Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices (1941) and Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls Trilogy (1960-4) as female bildungsroman
Kate O’Brien was born into the well-to-do and well respected family of Thomas and Catherine O’Brien in Limerick in 1897. Kate O’Brien had nine brothers and sisters and tragically, she lost her mother at the age of five when Catherine O’Brien died of cancer and subsequently she became a boarder at Laurel Hill, a convent school in Limerick. “She spent in all fourteen years at this school later fictionalised in The Land of Spices and it was from this French-run institution that O’Brien first encountered a European-centred system of education and of thought. 1 The constitution of Ireland came about in 1937. Kate O’Brien’s novel, The Land of Spices was published in 1947 and recounts matters of female sexuality, by means of exploring gay and/or lesbian themes throughout the novel. The Land of Spices was so overly controversial at the time of publishing that as a consequence the novel was banned in Ireland. The Land of Spices is divided into three books which are further divided into chapters described as ‘Chapter 1’, ‘Chapter 2’ and so on.
Kate O’Brien deals with the story of the novel in a very individual way, which could be described as her own individual way and the method she uses to portray her characters in the novel helps to bring about the highly skilful and realistic approach she uses to address the themes of love, homosexuality and religion in the novel. “The Land of Spices witnesses the disintegration of the family, the absolute failure of even the most promising relationships, and the ineptitude and myopic vision of the exponents of Irish Nationalism. But for each failed situation detailed in the novel a promising and at times radical alternative is proposed.
One of the great strengths of The Land of Spices is that each of these-the institution of the family, loving but dependant relationships, and Irish Nationalism-is presented as having at least some strengths. “2 Both Helen and Anne experience extreme loss and heart grief in their lives, Helen by the traumatic experience and upset her father had caused her when she saw him with another man and Anne’s traumatic experiences of her father being an alcoholic, however they both solve their problems and through their grief become stronger people and even start to feel more capable to deal with their future lives.
Although Helen is the head of a French teaching order Compagnie de la Sainte Famille, that runs an all-girls boarding school in the Irish countryside, it is evident from the beginning of the novel that her vocation was never to become a nun. Helen was not headed for that way of life, and it is evident that she was looking forward to going to university after travelling around Italy. Helen knew her father was hesitant and undecided about religion and that he had said before he would detest it if ever Helen was to become a nun.
Although Helen attended a school herself that was run by the same order, Compagnie de la Sainte Famille, “she had no real intention of taking the veil until she discovered a family secret that shattered her illusions about the loving, exhilarating life she had with her father. “3 Although, Helen knew that it would hurt and offend her father if she decided to turn to religion and become a nun, I feel that it is not hurt and upset of her father Helen yearned for.
Instead, I feel that it was a way for Helen to turn away and diverge away from all human love. Human love, namely her fathers love, has betrayed her and let her down therefore Helen wants nothing more to do with it and she imposes herself on becoming a nun. Throughout the novel, it is extremely straightforward for the reader to notice that the characters Helen and Anna grow and mature concurrently. We can study and analyze different characteristics and personalities of both Anna and Helen as we watch them change by each step of the novel.
In time, Helen’s heart opens up and she does learn to love again, by growing very fond of Anna. Helen has quite a significant influence on Anna, however I feel their relationship could have been strengthened and made stronger but it was never meaningful enough for that to happen. Helen does in fact have a huge impact on the future of Anna’s life, which I feel reinforces their bond and relationship. The feminist approach that Helen took to Anna in regards to her future symbolises everything Anna believes in and desires for in her future life. Under Helen’s leadership, the convent’s detachment from narrow forms of nationalism saves the young Anna from the traps set for her by her life in Ireland.
The most evident of these traps is Anna’s financial dependence on members of her family who, though they are prepared to finance their elder brother’s university studies, do not believe in higher education for women. Whereas the nationalist nun, Mother Mary Andrews, hinders Anna’s developments in all sorts of ways, Helen opens up the future for her by supporting and facilitating her desire to go to university despite the Murphy family’s opposition. 4 Despite the fact I stated that the two main protagonists in the novel have immense problems and anxieties to overcome, I feel that they could not have overcome these problems had they not met each other. Helen, after the discovery of her father’s betrayal “remains incapable of human emotion until she notices Anna Murphy and recognises something of her young self in her ‘look of pure attention’.
Anna’s recitation of Vaughan’s poem ‘Peace’ breaks through the barriers that she has erected around her feelings and enables her to see ‘this baby in herself, herself in those tear-wet eyes. 5 Helen, seeing herself whilst looking at and fascinated by the young girl is immediately taken back into her own childhood where she now understands how alike and similar Anna is to herself when she was the same age. This mutual understanding and concern that Helen has for Anna now, shapes what Helen will do for Anna in the future in terms of fighting for her place in university. “The Land of Spices is set in Ireland in the years directly preceding the 1916 Rising, a period when the country is seething with the cultural and political nationalism.
The central action of the novel is set within the confines of a convent, whose ethos is different in every way from the culture that surrounds it. This is not the Ireland of the peasantry or the down-at-heel gentry of the Big House. The lifestyle of the nuns and girls at the convent of Sainte Famille is far from austere. “6 Therefore, the nuns and pupils who worked and attended the convent of Sainte Famille were upper-middle class folk and they weren’t bothered or troubled by the problems in Ireland at that time of Irish nationality or culture.
