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.