Invisible Ink: No 123 - James Hanley


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The Independent Culture

Sometimes it seems that the more you produce and the better you write, the less you are likely to be remembered.

This column has regularly featured authors whose output has exceeded 100 books, who have subsequently been expunged from the shelves. Which brings us to James Hanley: hardly a household name, but one of the major British writers of the 20th century. What went wrong?

Born in 1897, the working-class Liverpudlian joined the navy at the age of 17, jumping ship in Canada to find manual labour. As he began writing, his life at sea became a strong influence on his work. Two years after his debut came Boy, which set the cat among the pigeons. The blistering tragedy of a ship's 13-year-old stowaway forced into a bleak and brutal work system is no Oliver Twist, and brings no cheering final-chapter joy. The raw, plain language led to its being banned for obscenity, but even the most careful reader would struggle to find anything offensive in it other than truthfulness.

Hanley's five novel cycle, The Furys, created his lasting reputation. He told his publisher, Faber & Faber, "I want to show the downfall of a whole family excepting one, and that is the woman. That woman is heroic, powerful, exercises a tremendous influence over her family. I shall show her under every light. I cannot attempt to describe in detail the amazing lives of these people, sometimes fantastic, but never, never divorced from reality. Working-class lives are full of colour, of poetry, there is the stuff of drama in the most insignificant things."

The Furys was compared to Conrad and Dostoyevsky's books, winning plaudits from E M Forster, Anthony Burgess and William Faulkner. Hanley's novels were often downbeat, his heroes solitary and rootless, facing limited choices that would bring them to death or madness, but they accurately reflected the hopes and fears of ordinary working men and women. In late life, the modernist author embarked on another cycle of novels set in Wales, gaining further critical acclaim in his seventies.

Dark times produce fanciful reading, as today's sales of books about schoolboy wizards and pubescent vampires testify, and Hanley's novels were perhaps too close to the bone for popular readership. He never achieved major success, but is now being re-evaluated, with reprints, a biography, and questions being asked about how such a key novelist should suffer the fate of being forgotten.