‘Christmas Roses’ by Edna O’Brien

Middle Age

Miss Hawkins had seen it all…

Miss Hawkins used to be a cabaret artiste. A woman who “had toured Europe and was the toast of the richest man in Baghdad”; someone who “had had lovers of all nationalities, endless proposals of marriage, champagne in every known vessel, not forgetting the slipper.” But now, at fifty-five, Miss Hawkins has decided that it is time to hang up her “gold meshed suits” and settle down. So she retires to London where she leads a simple, solitary life, teaching private dancing and tending to her local municipal garden. Then one day she comes across a young man camping out in her municipal garden. The pair strike up a conversation and become unlikely friends – attending the theatre together, dining out in restaurants, etc. – and when the young man announces that he has to leave his Notting Hill flat-share, Miss Hawkins offers him a bed (OK, a futon) in her home. By now readers may well be bracing themselves for a humiliating denouement of Ortonesque proportions, but the surprising (and quite refreshing) ending of ‘Christmas Roses’ seems to bear out Angela Carter’s claim that “women writers are kinder to women.” 

First published in Mrs Reinhardt and Other Stories, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978

‘Old Wounds’ by Edna O’Brien

This beautifully layered story, which opens back to the narrator’s great-grandparents, and her own immediate family, compresses themes of love, passion, family, fraught intent and the need to escape, which characterize much of Edna O’Brien’s fiction and is shown here to full effect. It could be said the story unfolds layers of time and emotion more fitting to a novel, but somehow, because of her skill, the story works completely. The thread through time is the narrator’s cousin, with whom she has had a close friendship. He is the anchor, but also the connector to other strands – the cause for the family breach in the first place, which is to do with his wife’s reaction to her mother-in-law. I love the fecundity of detail from the natural world, the examination of emotional dissonance, and the way the latent violence of the narrator’s father plays into the present.

First published in The New Yorker, June 2009, and available to subscribers to read online here. Collected in Saints and Sinners, Faber, 2011

‘The Creature’ by Edna O’Brien

“She was always referred to as The Creature by the townspeople, the dressmaker for whom she did buttonholing, the sacristan, who used to search for her in the pews on the dark winter evenings before locking up, and even the little girl Sally, for whom she wrote out the words of a famine song.” Look, I’m sorry about this. But I hope that the quality of the stories I’m talking about here, should you actually wish to read them for yourself, will justify my selection, and really, well, really that’s the only criterion, isn’t it? (Isn’t it . . . ?) This story by Edna O’Brien concerns the narrator herself (I think it’s herself) and her putting things right. Thank the Lord for people trying to put things right.

from A Scandalous Woman, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990