Who was the worst novelist in history?
A worthy candidate would be a schoolmistress from Northern Ireland whose novels were so uniquely and thrillingly terrible that, in the early years of the last century, she became an ironic cause célèbre among the cultural luminaries of her time.
Step forward, Amanda Ros of Larne, Co. Antrim, the author of the classics Irene Iddlesleigh and Delina Delaney.
A woman who took insult at any slight, real or imagined, she had cards made up with “At Home Always To The Honourable”.
To her the dishonourable were a large and powerful group, the least desirable of them were the critics, or as she called them “donkeyosities”, ”egotistical earthworms”, “evil minded snapshots of spleen”, “poisonous apes” and “talent wipers of the wormy order”
The first such “clay crab of corruption” to arouse Mrs Ros`s wrath was Barry Pain, who in 1898 reviewed Irene Iddlesleigh, calling it “The Book of the Century”. Through no fault of the author, Irene Iddlesleigh was one of the funniest books he had ever read. This did not soothe Mrs Ros`s ruffled feelings and her next novel carried a preface attacking “this so called Barry Paine”
This served well as a warning to other “hogwashing hooligans” and Wyndham Lewis showed his apprehension in reviewing the second edition thirty years later: “One has to be careful about this fine book”, he wrote. “I am going to be extremely careful about this superb book”. Not careful enough it seems, as Mrs Ros then decided to call him St Scandalbags.
Her literary style was highly individual. Besides her flair for abusive nicknames, she took illiteration as a tool for domestic narrative to new heights. An excerpt from Irene Iddlesleigh`s soliloquy on her wedding night will give an idea
“Leave me now deceptive demons of deluded mockery; lurk no more around the vale of vanity, like a vindictive viper, strike the lyre of living deception to the strains of dull deadness, despair and doubt”
Her talent for naming puts the old girl, in her own way ,on a par with Dickens. In her unpublished novel, “Helen Huddleston”, she gives rein to her creative impulses while at the same time demonstrating a finely tuned awareness of social distinctions. Members of the aristocracy, Lord Raspberry and his sister Cherry, Sir Peter Plum, the Earl of Grape, Sir Christopher Currant, and Lady Pear are all named after fruits, while the maid, Lily Lentil is named after a vegetable.
Of Lady Pear, Ros wrote: “she had a swell staff of sweet-faced helpers swathed in stratagem, whose members and garments glowed with the lust of the loose, sparkled with the tears of the tortured, shone with the sunlight of bribery, dangled with the diamonds of distrust, slashed with sapphires of scandals”
Amanda Ros had a small but perceptive band of followers who, far from being put off by the criticism of her books received, were encouraged by it to delve still further into her work and formed clubs to discuss their favourite author. Until the 1930`s when her books were reprinted by Chatto & Windus, copies were difficult to obtain because Mrs Ros, distrusting publishers, always printed and published her own writings.
Members of the Oxford Amanda Ros society (established in 1907 to hold weekly readings of Ros) often copied out sections in longhand to pass around to friends and family.
This was, naturally, gratifying, but Amanda Ros needed no one to remind her that she was a genius. She took her gift very seriously, always signing herself as “Amanda Ros, Author”, and accepted as her due the palms offered by those she referred to as “the million and one who thirst for aught that drops from my pen”. To one fan she wrote, apropos of a projected new work, “I hope that when you have had the pleasure of digesting its pages that by you will add it to its long list of expected admirers”.
She toyed with the idea of applying for the Nobel Prize in 1930, when she discovered it was worth £9,000 but decided against it on the grounds that the judges, like all members of the literary establishment , were probably to corrupt to award it to an outsider.
About the same time the Oxford literary group ,the Inklings, which included C.S.Lewis and J.R Tolkein, held competitions to see who could read Ros’ work aloud for the longest length of time without laughing.
For the last forty years of her life, Amanda wrote only poetry. She remains best known for her prose works, but one verse above all shows that she had poetic talents which were not unworthy of the great McGonagall
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