In 1960 Caithleen Brady and Baba Brennan stepped onto the pages of Irish literature in The Country Girls, and in this short novel, the two girls helped set off a firestorm against the book and the author, Edna O’Brien. I mentioned in an earlier blog post that this book was banned by the Irish censorship board (in a time when they still had such a thing), and the book was burned in O’Brien’s home town by a priest.
Regarding the controversy caused by this book, O’Brien said much later that it was caused in part because “there had not been a tradition of women writers” and also because at the time she wrote, Ireland had a “narrow, claustrophobic, judgemental religion”. Nevertheless, the book inspired other Irish writers, and nearly a quarter of a century later, it was made into a movie in 1984.
The story is told in first person, so every word in the book is Caithleen’s voice, every thought is her thought. She is a somewhat naive girl, and the author shows Caithleen feeling insecure, not knowing things, and discovering new aspects of life. Throughout the novel, Caithleen is accompanied by her friend Baba, as they go together to a convent school and then room together in Dublin. Baba comes across as more sophisticated, more daring, and occasionally harsh toward Caithleen, so that their friendship can be baffling to understand sometimes.
Although The Country Girls is a fairly short book, written in just three weeks, it leads the reader through a great transition in the life of Caithleen. When we come into her story, she is a young girl living with her mother and father in a country house outside a small town. The novel then has her leave home to go to the convent high school, and by the end Caithleen is a young, but independent, woman living in Dublin.
O’Brien wrote this book in what is usually considered a realistic style, using a straightforward narrative to move the story forward. As an aspect of that style, there is a great attention to the details of each scene, as if it were the author’s purpose to meticulously record the settings and incidents she was describing. When the girls first arrive in Dublin, for instance, the man they rent from is described sitting in a dining room:
“There was a piano in one corner, and next to it was a sideboard that had framed photographs on top of it, and opposite that was a china cabinet. It was stuffed with glasses, cups, mugs, and all sorts of souvenirs. Sitting at the table was a bald, middle-aged man eating a boiled egg.”
An aspect of the novel that must have caused some heartburn is a strongly irreverent attitude toward religion, seen in the attitudes of several characters, or in the way Baba speaks (once when Caithleen doesn’t want to go somewhere, Baba says, “In Christ’s name, why not?”). In addition, there are scenes in the convent school that make the nuns look foolish, at best, such as a nun who reads an obscene note, has a mental breakdown, and has to be taken away.
What surely set the Guardians of Morality to goose-stepping when this book was first published was the sexual element. Though those references are mild by modern standards, the mere presence of sexual implications was pushing against the barbed wire of social rules in 1960. Furthermore, the novel was written by a woman about young women on their own. Not only did the Catholic Church want to control sexuality, but in particular, they wanted ironfist control over women’s sexuality, like nearly every religion and culture on the planet earth. Some things don’t change.
This book, at its heart, is about two village girls yearning to experience life, to eat some of the sweet fruit that all people reach for. Caithleen is also aching for romance, and over the course of the book, we see her pursuing a possibility that may strike most readers as not a very good idea.
In an interview a few years ago about this book, Edna O’Brien said that “a lot of literature and the literature that I admire is about longing”, and this novel very much embodies basic human longing. Desire for something more, something better, runs through the book for practically every character. In the same interview, O’Brien also said that “writing is from the unconscious”, and in The Country Girls she has reached into her own unconscious to pull out Caithleen and Baba as representations not only of Irish girls in their time, but of what it is like to be human at any time.