Edna O’Brien : biography
Edna O’Brien (born 15 December 1930) is an Irish novelist, memoirist, playwright, poet and short story writer. She is considered the "" of Irish literature. Philip Roth considers her “the most gifted woman now writing in English”, while former President of Ireland Mary Robinson regards her as "one of the great creative writers of her generation."
O’Brien’s works often revolve around the inner feelings of women, and their problems in relating to men, and to society as a whole. Her first novel, The Country Girls, is often credited with breaking silence on sexual matters and social issues during a repressive period in Ireland following World War II. The book was banned, burned and denounced from the pulpit, and O’Brien left Ireland behind.
O’Brien now lives in London. She received the Irish PEN Award in 2001. Saints and Sinners won the 2011 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the world’s richest prize for a short story collection. Faber and Faber published her memoir, Country Girl, in 2012.
Edna O’Brien was born in 1930 at Tuamgraney, County Clare, Ireland, a place she would later describe as "fervid" and "enclosed." According to O’Brien, her mother was a strong, controlling woman who had emigrated temporarily to America, and worked for some time as a maid in Brooklyn, New York, for a well-off Irish-American family before returning to Ireland to raise her family. O’Brien was the youngest child of "a strict, religious family". In the years 1941-46 she was educated by the Sisters of Mercy – a circumstance that contributed to a "suffocating" childhood. "I rebelled against the coercive and stifling religion into which I was born and bred. It was very frightening and all pervasive. I’m glad it has gone." As an adolescent she fell in love with a nun.
In 1950, she was awarded a licence as a pharmacist. In Ireland, she read such writers as Tolstoy, Thackeray, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1954, she married, against her parents’ wishes, the Irish writer Ernest Gébler and the couple moved to London – "We lived in SW 20. Sub-urb-ia." They raised two sons, Carlo (a writer) and Sasha, but the marriage was dissolved in 1964. Gébler died in 1998.
In London, she bought Introducing James Joyce by T. S. Eliot and said that when she learned that James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was autobiographical, it made her realise "where she might turn, should she want to write herself: ‘Unhappy houses are a very good incubation for stories.’" In London she started work as a reader for Hutchinson where, on the basis of her reports, she was commissioned, for £50, to write a novel. She published her first book, The Country Girls, in 1960.
This was the first part of a trilogy of novels (later collected as The Country Girls Trilogy), which included The Lonely Girl (1962) and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964). Shortly after their publication, these books were banned and, in some cases burned, in her native country due to their frank portrayals of the sex lives of their characters. In the 1960s, she was a patient of R. D. Laing: "I thought he might be able to help me. He couldn’t do that – he was too mad himself – but he opened doors", she later said. Her novel, A Pagan Place (1970), was about her repressive childhood. Her parents were vehemently against all things related to literature; her mother strongly disapproved of her daughter’s career as a writer. Once when her mother found a Seán O’Casey in her daughter’s possession she tried to burn it.
In 1981, she wrote a play, Virginia, about Virginia Woolf and it was staged originally in Canada and subsequently in the West End of London at the Theatre Royal Haymarket with Maggie Smith and directed by Robin Phillips. It was staged at The Public Theater in New York in spring 1985. Other notable works include a biography of James Joyce, published in 1999, and one of the poet Lord Byron, Byron in Love (2009). House of Splendid Isolation (1994), her novel about a terrorist who goes on the run (part of her research involved visiting Irish republican Dominic McGlinchey, later shot dead, whom she called "a grave and reflective man"), marked a new phase in her writing career. Down by the River (1996) concerned an under-age rape victim who sought an abortion in England, the "Miss X case". In the Forest (2002) dealt with the real-life case of Brendan O’Donnell, who abducted and murdered a woman, her three-year-old son, and a priest, in rural Ireland.