Philip Hensher: Even age can't improve the world's worst novelist

It's rare to come across novels as unmitigatedly terrible as Ros's
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The Independent Online

As far as television is concerned, it seems as if the whole mass of literature now sits steaming in Miss Daisy Goodwin's manicured hands. Having started out with a series of wince-making programmes about poetry, reducing some of the greatest poems in the language to self-help literature, she has moved on, alas, to fiction.

Promoting a forthcoming series on BBC 4, about that interesting subject the romantic novel, she trilled that novels by women and their readers were "still generally dismissed by the men who run literary papers".

While you were wondering what she was talking about - most literary editors of national papers are, in fact, women - she moved swiftly to the general literary capacity of male authors. Men, it seemed, lack insight, she said, into "the ways of women". "You can't," she excitingly speculated, have a seriously written romantic book written by a man."

There were a certain number of tetchy responses to this, most of which could have been boiled down to two words: Anna Karenina. (It's a big book by a man called Tolstoy, Daisy). But the real objection to the thesis is not that it limits the literary capacity of male authors - most novels are going to be about characters of both sexes, and it's nonsense to suggest a good novelist is incapable of understanding half his characters. It damages women novelists by suggesting they have a "natural" territory of love and marriage. Forget all those novels you may have read by women about history, business, money, art, thought; what they all would do best, Miss Goodwin implies, are embraces under the apple tree.

As if on cue, the excellent Belfast Literary Festival is demonstrating what literature would look like if written under these heavy strictures. They are reviving the works of a largely forgotten novelist, Amanda McKittrick Ros. Ros, who died in 1939, had a considerable celebrity as, reputedly, the world's worst novelist. Such is her cult that her novels are almost impossible to get hold of. Her first novel, Irene Iddesleigh, published in 1897, a tale of an unhappy marriage and doom, was discovered by the humorist Barry Pain, who wrote a deathless review which sparked a minor cult. Delina Delaney, published a year later, is about an English peer who falls in love with a simple Irish girl, sending his snobbish mother mad. This is the mother's speech to her son on the subject:

"Henry Edward Ludlow Gifford, son of my strength, idolised remnant of my inert husband, who at this moment invisibly offers the scourging whip of fatherly authority to your backbone of resentment (though for years you think him dead to your movements) and pillar of maternal trust."

Ros was a poet as well:Eastertide begins, unforgettably, "Dear Lord, the day of eggs is here" - but her claim on our attention is, surely, her work as a novelist. Her last novel, Helen Huddleson, mysteriously names most of its characters after fruit. There is a Lord Raspberry, with a sister called Cherry, a Duke of Greengage and a villainous Madam Pear.

Madam Pear, we are told, "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 scandal and rubies wrested from the dainty persons of the pure." Surely, here is the ne plus ultra of the romantic novel as Daisy Goodwin seems to think of it: devoid of any interests apart from love, guilt and alliteration, but undeniably written by a woman.

It's worth noting, too, that Ros, like Goodwin, was convinced her merits were conspired against by a mass of men. Like Elizabeth Taylor's immortal Angelica Deverell, she wrote heavy denunciations of critics and lawyers. In one story, "Donald Dudley, the Bastard Critic", a literary critic is fed beef tea by a mysterious and sinister figure who turns out to be the devil; eternal damnation, let alone beef tea is too good for the whole tribe, Ros suggests.

The pleasures of really bad poetry are well-established in the works of such as Samuel Wesley, William McGonagall or James McIntyre, the great Canadian poet of cheese-related odes. It's rare to come across novels as unmitigatedly terrible as Ros's. Many novelists with the reputation of badness, such as Ouida, turn out on investigation to be engaging; time tends to add charm even to the most inept novel.

So let us celebrate Amanda McKittrick Ros, whose horrific work not only preserves its essential badness over the course of a century, but reminds us what happens to a romantic novel when, as Daisy Goodwin recommends, it concentrates only on love, without any of those hardnosed virtues of dispassionate observation and an interest in the ordinary facts of the world. In fact, there are few romantic novels, whether by men or women, which have ever fulfilled her recipe by being written from a point of pure instinctive feeling. When they are, they do tend to look like Helen Huddleson.

The trouble with Miss Goodwin's basic thesis is that it rests not only on assuming the sexes can write only about certain given subjects, but that all literary endeavour springs from unalloyed sincerity. The response is a simple one; it comes in a poem Ros wrote about German atrocities during the First World War, lines written with a sincerity which can only be described as total:

"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."

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