Inertia and innocence lurking in the shadows

Jennifer Johnston was anything but confident when writing her new novel she tells Caroline O’Doherty , despite having firm views on its subject matter


Jennifer Johnston

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JENNIFER JOHNSTON may be the doyenne of Irish literature with poise and elegance in both her writing and demeanour, but at the moment she just wants to behave with abandon like Meryl Streep in Mama Mia.

Fresh from her son’s wedding on Chios (“Which we all called Chaos”), her head is full of the music, song and spectacle in which the Greek island is soaked.

“It was the most wonderful wedding I was ever at. It was absolutely fantastic — the enormous goodwill and the great happiness of the bride and groom and the insanity of the Orthodox Greek church service,” she says, bursting into a low incantation to give a sense of the ceremonials.

“We were so well entertained with the singing and dancing. I did say to my son you must see Mama Mia but he was very snotty and said no, no. But there was a tremendous element of Mama Mia in it.”

She gives her walking cane a scolding frown when she thinks of Streep letting loose in a by now famous scene. “That’s what I would have loved to do — I’d love to have jumped on that bed.”

Jennifer, 82 next January, is in rare old form, a description that applies equally to her mood and her latest novel.

Shadowstory fairly trots along, strangely but successfully at odds with the pace of life it depicts among a landed Protestant family in 1950s Co Clare and the main trait shared by the central characters.

“That”, she nods to the characteristically slim volume to sum up those characters, “is a book about inertia”.

That’s her unkind way of putting it. Her more sympathetic way is innocence. “It is about people who are destroyed in a way by innocence,” she says. “They just let things happen to them.”

At the heart of the inertia, or innocence, is the dangerously drifting relationship between teenager Polly and her childhood companion, confidant and almost paramour, Sam, who also happens to be her dead father’s youngest brother.

They are saved from incest, not by self-restraint or by family members who view the budding romance with an impassive sort of concern, but by Johnston who provides Uncle Sam with a convenient escape route to university in England.

The same muted anxiety greets Sam’s subsequent disappearance to revolutionary Cuba, a destination he shares only with Polly whom he swears to secrecy.

“He’s a brat,” is about the strongest criticism the family can muster despite him leaving them bewildered and unable to contact him as his elderly father lies on his deathbed.

Meanwhile Sam’s brother, Harry, engaged to Katie, a Catholic, is infuriatingly accepting of her decision to call off their wedding over Harry’s reluctance to promise he’ll rear their future children as Catholics.

It is Sam and Harry’s father, Geoffrey, who begins stirring up the issue, prompting much digging in of heels by Katie’s mother and the crumbling of the young couple’s relationship.

The reader wants to yell at the charming but sporadically curmudgeonly Geoffrey to butt out, to Katie’s mother to give it a rest and to Katie and Harry to grow some backbone but that’s just how Johnston planned it.

The Catholic Church’s ‘Ne Temere’ rule, she says, ruined lives and the Protestant community in Ireland were far too yielding in allowing it to happen.

“What is so extraordinary is that people no longer seem to know even what that is,” she says of the edict that banned Catholics from marrying Protestants unless their bethrothed signed a commitment to rear the children in the Catholic faith.

“This is the way in which the Protestants have been exterminated. This oath decimated the Protestant population in Ireland. An awful lot of them went abroad to find people to marry.

“It’s crazy, absolutely insane and it undermined the confidence of the Protestant people. They felt terribly discriminated against.”

Johnston, herself born into the Church of Ireland, speaks from family experiences of the divisions enforced by Rome.

“My grandfather — my father’s father — was a Supreme Court judge and before he died, he said he didn’t want anyone to go to his funeral apart from his wife and son and this was because he knew that his Catholic colleagues would not be allowed to go.

“Now we have everybody going everywhere and marrying who they want and it’s great.”

Despite her firm views on the subject, Johnston says she was anything but confident when it came to writing this book.

“I felt very unassured. I said to my husband, I don’t think this is going to be published,” she says. “Because they’re English, my publishers, and they don’t understand the inertia of the Irish Protestant.”

There was also the small matter of Polly and Sam’s dangerous liaisons, although incest and the many other complications love and passion throw up have featured before in her work.

“My publisher was shocked, yes, but I said, have you not read any of my other books for God’s sake?

“My agent liked it but the publishers gave me very little money for it which is a sure sign they don’t like it and they don’t think anyone else will.

“So I just hope that thousands of people run out and buy it — not for money-making but just to say BOO to them.”

There is a good-humoured defiance in Johnston at the moment which seems to have gotten the better of her more usual self-deprecation.

She is even so bold as to pick up the novel and point to a description with which she is particularly pleased, although in Shadowstory there are many to choose from in a book that creates buckets of atmosphere with the most sparing use of adjective.

The rebel yell runs through her next novel, her 18th, which tells the story of a young woman who defies her businessman father and his ambitious plans for her and runs off to work in a bookshop.

The bookshop is based on John Sandoe’s in Chelsea, London, a small oasis of old-style bookselling where Johnston would happily lose herself for days if she had the chance.

The book is well under way as Johnston keeps up a punishing schedule and has never been one for indulging in much down time between titles.

“Well, you have to just keep going because nothing ever runs smoothly. Sometimes you just sit and stare at your computer saying, well now this is a stupid way to make a living, and that can go on for several weeks.

“You snap out of it and get going again but I think if you stopped for any length of time and just presumed you could start again by snapping your fingers, you might be in for a shock.”

She is, however, giving herself a break this Christmas, daring to throw tradition to the wind and go just a little Streep-ish, albeit in the Merrion Hotel in Dublin rather than in Greece.

“We are coming to stay here in this hotel for four nights and each night we’re having dinner with another relation and we’re going to take taxis all around Dublin and it’s going to be absolutely wonderful,” she grins.

“Since I was 21, I have hosted Christmas — sometimes for 15 people and sometimes for 25 — so I’m done with decorating the house from top to bottom and just being nice to people. Now they’re going to be nice to me.”

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