Jennifer Johnston Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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).

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 74 words.)

Valentine Cunningham (review date 15 April 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 968 words.)

Francis King (review date 22 September 1979)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 891 words.)

Mike Poole (review date 18 September 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Caroline Moorehead (review date 17 October 1981)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 266 words.)

Julia Epstein (review date 9 May 1982)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 745 words.)

Deborah Singmaster (review date 22 February 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 721 words.)

John Sutherland (review date 21 March 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 509 words.)

Keith Jeffery (review date 1 October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 782 words.)

Patricia Craig (review date 22 September 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 498 words.)

C. L. Dallat (review date 26 September 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1517 words.)

Aisling Foster (review date 18 September 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 898 words.)

Jennifer Johnston with Rosa González (interview date 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 5115 words.)

Frank Egerton (review date 21 October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 584 words.)

C. L. Dallat (review date 10 November 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 700 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 280 words.)