Edna O'Brien

'New Critical Perspectives'

by Maureen O'Connor (Volume editor) Kathryn Laing (Volume editor) Sinead Mooney (Volume editor)
©2006 Edited Collection X, 254 Pages
Series: Carysfort Press Ltd., Volume 229


The essays collected in Edna O’Brien: New Critical Perspectives illustrate the range, complexity and interest of O’Brien as a fiction writer and dramatist. Together they contribute to a broader appreciation of her work and to an evolution of new critical approaches, as well as igniting greater interest in the many unexplored areas of her considerable oeuvre.
The contributors who include new and established scholars in the field of O’Brien criticism, are Rebecca Pelan, Maureen O’Connor, Michelle Woods, Bertrand Cardin, Ann Norton, Eve Stoddard, Michael Harris, Loredana Salis, Shirley Peterson, Patricia Coughlan, Sinéad Mooney, and Mary Burke.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • 1 |Reflections on a Connemara Dietrich
  • 2 | Edna O’Brien, Irish Dandy
  • 3 | Red, Un-Read, and Edna: Ernest Gébler and Edna O’Brien
  • 4 | Words Apart: Epigraphs in Edna O’Brien’s Novels
  • 5 | From Eros to Agape: Edna O’Brien’s Epiphanies
  • 6 | Sexuality, Nation, and Land in the Postcolonial Novels of Edna O’Brien and Jamaica Kincaid
  • 7 | Outside History: Relocation and Dislocation in Edna O’Brien’s House of Splendid Isolation
  • 8 | ‘Caring Nothing for Sacrifice’: The Drama of Solitude in Edna O’Brien’s Iphigenia
  • 9 | ‘Meaniacs’ and Martyrs: Sadomasochistic Desire in Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy
  • 10 | Killing the Bats: O’Brien, Abjection, and the Question of Agency
  • 11 | ‘Sacramental Sleeves’: Fashioning the Female Subject in the Fiction of Edna O’Brien
  • 12 | Famished: Alienation and Appetite in Edna O’Brien’s Early Novels
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

←x | 1→


Kathryn Laing

Sinéad Mooney

Maureen O’Connor

[Edna O’Brien’s] auspicious literary debut with The Country Girls marked the beginning of a career that now encompasses a body of work including fifteen novels, six short-story collections, plays, television and motion-picture screenplays, poems, children’s books, and non-fiction ranging from essays and reviews to a biography of James Joyce (1999). She always seems to have a novel and poems in progress and continues to write short stories, many published in the New Yorker. In all her work O’Brien continues to shock, puzzle, delight, and scandalize her readers as she ventures into new territory.

So ends Robert Hosmer’s recent entry in the Dictionary of Literary Biography on ‘Ireland’s best known female writer’ (16). It would be fair to say that O’Brien is best known as a writer of fiction. She is known particularly for the autobiographical nature of her work, and for her exploration of ‘the agonies of love and loss that attend women’s experiences’ (16); the construction of female sexuality and the consequences of this for women within a specifically Irish context, and within broader contexts too. These issues have been particularly the focus of her short fiction but, as critics have noted, her latest trilogy (House of Splendid Isolation [1994], Down by the River [1996], and ←1 | 2→Wild Decembers [1999]) has shown a significant shift in her fiction, reworking familiar themes within a sharply-defined political framework. In her forthcoming novel, The Light of Evening, O’Brien draws on her mother’s experiences, particularly as an Irish emigrant to the United States, and returns to a pervading theme of much of her own writing, ‘the primal relationship twixt mother and daughter, their shared and their separate existences’.1

It has become characteristic of Edna O’Brien scholarship to begin with a lament about the relatively limited selection of criticism dedicated to a writer who has produced such a considerable body of work. That O’Brien is a prolific and often controversial writer is consistently acknowledged. That she is a ‘good’ writer, worthy of scholarly interest, even a place in the canon of contemporary Irish writing, is an assertion either stated with less certainty in many of the reviews and essays on her work, or with forceful defensiveness by those scholars who have chosen her as the subject of critical attention. Her status as a ‘literary’ figure, rather than a popular Irish woman writer with a history of controversial novels and a notoriously flamboyant persona, continues to fuel a debate within British and Irish scholarship in particular. And yet, a brief glance through Irish literature course websites, dissertation topics, and across the shelves of bookshops, in Europe and North America, testifies to an international interest, both on the part of academics and ‘the common reader’. Many of O’Brien’s novels are now available in translation, not only in French, German, and Dutch, but also Greek (her biography of James Joyce has recently been translated into Portuguese), suggesting the breadth of her appeal outside the sphere of British and Irish criticism.

