Elizabeth O’Sullivan used to think that certain things were important, such as the church, sleeping with men, being a wife, her stepmother, growing up and the things that people said. She never thought that jobs or money were important, those things were very much seen to be man stuff. These thoughts certainly wouldn’t have been uncommon at the time of the original publication of this book in 1974, and Fathers Comes First is a remarkable book even now.
This is a great coming-of-age story with a brilliant central character in Elizabeth. The girls at her boarding school are always making up elaborate stories about boys to outdo each other. At school they’re the Nice Girls, taught to have a sweet way about going about things and having say they want to be The Mother of a Family or a nun when they grow up.
Religion is of course a central part of Irish life and the Church has control over all elements of society. Elizabeth has some traumatic moments, including having to run out of the confession box after being asked an inappropriate question by a priest. For Elizabeth, Protestants may as well have been from another world. The Hickeys are Protestant and her father is pleased about this as he wants her to be non sectarian.
She quickly comes to realise that girls always being told what they ‘need’ by people, magazines, adverts and endless numbers of things. It’s a grim reality, with the girls taught how to make ladies of themselves and given instructions now to cut their toenails or shave their legs when their husband is around. Late on she’s in similar territory when receiving modelling lessons, where she’s taught how to behave in public and how to smile. She knows modelling is fake, all about being something you’re not.
Fathers Come First tells of Elizabeth’s experiences in France, a society much different to Ireland, where people are a lot more open about their affairs and sex isn’t something that’s hidden behind closed doors. She moves among higher elements of society later, and her dealings with men make her feel that women are disposable items, to be slipped on and off at will. Her experiences in the wider world prove that Nice Girls, as they were brought up to be in school, are too naive for the wider world they’re walking into.
This book is an absolute cracker, Elizabeth’s experiences highlight a society where the church, the education system and men are acting in a consistenly despicable fashion. The themes of the book are still so relevant today and Rosita Sweetman’s writing is so engaging that I’d hope the new version of Fathers Come First will reach a very wide audience in Ireland and beyond.