Wednesday 26 June 2019

Fine forgotten writer worthy of renaissance

Fiction: Cocktail Bar, Norah Hoult, New Island Books, €11.95

New Island Books and Sinead Gleeson are to be warmly commended for resurrecting a fine collection by Norah Hoult
New Island Books and Sinead Gleeson are to be warmly commended for resurrecting a fine collection by Norah Hoult
Cocktail Bar by Norah Hoult

Anne Cunningham

The Irish Times issue of April 14 1984 contains a tiny piece on the inside pages - two slim paragraphs, much smaller than most common obituaries - captioned "Miss Norah Hoult Dies in Dublin".

Although it mentions that she produced 27 books from 1928 to 1977, it neglects to state her date of death. Neglect is a word one could justifiably associate in many ways with this prolific and sometimes even bestselling author.

I hadn't heard of Norah Hoult when this book landed on my desk. Neither had any of my "bookish" friends. Eight of her books, including Cocktail Bar, were banned in Ireland, placing her in good company with the likes of James Joyce, Edna O'Brien and John McGahern. But unlike these authors, her huge body of work is not celebrated and in fact has virtually disappeared. Norah Hoult's books simply evaporated.

Sinead Gleeson, in her excellent introduction to these short stories, attempts to make sense of Hoult's decline in popularity , and in doing so she quotes writer Louise Kennedy, who is currently researching Hoult's life and work: "Hoult's hyphenated identity (Anglo-Irish) makes her a little tricky to place in the canon, particularly when her world is not that of the Big House or the farmhouse kitchen, but I don't think that is why she has been left out. Ultimately, she was a victim of snobbery about what is perceived to be popular fiction by women writers."

The great irony is that Hoult herself decries and satirises snobbery so frequently in this single slim volume; the snobbery of the Irish Church towards its flock, the snobbery of the English village matronly busybody towards her neighbours, that of the elderly widow with the double-barrelled surname towards unwelcome "foreigners", classified by her as being anyone who is neither English nor Scottish.

The history books tell us that in the aftermath of World War II the gaps between the social classes were narrowed.

Norah Hoult's fiction tells us quite the opposite.

Satire is only part of the stuff of these stories, however.

There's also the shame of poverty hanging around like an unwanted smell in several stories. An unexpectedly expensive taxi fare on the day of an Irish wedding in London threatens to upscuttle the entire occasion. There's the scald of social inadequacy thrust suddenly, like a slap, upon an innocent young girl in rural Ireland. And the spectre of rationing is still prevalent in several stories, years after the war has ended (this collection was published in 1950).

Hoult's style could be described as reductionist. In single sentences or short, almost throwaway asides, she can distil the very essence of her characters.

Irish Jew Gus Simons, for instance, in the title story, has moved to post-war London and is anxious to prove his wealth and worldliness to the locals in his favourite cocktail bar.

But Gus is not so well off as he'd like others to believe and consequently involves himself in little charades which, he thinks, mark him as a man of means.

So "you always take a taxi even when it is as quick to walk, because that proves that half a crown here and there means nothing to you". He takes a taxi home, too. Well, at least as far as the nearest tube station once he's seen his wealthy female friends safely home.

Poverty is not always grinding in these stories, nor is it always Irish-owned. But it is most often suffered by unmarried ladies of a certain age.

The straitened circumstances of Miss Chessum, still renting a bedsit in her twilight years, is scrupulously depicted in The Surplus Week-end.

By contrast, her visiting niece's seeming familiarity with comfort and high living seems, in Miss Chessum's eyes to be… well, surplus. The niece "had the programme all fixed, and it included lavishing expensive meals on Auntie Jennie whom she knew to be so very poor". But fixed programmes often go the same way as best laid plans, and they certainly do so in this gorgeous vignette.

Expatriate is also a story about poverty, in this instance far more extreme.

A single British woman is forced to find herself new lodgings in her adopted city of Rome, but can't find anything she can afford. She regularly goes hungry but - like Gus Simons in Cocktail Bar - she is obsessed with keeping up appearances.

She considers resuming her old profession of giving English lessons, but can't teach without having a decent room and can't get a decent room on her income. Nevertheless she spends her days assuring passing English and American tourists that she is, indeed, living the dolce vita.

Which Bright Cup is one of the longer pieces, a tale of the only choice open to so many Irish girls in the 1950s. Should young Sally, shrewd, pretty and vain, leave for New York or stay in the Irish midlands and marry the local farmer? She has an aunt in New York, willing to pay her fare and put her up. But she also has a relationship with a farmer in the village, more than 10 years her senior. If she stays she will be comfortable but stifled. If she goes, she might just miss her chance.

"Practically everything in the little girl's life was good and beautiful," is the opening line of The Holy Picture, a painful story about loss of innocence and the first flush of shame.

The unnamed little girl of the story befriends an Englishwoman staying in her mother's guesthouse, but is utterly humiliated at the woman's description of her "filthy" home and her much-loved "fat, dirty" mother.

New Island Books and Sinead Gleeson are to be warmly commended for resurrecting this fine collection and one can only hope that a renewed interest in Norah Hoult will see more of her out of print books enjoying a well-deserved renaissance.

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