Cocktail Bar by Norah Hoult review – regularly appeared on the censor’s list
Hoult has a dark sense of humour, and the stories are written in strong prose
Norah Hoult: Better late than never to put her on the school curriculum
Norah Hoult published 24 novels and four collections of short stories. Born in Dublin in 1898, she died in 1984, in Greystones. Have you ever heard of her?
Why has she been forgotten? She had the distinction of regularly appearing on the Censor’s List, during the 40s and 50s. About 10 of her books rubbed shoulders with those of Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain and dozens of other great writers – and with titles such as Bound Ankles and Sasha Gets Ravaged. Although we dismiss the dark days of censorship with remarks such as “You were nobody if you weren’t censored”, at the time it wasn’t fun and obviously damaged your sales as well as your reputation – the latter possibly a more serious problem for a woman. Frank O’Connor wrote that “English publishers are no longer prepared to publish the work of an Irish author. They realise that nearly all serious work will be banned in Ireland”.
The Cocktail Bar is a collection of short stories which was first published in 1950, and which has been re-issued in a new edition with an excellent foreword by Sinead Gleeson, who may be credited with the recent revival of interest in Norah Hoult. The stories are set in England, Ireland, and Italy. The majority, and the best, are about women. Irish women and English women and one Welshwoman, young women and quite a few old women. Hoult herself was just 52 when the collection first appeared but several stories focus on elderly women of limited means. The unnamed protagonist of Expatriate lives in a tiny room in Rome and can barely afford to eat. Miss Chessum, an 81-year-old inhabitant of a bed-sitter in an English town, is happy with her lot, but it is very circumscribed financially. One of the most engaging stories, a sharp account of the role of a bossy do-gooder in a well-to-do suburb, Three People and Jane tells of Mrs Temple, who is bullied into handing over money she can ill afford for one of Jane’s pet charities.
Hoult has a dark sense of humour, and the stories are written in strong prose, sometimes in a representation of Irish dialect – as in Irish Wedding. Most rely on characterisation and storyline for their impact; occasionally Hoult wraps up a story with a neat closing statement which jars on a modern reader (eg’His Best Friend was his Newspaper). But not often and three or four stories are nuanced and subtle, lending themselves to more than one interpretation, and would hold their own in any literary company. Among these Which Bright Cup? stands out. Its classic theme, the pull of home versus the call of away, recalls Joyce’s Eveline, and could be a harbinger of Brooklyn. But Sally is no Eveline or Eilis Lacey: she’s a brash, vain, ambitious village beauty, not unlike Baba in The Country Girls, although more shrewd and less crazy. The story illustrates that it is as hard to choose between two promising futures as between two potentially gloomy ones: “And looking back on that wonder, and feeling it walk away from her into the blue distance, she felt dimly in a way that couldn’t be expressed that from now on she’d be a poorer, smaller, more everyday sort of person to herself than she’d ever fancied before. And she clenched her hands over that thought at the very moment he was kissing her more passionately than he had ever done before.”
Also striking are The Holy Picture, Afternoon in the Asylum, and the delightful When Miss Coles Made the Tea. Hoult’s wry observations on office life in Miss Coles will resonate with anyone who has been a young person cooped up in a workplace: “Now there is in offices, and other places where toilers are gathered together, an institution known as ‘having tea’.
“Those who are incarcerated in employment vile for most of the daylight hours know how dear the outside world can appear for but a brief glimpse . . .”
This story would have been a perfect choice for inclusion in the famed anthology Exploring English, which I loved when I was doing the Inter, but which on re-reading I found disappointingly, overwhelmingly, biased in favour of male writers. How enchanting When Miss Coles Made the Tea would have been to teenagers! Or Three Bright Cups with its sassy heroine.
But, like most stories by Irish women, they were not on the curriculum. Better late than never, I suppose.
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne’s latest book is ‘Selected Stories’ (Dalkey Archive Press, 2017) She has a short story in ‘The Long Gaze Back’ (New Island,2015), One City One Book choice 2018