The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien
I’ve been meaning to read more by O’Brien ever since I inherited my Mum’s old Penguins. She was a fan of O’Brien and I really enjoyed her Earthy novel August is a Wicked Month. I had thought to start the Country Girls trilogy sooner but found I was missing the first volume – but a cheap new set from the Book People solved that problem and I’ve managed to squeeze it in for Reading Ireland Month.
The Country Girls is as old as I am; it was published in 1960 to acclaim in England and censure in Ireland. O’Brien was married and living in London at this time, but in Ireland, it was viewed as just too racy for the Irish censor who banned the book, shaming O’Brien’s parents; apparently their family priest publicly burned copies too.
The story is narrated by fourteen-year-old Caithleen Brady who, one school morning, wakes up anxious as her Dada had not come home the night before – again.
Slowly I slid on to the floor and the linoleum was cold on the soles of my feet. My toes curled up instinctively. I owned slippers but Mama made me save them for when I was visiting my aunts and cousins; and we had rugs but they were rolled up and kept in drawers until visitors came in the summer-time from Dublin.
Hickey, the farm hand, was enjoying himself at breakfast without her Dada there, her Mama is distracted as usual.
‘Givvus a birdie,’ he said, beaming at me with soft, grey, very large eyes. I ran off, shrugging my shoulders. A birdie was his private name for a kiss. I hadn’t kissed him for two years, not since the day Mama gave me the fudge and dared me to kiss him ten times. Dada was in hospital that day recovering from one of his drinking sprees and it was one of the few times I saw Mama happy.
So off she goes to school with an armful of lilac for Miss Moriarty, dodging the attentions of Jack Holland as they pass the house of ‘Mr Gentleman’, their name for the French lawyer who lived there at weekends, whom Cait has a crush on. Along comes Baba on her new ‘puce’ bike, and grabs the lilac: ‘I’ll carry that for you.’ Baba and Cait are as chalk and cheese, Baba’s family being well-off whereas Cait’s are working farmers; Baba is not bright at schoolwork unlike Cait who is clever, but Baba does know how to get the limelight and won’t hesitate to be a bully to get it. The two girls are continually thrust together rather than natural best friends.
When Cait’s mother dies, Baba’s mother comes to the rescue and Cait goes to stay with them until it’s time to go to the convent school where they will board. Cait as a scholarship girl, Baba a fee-paying one. Cait knows she needs to persevere at school if she wants to get the life she dreams of and three years go by. However, she lets Baba bully her into getting expelled before they get their certificates. Why didn’t she resist Baba’s stupid plan?
It results in Cait and Baba moving to Dublin sooner, but not to the lofty ideals she had dreamed of. Instead Cait works in a shop with the aim of secretarial college and a clerical job in the civil service afterwards. It doesn’t mean that they don’t take every opportunity to enjoy themselves though…
I suppose it was then we began that phase of our lives as the giddy country girls brazening the big city. People looked at us and then looked away again, as though they had just discovered that we were naked or something. But we didn’t care. We were young and, we thought, pretty.
Alongside the girls’ coming of age story is the continuing tale of Cait’s infatuation with Mr. Gentleman. It turns out he is not happy at home and is similarly infatuated with Cait, engineering opportunities to take her out for a drive or meal with lots of hand-holding and sitting on his knees. It’s hard to tell from Cait’s narration how innocent she was in all of this initially and which of them was the exploiter and which the exploited. Cait’s narration doesn’t feel as if she is looking back at her life from old age, it’s more a young woman’s point of view, although this is never clarified. I was reminded of the dark novel Harriet Said by Beryl Bainbridge, in which two girls groom a married man – not the other way around. Both are set in the 1950s, and recall times which were not as innocent as our memories may suggest, however, O’Brien’s Cait doesn’t have a nasty bone in her body; although she enjoys being a rebel when she can, she’s a dreamer at heart.
The initial chapters, set in the country around Limerick, are richly evocative of the lush greeness alive with nature and O’Brien takes her time in describing the scenes in great lyrical detail, it really is a country idyll – at least until Cait’s Dada turns up again after his latest bender, having spent the rent money. They contrast against the scenes in the austere convent school where the food is so awful that midnight feasts are not usually shared, and Cait’s arrival in Dublin where she rooms in a house with an Austrian landlady.
I can see why the book offended the Irish censor in 1960. The writing may be lyrical, but it is also frank – and the constant sexually charged teasing that goes on between girls and boys, men and women, and all combinations thereof would elicit many a tut. I’m glad that O’Brien was already ensconced in soon to be swinging London where she continued to write her sexy, frank yet lyrical novels that explored relationships much as Margaret Forster would do with Georgy Girl too.
The Country Girls is less about relationships and more about the girls’ friendship. Its sequel, The Lonely Girl, (now known as Girl With Green Eyes after O’Brien’s big screen adaptation of it), takes up where The Country Girls leaves us with the girls striking out in Dublin. I shall look forward to reading it. (8.5/10)
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Source: Own copy.
Edna O’Brien, The Country Girls – Phoenix paperback, 240 pages.