Edna O’Brien lives in a tall, slender house in Knightsbridge. It is in the heart of London and its deep red walls, narrow staircases, and darkening passageways make you feel like you’ve burrowed inside a heart too. People often comment on its arterial and even womb-like quality. But that’s because, at its centre, is an 82-year-old writer renowned as much for her life (and, rather unfairly, her love life) as for her work.
O’Brien, whom Philip Roth once called “the most gifted woman now writing fiction in English”, has lived in this city for more than 50 years. It’s where she wrote her first novel – in just three weeks, for an advance of £50 – and most of the many novels, biographies, short stories and plays that have followed. It’s where she brought up her two children, escaped her controlling husband, threw some of the most legendary parties in town, fell in and out of love, and ended up growing old alone. Yet the title of her long-awaited memoir reminds us that the story doesn’t begin or perhaps even end here. It begins in County Clare, Ireland, the country that banned her books and has remained the touchstone of her writing. The city girl is a country girl still.
“I have embraced the city,” she tells me, drawing a hand to her breast. “Many country people do. All that wind and dark and nature … although it haunts and inhabits one, you are dying to get away from it to see street lights and a bus. But there is something about the country, the sounds and the roads and the rivers and the distant cries of animals. It’s a more spacious outer and inner landscape.” She smiles. “But to live there every day and grow potatoes? Not for me.”
O’Brien is quite the character; a Bronte heroine come to life. Partly it’s the way she looks. The eyes that permanently glisten with the promise of tears – and indeed, she weeps twice during our long encounter. Then there’s the triumphal arch of eyebrows. The perfectly made-up face. The plumage of hair, as majestic as ever, that she still gets done every week. Partly it’s the bohemian get-up of cardigan with ruffled collar and long skirt. And her acute sensitivity: she has a heroine’s winning combination of pluck and vulnerability. She is warm, tactile, matriarchal, and has a way of making each moment feel charged with poignancy. But mostly it’s her voice, which is wistful, mellifluous, and very Irish indeed. It’s the voice of a storyteller and she wields it as a virtuoso would their instrument.
“Is my life extraordinary?” she asks as we begin to discuss her memoir, which reveals that, yes, it is. There follows a deep exhalation. “I grew up in Ireland. I went to a convent. I went to Dublin. I eloped. I had children. I left my husband. I had a little bit of exotica. And most of all …” She finishes in a whisper … “I wrote.”
It would all be a bit much if O’Brien didn’t have the humour to counter it. “Oh, the rigour and the cabbage and the wax,” she groans, recalling her convent education in County Galway, fictionalised in her first novel, The Country Girls. Then her eyes narrow and glitter with mischief. “They were always waxing floors, those lay nuns. I could do with a couple here to get this place sorted.”
We head upstairs. I carry our cups of Earl Grey tea so O’Brien can hold on to the banister. She is frail, what with one hip replacement “and the other crying out in neglect”. But she is still game and was at a literary party last night where she met a man who lives in her old flat in Maida Vale. “They took the hand-painted floors in my bedroom out – another folly of mine,” she sighs. “Anyway, in the rubble he found a photograph of me having dinner with Laurence Oliver holding my hand. Oh, how I wish I had that photo.”
We go into to her writing room, which doubles as a parlour. It is blood red, of course, and lined with books, wall-hangings, and pictures. There is a wooden desk in one corner and paper strewn everywhere covered in O’Brien’s lavish, curly script, a short story she has been working on since June. She has always written longhand in violet ink she bulk buys from New York. The mantelpiece is flanked by a picture of James Joyce, whom she discovered in Fifties Dublin when she was working at a chemist’s shop and dreaming of being a writer. On the other side is Samuel Beckett, a friend who visited her in Paris after she had taken LSD with RD Laing and was suffering terrifying hallucinations.
