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.