O'Faolain, Julia (Vol. 108)
Julia O'Faolain 1932–
English-born Irish short novelist, short story writer, editor, and translator.
The following entry presents an overview of O'Faolain's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volumes 6, 19, and 47.
The daughter of Irish writers Eileen and Sean O'Faolain, Julia O'Faolain has had to carve out her own niche in the literary world. She has developed a unique style with an international scope which has garnered her a reputation as a powerful and intelligent writer. With satirical wit and dark humor, she explores cultural attitudes and themes related to sexuality, male-female relationships, Catholicism, and politics, particularly as these issues concern female characters attempting to establish their identities.
O'Faolain was born on June 6, 1932, in London, England. Her parents were strong advocates of Irish nationalism. They spoke Gaelic in their house and adopted the Gaelic version of their surname. Eileen, a writer of children's stories, kept Julia home from school until the age of eight and used her as an audience for her children's stories. The stories were fantasy-filled tales which led O'Faolain to talk of leprechauns and fairies when she entered school. After being ridiculed for her fanciful imagination, Julia began to look incredulously at anything fantastic in nature, including religion. It was this analytical outlook that O'Faolain later brought to bear in her writing. O'Faolain attended University College in Dublin where she received both a bachelor and a masters degree in the Arts. She also did graduate study at Universita di Roma and the Sorbonne, University of Paris. The fact that she has lived all over the world helps her to set her fiction in various international locales and still evoke a sense of place. O'Faolain married Lauro Martines, a teacher and historian, with whom she edited Not in God's Image (1973).
O'Faolain's collection, We Might See Sights! and Other Stories (1968) has stories set in Ireland and Italy. The stories explore such topics as hypocritical cultural attitudes and young females discovering their sexuality. Many of the pieces in her second collection, Man in the Cellar (1974), examine the power struggles between men and women, including the title story which depicts an English woman who chains her Italian husband in the cellar and attempts to convince him of the inequities in their marriage. The collection Daughters of Passion (1982) contains female protagonists whose identities are shaped by men and characters who adopt political views that suit their immediate purposes. O'Faolain's first novel, Godded and Codded (1971), is a story of sexual awakening. It centers on an Irish graduate student who travels to Paris to free herself from the stifling atmosphere of her family life. Related with bawdy humor, the novel details her sexual adventures and satirizes various character types among expatriates in Paris. In Women in the Wall (1975), O'Faolain builds her fictional tale around a historical figure, but O'Faolain takes artistic license with the details of the story. The novel, set in sixth-century Gaul, is based on Queen Radegunda, a Frankish saint. The main character of the novel, Radegunda, was forced to marry the king who slaughtered her family. She longed to enter a religious life without men and political turmoil. Her husband consented to let her leave and she founded the Convent of the Holy Cross. The story revolves around the reasons Radegunda and two other women have for entering the spiritual life of the convent and the role of women in medieval society. In No Country for Young Men (1980), O'Faolain addresses the issues of Irish nationalism to explicate the destructive, cyclical pattern of her country's history. She follows three generations of a family involved in Ireland's political troubles to develop several themes, including the influence of traditional myths and political tensions on how women are viewed in Ireland and the dubious values sometimes related to patriotism. The Obedient Wife (1982) is set in Los Angeles and centers on an unhappily married woman whose husband encourages her to see other men while he is away on business. O'Faolain explores the conflicts between Catholic values and personal needs through the woman's romantic relationship with a priest. O'Faolain once again switches locales in The Irish Signorina (1984). Set in an Italian villa, the novel concerns a young Irish woman who visits the Cavalcanti family, for whom her mother used to work as an au pair. Her mother, now dead, had never really let go of Italy or the Cavalcanti family. Ann explores her mother's past and develops her own relationship with the family. In this novel, O'Faolain develops a comparison between romanticism and rationalism and explores differing philosophies of life and love. The Judas Cloth (1992) focuses on Rome, the Catholic Church, and Pope Pius IX. It follows the lives of three young men as they struggle with their identities. Also significant in O'Faolain's career is her work on Not in God's Image. She co-edited the book which documents the place of women in Western civilization.
