'Miss Shorthorn,' I said, with a sort of innocent emphasis, 'you will excuse my friend's loud jocularity. It is rather late, I know, for his feelings to adopt such a strain, but really the subject on which we were discussing was so hideously risible that I can well understand his lengthy laugh.' "
- Donald Dudley, exhibiting the glib felicity of language that is the hallmark of the literary critic.
This story was supposed to be part of a novel, Six Months in Hell, which Mrs Ros started after Delina Delaney but never completed. It was first published by Thomas Mercer in 1954, and was more recently reprinted in 1995, in the collection Great Irish Humorous Stories, edited by Peter Haining (who provides a somewhat inaccurate summary of Amanda's life and works by way of introduction).
The story is told in the first person by Donald Dudley, an impoverished and malnourished critic. He has been visited in his rooms by the mysterious Mr Devildinger, who keeps him from his meagre supper by an extended and jovial conversation on literary gossip of the day. (The supper is 'a few spuds' which Dudley is boiling, reportedly for hours. That their talk is not interrupted by an eruption of smoke from the stove, I account for by supernatural intervention on the part of Devildinger).
The conversation is so loud that Dudley's landlady is disturbed by it, and makes an appearance in her night attire. Despite her 'enraged ugliness', Dudley is strangely aroused:
The woman with her tempting nightgown frightened my very soul within me, unduly raised by brute passion (so easily elevated in our sex, you know), in fact I never witnessed such a thing, save once in a museum and that was the Maid of Muscat in marbled magnificence, who stands in regal boldness, lifeless, soulless, calm and lovely, with one hand stretched forth as if to greet her thousands of sympathetic admirers, the other clasping to her breast the sin of her youth.
(Which aspect of his landlady reminds him of the statue is unclear - though soullessness rather than loveliness is perhaps more typical of the breed - but one is given the impression that poor Donald has not seen much of life. Presumably, too, the landlady was not clutching the 'sin of her youth' to her breast, certainly not with the other hand outstretched: a pose not generally recommended by paediatricians.)
Eventually Dudley faints from hunger. When he awakes he finds himself in the apartment of Devildinger, whose motive in abducting him is claimed to be compassion. Another critic that he knew starved to death and he wants Dudley to avoid the same fate. He gives Dudley an invalid's supper of beef tea, bread and an apple. While he is absent, Dudley feeling better, starts to resolve to change his life: he will eschew the critic's life and find another road. But it is too late - as we should have guessed - Devildinger is - well I never - the Devil himself!
It is said that the Devil has all the best tunes, but Mrs Ros provides evidence that he has some of the worst lyrics, in a song that an invisible choir sings to Dudley, which includes the immortal verse:
Hurrah for the King of this Hell below,
Where mostly all of our folk doth go,
Not mizzled or decked in white array
Or straining to sing a roundelay
There you appear all naked and bare
Bereft of but one thing 'There, oh There.'
Apparently there are limits to even the Devil's immodesty, which is reassuring. What the author means by 'mizzled' here is obscure.
So at the end we are left with poor Donald Dudley in the coils of the Evil One, his fate uncertain. What would have happened in his projected six months in Hell we can hardly speculate. One may suspect though that Mrs Ros, unconsciously treading in Dante's larger footprints, felt she had overreached herself. And one might guess that she found writing in the first person, in the character of a man, particularly one who followed the loathsome profession of critic, became increasingly tiresome at length. Certainly what we have of this story is not up to any of her other novels in quality - if that is the right word.
Scribbled by Alfred Armstrong 15 years 3 weeks ago