Thursday, December 8, 2016

Birthday: "“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.”


Amanda Margaret McKittrick Ross Rodgers (1860-1939)
Author, poet

It is her first husband to whom we owe the career of the writer Amanda McKittrick Ros.

She was a 27-year-old spinster schoolteacher when she met a widowed, 35-year-old railway stationmaster, Andrew Ross. They married in 1887 in County Antrim, Ireland. Once she felt the call to be a writer, she dropped an ‘s’ from her surname, some suggest, to imply a link to a prestigious Irish family called de Ros. She also claimed the McKittricks were of the line of the ancient kings of Denmark.

She was never a shrinking, diffident author.  She wrote: "My chief object of writing is and always has been, to write if possible in a strain all my own. This I find is why my writings are so much sought after." She imagined "the million and one who thirst for aught that drops from my pen", and predicted that she would "be talked about at the end of a thousand years."

Ros imagined herself a social reformer, her work an expose of life among the louche upper classes, thus “disturbing the bowels of millions.”

Her inspiration was a contemporary romance novelist, a lesbian music hall-singer-turned-writer born Mary Mackay (1855-1924), who as Marie Corelli was vastly and inexplicably popular for thirty years. She outsold Kipling, H.G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle in the day, and her collectors included members of the British royal family and both Lord Randolph Churchill and his son, Winston. Among the critical responses to her work were that she was "a woman of deplorable talent who imagined that she was a genius, and was accepted as a genius by a public to whose commonplace sentimentalities and prejudices she gave a glamorous setting."

Another reviewer described her style as a mashup of "the imagination of a Poe with the style of an Ouida and the mentality of a nursemaid." Among her characters’ preoccupations were a recurring yen to “reconcile Christianity with reincarnation, astral projection, and other mystical ideas. New Age sorts cherish her to this day.

Vastly wealthy, Corelli retired to Stratford-on-Avon, became a noted patron of the restoration of Shakespeare sites in the town and of the RSC, and received guests in her gondola- imported, complete with gondolier- from Venice.

Inspired by the first decade of Corelli's publications, Amanda Ros produced her own great opus, and her husband financed the publication of Irene Iddesleigh as a gift on their tenth wedding anniversary, thus launching her literary career.

It would have been a small-bore launch, North Korean missile-sized, perhaps, in the way of vanity press authors through time, and sinking, after a short flight, beneath the waves, had not a reader sent a copy to a leading humorist of the day, Barry Pain.

...I had seen no advertisement of it, I had read no reviews of it. It has come up at me suddenly out of the night. To speak more correctly, it has been sent me by some friends in Ireland. They thought that I should be amused by it, confusing me probably with the other man of the same name who writes the so-called funny articles. The book has not amused me. It began by doing that. Then, as its enormities went on getting more and more enormous in every line, the book seemed something Titanic, gigantic, awe-inspiring. The whole world was full of Irene Iddesleigh; by Mrs. Amanda M'Kittrick Ros, and I shrank before it in tears and in terror.

Never mind the plot; it's got a plot, but the plot is as nothing compared to the style, and the style reaches its full beauty in the form of reflections. I will give two reflections, and guarantee them genuine, and return the price of Black and White to anybody who can prove that they are not genuine.

"Our hopes, when elevated to that standard of ambition which demands unison, may fall asunder like an ancient ruin. They are no longer fit for construction unless on an approved principle. They smoulder away like the ashes of burnt embers, and are cast outwardly from their confined abode, never more to be found, where once they existed only as smouldering serpents of scorned pride."

"The silvery touch of fortune is too often gilt with betrayal; the meddling mouth of extravagance swallows every desire, and eats the heart of honesty with pickled pride; the imposury of position is petty, and ends, as it should commence, with stirring strife. But conversion of feminine opinions tries the touchy temper of opposition and too seldom terminates victoriously.'"

Immediately after the second of these beautiful reflections occur the words "Great Mercy!" I rather think that, too. But I don't comment. I can't; nobody could. This is the reason why I have seen no reviews of this book. It is a thing which happens once in a million years. There is no one above it, and no one beside it, and it sits alone as the nightingale sings. The words that would attempt to give any clear idea of it have still to be invented. The most stupendous and monumental characteristic on it is perhaps its absence of any sense of humour. As a rule the absence of this sense is delicious, but it is not so here. One takes one's hat off to it and abases oneself. One thought before one read this book that one knew what the absence of that sense meant, but one didn't. Mists rolled away, snowy peaks, never before scaled by human foot, of the very existence of which never dreamed, stretched themselves heavenwards. Never was any absence so essentially and intrinsically absential, as the absence of the sense of humour in this book.

Once more I quote two passages:

"Yes, when the merriment was at its height, and the heat too oppressive to allow much comfort to the corpulent, the espoused of Irene dropped unexpectedly out of the midst of the aristocratic throng, and being passionately an ardent admirer of the fairy-like fruits of the efforts of the horticulturist directed his footsteps towards the well-filled conservatory at the south wing of the building."