Critics first looked for comparisons between O'Faolain's work and that of her parents. However, she soon garnered a reputation on her own merits and for her own unique talents. J. R. Frakes asserts that "she does not write like her father. And maybe, if [Three Lovers] is a fair harbinger, she'll become the family member whose name is used for identification." Reviewers point out how her international background affects the scope of her work and sets her apart from other Irish writers. Complaints about O'Faolain's fiction include a sense of incompleteness, where story lines are left hanging, and an occasional sense of preachiness. Many reviewers laud her use of satire and the intelligence she brings to her writing. Alan Ross says, "Julia O'Faolain has all the essential gifts—a sense of high comedy, fastidiousness of language and feeling, intellectual control over widely-ranging scraps of knowledge—and she uses them with the lightest of touches." One of O'Faolain's strongest gifts is her ability to expose and bring things to their essential level. Ann Owens Weekes states, "When I first read her work, I was struck by the acid intelligence that strips away layers of tradition, affection, and affection, exposing an often grotesque core." Reviewers often point out the allusive nature of O'Faolain's work, which recalls images from ancient myth and history. Her work is often cited in feminist criticism for its honest portrayal of the role of women in society and women's struggle to define her identity. She is also praised for her deft handling of sensitive political issues, a topic usually considered the territory of male writers.
We Might See Sights! and Other Stories (short stories) 1968
Godded and Codded (novel) 1971; republished as Three Lovers, 1971
Not in God's Image: Women in History from the Greeks to the Victorians [editor with Lauro Martines] (essays) 1973
Man in the Cellar (short stories) 1974
Women in the Wall (novel) 1975
Melancholy Baby and Other Stories (short stories) 1978
No Country for Young Men (novel) 1980
Daughters of Passion (short stories) 1982
The Obedient Wife (novel) 1982
The Irish Signorina (novel) 1984
The Judas Cloth (novel) 1992
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SOURCE: "Carry on Codding," in London Magazine, Vol. 10, No. 8, November, 1970, pp. 109-10.
[In the following excerpt, Ross praises O'Faolain's Godded and Codded.]
A dotty Irishman, holed up in the jungles of Paris, is one of the chief characters in Julia O'Faolain's first novel Godded and Codded…. [T]his is an immensely stylish and richly allusive performance…. Though not exactly original in its account of the wayward affair between a sexy Irish student from the bogs and a wily, Arab revolutionary, Godded and Codded has so many incidental pleasures that its fairly routine plot about sexual awakening scarcely matters. In a beautifully suggested Paris of cold lodgings, hot passions, trees, restaurants, abortion wards and tutelary roués, among whom the Irish innocents flounder in a haze of romantic longing and booze, enough comes through about living, learning and loving for the odd confusions and self-indulgences to seem irrelevant. Julia O'Faolain has all the essential gifts—a sense of high comedy, fastidiousness of language and of feeling, intellectual control over widely-ranging scraps of knowledge—and she uses them with the lightest of touches.
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SOURCE: "Judas-Hole Vision of Hell," in Book World, June 13, 1971, p. 2.
[In the following review, Frakes lauds O'Faolain's Three Lovers.]
It's reassuring to know that the coming-of-age process still flourishes in Paris—it gives one a sense of continuity and tradition. At twenty-two, Sally Tyndal flies from drowsy Dublin to the seedy banks of the Seine, equipped with a scholarship, a suppurating Catholic conscience, and a determination to lose her Gaelic identity as a "late virgin" and "a mental amorist." And she does indeed lose it—over and over again. Thus the dreary title of this fast, funny, and cruel novel, [Three Lovers]. Lover #1 is Mesli, an Algerian revolutionary, medical student, and male chauvinist, who impregnates Sally, thus setting both the plot and the passions spinning. He also, not so incidentally, considers Camus a sell-out. Lover #3, Raimondo Lupino, "extinct, bizarre, touching and finished," an Italian count and antiquarian, undertakes to complete Sally's education, and the book ends with a tarnished heroine trusting herself to his horny hands. But Lover #2 is the "boyo" you won't forget—Fintan McCann, mad painter from Limerick, fierce and hairy "verbal onanist," lecher, opportunist, and raunchy sentimentalist. "I bite therefore I am," he boasts. Clown and conniver, victim and rebel, provincial and cosmopolite (who refuses to learn French in hopes of protecting himself by...
