The Country Girls Trilogy by Edna O’Brien

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The Novels

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The Country Girls Trilogy and Epilogue draws upon the author’s Irish past to delineate the experiences of two women fatally involved in the lives of men. Caithleen (Kate) Brady and Bridget (Baba) Brennan are best friends in spite of the fact that they are opposites. They grow up together in Ireland and eventually make their way to England. As they move away from their native land, the girls face the inevitable complexities of adulthood, so that Ireland becomes a kind of paradise, an Eden of innocence to which they cannot return.

In The Country Girls, Kate, an only child, is the narrator. She grows up on a farm in the west of Ireland. Her mother has been a martyr to her father’s abusive drunkenness. Baba, Kate’s friend, is the veterinarian’s daughter. She is coy, pretty, and malicious. From the beginning, Kate has a male protector, Jack Holland, to shelter her from the threatening world, represented by her father. Later, her significant lovers are all old enough to be her father.

Kate wins a scholarship to a convent school, while Baba pays to go, saying, “It’s nicer when you pay.” When Kate is still a child, her mother drowns, and Kate goes to live with Baba’s family. When Kate goes home for the summer, her father loses the farm. By the age of fourteen, she has fallen in love with “Mr. Gentleman” (Jacques de Maurier), who treats her kindly. At Christmas, during a break from the convent school, Mr. Gentleman confesses his love for her. Jack Holland also says that he wants to marry her.

For the next three years, Baba contemplates running away from the convent school. She is a poor student, while Kate is a good one and a favorite of the nuns. Then Kate gets into trouble and Baba formulates a plan to get them expelled. They write a vulgar note and leave it in chapel as if it had fallen out of their prayer books. Although they are ashamed of it, they both sign their names. The note concerns Sister Mary (one of Kate’s favorite nuns) and Father Tom, the chaplain. The girls are indeed expelled, and Baba’s father realizes that poor Kate has always been “Baba’s tool.”

Baba is sent to Dublin for a commercial course, and Kate follows, becoming a shop clerk, though she could have used her scholarship at another convent. They take a room, and Baba is ecstatic to be free and in the city. They go on a date with two middle-aged men; the evening ends badly, but Mr. Gentleman shows up to save it.

Baba and Kate become strangers, as Kate sees Mr. Gentleman often and Baba continues to date one of the middle-aged men. After Baba develops tuberculosis and goes to a sanatorium, Mr. Gentleman proposes that he and Kate go away to Vienna to make love (they have only undressed for each other). As they plan their leave-taking, Kate is so excited that she forgets the fourth anniversary of her mother’s death. The novel concludes with Kate waiting in vain for Mr. Gentleman. She finally receives a telegram saying that his wife is having a nervous breakdown and Kate’s father has ordered that he must not see her.

The Lonely Girl opens with Kate still working as a grocery clerk. Again, the story is told through her voice. She is a romantic, bookish sort, about to embark on “a different life.” She has not seen Mr. Gentleman for two years. Baba and Kate are back together in their boardinghouse and have no steady men. There is much socializing, going to dances, and crashing various affairs. At one such event, Kate meets Eugene Gaillard, a maker of documentary films, who seems contemptuous of the world. Kate thinks that Eugene has class, and he makes her feel soft and lovely; he reminds her of Mr. Gentleman. After a chance encounter, Kate unsuccessfully attempts to see him again “coincidentally” and in desperation invites him to tea. He says that he does not want to get involved, but he asks her to dinner and a relationship develops.

In The Country Girls, Kate seems an Anna Karenina figure, an impression Eugene confirms in The Lonely Girl

(The entire section is 1,621 words.)