Amanda McKittrick Ros – romance unbounded

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Admired in her day but now largely forgotten, Amanda McKittrick Ros, 'an Elizabethan born out of her time', according to Aldous Huxley, deserves revisiting.
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Amanda Ros would have been astonished to learn that her name is not on everyone’s lips a century after her time. ‘I expect I will be talked about at the end of a thousand years,’ she told a friend. She had written two novels, heavily influenced by Marie Corelli, who as far as can be made out was the only author she ever actually read. Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan Amanda undoubtedly had read many times – she was ‘the greatest and most famous novelist who ever lived’ in her view – but whether she ever read anything else of Corelli’s is uncertain. As a child she had been given The Children of the Abbey (1798) by the Irish author Regina Maria Roche – a gothic novel in the manner of Maria Edgeworth. Amanda Ros had not read Edgeworth. She had not read Lewis Carroll. In 1928 when she was nearing seventy she learnt that an American had paid £15,400 for the manuscript of Alice in Wonderland. This fact fired her interest, but Alice did not: ‘I doubt there is a single person mentioned [in the book] who is genuine.’ She concluded; ‘When I finished the perusal I could not recall one redeeming feature of elegance from cover to cover.’

Elegance was a watchword for her own fiction. She wrote about the fashionable world and set herself up as a stylist. Her first novel, published at her own expense in 1897, tells of Sir John Dunfern, ‘a man of forty summers’ who ‘never yet had entertained the thought of yielding up his bacheloric ideas to supplace them with others which eventually should coincide with those of a different sex’. He is invited to a ball given by Lord and Lady Dilworth, at which he meets and falls in love with Irene Iddesleigh, the Dilworths’ adopted daughter, who accepts his proposal of marriage, although she is secretly in love with her former tutor Oscar Otwell. Sir John reproaches her for her indifference to him. To this, ‘clearing the weft of truth that had been mixing with the warp of falsehood to form an answer of plausible texture, fringed with different shades of love’, she replies: ‘My dearest and much beloved, I assure you your remarks have astounded me not a little! Your words sting like a wasp, though, I am quite convinced, unintentionally. You are well aware that within a short period I will be marked out publicly as mistress of Dunfern mansion – an honour revered in every respect by me … An honour coveted by many much more worthy than I, whose parentage is as yet bathed in the ocean of oblivious ostentation, until some future day, when I trust it shall stand out boldly upon the brink of disclosure to dry its saturated form and watery wear in the heat of equality…’.

By chance the humorous writer Barry Pain came across Irene Iddesleigh, and reviewed it in the magazine Black and White for the edition of 19 February 1898 under the heading ‘The book of the century.’ ‘… but that is understatement,’ he concluded. ‘Anything that could possibly be said about the book would be understatement.  The ‘throbbing twitch of criticism’ realises its impotence…’.

When she published her next novel, Delina Delaney, in 1898, Amanda prefaced it with a ‘Criticism of Barry Pain on ‘Irene Iddesleigh’.’ Here she draws herself up to her full majestic height – she was a tall, junoesque woman with a rather small round head – and counters Pain’s irony with irony of her own: ‘This so-called Barry Pain, by name, has taken it upon himself to criticise a work the depth of which fails to reach the solving power of his borrowed and, he’d have you believe, his varied talent…’. Her diatribe goes on for twenty pages, an exercise in sustained sarcasm that rather belies a frequent criticism of her work, that it is entirely lacking in humour. It is true that her fiction betrays no aspiration to be comic, and its humour is invariably unintended. At all events, her self-defence added materially to the legend that was now developing round her. Delina Delaney is, if anything, a more substantial work than its predecessor, and she became known in literary circles. Irene Iddesleigh was reissued by the Nonsuch Press in 1926, and in 1935 Chatto and Windus republished Delina Delaney, with a reprint in 1941.

Aldous Huxley, admiring ‘that very rare and precious novel, Delina Delaney’, appraised her prose as that of a new John Lyly, in an essay entitled Euphues Redivivus (1923). He proposed a theory that literature evolves into maturity via a stage of exaggerated invention – the flowery, conceit-laden verse of the youthful Shakespeare exemplifies this: ‘It was some time before the intoxication [of the Elizabethans] wore off and men saw that art was possible without artifice. Mrs Ros, an Elizabethan born out of her time, is still under the spell of that magical and delicious intoxication.’

