does not live up to its full potential.]
Jennifer Johnston's latest novel, The Invisible Worm, though set in Ireland like all her novels, appears at first to be an apolitical tale of a beautiful, neurotic middle-aged woman. Laura Quinlan, married to the endearingly feckless Maurice, is the product of an uneasy alliance between an eccentric Anglo-Irish mother and a much-respected politician, a member of Ireland's New Nobility whose funeral takes place in the opening pages. In contrast to most of Johnston's earlier novels, Ireland's Troubles, whether past or present, play no part in the plot. Yet there are indications that this tale of private agony is, on another level, a metaphor for the uncertain fate of Ireland's scholarly traditions and Anglo-Irish cultural heritage in the wake of her violent recent history. Laura, childless and the last in a line of well-heeled woman mill-owners, embodies a dying breed: county and Protestant, she possesses “that mythological edge … over everyone else. The glamour of being an endangered species.”
The setting is familiar: a rambling house cluttered with inherited bric-à-brac (a glass cabinet containing medals and...
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SOURCE: “Resentment,” in London Review of Books, March 21, 1991, p. 22.
[In the following excerpt, Sutherland offers a positive assessment of The Invisible Worm.]
Jennifer Johnston is a full-time professional who has won, or come close to winning, her profession's highest prizes (though not the mass readership that sometimes goes with them). The Invisible Worm is a skilled exercise in narrative economy. It must be the kind of novel you can write only if you've spent years writing novels. Johnston uses words as if she were buying them with her life's savings from a jeweller's. A woman looks out into her garden on the coast of Ireland. She sees another woman running away. It is herself. She is schizophrenic (‘mad’ as her unkind, ‘peculiar’ as her kind neighbours say). The daughter of a senior politician who has just died, Laura is the wife of an EEC official who ‘took’ her for the dowry of her father's patronage. He is Catholic, she is Protestant. Her husband's attentions smother and reduce her, as did her father's, to doll-like impotence. She hates the closeness of men—aftershave, tobacco and hot licking tongues on her cheek. Laura lives ‘in two tenses.’ Her mind flits uncontrollably between the present and twenty years ago when something awful happened to her in the summerhouse (it's not giving away more than the title does to reveal that the something was grossly sexual)....
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SOURCE: “Irishmen at the Front,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4722, October 1, 1993, p. 18.
[In the following review, Jeffery compares the stage adaptation of How Many Miles to Babylon? to the original novel.]
Twenty years after its publication as a short and elegantly crafted novel, Jennifer Johnston has herself adapted How Many Miles to Babylon? for the stage. The story concerns the relationship of two Irish boys, Alexander Moore, the son of an Ascendancy Big House, and Jerry Crowe, a peasant stable lad, as it develops and as they both enlist in the British army at the beginning of the First World War. The contrasts between the two: rich and poor; Protestant and Catholic; officer and private soldier, together with the growing depth of their friendship, provide the author with ample opportunities to reflect on the differing and often conflicting demands of private and public loyalties.
The rise of Irish nationalism, which was increasingly straining the fabric of the United Kingdom, adds further layers of tension, expressed through the political standpoints of the four main male characters: Moore, although Anglo-Irish, a Home Ruler; Crowe, a republican; Sergeant Barry, a rabid and sectarian Ulster Unionist; and Major Glendenning, an Englishman, quite unsympathetic to the “bog Irish” under his command. Barry and the major share a belief that the Irish are...
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SOURCE: “Hollow Men,” in New Statesman and Society, September 22, 1995, p. 32.
[In the following review, Craig commends Johnston's skill at portraying complicated and intricate relationships in The Illusionist.]
The Illusionist is a kind of fable. Jennifer Johnston has been narrowing her focus lately, and this short novel is both highly concentrated and decorative. It doesn't have much in the way of plot, but plot is not the point as it moves between the present and the past.
