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...
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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...
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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.
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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...
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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...
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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....
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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O'Faolain, Julia (Vol. 19)
O'Faolain is a British novelist, short story writer, translator, and non-fiction writer. She produces witty, urbane fiction ranging from her modern chronicle of troubled Ireland, No Country for Young Men, to her imaginative and convincing portrayal of a nunnery in the Dark Ages, Women in the Wall. She is the daughter of Sean O'Faolain. (See also CLC, Vol. 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)
[In "Three Lovers" Julia O'Faolain] writes firmly, with a voice all her own, the voice of her New Yorker stories expanded into a novel: well planned, intelligent, concise, more pointed than her father [Sean O'Faolain], with a cold female eye for the egocentricities of masculine behavior.
"Three Lovers" hinges on three men in one inexperienced (Irish) woman's life….
Although [Sally Tyndal] is the focus of the novel she remains two-dimensional throughout—not a failing on Julia O'Faolain's part, but daring, because that's the way [she] really is….
Cruelly, Julia O'Faolain charts her progress towards superficiality: three lovers in the book—many more afterwards. For Sally Tyndal, as for so many women, life is lived at one remove: her lovers become a substitute for living….
It is all crisply, neatly, if somewhat conventionally done. The narrative shifts expertly from stream of consciousness to direct reportage. The texture of the prose is thick and pungent. And Miss O'Faolain scores most with little prickly insights, small amounts of truth caught and preserved like photographs.
She is heavier-handed when it comes to developing situations and character so that the moments of truth interrelate. Fintan's eccentricity is a touch sentimental; Sally's family in Ireland are stock; some of the details of the narrative are a bore. In a sense, we learn more about Sally in [a] … revealing second at the cocktail party (when she makes no response to the talk of wogs) than we do later on, in pages of protracted analysis.
The novel becomes like a necklace; there are moments that are pearls. But the string of plot that holds them together becomes tiresome. In a book with much new and unconventional thinking and writing, it is disappointing to be slowed down by a plodding, conventional plot. It dulls the impact—and, more important for Miss O'Faolain, the dutiful structuring noticeably dulls her prose.
Sally Beauman, "Fiction: 'Three Lovers'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 9, 1971, p. 38.
In Julia O'Faolain's Three Lovers the insignificance of the characters, my inability to work up the slightest interest in the love complications surrounding a young Irish woman in Paris, gave me a distinct sense of evil—nullity, nothingness. I asked myself, why can't I care about any of these people and what happens to them? Why are the characters in so many novels so expectable, with nothing to tell us?
Such nothingness does amount to "evil": it is evil for a human being not to count anywhere, not even in a novel!
Alfred Kazin, "Fiction as a Social Gathering," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1971 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LIV, No. 27, July 3, 1971, pp. 19-22.∗
[In Women in the Wall] Julia O'Faolain illuminates the Dark Ages and brings vividly to life characters from fourteen centuries ago. Is the book true to that distant, now faint and shadowy, time in Europe's history?… Are we the victims of the novelist's skill and imagination, compelled to believe that her invented days and nights in convent, palace and basilica were really as she describes them when in fact they weren't? There is, of course, no means of checking. Nor, I think, should we want to. Julia O'Faolain achieves the truth of fiction, if not of history. (p. 113)
John Mellors, "Animality and Turtledom," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1975), Vol. 15, No. 3, August-September, 1975, pp. 111-14.∗
Julia O'Faolain takes risks…. No Country for Young Men tackles the legacy of Republicanism in Southern Ireland through the story of one family. It's a big, intelligent novel with a firm grasp of history and an impressive range of subjects: Irish-American relations, the 'mucked-up heritage' of the descendants of Republican heroes, the predicaments of Irish wives and daughters, the dangerous effects of living in the past…. It runs the risk, not only of treating inflammable materials cooly, but of having so much to explain.
At times the novel edges towards lecture-topics…. But that schoolroom tone is mostly avoided by means of a well-managed double plot, which moves between 1921 and 1979….
[The characterisations are not subtle.] But they allow for an energetically acerbic satire on contemporary Dublin, and on American attitudes to Ireland…. And the novel's strong grasp of the relation between a family and a national history transcends its occasional imaginative sagginess.
Hermione Lee, "Most Distressful Country," in The Observer (reprinted by permission of The Observer Limited), No. 9849, June 1, 1980, p. 28.∗
The over-riding weakness of Julia O'Faolain's No Country for Young Men is precisely a lack of trimming through attempting too much. The Irish issue may look on the surface ready matter for novelists…. But how to present a coherent picture of so much confusion immediately throws up problems. I do not believe that a novel intentionally disorganised and confused in an effort to reproduce the Irish atmosphere is taking the right path, but this is what Julia O'Faolain has tried to bring off…. [The] focus continually shifts and so does our attention. It is the distraction of hearing too many conversations at once, as in a crowded pub.
