Best to begin in medias res, says Horace, so let me start with two exemplary excerpts from the works of the inimitable Irish writer Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860–1939). The first opens the fourth chapter of her debut novel of 1897, Irene Iddesleigh:
When on the eve of glory, whilst brooding over the prospects of a bright and happy future, whilst meditating upon the risky right of justice, there we remain, wanderers on the cloudy surface of mental woe, disappointment and danger, inhabitants of the grim sphere of anticipated imagery, partakers of the poisonous dregs of concocted injustice. Yet such is life.
And the second is the inaugural sentence of 1898’s Delina Delaney:
Have you ever visited that portion of Erin’s plot that offers its sympathetic soil for the minute survey and scrutinous examination of those in political power, whose decision has wisely been the means before now of converting the stern and prejudiced, and reaching the hand of slight aid to share its strength in augmenting its agricultural richness?
I could not hope to put the matter better than that. Nor could you. Nor could anyone else.
There has never been another literary figure remotely comparable to “the divine Amanda” (whose real name was Anna Margaret Ross, née McKittrick). She was, many discriminating readers believe, at once the single most atrocious writer who ever lived and also one of the most mesmerizingly delightful. She was supremely talentless—she was wholly incapable of producing a single intelligent or well-formed sentence—and yet her incompetence was so sui generis that it constituted a kind of genius.
Most bad writers, after all, tend to be bad in only the most boringly conventional and drearily predictable ways. But the joy of reading Amanda McKittrick Ros is all but inexhaustible. In the realm of bad literature, she was a pioneer of the spirit, tirelessly exploring new frontiers: a true innovator, prodigious and unique. No mere hack could have perfected a style of such horrendous and delirious originality
“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!” (Irene Iddesleigh)
To her admirers (and I am among the most fervent), her books are as inspired in their way as any great works of art could ever be. Those who have once fallen under her spell—Lord Beveridge, Mark Twain, Aldous Huxley, C. S. Lewis, Osbert Sitwell, J. R. R. Tolkien, Anthony Powell, E. V. Lucas, Siegfried Sassoon, and D. B. Wyndham Lewis, to name a few—are her captives ever thereafter.
It was all quite unintentional. She was not some brilliant parodist or cunning absurdist. She was, in fact, almost insanely devoid of a sense of humor. Her visiting card in her later years says it all: “Amanda McKittrick Ros, Authoress, At Home always to the honourable.” She took herself and her art with the utmost seriousness, and regarded all of those “critic crabs”—those “evil-minded snapshots of spleen”—who failed to recognize her genius as spiteful fiends. One could say, I suppose, that she was a brilliant surrealist; but she was so only by inadvertence.
She came from Drumaness in County Down. Her father was a schoolteacher and so she became one as well, and was teaching in a school at Larne in County Antrim when she met and married Andrew Ross, a railway stationmaster. This poor soul was obliged, on the occasion of the couple’s tenth anniversary in 1897, to pay a printer in Belfast to publish Irene Iddesleigh; his wife would accept no other present. She had begun writing the book two years earlier and was now convinced that it was a masterpiece.
At once, the Amanda McKittrick Ros style had been established: the obsessive fondness for alliteration, the spasmodically coiling and uncoiling sentences that never arrive at any discernible meaning, the weirdly jarring turns of phrase, the riot of clashing metaphors, the convulsively lurching narratives, the long descriptive passages that seem to correspond to nothing in the physical world, the lunatic perorations in that nightmarish travesty of English, the galloping melodramatic plots that veer off again and again along bizarrely Gothic lanes . . . bad marriages to wicked men, thwarted love, jealousy, sadism, suicide . . . more alliteration . . .
The utterly wild magnificence of the event would have gone more or less unremarked, however, had the humorist Barry Pain not been sent a copy of the novel by a friend. He was so enchanted by what he read that he promptly wrote a satirical review for Black & White in which he declared it “the book of the century.” Amanda was wounded by the piece and attacked its author in the preface of Delina Delaney, but Pain’s article had turned her into a celebrity. Among the literati of London, it was even fashionable for a time to throw Amanda McKittrick Ros parties, where all the guests were required to talk like the characters from Irene Iddesleigh (not that anyone could) and to take turns reading aloud from the text.
For the most part, mercifully enough, Amanda was unaware of the sheer scale and robustness of the mockery her book had provoked. She was, in any event, a sublimely arrogant and self-regarding woman, and quite incapable of interpreting adverse comments on her work as anything other than expressions of envy. So she pressed on. Delina Delaney—also privately published at the expense of her haplessly indulgent husband—was a longer, more ambitious work than its predecessor, and its tale of (once again) thwarted love, mad jealousy, intrigue, and murder was so elaborately convoluted and arbitrary that it defies summary.
It also contains some of the most splendid specimens of her prose. Of the wicked Madam-de-Maine, sitting alone in her bedroom soon after shooting to death the poor old servant who knew it was she who had poisoned Lord Gifford’s pudding, we read: “Her frame sometimes shook to chorus a thirsty sob, as if she were again contemplating a similar ordeal. Eventually, however, the signs of nervousness, that now visited her, died and withered away, and a miraculous peace, sometimes seen on the marbled faces of Roman statuary, that exhibit strongly the polished calm of revengeful rulers, rested on her features.”
It was, sadly, the last of her novels to appear while she was alive. She did, however, produce two volumes of verse: Poems of Puncture in 1912 and Fumes of Formation in 1933. And she printed a few broadsheets for the troops during the Great War, one of which featured her poem “A Little Belgian Orphan,” a tale of German atrocities that begins with the extraordinary line “Daddy was a Belgian and so was Mammy too,” and that includes such plangent couplets as “Just then they raised the little lad and threw him on the fire, / And wreathed in smiles they watched him burn until he did expire.”
In 1926, she enjoyed a revival of interest in her works, when the Nonesuch Press published a new and particularly handsome edition of Irene Iddesleigh. Amanda, still not quite cognizant of the reasons for her enduring appeal, contentedly observed that her novel had “risen to the shelf of classic.”
This may have encouraged her to write her third and final novel, Helen Huddleson, which was still unfinished at the time of her death, but which appeared at last in 1969, with a final chapter supplied by her biographer Jack Loudan. It is a glorious performance. All of Amanda’s oddities are present in abundance, but now accompanied by a wonderful array of new perversities. Most striking of all is her inexplicable decision to name most of the novel’s characters after fruits. In addition to the malevolent Lord Rasberry, there is Cherry, Duchess of Greengage, Sir Peter Plum, Mrs Strawberry, Madam Pear, the Earl of Grape, and Sir Christopher Currant—though she does toss in a legume, too, in the person of the housemaid Lily Lentil.
At times, I confess, I feel a little guilty about my fondness for Amanda’s books; I fear there has always been a hint of cruelty in the devotion she excites in her admirers. My only defense is that I have come to feel, far from anything like disdain, a very genuine and sincere affection for her over the years, and I am profoundly grateful for the delight she has afforded me continually since I first discovered her writings. There really was something madly brilliant about her books, and I treasure them. What better posterity should a writer crave? So, rather than reproach myself, I prefer simply to recall that, as Amanda wrote, “Life is too often stripped of its pleasantness by the steps of false assumption, marring the true path of life-long happiness, which should be pebbled with principle, piety, purity, and peace.”
Again, I could not possibly have said it better.
David Bentley Hart is an editor at large for First Things. His most recent book is The Devil and Pierre Gernet.