In June 1973 Bevis Hillier, connoisseur of English porcelain and friend and biographer of John Betjeman, wrote a piece in The Times concerning an archive of manuscripts, published books, letters and photographs of Larne’s best loved citizen and arguably Britain’s worst writer, Amanda McKittrick Ros, that had come onto the market. The collection, assembled over many years, mainly from members of her family, by journalist and founding member of the British Communist Party, Eric Mercer, had been sold by him to the bookseller A.F.Wallis just before he died in 1972 aged 89, and Wallis now wanted £4,500 for it.
Forty-six years ago this was a tidy sum for a writer mainly known for her comedy value. Back in the 1920s, when smart Oxford undergraduates like Betjeman and Waugh took part in competitions to discover who could read out passages from Ros’s novels and poetry without laughing, such an archive might have fetched more. But even in 1973, years after her star had faded somewhat, £4,500 for such a unique collection seems a bargain today, especially when we learn that the MS of Enemies of Promise by the minor writer Cyril Connolly was up for sale at the same time for a cool £2,000 !
Few would dispute that Ros has ever been truly fashionable, but her books, all of which were originally privately printed, are still collected and first editions, especially of her verse, are hard to come by, mainly because of their small print-runs. But no publisher in 2019 would dare bring out large editions of her books partly because she is still not well known enough and partly because we have become rather po-faced about ridiculing people who evidently had no talent, whether as writers or marathon runners.
Back in 1973, however, we had no inhibitions in laughing at Amanda Ros, who was so convinced of her own prodigious literary gifts that she once considered ‘ going in for ‘ the Nobel Prize. Hillier quotes passages from the reply she sent to D.B.Wyndham Lewis following his review in the Daily Mailof her novel Irene Iddesleigh (Nonesuch Press,1926):
Under the long and honoured and peaceful reign of our Good and Gracious and Peace-loving Queen Victoria, stirring and many and multitudinous were the events , fashions and effronteries that happened, were formed and committed throughout the realms of her August Control. But, all these events, fashions and effronteries were as midge on a camel’s back to the stale spuings, the ungrammatical effortless efforts of a “ criticising crowdrop “ to be found bespattering a column—a whole column ! ( with not even a bite out of it) of the celestial-like-celebrated-talent-tarnisher and by name, “ The Daily Mail “…
But she is far from finished with Mr Lewis. Here is a further extract from her response:
Is it not one of the gravest and grossest scandals that ever appeared, or was permitted to be printed in any paper, public or private, decent or fringed with decency, for any man, sexed or unsexed, and posing as a critic, by the by, such as St Scandalbags, to proceed by a train of thought, driven thither by an engine charged with the foul steam of a mind pregnant with capsules of corruption of the rottenest filthy type to Frogmore ( where this Queenly Death-Diamond of the first and purest water reposeth in her Royal Cradle of Calm) and enters its holy portals, to view this Great and Good Queen who lay within its hallowed walls , in order to tears into scrags her chilly unstained death robes and riddle her lifeless form with his deadly pellets of scandal ?
It would seem that this wonderful archive ended up at Belfast Public Library—the perfect place for it. [R.M.Healey]