All this and more I know from reading O’Brien’s fascinating, candid, and, at times, very sad memoir. In the prologue she describes sitting down “to begin the memoir which I swore I would never write”. Why so reticent? “I have read over the years some rather cheapening and ridiculous things about myself,” she says. “As if I was a sort of hormonal Mata Hari going from one adulterous room to the next. And I felt somebody else might do it, when I am dead or whatever.” She waves a hand dismissively. “It’s not that I want to be flattered but I don’t want to be remembered as this lightweight who gave parties and had love affairs. It is ridiculous. I have written more than 25 books. I have earned my living through writing. No man ever helped me.”
Was it painful to commit her life to the page? “One of the most painful things I’ve ever done,” she says quietly. “To actually render your own memories in prose means going back into them. Take my father shooting at my mother and I. I remembered it as the time when I thought he had killed us. But to have to describe it, render it … I had to scrape the memory the way a womb is scraped. Oh it was painful, yes. How could it not be?”
We talk about her mother, a devout Catholic who was shamed by O’Brien’s books and supported the banning, and burning, of them in Ireland. She never stopped judging her, but she never stopped writing to her either. “She had a huge influence on me and a huge preoccupation with me,” O’Brien says. “I was close to her but I was always running away from her. She was a very powerful woman. Her letters are masterpieces. And she did fear for my soul. She constantly suspected that I was erring.”
The memoir more or less opens with her mother’s death in 1967. Just before she died she told O’Brien that she wanted her to have Drewsboro, the family home in County Clare. It didn’t work out – she didn’t change her will in time and the house went to her brother – but it was a dramatic moment of forgiveness all the same. “Totally,” O’Brien says, her voice quivering. “She did love me utterly.” She begins to cry. In fact, her mother wanted them to be buried in the same grave. Now she laughs through her tears. “It’s like being asked up to dance,” she says. “I decline the offer.”
The young O’Brien was an affectionate, loving, and very religious girl. “I was so chaste and pure and holy, always drinking salt water and fasting,” she recalls. “I was very good company for my mother, her little friend and entertainer. And then of course … I made the cut. It was painful but it had to be. Some people get engaged, the fiancé comes to the house, the parents arrange the wedding. But not Edna O’Brien.”
She went to convent school, which was “bleak” and “so cold” and where she fell deeply in love (she always falls deeply) with a nun. And from there, to Dublin. “I was so full of excitement,” she recalls. “I was so full of life. God, I wish I had that now. But oh, I was often hungry. You have such an appetite at 17 and are dying for cakes and things. And clothes … a gown in banana cream with sequins. You could eat it!” She clasps her hands together. “One was hounded by work. I was in the chemist’s all day, at pharmaceutical lectures in the evening, and then home to eat Oxo and bread and write little giddy pieces.”
Then she met a man, a European writer and intellectual called Ernest Gebler, and eloped with him. Scandal, the first of many. “I fell for him,” she tells me. “I had never met a man like him. He had a patrician quality and was very good-looking. Had there been time for a courtship, I might have seen some of the qualities that later came to the fore. But I met him in December and eloped with him as the daffodils were coming out in March. When I first went to his house, it was like being in a story. There was a first wife, rooms full of her clothes, oil paintings, a coffee pot. I had never seen a coffee pot before.”
They eloped to deepest suburbia in Wimbledon, where they brought up their two sons, Carlo and Sasha. And as her semi-autobiographical novels gained acclaim and controversy for their clear-eyed, lyrical depiction of the Ireland of her youth, he became increasingly jealous. When Gebler read The Country Girls, he said to her: “You can write and I will never forgive you”. “He felt I had usurped him, almost like an act of bloodsucking,” she says. “He was a lunatic, I think.”
There is a profoundly sad description of the night O’Brien left him, after a decade of marriage, and walked the streets of London, paralysed by fear. In the end a stranger living opposite a mutual friend took her in for the night. “I’m very glad you liked it,” she says. And then she begins to weep, letting the tears fall, brushing me off when I apologise for upsetting her. “It took a lot to write. I just wanted to convey … the total aloneness. The feeling that something catastrophic was going to happen.”