From my reading and analysing of the novel The Land of Spices, I feel that the novel in is in fact critical if not attacking the themes of the Constitution of Ireland, “attack on everything the Constitution of Ireland considered ‘natural’ and ‘special’- the State, the family, the position of women in the home and marriage. The novel questions and throws open for debate many of the assumptions made by the authors of the Constitution.
It also offers alternatives to each of these: an outward-looking European perspective is presented as an alternative to Irish nationalism, the family is replaced by a successful community of women and women in the novel seek autonomy and agency outside home and marriage. “7 “The novel prefaces detachment of spirit and freedom of individual,”8 by practically existing in the main female protagonists of the novel, Helen and Anna, which I feel in turn assists in demonstrating the link between personal and national development. Edna O’Brien was born on 15th December 1930 and was an Irish novelist and short story writer.
Edna O’Brien was born in Tuamgraney, County Clare, and as a young woman, she worked as a pharmacist and spent time in both London and Dublin. “The experience of Irish female childhood in the country and its subsequent development into adulthood was told for the first time in 1960. In the first chapters of Edna O’Brien’s novel, The Country Girls, the familial home is described through Cait’s eyes at the moment when she suddenly becomes an orphan and, together with her friend Baba, she chooses to leave for a boarding school.
Some years later their bad behaviour will be the cause of their expulsion and the two girls will finally head for Dublin to work. Thus, this first book shows the girls’ difficult voyage from childhood into adulthood in the form of a Bildungsroman. “9 Due to the sexual explicitness of the novel and true to Irish tradition, The Country Girls and the other two novels were banned in Ireland. Edna O’Brien makes use of minute details and flashbacks to describe to the reader the representation of the mother figure, who in the novel is portrayed as the typical Irish woman.
I feel that Edna O’Brien uses quite a lot of tactics and a knowledgeable approach to and within the novel to demonstrate and make obvious to the reader that Cait’s maternal role or feelings may not be entirely used appropriately, “the fact that her Christian name is never uttered may be read as a lack of representation in the social order, she is not socially recognised as a subject, therefore she can only achieve some status by becoming somebody’s wife or somebody’s mother. In this way, the author represents women as being economically and victims of physical and psychological violence. Would he stumble up the stone steps at the back door waving a bottle of whiskey? Would he shout, struggle, kill her, or apologise? ‘” 10 The symbolic relations between the national identity and the Irish female experience come together in the character of Cait’s mother to whom the little child is closely linked. Consequently, the mother-daughter dynamic in The Country Girls becomes an aspect of much importance in the process of development for Cait. From the first chapter, the reader assumes that Cait’s mother’s identity is solely based on her role as a mother: “I was everything in the world to her, everything”11
In the Irish context, the concept of womanhood led to that of motherhood by law and faith and this destiny was wrapped in a well-spread set of values that did not take into consideration any other facet women could develop. In the island, the fusion of the two allegorical characters, Mother Church and Mother Ireland relied on the fact that both of them depended on their children to make them whole and glorious which, at the same time, also condemned them to be mere objects rather than subjects of action.
Because the mother stands as the “figure of attachment” in Cait’s process of development, she is the adult who should provide a proper environment for the child to initiate its first steps towards independence. “Going back to the first chapter, another fundamental event is the coincidence of Cait’s mother’s death with the news of her scholarship to study at the Convent of Mercy. Edna O’Brien uses this credible strategy to leave a door open for the young girl to start her journey.
Although it is true that the narrative of female self-discovery and the use of the voyage from the enclosed realm into the social world bear important similarities to the tradition of the Bildungsroman as a male bourgeois genre, it has also been claimed that there is a major difficulty for a writer to create a form apt for female development”12 The requirement for Cait go away and leave is always going to be a continuous and non-stop reason driving her to demonstrate once again her right to enter the outside world. It has been said that the female voyage is a journey through paradox from the very beginning, when the protagonist must insist on her leaving the familial realm despite the social pressure she is under, which insists on her inability to enter the world as an agent. In The Country Girls, this force is embodied in Jack Holland, her admirer, whose letters never let her escape from the maternal ghost. “13 Evidently, this letter demonstrates what Cait “should” be doing with her life and now what she “wants” to do with her life.
The traditional role for women as householders and faithful wives should apparently always be fulfilled. The female bildungsroman is successfully used to demonstrate how the characters and indeed the author’s development has progressed. The fact that at the end of the novel or text of a bildungsroman, the spirit and values of the social order become manifest in the protagonist, who is then accommodated into society displays the new outcome or place the protagonist is in.
The novel ends with an assessment by the protagonist of himself or herself in his or her new place in that society, therefore it is almost similar to doing something to try and achieve a goal and self-reflecting to observe if they achieved that particular goal even though their circumstances may, and most probably will have changed, the female bildungsroman is extremely triumphant in symbolically linking and questioning national development to a certain however, it has mastered symbolically linking and questioning personal development to the highest degree.