When I was a girl, I wanted to grow up to be just like the Irish novelist Edna O'Brien – or at least how I imagined her to be. Her 1960 novel, The Country Girls, clanged like a recess bell in my teenage brain, ringing in my first adult notions of life and love and longing. Lena Dunham and her kicky gang of Brooklyn neurotics can thank Kate and Baba, O'Brien's emancipated 1950s Irish convent girls set free in the big city, for inventing the genre they now so anxiously inhabit: clever girls gone wild.
O'Brien, whose wonderful autobiography Country Girl was just published in Canada this week, wasn't just a pioneer. She also paid dearly for her home truths. Her books were banned in Ireland, her local Catholic parish burned copies in a bonfire, and her family was publicly shamed. O'Brien's husband, on reading her first manuscript, spoke the words she describes as "the death knell of an already ailing marriage – 'You can write and I will never forgive you.'" Her mother later disowned O'Brien for refusing to send her own children to Catholic school. In short, she got her lusted-after literary fame and sexual freedom, but she also paid the price.
It's easy to forget the social sacrifices made by women writers of O'Brien's generation. They weren't just breaking boundaries "to make a splash"; they were risking social exclusion and, in some cases, their sanity (see Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath for details) to make a point we now take very much for granted: that young women should, within reason, be allowed to speak, behave and – most crucially – have sex in whatever way they wanted.
O'Brien certainly did that in the end. She is now in her early 80s and still writing the luminous sentences for which she became famous. It took her a while to escape the clutches of her first and only husband and later regain custody of her young sons; but by the late sixties, she was living in a mansion in swinging Chelsea, writing bestselling novels, hit West End plays, and screenplays with Peter Brook. Her parties were legendary, and she writes about them with the innocent enthusiasm of a wide-eyed interloper who makes name-dropping a pleasure.
Over those wild years, she played host to a fantastically bizarre mix of inebriated notables, including Judy Garland, Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, Richard Burton and her close friend Sean Connery. A flame-haired beauty, she was heavily pursued by many (Paul McCartney, Marlon Brando, and Burton among them) and ended up in bed with more than a few (most notably Robert Mitchum).
She tried everything – drugs; interpretive dancing; even dropping acid with the original celebrity shrink, R.D. Laing. But beneath all this taboo-busting revelry lurked the lingering effects of her religious upbringing. Single and heartbroken from a love affair at 40, she received a letter from her mother imploring her to "never bother again with men outside of meeting them in everyday life or for work. I pray for you, and each day of life, I go down on my knees and ask Christ that you remember the words of St. Paul, 'Flee fornication.'"
O'Brien is one of the great talents and rule breakers of her generation, a woman who knew everyone and was loved by the literary public in turn. My own encounter with the author some years ago was so spontaneous and surprising, it could almost be an anecdote from one of her early novels.
Ten years ago, when I first moved to London, I went on a date at the Chelsea Arts Club. From the moment I sat down with the sour, humourless man – a complete stranger, as the date was a set-up – I knew it was going to be an excruciating evening. Sipping my cocktail, I debated what to do, and when it was my turn to go to the bar for more drinks, I panicked. I turned to a handsome, jolly-looking chap at the bar. "Listen," I said, "I'm on a terrible date and I need to get out of it, so will you pretend to be my long-lost friend?"
The words weren't out of my mouth before the man was throwing his arms around me and buying me a drink. I wriggled out of my date, and my saviour and I ended up having dinner. He turned out to be Sasha, Edna O'Brien's younger son. When I told him that his mother was one of my favourite authors – and had recently been the answer to a trivia question at at quiz at my local pub ("Which author believed August is a wicked month?") – he laughed out loud. We became friends and kept in touch.
One day he texted to ask if he could come to my quiz night, which I found strange (it was a skeezy pub in a not very fashionable part of London). But when he arrived with his mother in tow – a regal woman in her 70s wearing a fabulous purple velvet coat dress – the entire pub fell silent, then burst into applause. She was charming and witty, with a good head for trivia.
In other words, exactly the sort of woman I'd like to grow up to be.