It opens in Dublin, where a middle-aged novelist, Stella Macnamara, awaits the arrival from the airport of her daughter Robin. Robin is coming from the funeral of her father, Stella's estranged husband and the illusionist of the title. Martyn Glover has died in the company of 250 doves, caught by a terrorist explosion in a London street. Terrorism plays no further part in the story. Its function is to furnish the illusionist with a suitable end; gone, as he came, in a puff of smoke.
Train smoke must have heralded his first appearance on the Liverpool-London express, c1961. After materialising in the compartment in which Stella is travelling, he first interrupts her reading and then takes over her life. Reader, she marries him—and from this point on, it's a matter of the narrative allying itself with all those wives who are kept in the dark about their husbands'...
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SOURCE: “Booking in to Dublin,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4930, September 26, 1997, p. 23.
[In the following review, Dallat argues that although the stories in Finbar's Hotel (written by Johnston and six other Irish authors) share common settings and characters, each piece is unique and strong enough to stand on its own.]
The characters who occupy seven rooms on the first floor of a down-at-heel Dublin hotel manage, simply by keeping out of each other's lives despite frequent and silent corridor confrontations, to create a vivid picture of a multi-layered, complex modern city, whose inhabitants and passers-through are as prone to loneliness as those in any other national capital. As a concept, this flies in the face of received notions of Dublin, from Joyce through Behan, Cronin and Donleavy to Dermot Bolger himself, the instigator and one of the joint authors of Finbar's Hotel; notions which imply a gregarious interconnectedness, and insist on seeing Dublin as a macrocosm of the parish; and it also undermines, oddly, the sense of Irish writers as a gathered community which is implicit in the invention and structure of this intriguing book.
Thus, while Finbar's Hotel presents itself as a literary puzzle—with its seven authors (the others are Hugo Hamilton, Jennifer Johnston, Joseph O'Connor and Colm Tóibín) asserting, contrary to custom, their right...
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SOURCE: “Hamlet at the Abbey,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4981, September 18, 1998, p. 27.
[In the following review, Foster offers a negative assessment of Two Moons, criticizing the inaccuracies in Johnston's description of modern Ireland.]
A new work [Two Moons] by Jennifer Johnston is always an event. The literary generation to which she belongs has produced some of Ireland's most ground-breaking fiction. Unspoken rules and invisible lines laid down by history, religion or family ties have supplied plenty of material for those writers raised within the peculiar straitjacket of de Valera's newly independent nation. And their acute awareness of convention, whether to stay silent or speak out, is their only common theme.
Born in 1930 as a southern Irish Protestant, Johnston has written fiction which has caught much of that strangeness and inhibition. But whereas her contemporaries, such as John McGahern, Edna O'Brien and Brian Moore, set their characters against conventional wisdom, often widening their field to examine the effects of memory and tradition, Johnston has always seen things from a different angle. For her, the struggle for personal freedom is what counts. Battles are fought in country houses and suburban homes. And, as with William Trevor or Aidan Higgins, the focus is on the wounds which simple misunderstanding and a patriarchal order can inflict....
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SOURCE: “Jennifer Johnston,” in Ireland in Writing: Interviews with Writers and Academics, edited by Jacqueline Hurtley, Rosa González, Ines Praga, and Esther Aliaga, Rodopi, 1998, pp. 7–19.
[In the following interview, Johnston discusses her creative process and the various critical responses to her work.]
[González:] Your novels are fairly short, almost novellas. Do you consciously aim at brevity?
[Johnston:] No, I don't. I always say to myself, “Now, this time I'm going to write a long novel,” and it always seems a long idea in my mind, you know, but they come out almost exactly the same length. That seems to be my rhythm, and I believe very strongly that when I've made my point I don't want to embellish it in any way, and I think with very long novels a lot is embellishment, and I don't have any desire to embellish.
At the same time your novels are very carefully structured (with the use of multiple points of view, of framing devices …). Do you plan much before you start writing?