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SOURCE: "Under Orders," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 3813, April 4, 1975, p. 353.
[In the following review, Pulvertaft praises "the clear, tough style" of O'Faolain's Women in the Wall, but complains that the author imposes modern prejudices on the story.]
The Queen Radegund of history, patron saint of prisoners and captives, was born in 518, and as a young girl captured by, and forced to marry, the Frankish king Clotair. She later escaped to God, and founded the monastery of the Holy Cross, where she became famous for her visions, tended the sick, and lived as an ordinary nun, handing the running of the place over to St Agnes.
In Women in the Wall Julia O'Faolain uses the history of Queen Radegund to try to answer fundamental questions about women's role in society, and to discover the reasons behind vocations. In the process, as she admits, she does some violence to history, imagining Radegund to have been involved in a political plot to put an orthodox Christian prince on the throne in order to combat disorder and Arianism. A sub-plot involves Ingunda, the imagined daughter of Agnes by the poet-priest Fortunatus, who, horrified at the discovery of her true parentage, has herself walled-up to expiate her mother's sin. Although this practice is of doubtful historical validity, it here serves well as a symbol for the buried individuality of womankind. Ingunda is...
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SOURCE: A review of Women in the Wall, in America, Vol. 133, No. 5, August 30, 1975, pp. 99-100.
[In the following review, Ferrari lauds O'Faolain's Women in the Wall as "engrossing for its historical detail, its present relevance and its strikingly powerful style."]
Julia O'Faolain's Women in the Wall is an impressive, exciting historical novel. Reading this taut story from beginning to end, the reader is left with a feeling that a fragment of history, the sixth century, the very beginning of the dark ages, has been illuminated brilliantly.
The title refers to a group of women, royal and otherwise, who leave the world to establish one of the few refuges for women in an endangered time. The novel drifts easily and clearly back and forth in time, shaped by the interactions within the convent and the political action outside the convent walls. Three of the convent's 200 women, Radegunda, Agnes and Ingunda, are pivotal in the novel.
The story centers around Radegunda, a mystical, almost saintly ex-queen whose bloody, frightening past is elicited from her by a poet-biographer, Fortunatus. In her pre-convent days, when she was 11, her family was massacred by King Clotair, and seven years later she was forced to marry him. When, after fourteen years of marriage, her husband murdered her brother, she longed for a world of reversed values, a religious life...
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SOURCE: "Diarmuid and Gráinne Again: Julia O'Faolain's No Country for Old Men," in Eire-Ireland, Spring, 1986, pp. 89-102.
[In the following essay, Weekes traces how O'Faolain's No Country for Old Men portrays the relationship between women and the political situation in Ireland.]
Seeking a theoretical model for feminist criticism, Elaine Showalter proposes the Ardener model of intersecting circles representing male and female spheres, a crescent of each sphere free from the intersecting circle. The male crescent, though not experienced by women, is known, because male culture dominates and represents itself. The female or "wild" crescent, the area "spatially, experientially," and "metaphysically" outside the male sphere has been "muted" both in language and power and must, therefore, be examined in an attempt to represent the whole human experience. Showalter asks feminist critics of women's writing to explore this crescent, to reveal the muted plot, the "undercurrent" flowing beneath a text which must participate simultaneously in the dominant culture. As we might expect, the perspective from the "wild" crescent varies from that of the dominant sphere: Carol Gilligan asserts that a different moral perspective is an important result of women's early training in, to use Showalter's term, the "wild" sphere. From studies she conducted on females in different stages of moral development,...
