In her recent memoir, Edna O’Brien recalls an early, pre-publication response to her first novel, The Country Girls. Buoyed by the enthusiastic praise she had received for the finished manuscript in the course of a celebratory dinner with her publisher, Iain Hamilton of the Hutchinson Group, and one of the manuscript’s readers, the novelist Clifford Hanley, O’Brien left a copy for her husband, writer Ernest Gébler, on their hall table. He surprised her a few mornings later “by appearing quite early in the doorway of the kitchen, the manuscript in his hand”. What she records as his reaction was one that would become general all over Ireland: “You can write and I will never forgive you.” That was in 1959, and by the end of the following year, many in Ireland would come to find the novel unforgivable, following the lead of Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, whose purity campaign had contributed to a brisk uptick in the business of the Irish Censorship Board in the 1950s. When, with the support of then government minister and moral guardian Charles Haughey, he declared O’Brien’s book a “smear on Irish womanhood”, McQuaid inaugurated a decade of controversial persecution of Irish writers, leading to, inter alia, the novelist John McGahern losing his position as a primary school teacher in 1965.
However, in the spring of 1960 when The Country Girls was first published, initial reviews and opinions in Ireland were favourable. Maurice Kennedy’s review in The Irish Times, for example, described the novel as having “a fresh dewy sincerity about it, a nice accuracy of observation and feeling … With any luck Miss O’Brien should have an immensely successful literary career.” Benedict Kiely, who saw the proofs in February of 1960, remained her staunch champion for the rest of his life. Frank McEvoy, getting ready to launch TheKilkenny Magazine with James Delahunty, wrote to O’Brien in June 1960, congratulating her on a “marvellous achievement” and asking for a chapter for his fledgling publication of the next instalment of what was already known to be the planned Country Girls trilogy. In the letter he also asks whether she expects the novel to be banned, suggesting that this would be a great boost to sales.
Banned it very soon was. The Country Girls was the first of six of O’Brien’s novels that the Irish Censorship Board would judge “indecent and obscene under section 7(a) of the Censorship of Publications Act, 1946”. It would also be banned in Australia and New Zealand, but was nevertheless enthusiastically received elsewhere in the Anglophone world. In the United States, where it was published by Knopf that same year, reviews called the book “brash and bright”, “delightful”, “charming”, introducing “a writer of zestful humour and humanity”. Even Dorothy Parker wrote a favourable notice for Esquire magazine. In the United Kingdom, especially after its second printing there by Penguin in 1962, it was received in similar terms. While O’Brien does not betray much concern about having been banned in Ireland in her correspondence with Hamilton about the future of her writing career, she was not happy with Hutchinson’s decision to issue the novel in 1960 in the experimental format of an expensive paperback rather than in hard cover, blaming this decision for a relative lack of early reviews. However, according to The Sunday Times, the novel was “a buoyantly youthful novel, with all the freshness in the world and undertones of something much more lasting”. The Evening Standard said the book offered an “excellent and highly unusual bland of bawdiness and innocence”. VS Naipaul in the New Statesman described it as “a first novel of great charm by a natural writer … fresh and lyrical and bursting with energy”, and Kingsley Amis awarded it his first-novel prize of the year.
While it was O’Brien’s first novel, it was not her first publication. McEvoy’s letter references an earlier piece by O’Brien that had appeared in The Spectator. Prior to the publication of The Country Girls, she had contributed several times to the Saturday Evening Post, beginning as early as 1955, and she was also being encouraged by Peadar O’Donnell, then editor of The Bell. It was on the strength of her “sketches”, published and unpublished, as well as the work she had been doing as a reader for Hutchison that she was offered €50 by Iain Hamilton in 1958 to write a novel. In the fifty-four years since, the novel made its author’s lasting reputation ‑ and it is the one text of O’Brien’s that makes at least some appearance in the official Irish literary canon ‑ The Country Girls has never been out of print. It usually appears as part of The Country Girls Trilogy, which was reissued with a newly written “Prologue” in 1988. The novel has continued to define O’Brien, a fact she accepts and appreciates, as is evident in the title of her 2012 memoir,Country Girl, different only in number from that of the first ground-breaking work. In 1986, she appeared on the cover of the magazine Irish America, under the title “Country Girl Revisited”. In 1989, Seamus Heaney interviewed her for the RTÉ radio programme Off the Shelf, a programme listed in the RTÉ Guide as an interview with “The Country Girl”. In 1991, the Irish Independent ran a feature entitled “Country Girl Goes Home”, reporting O’Brien’s receipt of an honorary doctorate from the National University of Ireland, Galway. O’Brien revisited the text herself when she produced a stage treatment of the novel for a Red Kettle Theatre Company production that toured the country in 2012. It may still not be safe out there for the text. Some online reviews from the Gaiety production run objected to the nudity onstage.
In the “Diary” that Anne Enright regularly contributes to the London Review of Books, in March 2013 she discussed the history of Ireland’s Censorship Board, suggesting that, in the case of John McGahern and Edna O’Brien in particular, it was the people at home in rural Leitrim and Clare, the ostensible subjects of the young novelists’ early literary productions, who took most vigorous offence and umbrage at their work. McGahern’s local library board banned The Barracks, according to Enright, when the Irish Censorship Board never got around to doing so. She also claims that while “Edna O’Brien’s erstwhile neighbours might have burned copies of The Country Girls in the churchyard … up in Dublin everyone who was a reader read it without a qualm”. O’Brien continued to feel unforgiven by her home place and her own family for decades, often recalling in interviews the discovery after her mother’s death of her copy of The Country Girls (initially dedicated to her mother), with blackened passages and torn out pages, stuffed into a bolster, hidden in a shed. O’Brien’s “elopement” with a divorced “foreigner” (Gébler was Irish-born but of Czech background) in 1954 had already caused scandal; the novel was one more betrayal. As Enright mentions, it was reported that a local priest burned the book in the chapel yard soon after copies first appeared in nearby Limerick. In an interview with Julia Carlson, O’Brien relates the experience of receiving anonymous letters in response to the novel, threatening and condemnatory, including claims to have been possessed by the devil as a result of having read it. Benedict Kiely has noted: “it was not to be tolerated that a young woman educated, as we used to say, at one of the best Irish convent-schools, should come out, even in a fetching County Clare accent, with home truths or sharp statements about what we used to call sex”.