Was she shocked, meanwhile, by the response to her books in Ireland? “I was terrified,” she admits. “And I was very angry. These religious cowboys whose lives were not above question were accusing me? I wish I’d had the courage to say why would I have written this if I didn’t feel it so deeply? But all I wanted was to get out, write the next book. Self-preservation.”
Three years later, she finally won custody of her children. And then came the remarkable rebirth in swinging Sixties London. She began throwing parties every Saturday night at her little house in Putney. And everybody came: Princess Margaret, Marianne Faithfull, Sean Connery, Shirley MacLaine, Judy Garland. “She looked around and then left,” she recalls. “She was a very frightened creature. Like an antelope, she was gone.” One night Richard Burton pitched up and recited Shakespeare. On another, Paul McCartney took her home from a party and sang to her sleeping children.
There were lovers too, though nowhere near as many as people have assumed. But O’Brien did spend the night with Robert Mitchum. “Yes that’s a nice story,” she says with a wicked smile. “He had total style and a natural ripe intelligence. And he was very funny. He pretended to read my hand the next morning and then said ‘we’ll meet again baby’.” She also spent the night with Marlon Brando but rather disappointingly nothing happened, though he did give her a spotted handkerchief. “I was probably in love and when I’m in love I’m very faithful,” she explains. “He was amazing, let me assure you, and vastly intelligent. He had a lethal quality. He was alert the way an animal is alert – both waiting for danger and waiting to wield danger.”
She bought a grand house in Chelsea where she threw yet more parties, dancing with Harold Wilson and welcoming Ingrid Bergman through the door. She grew close to Jackie Onassis in New York and wrote a failed screenplay with John Huston. In the Eighties there were two high-profile affairs with married men, “Jay” and “my Lochinver”, but she gives nothing more away. Then she lost the house – she has never been good with money – and attempted to return to Ireland to a home her son, an architect, built for her in Donegal. It didn’t work out. “You can’t go back to the place you came from,” she sighs. “You can only go back in your mind.”
At one point, O’Brien came close to ending her life. “I think many a human being, if things got honest, would admit they’d approached that,” she says. “I have always felt alone in the world, even when I was married or with someone. And the nature of my work means further loneliness and inwardness. And there was a feeling that love had fled, the way children flee the nest. And the accruing feeling of the different degradations vis à vis my work. It was a kind of piling up. I thought, f*** this. I went into the tunnel and then I came out. I didn’t do it.”
All the time, lest we forget, O’Brien was writing. She wrote on the bus when her marriage was failing, before she took her children to school when she was a single mother, every morning after a party, and she continues, still, to write every day. This is the abiding sense you get from her memoir. Words have been the great love story of her life, and often her only companion. Her dedication to writing is so consuming that she has given her life to it. But she feels, and I think rightly, that people are so blinded by the myth of Edna O’Brien, and her love of a good party, that she hasn’t been taken seriously enough as a writer. And it’s true that people can be really nasty about her. Anthony Burgess, whom she quotes, “said that after Joyce and Yeats, after the giants, came ‘the little people’, like me”.
“I am the most misunderstood woman,” she laughs. “Well if they haven’t [taken me seriously], they will. I know what I have written and what I am trying to write. I know my masters and mistresses in literature. And I know I am on that road. If someone chooses through envy or ignorance to demote me, it affects me but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is the work.”
She picks up her copy of the memoir she swore she would never write and weighs it in her hand. Her voice drops to a dramatic whisper. “When I hold this, I think God, all these chapters. Life.” O’Brien pauses, and her eyes become glassy. “No wonder I am exhausted.” Now she begins to laugh. “But I am moderately cheerful. And always I have kept a longing for writing.” She makes a shaky fist with her hand. “A longing,” she repeats, her voice softening. “I’m keeping with it.”
• Country Girl, by Edna O’Brien, is published by Faber, price £20