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Rewriting Genre in The Country Girls Trilogy

From: New Hibernia Review
Volume 14, Number 3, Fómhar/Autumn 2010
pp. 91-105 | 10.1353/nhr.2010.0004

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On Edna O’Brien’s list of her “Top Ten” books in Women’s Review, number eight is Wuthering Heights; she calls the novel “an old favourite and one responsible for certain unwise attitudes of mine towards the opposite sex.”1 A number of critics have noted the significance of Emily Brontë’s novel, arguing for its centrality to what Amanda Greenwood calls “O’Brien’s analysis of the compromised nature of female subjectivity.”2 Yet, The Country Girls Trilogy owes a largely unexplored debt to the work of another Brontë sister: Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre.3 A central theme within the Trilogy is the refashioning of the romantic marriage plot found in the Brontës’ works. First published as three separate novels—The Country Girls (1960), The Lonely Girl (1962), and Girls in Their Married Bliss (1964)—then republished in 1986 as a trilogy with a new epilogue, the Trilogy’s final incarnation critiques the options historically offered to literature’s female heroines and authors. For years, critics have debated the novels’ literary merit; until recently, most believed that to understand O’Brien’s novels, the reader must understand O’Brien, thereby viewing the novels solely as works of autobiography.4 Others, including Grace Eckley, who was the first to write a monograph on O’Brien, fault the author for not being feminist enough; she asserts that O’Brien’s early novels focus too exclusively on their heroines’ choice of whom to love.5 These readings, which have dominated O’Brien scholarship, fail to acknowledge the degree to which O’Brien is critiquing her heroines’ choice as the defining and limiting feature of the female-authored novel. O’Brien achieves her critique not merely by utilizing the tropes and themes of the marriage plot novel. Rather, she pushes her indictment of the genre further by incorporating moments of intertextuality with the recognizable and evocative story of Jane Eyre.

In fact, O’Brien’s novels embody tbe rejection of a genre. Dismissed as autobiography and even claimed as his own work by her ex-husband Ernest Gebler, O’Brien’s novels—and the scholars who would evaluate them—must also contend with the author’s flamboyant persona in her interviews. By encouraging portraits of herself as the wild Irish colleen, O’Brien aids critics who seek to place her books firmly in the category of “popular” fiction, rather than literature. As Rebecca Pelan notes, the phrases frequently applied to O’Brien’s work, including

“Melodramatic,” “penny-romance,” and “great tragedy,” are perhaps clues in explaining why O’Brien has been overlooked as an important writer. Put simply, she is seen not only to have misappropriated a native tradition, but failed to treat Literature with due respect. That O’Brien’s writing has always represented a seminal response to . . . traditions . . . [and] that The Country Girls series can be seen to trace not only an entertaining tale of two young Irish girls but the loss of female identity, was consistently passed over.6

Pelan defends O’Brien by highlighting the degree to which O’Brien is critiquing what she describes as her “strange, throttled sacrificial women,” and their choice of the love object as the defining and limiting feature of the female-authored text.7 O’Brien critiques a literary tradition from within in order to create the space that Eavan Boland—whose own project is not dissimilar—calls “words we can grow old and die in,” a female space that literature previously lacked.8 Even critics who acknowledge O’Brien’s status as a “feminist revisionist,” such as Eileen Morgan, understimate the significant impact that the Trilogy’s form has on O’Brien’s revisionist project.9

Through the structure and intertextuality of her fiction, O’Brien breaks the boundaries of the romantic novel, a genre defined by a long-suffering heroine who, in the end, achieves a suitable marriage as a reward for her patience and virtue. Pelan notes that O’Brien displays an “acute consciousness of form as a vital means of reworking an Irish literary tradition that she is part of, and yet stands aloof from: a tradition that has not embraced women, either as real women...



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