By Cahir O’Doherty
Much has been written about our great Irish writers; too little mention is ever made of our atrocious ones: Amanda McKittrick Ros, or to give her her full name, Amanda Malvina Fitzalan Anna Margaret McLelland McKittrick Ros (she dropped the second “s” to ingratiate herself with the local gentry) was born in Ballynahinch in 1860. She was, she liked to remind her delighted neighbors, a direct descendent of King Sitric of Denmark. She also assured them that there were a million and one ardent readers “who thirst for aught that drops from my pen.” The Oxford Companion to English Literature was in no doubt about her status either, enthusiastically describing her “the greatest bad writer who ever lived.”
Laboring under the impression that novelists always paid to have their works printed, she self-financed her first book, “Irene Iddesleigh,” in 1892. Throughout the debut novel her prose was so outstandingly dreadful that from the very first she attracted a passionate cult following. A Belfast engineer, John Horner, sent a copy of her novel to Mark Twain, who pronounced it “enchanting” and “a masterpiece of Hogwash literature.” C.S. Lewis declared her his favorite writer, Cambridge University held mini-conventions in her honor, and Aldus Huxley was eventually compelled to write an essay in celebration of her. But it was the 19th century critic and humorist Barry Pain who announced her arrival to the literary world:
“The novel ‘Irene Iddesleigh’ . . . sits alone as the nightingale sings,” he opined. “It is the novel of the century. Irene is enormous, it makes the Eiffel Tower look short . . . never has there been anything like it. . . . I shrink before it in tears and terror. . . . I become ejaculatory, I tremble.”
The novel tells the story of Irene Iddesleigh, a young woman trapped in a doomed marriage to a much older man. And although the plotting is admittedly deft, it is the prose, and not the protagonists, that sustain our interest. Written in a style that is at once mundane and surreal, alliterative and tautological, the novel quickly ascends to heady altitudes of near total incomprehensibility. Ros assembles an unlikely cast of characters and parades them before us in a mad puppet show — achieving in the process some of the most extraordinary literary effects.
Here is the aged husband’s lament to his soon-to-abscond wife: “Can it be that your attention has ever been, or is still, attracted by another, who, by some artifice or other, had the audacity to steal your desire for me and hide it beneath his pillaged pillow of poverty, there to conceal it demanded with my ransom? Speak! Irene! Wife! Woman! Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue!”
Ros took herself seriously and was mortally offended by the critics’ barbs. Barry Pain may have introduced her to a receptive reading public, ensuring her fame, but she was less than appreciative of the doubtful favor. In her second novel, “Delina Delaney,” she castigated him as a “cancerous irritant wart.” Indeed, all critics were, in her considered view, “bastard donkey headed mites,” “clay crabs of corruption” and — quite unforgettably — “evil-minded snapshots of spleen.”
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Throughout her long literary career Ros consistently chose the approximate word rather than the exact one — so that you could perceive what she had intended to say, but you could also perceive that she hadn’t said it — indeed, her unrelenting disdain for simplicity became a thing to marvel at. For Ros, eyes were “piercing orbs,” legs were “bony supports,” and one word seemed stinting where many sufficed. Few Irish writers before or since were as inundated with fan mail, usually secretly at her own expense, since a reply in her florid style had become a thing to boast of.
A recurring motif in each of her novels is the prolonged and unnecessary journey a character must undergo to make a larger point. In her second novel, “Delina Delaney,” the heroine makes an apparently pointless trip to Stranraer to encounter Andrew Ross (Amanda’s real-life husband, who kept the second “s”) in his office in Larne. She describes him in the book as a harbor agent “whose genial manner and exemplary courteousness are widely known.”
The heroine of her third novel, “Helen Huddleson,” also undertakes a memorable trip of her own, although this time her odyssey is recorded in one remarkable sentence: “They reached Canada after a very pleasant trip across the useful pond that stimulates the backbone of commerce more than any other known element since Noah, captain of the flood, kicked the bucket.”
Ros’s accomplishments also include two volumes of poetry, entitled “Poems of Puncture” and “Fumes of Formation,” and her lyrical celebration of Eastertide begins with one of the best-known opening lines in the English literature:
“Dear Lord, the day of eggs is here!”
As her relatives discovered, she was not a woman to be trifled with. Her novels display a marked predilection for sudden death — and it’s not unusual for her characters to be hounded into madness by guilt or remorse. At her first husband’s funeral in 1917 she conveyed her contempt for certain mourners by ordering the funeral cart to move off at a trot — leaving the out of favor trailing behind. At the church, she examined the wreaths submitted by friends and relatives, pointedly returning several of them to their startled donors.
She was also notoriously anti-Catholic. (She names a convent St. Iscariot’s and has a priest convert to the Protestant faith by exclaiming, “I spurn the heretical camera.”) And throughout her long life she had an abiding horror of lawyers — although she was famously litigious herself, contesting wills, property and entitlements for many years. Of one lawyer she wrote:
Readers did you ever hear
Of Mickey Monkey Face McBlear?
His snout is long with a flattish top,
Lined inside with a slimy crop:
His mouth like a slit in a moneybox
Portrays his kindred to a fox.
Shortly after the publication of “Fumes of Formation” Ros died, in February 1939, at the age of 78. She passed on firmly convinced of her own greatness, offering these parting words of wisdom: “As the earth revolves on its axis exhibiting its ephemeral revolutions, so families revolve round the world’s wicked wheel, at one time close to its nave, at another climbing down its spokes, and lastly becoming imbedded in its iniquitous axle crushing out their existence forever, thus leaving their offspring to mourn beaten to a shadow like me with the mallet of sorrow and remorse, then death ends the hunt. Such-is-life.”
First editions of all of her volumes poetry and prose can be viewed at the New York Public Library at 42nd Street or in the Belfast Central Library. “Thine in Storm and Calm: An Amanda McKittrick Ros Reader” printed by Blackstaff Press, with an introduction by Frank Ormsby, is also available.