Those who know Edna O’Brien’s work will instantly feel at home in this autobiographical memoir: not just because it reads like one of her novels, but also because O’Brien’s fiction has always drawn on her Irish roots and on places and events in her own life.
The book begins with two dreams set at her childhood home in County Clare: Drewsboro House. In one dream she sees a grand burning house, which she is barred from entering by liveried soldiers. In the second, she is in the room in which she was born, where “alone, incarcerated” she is “to answer for my crimes”. Both dreams find echoes in her memoir and, in a recent interview, she described the house as being like a metaphor for the whole world – full of ructions, sensuality, prayers, curses, doom and life.
Drewsboro was built on the ruins of a very grand house which had been burned to the ground during the Troubles in the 1920s. O’Brien’s father, who had helped it burn, came from a family which had become wealthy in America and they bought the land. The new house had pretensions – two avenues, big lawns shaded by ancient trees, and bay windows: but it owed some of its stylishness to houses her mother, who came from a poor family, had seen whilst working as a maid in America. O’Brien’s father had been rich but the money was soon gone due to profligacy, drink and gambling. In drink, too, he could be violent, and O’Brien and her mother were scared of him. Yet it was not an unhappy childhood. As a child, she has said, they were part poor and would run out of money, but they were also immensely rich in reading, poetry, mythology and dreams.
A writer’s imaginative life “commences in childhood” but O’Brien’s has clearly been shaped, too, by all that has happened to her over the years.This memoir is not just about her rebellion against her family and against the oppressive, divided society in which she grew up. It is also about her marriage, her divorce, an acrimonious battle for custody of her children, her life as a single mother – cooking cleaning and writing, her parties and her publications.
Sometimes O’Brien’s memoir seems very like her early novels as she shares the same settings, the same rebelliousness and the same need for love and for change as her fictional girls. Sometimes it seems like a sequence of short stories, imaginatively written and compelling. And sometimes the writing is fluent and poetic; the descriptions beautiful.
Sometimes, however, she cannot resist turning an agonizing memory in to a dramatic (or melodramatic) moment: “Coming back into my own sitting room, I saw it, the stone of the green ring that I had taken off the night before, reflected in the metal of his latch-key, which he had left on the mantelpiece. He was gone”.
And sometimes the list of famous names is overwhelming. Richard Burton drops in one evening and recites Shakespeare to her. Paul McCartney improvises a song for her sleeping son. Marlon Brando drinks milk in her kitchen and asks if she’s ticklish. Marianne Faithfull, Diane Cilento, Roger Vadim, Jane Fonda, Judy Garland and Shirley MacLaine and others come to her parties in Putney. And, in New York, Al Pacino, Carlos Fuentes, Yevtushenko and their partners attend her party; famous people surround her; and Jackie Onassis invites her to dinner and becomes a confiding friend.
In the 1960s, O’Brien’s first novels – A Country Girl, The Lonely Girls and Girls in their Married Bliss – were banned by the censor in Ireland for their frank sexual content and their so-called ridiculing of priests and nuns. The ructions caused by these books (which were written whilst she lived in London) certainly affected her life, but as two eminent Irish writers of the 1960s enviously thought, they probably were “a hot ticket to fame and recognition”, even though she had thought them to be simple tales of the lives and dreams of two young Irish girls. Being called a ‘Jezebel’, mortifying her mother and being shunned by her own people did alter the direction of her life. But it did not stop her writing. Today, those early book appear mild compared, for example, to Roddy Doyle’s graphic depictions of Irish life; and to the media reports of the iniquities perpetrated by priests. O’Brien, now, is so well accepted in Ireland that a plaque has been place in her honour at the entrance to Drewsboro House.
In her acknowledgments, O’Brien says that she was reluctant to write a memoir, and she has described the process of reliving certain times as bringing pain and anger. But in her final chapter she brings together her two countries, Ireland and England: two countries which, she says, “warred, jostled and made friends inside me, like the two halves of my warring self”. The war, it seems is over, but the celebration of life is not, and the final image in the book is of her at home in a lamp-lit room which seems “full of light, like a room readying itself for a banquet”.
Copyright © Ann Skea 2012
Website and Ted Hughes pages: http://ann.skea.com/