No. I'm a very disorderly person and a very disorderly writer. When I start to work I have just say one or two ideas in my mind, and I just start sort of playing around with them, like you play with tennis balls against the wall, and after about forty pages, suddenly they take on a momentum of their own, the characters suddenly start to...
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SOURCE: “Rebelling against Jam and Duty,” in Spectator, No. 2985, October 21, 2000, pp. 48–49.
[In the following review, Egerton offers a positive assessment of The Gingerbread Woman.]
Like its beautifully written predecessor, Two Moons, Jennifer Johnston's latest novel [The Gingerbread Woman] is set in the village of Dalkey, just south of Dublin. There are shared themes too. Adult children wrestle with identity under the shadow of their parents, that of their mothers especially. Tragic events are repressed with varying degrees of success. Mental breakdown is an imminent, if at times surprisingly comic, threat. But the world she creates here is all its own: powerfully drawn characters extend the familiar in new ways, leading to an exploration of contemporary values, in both the South and the North of Ireland.
Clara is a lecturer in modern Irish literature who has discovered that the world is ‘full of universities’ delighted to offer her short-term contracts, which perfectly accords with her intermittent wanderlust. Once home she is at first happy when her mother indulges the ‘childishness’ in her but is inexorably compelled to react against ‘jam’ and ‘familial duties’ and make a run for it. But on this occasion, having recently returned from New York, it is clear that her state of mind results from more disturbing traumas. She talks in bitter but...
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SOURCE: “On Killiney Hill,” in Times Literary Supplement, No. 5093, November 10, 2000, p. 25.
[In the following negative review, Dallat criticizes the inaccurate details, unbelievable elements, and broad characterizations in The Gingerbread Woman.]
Jennifer Johnston's novels, and contemporary Irish writing generally, are replete with relationships which are dogged by differences of religion and culture. The Gingerbread Woman reverses expectations only in that it focuses on an encounter between a Southern Protestant and a Northern Catholic. The meeting, in the opening pages, between a young Glens of Antrim man, walking his dog on Killiney Hill, and a woman he believes is about to commit suicide, creates an awkward set of obligations and—avowedly non-sexual—affections, nimbly charted by Johnston over the next few days of their shared lives towards a resolution that is surprisingly credible.
Clara Barry and Laurence McGrane are opposites in every respect. The former's middle-class upbringing has given her access to international academia; she lectures on literature while singing Schubert and Verdi to herself, listening to Billie Holiday in the bath, collecting objets d'art, watching art-house movies and quoting whole Roger McGough poems to justify her mistrust of Freud. Open to the possibility of the occasional romance, she is currently recuperating from the medical...
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Boland, Maura. “Fool's Sanctuary: No Peace in Ireland.” Chicago Tribune (18 January 1988): section 5, p. 3.
Boland commends the well-composed dialogue in Fool's Sanctuary, but argues that Johnston's lack of popular success may be due to her detached tone.
Dooley, Susan. “A Sad Story of Ireland's Divided House.” Washington Post Book World (24 January 1988): 10.
Dooley offers a positive assessment of Fool's Sanctuary.
Hemingway, Lorian. “A Woman's Hall of Horrors.” Washington Post Book World (26 August 1993): C3.
Hemingway, author and granddaughter of famed novelist Ernest Hemingway, offers a laudatory assessment of The Invisible Worm, calling it “a novel rare as snow in summer.”
Hogan, Desmond. “City of Visions.” New Statesman (10 October 1980): 23.
Hogan offers a negative assessment of The Old Jest, calling the novel “unconvincing.”
Ingoldby, Grace. “Spook Time.” New Statesman (25 October 1984): 31.
Ingoldby offers a positive assessment of The Railway Station Man.
Johnston, Jennifer with Eleanor Wachtel. “Jennifer Johnston Interviewed by Eleanor Wachtel.” Queens Quarterly 104, No. 2 (Summer 1997): 319–29....
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