BOOKS OF THE WEEK
Dishonourable Pleasure By ANGUS WILSON THE novels of Mrs. Amanda McKittrick Ros have probably given more dishonourable pleasure than any works in the English language. From the time of Barry Pain's famous review of Irene Iddesleigh in 1898 until, at any rate, the nineteen-thirties; there were always superior, educated readers who found a wild delight in the extraordinary fantasies of the stationmaster's widow of Lame. It was coterie fun and had all the self satisfaction of the whimsical private joke. It was most unchivalrous fun, for the lady who unconsciously gave such pleasure to her readers was known to have been deeply hurt by the very few reviews in which she detected the mockery. It was fun, in fact, in very poor taste. Mr. Loudan has now given us a sketch of this outraged lady's life and a full dissection of her work.* Does the amusement seem any less unsporting ? Do the Amanda Ros fans emerge in a better light ? Certainly not. We now know that the station- master's widow was something of a local tyrant, but a defeated, rather crazy tyrant of high courage. Does the laughter, then, seem any less justifiable ? A hundred times no ! Irene lddesleigh and Delina Delaney emerge as funnier than ever and extracts are given from an unpublished novel Helen Huddleson which promises even more.
A little brutality of humour is probably a valuable purgative, and as, unlike Evelina's admirers, we do not make old women race for our wagers, let us forget Mrs. Ros's susceptibilities and laugh at her books. I earnestly recommend them to the younger generation. In any case, Mrs. Ros was tough. She would probably have answered us with the words of her heroine in that famous opening passage, ' 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.' Such were a few remarks of Irene as she paced the beach of limited freedom, alone and unprotected. Mrs. Ros's rejoinders to her attics were, like Irene's, very much of the you know what you can do with it' order.
Amanda Malvina Fitzalan Anna Margaret McLelland McKittrick Ros, or, more properly, Anne Margaret Ross—for she by no means confined her fiction to her novels—paced a beach of very limited freedom. Mr. Loudan illustrates his book with photographs. The main street of Larne, the exterior and the interior of Mrs. Ros's home Iddesleigh ' have a very claustrophobic effect in their pictures. Irene, oppressed by the austere magnificence of Dunfern Mansion, made a courageous bid for freedom by becoming the unlawful wife' of her lover and ex-tutor Oscar Otwell. She became, as Mrs. Ros said, the companion of vagrant tutorism.' It led her to a sorry end. Starving, almost in rags, she was forced to return to the gloomy mansion and was driven from its doors by her own son. ' What wind of transparent touch,' he cried, must have blown its blasts of boldest bravery around your poisoned person and guided you within miles of the mansion] proudly own ' The effect of the limited freedom of Larne upon Amanda Ros was more fortunate: it drove her to write her wonderful novels.
She was not, however, like her heroine, alone and unprotected. Her first husband, Mr. Ross, was the kindly, efficient, popular stationmaster of Lame. Her second husband, Mr. Rodgers. was a farmer at Ballynahinch in the county of Down. Despite her domineering nature, Mrs. Ros seems to have commanded the devotion of both her husbands. We do not know their opinion of her works. Mr. Loudan talked to many people in Larne who had known and loved Andrew Ross, but with none of them would he ever be drawn into discussion of his wife's novels. Mrs. Ros returned his kindness bY enshrining him in Delina Delaney. Lord Gifford, she tells us, beckoned on the station agent . . . whose genial manner and exemplary courteousness are widely known . . . stroking his long soft beard, that once claimed to be more gingered to colour, the station-agent answered him gently, yet assuredly: ; with the words: " Certainly so ! it will have every attention.", It is a charming compliment from an authoress to her husband and worthy of the softer side of Mrs. Ros's nature. Neverthe' less, she could not but have felt that her husbands had got the better end of the bargain. She was a very handsome woman. She was a world-famous novelist whose works were read all the crowned heads of Europe except the Czar of Russia an" the Emperor of Austria.' She came of very ancient lineage. of Danish descent, and of her brothers and sisters she wrote: an accomplished scholar,' married a beautiful and cultured lady,' absolutely of independent means,' her home is magnificent treasure of art.' This was her story and she dealt' believed it. There was, therefore, not a little condescension it her marriages. Though, here too, her imagination was in pla)'. Andrew Ross, the stationmaster, she wrote, was a perfect gentleman in every way, manner and character. He dined with every gentleman of note who crossed in vessels to Larne Harbour from all parts, viz., Lord Londonderry, Lord Roberts; Lord Ashbourne, Sir George White and hundreds of such and always seemed the. most gentlemanly of them all. . . . He was a fine English scholar and could speak Russian, F nch anu Norwegian fluently.' Even in personal affairs, her limy was as strange as it was grandiose.
Her life, alas, was not unclouded. She was left a lime works by a friend of her husband's and the legacy led to endless quarrels and legal actions. After her first husband's retire' ment, she was forced to convert Iddesleigh ' itself into 11, general store. Her character, however, was as ill adapted
* 0 Rare Amanda I By Jack Loudan. (Chatto & Windus. 15s.)
commerce as for working lime. Above all, she suffered from the critics whose mockery came home to her. Barry Pain, D. B. Wyndham Lewis, whom she called St. Scandalbags, and Thomas Beer, who wrote the preface to the American edition of Irene Iddesleigh, were the chief sources. It seems even now unforgiveable that Mr. Beer should have written, a poor tame woman, wife to a workman, escaping on paper from the knowledge that things had always been dour and plain around her and that they would never be anything else.' However Mrs. Ros gave as good as she got. Mr. Loudan gives a list of scarifying terms she used to describe critics; it is quite superb. She was a mistress of personal abuse and she knew what evil critics had done. Had not the greatest novelist of all time, her revered model, Marie Corelli, been driven to a premature grave through the filthy attacks both on her works and person which were allowed to pass by the stream of contradiction, the river of retaliation, without the faintest attempt to drown them beneath the waters of scandal ' ? It is fascinating to reflect what verbal warfare would have resulted had Mrs. Ros ever met Miss Corelli, for their virtues and vices seem identical.
Mr. Loudan's sketch of Mrs. Ros's life is quite admirable, at once ironic and sympathetic. He rightly sees, however, that it is her work that matters, and gives copious extracts. Like most Ros fans, he feels in the end, as I do, that it is somewhat more than inspired nonsense, or, at any rate, that her Humpty Dumpty imperious treatment of the English language is so inspired that it passes beyond the ridiculous to the wonderful. I only fear that his well chosen extracts will satisfy the reader, who does not know her works, for it is in their totality, despite certain tediums, above all, in their amazing plots, that they must be known. To pass from Irene lddesleigh where the bankruptcy of the extravagant Lord and Lady Dilworth becomes their removal from their heightened haunt of high born socialism' to Delina Delaney is to realise Mrs. Ros's range. Irene is a melancholy, psychological novel of inner torment, Delina is a novel of fast and terrifying action, of murder and intrigue. If it is the more rewarding of the two, that is due no doubt to the presence of the vile Lady Mattie Maynard, alias Madam de Maine. Nothing, perhaps, surpasses her death-bed scene. ' Ordering her right foot to be likewise shown him, Lord Gifford exclaimed : " Oh God I It is true ! This is my cousin, Lady Mattie Maynard ! She had six toes on her right foot ! " ' Only the unpublished manuscript of Helen Huddleson with its hero Lord Raspberry and its procuress Madam Pear who had a swell staff of sweet-faced helpers swathed in stratagem, whose members and garments glowed with the lust of the loose,' promises more. It is Mr. Loudan's imperative task to get Helen Huddleson published.