Although the number of O’Brien critics remains remarkably small, there is a nexus of scholars who have challenged existing hostile and repetitive readings of her work. Rebecca Pelan’s often-quoted article, ‘Edna O’Brien’s “Stage-Irish” Persona’, published in 1993, set the scene for considering the actual reception of O’Brien’s writing, the ways in which criticism of ←2 | 3→her work has been conflated with at once fascinated and cynical responses to her public persona. More recently, Heather Ingman, in her article, ‘Edna O’Brien: Stretching the Nation’s Boundaries’, has shown how reductive readings of O’Brien’s work as simply autobiography and romance have excluded the possibility of recognizing her as ‘a political writer, concerned to challenge her nation’s particular brand of gendered nationalism’ (253). Amanda Greenwood’s monograph, published in 2003, offers the fullest assessment of O’Brien’s oeuvre up to that date, usefully outlining a history of O’Brien criticism as well as providing alternative readings and perspectives on her fiction. As full as this work is, Greenwood does not discuss the short stories or drama, apart from the stage play, Virginia, in any detail, highlighting, as she acknowledges, the gaps and possibilities for future scholarship. Maureen O’Connor’s and Lisa Colletta’s forthcoming collection of essays, generated by the singular attention paid to Edna O’Brien’s work following a general call for papers on Irish women writers, promises a continued broadening of critical approaches to her work. Robert Ellis Hosmer, Jr’s entry in the Dictionary of Literary Biography (DLB 319) provides the most up-to-date information on all of O’Brien’s publications, productions, and interviews, a broad survey of her work and a useful (although not all-inclusive) bibliography of O’Brien criticism.

Our own edition, in this more vigorous spirit of critical engagement, offers further assessment of the responses to O’Brien’s work in the media and in the academy, as well as building on existing revisionist approaches to offer new readings, and also suggesting further possibilities for alternative critical approaches. Many of the essays in this collection are drawn from our conference, ‘Edna O’Brien: A Reappraisal’, held at the National University of Ireland, Galway, in April 2005. The conference was organized both to acknowledge O’Brien’s importance as a contemporary Irish woman writer whose work is ongoing, and to elicit innovative approaches to her writing. The specific rubric for this conference marked an attempt to shift criticism away from the well-trodden paths of ←3 | 4→religion, nationalism, and feminism into broader critical frameworks that might include postmodernist, postcolonial, and intertextual readings, reception theory, and other perspectives on O’Brien’s extensive oeuvre. The international response to the call for papers, mainly from European, Scandanavian, and American scholars, confirmed the curious split in the reception of O’Brien’s work that remains prevalent ― an ambivalence and anxiety in the case of British and Irish critics, which is met with some astonishment by those who have studied her work outside that sphere.

Rebecca Pelan’s essay, the first in the collection, is partly dedicated to a consideration of the ambivalent reception of O’Brien’s work, tracing the shifting responses in reviews and in media commentary from her earliest publication, the infamous and now perhaps most widely read The Country Girls. Pelan shows how the increasing hostility or incomprehension that started to greet her publications paralleled an emerging iconography that began to overshadow her texts. The ‘Irish Colette’ or ‘Irish Françoise Sagan’, the Connemara Dietrich invoked in reviews suggests at once exoticism, foreignness, and a suspicion about authenticity and literariness. This short history of reception and the emergence of an iconic figure, revealed by the range of photographs of O’Brien accompanying reviews and used on book covers, touches on the as yet under explored area of the marketing of her image and texts. The 2005 exhibition of Penguin cover art at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in which some of O’Brien’s books feature, highlights specifically how, in the case of O’Brien, the material text, its physical appearance, has contributed significantly to the shaping of assumptions about O’Brien’s fiction. Commenting on the marketing of her work, O’Brien has stated:

I cannot say that the different covers for my novels have always pleased me. Some have erred rather on the sensational side. It could be said that there is a big difference between an author’s intentions and a marketing mogul. In fact I would love a white cover with black lettering to convey all (O’Brien to the editors, 31 January 2006).

←4 |

The uncertainty as to what kind of writer O’Brien is, or how she should be appraised, already established by some of the images used to market her work, is continued in academic discourse too. For one of the distinctive features of O’Brien criticism is that much of it is scattered through diverse collections of critical essays that reveal a difficulty in categorizing her work, in placing her in relation to other Irish women writers, for example, or in relation to a broader selection of her contemporaries, and so on.