"'First of all, the lady who shared its midst was a born imbecile, the eldest daughter of my great-great-grandfather, Sir Sydney Dunfern. She was nursed and tenderly cared for within these walls for a period of thirty-six years, and through the instantaneous insanity of her ward, was marked a victim for his murderous hand. Yes, it has been related that during midnight, when she was fast asleep, he drew from that drawer' (here Sir Join pointed to the wardrobe) 'a weapon of warlike design, and severed her head almost from her body, causing instant death.'"

And after that it seems idle to quote such pretty sentences as the following:

"Nor until he was in full possession of its contents he could not form the faintest imagination of its worth."

"Invitations were issued numerously for the reception to be held at Dilworth Castle after Irene's marriage, but sparingly during the ceremony; all of which were mostly accepted."

These, as advertisement says, are good goods, and you have a hundred and eighty-nine pages of them for half-a-crown. I hardly see how it can be done honestly at the price, but the fact remains that it is done. No man who possesses half-a-crown can afford to do without Irene Iddesleigh, by Mrs. Amanda M'Kittrick Ros.

It is enormous. It makes the Eiffel Tower look short; the Alps are molehills compared to it; it is on a scale that has never before been attempted. But it ends sadly. Once more I quote.

"The little narrow bed at the lowest corner on the west side of Seafords graveyard was the spot chosen for her remains. Thus were laid to rest the orphan of Colonel Iddesleigh, the adopted daughter and imagined heiress of Lord and Lady Dilworth, what might have been the proud wife of Sir John Dunfern, the unlawful wife of Oscar Otwell, the suicidal outcast, and the despised and rejected mother.

"She who might have swayed society's circle with the sceptre of nobleness – she who might have still shared in the greatness of her position and defied the crooked stream of poverty in which she so long sailed – had she only been, first of all, true to self, then the honourable name of Sir John Dunfern would have maintained its standard of pure and noble distinction, without being spotted here and there with heathenish remarks inflicted by a sarcastic public on the administerer of proper punishment; then the dignified knight of proud and upright ancestry would have been spared the pains of incessant insult, the mockery of equals, the haunted diseases of mental trials, the erring eye of harshness, and the throbbing twitch of constant criticism."

I have called it the book of the century, but that is understatement. Anything that could possibly be said about the book would be understatement. The "throbbing twitch of criticism" realises its impotence. Before a book like this it ceases to throb; or to twitch; or to criticise. The "erring eye of harshness" closes with a click and goes stone blind. It is too dazzling. It is too great. It is too much. Never since the world began has there been anything like it. Irene! I cannot go on. Iddesleigh! I become ejaculatory. I lie still. I tremble.

Undeterred, Ros launched Delina Delaney into the world in 1899, and it made her enough to build a rather grand house she called Iddesleigh. After the preface to Delina, she inserted a lengthy attack on Pain, calling him “a clay crab of corruption” for starters before claiming he denounced her work because he was secretly in love with her for her genius, and yet so did not understand that genius when turning the pages it produced. (Mark Twain also got ahold of Irene, and declared it “the greatest unintentionally funny novel ever written.”)

She went on to produce two excrescences of poetry to rival William McGonagall, “Poems of Puncture,” in 1912; and a valedictory, “Fumes of Formation,” in 1933. As Dr. Watson wrote of Sherlock Holmes’ encounter with The Giant Rat of Sumatra, more Ros output was something “for which the world is not yet prepared,” yet her third novel, Helen Huddelson, somehow escaped into print in 1969.

Ros was a tireless advocate of alliteration. Three years ago, the journalist Alison Flood asked a question many have pondered the last 125 years: is Amanda McKittrick Ros the worst writer ever to put pen to paper in the English tongue?

Eyes are 'globes of glare.' When their owners are unhappy, these globes are 'stuffed with sorrow'. Trousers are not trousers; they are 'the southern necessary'," he writes, before highlighting this extraordinary sentence from Delina Delaney: "She tried hard to keep herself a stranger to her poor old father's slight income by the use of the finest production of steel, whose blunt edge eyed the reely covering with marked greed, and offered its sharp dart to faultless fabrics of flaxen fineness." (That is, Delina did some work as a seamstress so she wouldn't have to live off her father.)

...I haven't had a chance to read all of Irene Iddesleigh, or Delina Delaney – but believe me, I soon plan to rectify that. O'Connell provides some winning examples: "Eyes are 'globes of glare.' When their owners are unhappy, these globes are 'stuffed with sorrow'. Trousers are not trousers; they are 'the southern necessary'," he writes, before highlighting this extraordinary sentence from Delina Delaney: "She tried hard to keep herself a stranger to her poor old father's slight income by the use of the finest production of steel, whose blunt edge eyed the reely covering with marked greed, and offered its sharp dart to faultless fabrics of flaxen fineness." (That is, Delina did some work as a seamstress so she wouldn't have to live off her father.)"