Simon Blow, "Cocktail Drugs," in New Statesman (© 1980 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 99, No. 2568, June 6, 1980, pp. 854, 856.∗
[No Country for Young Men] is an ambitious undertaking…. A great deal is going on in the book, both in the present and in the past, and the attempts to avoid disorder are not always successful. Such an abundance of material is bound to get out of hand; it resists confinement, spills over, takes the shape it needs irrespective of any narrative design. Issues are raised which cannot be developed. Whole themes for novels are suggested and dealt with in a couple of paragraphs—the son of a servant who ends up master of the great house is one example.
Julia O'Faolain frequently gets into difficulties with time sequences, not only in the basic backwards-and-forwards movement, but in the...
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O'Faolain, Julia (Vol. 6)
Miss O'Faolain, the daughter of Sean O'Faolain, was brought up in Ireland, has lived in France and Italy, and now lives in England and the United States.
Julia O'Faolain's fraught stories [Man in the Cellar] reverberate after you have read them. Just as you think a character has been typed, you are given a new look from a different angle, so that you finally sympathise with the harpy, cancel your admiration of the sophisticated daughter of stuffy parents, wonder whether the hero is not far sicker than the villain.
Julia O'Faolain has the knack of shattering the reader's complacency, and yet her stories, however ruthless and revealing, are written with wit, elegance and humour. She cracks things considerably bigger than nuts with an instrument much more precise than a sledgehammer. She is particularly good at contrasting the Anglo-Saxon and Latin ways of life; usually it is her Anglo-Saxons who blow their tops, while her hot-blooded Latins slyly keep their cool. And 'Lots of Ghastlies', in which emancipated Priss returns to the irritating bosom of her bourgeois parents, reminds me of Angus Wilson's Such Darling Dodos: a comparison which is intended as the highest praise. (p. 416)
John Mellors, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1974; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), September 26, 1974.
[As] I was walking through a heavy rain storm, I thought whereas Anaïs Nin might remark 'God has turned his tap on' Julia O'Faolain's comment would be tenser and more graphic. But this splendidly vigorous writer has much more than an adversion to cant or pretension to recommend the seven stories that make up Man in the Cellar.
This is also the title of the longest story and in it she clearly shows her hand and what we can expect from her. For though the stories range from small town provincial Italy and Los Angeles to Ireland and Paris, she has one major preoccupation: the difficulty, often the impossibility, of a man and a woman 'relating' to each other if they come from different countries and cultures….
Although Julia O'Faolain is a fierce writer she isn't by any means a strident shrew with an over-familiar cause to shout. She's lively, very funny, and writes like an express train. (pp. 132-33)
Digby Durrant, in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1974), October/November, 1974.
Julia O'Faolain … is clearly a novelist of great talent whose interest has twice come close to a Poe-ian obsession with immurement. This second novel [Women in the Wall] is wild, gaunt, bloody, tragic and wholly impressive. Its appearance on lists of the best of fiction this year is inevitable.
The women in the wall of the title are sixth-century nuns, living out their turbulent, spiritual and corporeal lives in what used to be called the Dark Ages in Gaul….
The force of language, the subtle and entirely successful recreation by means of it of the spirit as well as the events of Gallic life 13 centuries ago, at the end of the Roman era and the beginning of the Christian, make Women in the Wall a remarkably modern historical novel, poignant and powerful. It absorbs the reader into a time when women were chattels, when "inherited land followed the spear not the spindle,"—into a time when the greatest conqueror was not of the flesh but of the spirit, when the full force of early Christianity made fanatics and saints of its believers. (p. 21)
Doris Grumbach, "Conquerors and Saints," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), May 10, 1975, p. 21.
If a significant proportion of the new Irish writing is concerned with the survival of human values under reductive economic pressure, Ireland also has, in Julia O'Faolain, an outstanding satirist of the affluent society…. [She is one of] the very few Irish writers who [is] truly international in range. Sean O'Faolain and Mary Lavin have both set stories in Italy: Julia O'Faolain has been able to write, as it were, from inside Italian life. Where she differs most sharply, however, from other Irish writers is in choosing to work from within the contemporary flux of modes and passions. Her characters generally have comparative economic freedom. Not being pinned down in one situation, they escape that terminal haunting that gives most Irish fiction its metaphysical unease. They do not escape, though, essentially the same challenges: only in their case the pressure comes from within, generally as a conflict between the direction of their own vitality and the assumptions of the way they have been brought up…. To call Julia O'Faolain a satirist, as I did a few lines back, is to do her work only partial justice: it suggests the incisiveness of her talent—for wit and verbal devastation she has few equals among her contemporaries—but not the strength nor the subtlety of her concern. There is a power of mind behind her work, as well as an irreverently perceptive eye, that catches the intensity of human drives, the essential seriousness of the effort to live, without swallowing any of the trends in self-deception. She is an acute observer, who is involved at a level of concern deeper than the substance or sum of her observations. (pp. 239-40)
Roger Garfitt, "Constants in Contemporary Irish Fiction" (copyright © 1975 by Roger Garfitt), in Two Decades of Irish Writing: A Critical Survey, edited by Douglas Dunn, Dufour Editions, Inc., 1975.