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SOURCE: A review of The Irish Signorina, in America, Vol. 156, No. 17, May 2, 1987, p. 371.
[In the following excerpt, Hill states that "In The Irish Signorina, Julia O'Faolain has written a novel of beginnings and no endings so that a pervasive incompleteness to both character and plot takes a heavy toll on the reader, but especially on the work itself."]
As usual, the news from Ireland is both good and bad. First the bad news. In The Irish Signorina, Julia O'Faolain has written a novel of beginnings and no endings so that a pervasive incompleteness to both character and plot takes a heavy toll on the reader, but especially on the work itself. Anne Ryan, the signorina of the title, comes to Italy at the invitation of the ailing Marchesa Cavalcanti. Her arrival would set the stage for the unraveling of a family mystery and personal self-discovery. Of sorts.
Anne's mother, whose recent death prompted the Marchesa's invitation, had lived 20 years earlier as an aupair in the Cavalcanti villa in Tuscany. Suddenly, under a cloud of embarrassment, she was forced to return to Ireland. There she had married a dull but apparently devoted Irishman, an officer in the Irish army, who had subsequently been killed while dismantling an I.R.A. bomb. Growing up alone with her mother, Anne comes to realize that she had never fully left Italy or the Cavalcanti family. Something,...
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SOURCE: "Julia O'Faolain: The Imaginative Crucible," in Irish Women Writers: An Uncharted Tradition, University Press of Kentucky, 1991, pp. 174-90.
[In the following essay, Owens Weekes discusses O'Faolain's deconstruction of ancient Irish myths and tradition.]
Probably all parents influence their children more than the children care to admit. Some of their values are imbibed like milk; others sour mind and heart and are rejected. Occasionally we are mature enough to examine our opinions apart altogether from the emotional moss they have gathered through parental association. Writers, more than other people, mine the source of their own reactions, or maybe they just seem to do so because they write of this activity. Certainly Julia O'Faolain has frequently considered the influences of her writer parents, Sean and Eileen O'Faolain, on her own work. Her father, she believes, is an incurable romantic: indeed both her parents reacted romantically and enthusiastically to the birth of the fledgling Irish state. They Gaelicized their names, spoke the Gaelic language at home, and embraced the original principles of de Valera's republicans. Although he would become as disillusioned with the Republic as with the older empire, Sean attempted to expose his own children to "the romantic Ireland of his youth … which did and didn't exist." Eileen too led her daughter to and, as happens, away from romantic Ireland. A...
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SOURCE: "Triangles and Entrapment: Julia O'Faolain's No Country for Young Men, in Colby Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, March, 1991, pp. 9-16.
[In the following essay, Moore analyzes the triangular relationships at work in O'Faolain's No Country for Young Men.]
An exploration of the triangular relationships among the characters in Julia O'Faolain's 1980 novel No Country for Young Men reveals a paradigm of control and entrapment of women throughout Irish history. O'Faolain, who has published several other novels and short stories, also co-edited with her husband in 1973 a collection of readings concerned with the historical position of women, Not in God's Image: Women in History from the Greeks to the Victorians. In No Country for Young Men she details "how devastating to a society the mistreatment of women, the misuse of their energies and gifts, really is." Political intrigue, Irish nationalism, social commentary, clever mystery, and abundant literary and mythological allusions flesh out the narrative, but O'Faolain's primary focus is the women.
The novel comprises two interwoven plots, one in 1922, the second fifty years later. The first concerns Irish-American Sparky Driscoll, murdered by young Judith Clancy to protect American funding for the IRA; the second deals with Grainne O'Malley, Judith's grand-niece, and her affair with James, a Californian visiting...
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SOURCE: "Woman Across Time: Sister Judith Remembers," in Colby Quarterly, Vol. XXVII, No. 1, March, 1991, pp. 17-26.
[In the following essay, Vandale traces how "Through Judith [in O'Faolain's No Country for Young Men] we see how the lives of women in Ireland have been, are, and no doubt will continue to be affected by war, politics, men, and the Church."]