It gets better. O'Connell tells us that "most of the characters in her last novel, Helen Huddleson, were named after fruits and vegetables (from aristocrats like Lord Raspberry and Sir Christopher Currant right down the social scale to Madam Pear and Lily Lentil the servant girl)".

Here's the opener to Irene Iddesleigh – my mind is boggled: "Sympathise with me, indeed! Ah, no! Cast your sympathy on the chill waves of troubled waters; fling it on the oases of futurity; dash it against the rock of gossip; or, better still, allow it to remain within the false and faithless bosom of buried scorn," Ros writes. "Such were a few remarks of Irene as she paced the beach of limited freedom, alone and unprotected. Sympathy can wound the breast of trodden patience,— it hath no rival to insure the feelings we possess, save that of sorrow."

Here's the first lovers' glance between Delina Delaney and Lord Gifford : "Could a king, a prince, a duke – nay, even one of those ubiquitous invisibles who, we are led to believe, accompanies us when thinking, speaking, or acting – could even this sinless atom refrain from tainting its spotless gear with the wish of a human heart, as those grey eyes looked in bashful tenderness into the glittering jet revolvers that reflected their sparkling lustre from nave to circumference, casting a deepened brightness over the whole features of an innocent girl, and expressing, in invisible silence, the thoughts, nay, even the wish, of a fleshy triangle whose base had been bitten by order of the Bodiless Thinker."

Fleshy triangle indeed. I think I am falling headlong into a new obsession. Ros also loathed all her critics, calling them variously "bastard donkey-headed mites" and "clay crabs of corruption", asked her publisher if she should take a stab at the Nobel (thank you again Mark O'Connell for this gem: "What think you of this prize?" she asked. "Do you think I should make a 'dart' for it?"), and wrote fantastically awful poetry. Here's her "Verses on Visiting Westminster Abbey" : "Holy Moses! Take a look! / Flesh decayed in every nook! / Some rare bits of brain lie here, / Mortal loads of beef and beer."

ros hell.png

Even during her lifetime, Ros was the Florence Foster Jenkins of literature, crossed with the socially snobbish cluelessness of Margaret Dumont’ characters in all the Marx Brothers’ films. Every bad review’s author came under a hail of vituperation from the village of Larne’s leading authoress.

A Mark O’Connell Kindle Single, “Epic Fail,” reports,

There were Amanda McKittrick Ros societies at Oxford and Cambridge. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and their fellow Inklings were largely responsible for this enthusiasm: the informal Oxford literary group held sporadic Ros reading competitions, in which the winner was the member who could read from one of her novels for the longest without breaking into laughter … She was a sort of Bizarro World Oscar Wilde: an Irish author who became a London cause célèbre for the complete witlessness of her writing. Her fame even reached the shores of the New World, with no less a figure than Mark Twain crowning her 'Queen & Empress of the Hogwash Guild.'

In 1917 Andrew Ross died, and in 1922 Ros married Thomas Rodgers (1857/58–1933), a County Down farmer.

Ros herself died in 1939. Tragically, her work survived, as Wikipedia found:

Belfast Public Libraries have a large collection of manuscripts, typescripts and first editions of her work. Manuscript copies include Irene Iddesleigh, Sir Benjamin Bunn and Six Months in Hell. Typescript versions of all the above are held together with Rector Rose, St. Scandal Bags and The Murdered Heiress among others. The collection of first editions covers all her major works including volumes of her poetry Fumes of Formation and Poems of Puncture, together with lesser known pieces such as Kaiser Bill and Donald Dudley: The Bastard Critic. The collection includes hundreds of letters addressed to Ros, many with her own comments in the margins. Also included are typed copies of her letters to newspapers, correspondence with her admiring publisher T.S. Mercer, an album of newspaper cuttings and photographs, and a script for a BBC broadcast from July 1943.

A few enthusiasts have kept her legend alive. A biography O Rare Amanda! was published in 1954; a collection of her most memorable passages was published in 1988 under the title Thine In Storm and Calm. In 2007 her life and works were feted at a Belfast literary festival.

Critics continued to autopsy her novels for years. Aldous Huxley wielded a sharp scalpel; the great Canadian critic, Northrop Frye, wrote that Ros used "rhetorical material without being able to absorb or assimilate it: the result is pathological, a kind of literary diabetes." D.B. Wyndham Lewis declared Irene vastly better than both Some Reactions of Colloidal Protozoids and The Chartered Accountants' Year Book for 1926.

First editions are rare, and command prices in the $500-$100 range.

The Amanda McKittrick Ros Society carries the lonely burden of preserving her work for the millennium.

They have 982 years to go.

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