Mark Twain was sent a copy of Irene: ‘I find the book enchanting,’ he wrote. ‘… Many years ago I began to collect ‘hogwash’ literature and I am glad of the chance to add to it the extraordinary book which you have sent me.’ J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, D. B. Wyndham Lewis (whom she referred to as ‘St Scandalbags’), Desmond MacCarthy and others created an informal Amanda fan club. They had a game, in which members were challenged to read out passages of Amanda’s works without laughing. Osbert Sitwell wrote in Laughter in the Next Room (1948) that before the War Amanda’s ‘innocently garish and ridiculous books’ were ‘enjoying a great vogue with the literary elite.’

The dramatis personae of her fiction reflect her own sense of where value lay in society, or the ‘high-bred haunts of Socialism’ as she called it. She claimed: ‘By birth I am an Irishwoman though a dash of German blood piebalds my veins: my father traced descent from Sitric, son of Almlanc, King of the Danes; but such antiquitous tracery almost obliterates relationship and I assure you I do not wish to pass as a limb of kingly caste.’ Born Anna Margaret (Meg) McKittrick in 1860 in Ballynahinch, Co. Down, she renamed herself  ‘Amanda Malvina Fitzalan Anna Margaret McLelland McKittrick Ros’. Malvina and Fitzalan were borrowed from characters in The Children of the Abbey, Ros was an ‘improvement’ on her married name, Ross, to suggest connection with the aristocratic de Ros family. In 1887 she had married a railway official, Andrew Ross, the popular station master at Larne Harbour in Co. Antrim. They were happily married for thirty years, and there are several lovingly described railway journeys in the novels. They had no children. After Ross’s death in 1917 she was married again, to a farmer, Thomas Rodgers, who predeceased her in 1933.

In Larne she built a villa, which she claimed was paid for by the royalties from Irene Iddesleigh, and she named it after the heroine. Her card read: ‘At Home Always to the Honourable / Mrs Amanda M Ros Authoress/ Iddesleigh, Ireland telegrams: Iddesleigh, Ireland’.

She was a doughty fighter for what she believed in. After her run-in with Barry Pain, all critics were a bête noire, attacked at every opportunity. Long, irrelevant digressions occur in the novels, in which she inveighs against critics in astonishingly inventive invective. Her biographer compiled a two-page list of the insults she used against the profession: ‘egotistical earth-worms’, ‘clay crabs of corruption’, ‘evil-minded snapshots of spleen’, ‘bastard donkey-headed mites’, ‘talent wipers of wormy order’…

Living in Larne, she acquired and managed a lime kiln to which some others claimed ownership. The litigation that ensued brought lawyers into the circle of her well-defined and obsessively vilified enemies, and she paraded up and down the main street of Larne waving banners inscribed with insults. She also published a volume of vituperative verse (her insistent alliteration is catching) excoriating the whole profession. It was titled Poems of Puncture (1913), and in it she claimed to be author not only of Irene and Delina but also of  ‘The Hedge Round Hell, The Lusty Lawyer, Motherless Moon, etc., etc.’ None of these latter works ever saw print.

Much of her anger against lawyers was poured into another novel, Helen Huddleson, which she left unfinished and which was published after her death. It has some claim to be her most remarkable work, in which the stylistic mannerisms attain perfection, and her conception of unalloyed villainy is embodied in her only evil male protagonist, Lord Raspberry. When asked why she called him that, she looked perplexed and said, ‘What else could I call him?’ There are plenty of female villains, however.

For a somewhat prudish Edwardian lady she could use shockingly explicit language. She was larger than life, and although her novels only gave expression to what she dreamed of as the good life, and its enemies, she herself lived in a largely fictitious world which she inhabited confidently and courageously. In 1933 another book of her verse appeared: Fumes of Formation. In these verses she seems calmer, with a more humorous, detached view of life: a pleasant and positive way to round off her oeuvre. She died in 1939.

Her biography, O Rare Amanda! by Jack Loudan, was published in 1954, a second edition appearing in 1969. She was the subject of a celebration at the Belfast Literary Festival in 2006, so her fame has lived on, if feebly, into the twenty-first century. Let us hope her grandiose prophecy for herself is fulfilled in a glorious future. We should remember her, at least, as the Florence Foster Jenkins of the romantic novel. 

Andrew Wilton

Andrew Wilton was formerly Keeper of British Art at the Tate Gallery and subsequently Visiting Research Fellow at Tate Britain. He retired in 2002, and is now Hon. Curator of Prints and Drawings at The Royal Academy and Hon. Curator of the Painter-Stainers’ Company. His most recent books have been Turner as Draughtsman (2006) and Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch (National Gallery 2013.) A novel about Turner, The Painter’s Boy, appeared in 2019.

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