No Country for Young Men by Julia O'Faolain, "one of the most accomplished Irish writers of her generation" is, as Jay Halio has described, "a darkly comic stor[y] concerned with the position of women." Dark in that it certainly has its share of death and mystery, the novel nevertheless retains a twisted touch of comedy, which challenges the readers' emotions; we laugh sometimes only because otherwise we would cry. This sense of painful comedy is embodied by the women characters throughout the story. For, despite a title which might lead one to believe otherwise, No Country for Young Men is unavoidably about Irish women. In particular, it is about Judith Clancy, the old mad nun great-aunt of Grainne and Michael. Through Judith we see how the lives of women in Ireland have been, are, and no doubt will continue to be affected by war, politics, men, and the Church. What sets Judith apart from other women is that she has dared act on her own initiative—refusing to be completely squelched by the limitations generally placed on...
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SOURCE: "A Question of Infallibility," in Times Literary Supplement, No. 4669, September 25, 1992, p. 24.
[In the following review, Gilmore praises O'Faolain's The Judas Cloth as "[a] powerful, original and intelligent novel."]
As I began reading The Judas Cloth, I could not help recalling Lampedusa's remarks on the beginnings of Scott's novels: each was "veramente insopportabile", he declared, an endless parade of people and places too often and too meticulously described. But as I read on, I remembered his observation that, after page 100, "one realizes that the faces and places have remained imprinted on one's memory…. And the drama is described in masterly fashion: the psychology of the characters is solid, the action alive and rapid."
These judgments might fairly be applied to Julia O'Faolain's immense work, although the action is occasionally held up by the complexities of nineteenth-century papal finance. A powerful, original and intelligent novel, The Judas Cloth is spread over a giant canvas, centred on Rome but stretching to Bologna and later to Paris. The papal city, bewildered by the challenges of nationalism and revolution, is vividly evoked: a sinister place of intrigue and corruption, of denunciations and anonymous letters, a city of blackmail and "ancient odours", where Jesuit priests instruct children to spy for God. The fetid atmosphere is...
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SOURCE: "Stephen Dedalus in Paris?: Joycean Elements in Julia O'Faolain's Three Lovers," in Colby Quarterly, Vol. XXX, No. 4, December, 1994, pp. 244-51.
[In the following essay, Mastin analyzes Fintan McCann from O'Faolain's Three Lovers as a refiguration of James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus.]
In his now famous vehement interchange with Davin in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Stephen Dedalus declares that "Ireland is the old sow that eats her farrow." Fifty-some years later, in the world reflected in Julia O'Faolain's Three Lovers, Ireland continues to evoke the same criticism and be wrapped in the same strictures. When O'Faolain's Fintan McCann sees the "squat little map" of Ireland on a letter addressed to him, he sees a "foetally folded Ireland, stretching out embryo arms" to his Paris haven, threatening to consume him in its "all-devouring Irish muck." For O'Faolain's characters, Ireland is not just the "old sow that eats her farrow," it is even more inimical, a "suppurating womb of a place, [a] soggy bog of lies and loneliness." Stephen's misogynist image is here replaced by one that carries particular poignancy in a country where abortion and contraception are illegal and where a mother's life is secondary to her child's. This image suggests a land that not only destroys its people but that also jeopardizes its reproductive future. In O'Faolain's...
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Hargreaves, Tamsin. "Women's Consciousness and Identity in Four Irish Women Novelists." In Cultural Contexts and Literary Idioms in Contemporary Irish Literature, edited by Michael Kenneally, pp. 290-305. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe, pp. 1988.
Analyzes the search for identity and existential meaning found in classic fairy tales and the work of Julia O'Faolain, Edna O'Brien, Molly Keane, and Jennifer Johnston.
"Subjection and Seclusion." The Economist 246, No. 6756 (17 February 1973): 107.
The review gives credit to the talents of O'Faolain and fellow editor Lauro Martines for making Not in God's Image "a source-book on the history of women … [which] stands in a class quite of its own."
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