Lorna Sage, for example, in her Women in the House of Fiction, groups O’Brien, somewhat curiously, with Iris Murdoch and Margaret Drabble. While Sage’s essay does accord her work serious attention, both her evident difficulty in ‘placing’ O’Brien, and a rhetoric which comes close to endorsing long-established clichés, demonstrate a certain critical uneasiness. O’Brien’s idiom, for Sage, is ‘splendidly untidy’, and she ‘veer[s] dangerously from irony to dewy sentiment, only to rise dripping from her sorrows with a fey smile’ (83). Clearly dissatisfied with her initial ‘placing’, she suggests that O’Brien ‘might perhaps more plausibly be cast as a “straight” Bohemian’, going on to intimate that the heroines of her 1960s and 1970s work ‘seem natural successors to Rhys’s ghostly lost women, close cousins to Sagan’s glamorous outsiders’ (83). In fact, O’Brien is frequently cast as ‘glamorous outsider’ by virtue of her frequent omission from studies of twentieth-century Irish fiction, a position from which she is occasionally recuperated by her treatment of rural Irish childhood, which allows her to be tentatively grouped with more canonical male names under the rubric of a shared thematics, as in James M. Cahalan’s ‘Male and Female Perspectives on Growing Up Irish: Edna O’Brien, John McGahern, and Brian Moore’. She is linked with a variety of Irish women writers – Tamsin Hargreaves, for instance, puts O’Brien in a highly disparate group composed of Julia O’Faolain, Molly Keane, and Jennifer Johnston in her ‘Women’s Consciousness and Identity in Four Irish Women Novelists’ – while an investment in the short story and self-avowed Joycean traces have allowed her to be seen, along with ←5 | 6→Seán O’Faoláin and Mary Lavin, in terms of a shared Joycean heritage.2 She is also grouped with her near-contemporary John McGahern as ‘the most controversial writers of the 1960s in Ireland’ in Julia Carlson’s Banned in Ireland (17), but the fact that the obvious correlation between O’Brien and McGahern – signalled by an often cognate fictional territory, and the early targeting of both by Irish censorship – has never been fully made, speaks eloquently of their very different positioning in the post-1960 Irish canon.

What many of the essays in this collection do is recontextualize O’Brien’s writing, and indeed that much-debated persona, refiguring what have become established and staid critical parameters. Maureen O’Connor, for example, considers O’Brien in the company of Sydney Owenson (Lady Morgan) and Oscar Wilde, suggesting she might be seen as an example of the ‘Irish female dandy’. Reading O’Brien through the history of the dandy, with its European and Irish roots and celebrated conflation of aesthetics and dress, resituates the persona and texts, creating an alternative context in which her personal and literary style might be seen as subversive through dandiacal posturing. Michelle Woods introduces a very different and hitherto unexplored backdrop through her reading of Ernest Gébler’s fiction in relation to O’Brien’s. Gébler, a published and successful writer (at least early in his career) who, as O’Brien’s husband, inspired the portrait of Eugene Gaillard in The Country Girls, and even less appealing male characters in later fiction. Woods makes a case for re-considering some of Gébler’s now forgotten work and, through reading the fictionalization of each other in O’Brien’s and Gébler’s writing, suggests there is textual dialogue, hostile as it is, worthy of further exploration. Bertrand Cardin does not so much recontextualize O’Brien’s fiction as redirect attention to the textuality and intertextuality of her work. Tracing her use of the epigraph reveals a writer whose self-conscious literariness, suggested in part through her use of the epigraph, provides a counterpoint to the potency of her image as a writer of popular, lightweight fiction.

←6 | 7→

O’Brien’s self-conscious literariness is at its most undisguised through her affiliations with the work of her celebrated literary forefather, James Joyce, culminating in her biography of Joyce, published in 1999. Rebecca Pelan and Ann Norton both reflect on O’Brien’s ‘writing back to Joyce’ in their essays. Reading O’Brien’s ‘Irish Revel’ and Night alongside ‘The Dead’ and Ulysses, Pelan highlights O’Brien’s indebtedness and also the power of her creative reworking of these literary masterpieces. For Pelan,

As one of O’Brien’s finest, yet most critically-neglected pieces of fiction, Night epitomizes all that is central to her writing: the theme of women’s disillusionment, the desperate, yet futile attempts at escape from Irish society only to discover other forms of entrapment, and, finally an acute awareness of her place in a literary tradition which is, at once, revered and undermined (33).

Ann Norton considers O’Brien’s reworking of the Joycean epiphany, specifically in relation to the controversial Down by the River, ‘The Love Object’, and finally The High Road. Norton argues for a reading of O’Brien’s adaptation of the epiphanic form from her modernist predecessors as feminist discourse, and as revealing the possibilities of a secular spirituality, the privileging of compassionate love over sexual passion.

Eve Stoddard and Michael Harris offer readings of O’Brien’s most recent fiction, in particular House of Splendid Isolation and Wild Decembers, in the context of postmodernist and postcolonial criticism. By comparing O’Brien’s writing with that of Jamaica Kincaid, Stoddard broadens the critical context for O’Brien studies by considering her as a postcolonial writer who, with Kincaid and other postcolonial writers, shares a preoccupation with sexuality, land and national identity. Suggesting that


X, 254
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2020 (April)
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2006. X, 254 pp.

Biographical notes

Maureen O'Connor (Volume editor) Kathryn Laing (Volume editor) Sinead Mooney (Volume editor)


Title: Edna O'Brien