She who might have swayed society's circle with
the sceptre of nobleness - she who might still have
shared in the greatness of her position and defied the
crooked stream of poverty in which she so long
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.
- From Irene Iddesleigh
Amanda McKittrick Ros was born Anna Margaret McKittrick, on December 8th 1860, in Ballynahinch, County Down, Ireland. Like her father she would become a schoolteacher, training at Marlborough Training College, Dublin from 1884. Her first full teaching post was at Larne, where she met her future husband, the local stationmaster, Andrew Ross.
After eight years of marriage she started writing her first novel, Irene Iddesleigh. Under the impression that authors paid for the printing of their works she persuaded her husband to have it produced in 1897, as a wedding anniversary present. The origin of her nom-de-plume is uncertain, though it would seem that she dropped the second 's' of Ross in order to hint at some association with a notable family called de Ros from County Down.
Irene and Delina
Irene Iddesleigh is not an easy book to describe. In its story line it resembles those romantic novels that inspired it, a tragic tale of an unhappy marriage and the doom that inevitably follows, but the prose style is unique. Swinging violently from melodrama to mundanity, with words misappropriated, painted purple then set to work as best they may, she is a sort of Artiste Brut of literature, capable by accident of the most extraordinary effects, comic and surreal by turns.
At first nobody took much notice of this little book. Then by chance the humourist and critic Barry Pain acquired a copy of it and wrote a mocking review in the magazine Black In White. When Amanda read the review she was deeply hurt and angered: from that moment she regarded Pain as her arch-enemy and the whole tribe of critics as a plague upon the earth ("evil-minded snapshots of spleen").
Of course without Pain's review and his enthusiasm for her work she would probably never have gained any great attention. But thanks to Pain and others she became the fad of the moment for the London literary crew, who threw Amanda McKittrick Ros parties at which they would take it in turns to recite favourite passages.
At about the same time, Amanda was writing her second novel Delina Delaney, a larger and more ambitious work, twice as long as Irene and populated with a larger cast of characters, including the devilish and unforgettable Madam-de-Maine. Like Irene, it was published privately, coming out in 1898.
A Kiln Generates Heat
In 1908, Amanda inherited a lime kiln and other property from a friend. For some time she had been managing it on his behalf, despite an increasing degree of resentment from some locals who did not like her high-handed approach. The will was unclear in certain particulars and led to a great deal of legal and extra-legal wranglings. Amanda detested lawyers, and of one she wrote :-
Readers, did you ever hear
Of Mickey Monkeyface McBlear?
His snout is long with a flattish top,
Lined inside with a slimy crop:
His mouth like a slit in a money box,
Portrays his kindred to a fox.
- in her next book, Poems of Puncture. Her first published venture into verse was an expression of her feelings at all her enemies in the lime kiln affair, particularly lawyers, and intended to recoup some of the money she had lost in the legal battles. Did she pause to ponder whether her own nature might have some responsibility for her misfortunes? She did not.
War and Tragedy
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;
But a real tragedy shortly afterwards entered her life: her husband of thirty years, Andy, fell ill. He never fully recovered his health and died in 1917. His funeral was farcical, as Amanda chose to reject first certain out-of-favour mourners - ordering the funeral cart to move off at a trot and leave them behind - then for similar reasons some of the wreaths, which she dispatched back to their donors.
Another piece of news was that the Nonesuch Press wanted to bring out an edition of Irene Iddesleigh. Despite initial misgivings, once she had been persuaded that this was a reputable publisher of fine editions, she agreed to their terms. (My copy is rather worn, but the image here may indicate what a beautiful edition it was.)
Helen was never completed. As she worked on the final chapters her fingers became increasingly crippled with rheumatism, and she was forced to give it up. Her final published work was a second collection of verses, Fumes of Formation including the famous On Visiting Westminster Abbey, which begins:-
Holy Moses! Have a look!
Flesh decayed in every nook!
Some rare bits of brain lie here,
Mortal loads of beef and beer,
Some of whom are turned to dust,
Every one bids lost to lust;
Royal flesh so tinged with 'blue'
Undergoes the same as you.