Although recent critics have taken Edna O’Brien’s work far more seriously than her early detractors, her aesthetic achievements continue to be undervalued, and a certain confusion still attends the question of precisely what kind of writer she might be, even after the publication of seventeen novels, nine short story collections, numerous plays and screenplays, two biographies (of Joyce and Byron) and two memoirs. An uneasy critical vocabulary of disorder, excess and mutability for a long time surrounded her oeuvre, which was under- regarded by scholars. Amanda Greenwood still finds it necessary as late as 2002 to preface her monograph on O’Brien by stoutly defending her subject against charges of being merely a ‘repetitive chronicler of romantic love’. More recently, O’Brien has been critically recuperated as a writer whose work mounts a ‘challenge [to] her nation’s particular brand of gendered nationalism’. It is difficult not to conclude, however, that O’Brien’s considerable body of work remains productively, even challengingly, ‘untidy’, and that there is something about her writing which, even as it garners international fame and awards, nonetheless flouts claims to literary ‘respectability.' This essay argues that form and content are particularly closely bound for O’Brien, and analyses the manner in which many of the misreadings and critical divergences that her work has attracted since 1960 concern misunderstandings of her explorations of a compromised female subjectivity amid the conventions of a denatured or destabilized romance plot whose adequacy as an encoding of women’s experience is continually raised even as it is posited.
Citation : Mooney, S. (2018) Edna O'Brien. In: O'Gallchoir, C. and Ingman, H. (eds) A History of Modern Irish Women's Literature, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 244-259.
ISSN : 9781107131101
Research Institute : Institute of English
Peer Reviewed : Yes
- School of Humanities