The lonely passion of Janet McNeill
Like Jane Austen and Barbara Pym, McNeill’s work was once dismissed for its attention to domestic life but she was a most perceptive chronicler of pre-Troubles Northern Ireland
The revival of interest in the novels of Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor – Janet McNeill’s work has often been grouped with theirs – suggests that it is time for such a rediscovery of McNeill. She has always had her fans – in recent years Bernie McGill and Sharon Owens have referred to McNeill’s work, especially the influence of The Maiden Dinosaur
The recent publication of The Long Gaze Back (an admirably wide-ranging anthology of Ireland’s women writers) raised the question, on Twitter, where is the anthology of Northern Ireland’s women writers? It would be a much-needed anthology, an introduction to many unfamiliar names and an equally important alternative history of Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1969.
The most prominent female writer of pre-Troubles Northern Ireland was, possibly, Janet McNeill, not only as a prolific novelist (for children as well as adults) and playwright but also as a public figure. Alongside her writing McNeill served as a Justice of the Peace, acted as the chair of the Belfast Centre of Irish PEN and was a member of the advisory council of the BBC from 1959 to 1964.
McNeill’s path to becoming a writer and the manner in which her work has been gradually forgotten after her death serves as a wider portrait of the struggles women, and not only writers, had in the mid-twentieth-century, especially in a society as stultified and bound to the conventions of an earlier age as Northern Ireland.
She was born in Dublin, where her father was a minister at Adelaide Road Presbyterian Church, in 1907 yet did not publish her first novel, A Child in the House, until 1955, the same year that Brian Moore published The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. McNeill followed the typical path of a woman of her generation and class. After attending St Andrews University she moved to Belfast to be closer to her ill father and gave up her job (at the Belfast Telegraph) following her marriage in 1933. It was not until her children were older and in school that she began to write. It is difficult not to read a biographical hint into a sentence from an early novel: “Life had made demands on art, and art had suffered.”
These new editions of McNeill’s As Strangers Here and The Maiden Dinosaur bring back into print perceptive and elegant portraits of men and women who are often invisible to the people around them. Janet McNeill was fascinated by characters, especially women, who have subdued their personalities for decades and live as the roles that have been imposed on them, as a mother, wife or friend. Her dominant theme is the sacrifice, of ambition and personality, made by parents for their children (or by husbands and wives for each other). In McNeill’s novels it takes on an added force for it appears that the real sacrifice being made by mothers is the loss of their own identity. In McNeill’s The Small Widow also published by Turnpike Books) the widow of the title, Julia, comes to realise that her adult life had always been predetermined: “I was typecast the minute the cord was cut.”
McNeill is one of the most perceptive chroniclers of Northern Ireland as it was before the start of the Troubles, but she rarely engages directly with religion or politics. Instead she portrays the emotional paralysis of her society (itself a counterpoint to the political limbo of the Northern Irish state). As Strangers Here is set in the aftermath of an IRA bomb and focuses on a clergyman, the Reverend Edward Ballater. While it is a novel all too aware of the reality of Northern Ireland as “a place whereby unhappy history chained the future to the past”, where the faith of Ballater’s congregation “wasn’t of any personal conviction but a set of inherited beliefs”, McNeill turns away from the wider issues to focus on Ballater’s acceptance that he has been deceiving himself about the frustrations of his marriage. It is this focus on domestic life that builds a sense of the larger psychological and emotional costs wrought by the social tensions and political conflicts of that time and place. It is typical of McNeill’s subtle, evocative style, its ironic humour and the unflinching honesty of her observation that her novels are interested in the individual and not society.
McNeill began to publish alongside the young Brian Moore, whose early novels also focus on the loneliness and frustrations of life in a dour Belfast. McNeill’s finest novel, The Maiden Dinosaur, parallels Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Significantly, Brian Moore once wrote of his novel, “I make no apology for its being about an uninteresting woman.” Sarah Vincent, the central character of The Maiden Dinosaur, appears to be an uninteresting woman. She presents herself as an aged schoolgirl, particularly to the friends she has known since school, but she has an inner life as a poet, though one whose work is dismissed by a patronising, male, critic: “’Work in miniature, perhaps one might say,’ the young man smiled, making it sound like needlework.” Like many writers (Jane Austen and Barbara Pym, for instance) McNeill’s work was once dismissed for its attention to domestic life.
While her friends have married and raised children, Sarah has remained alone. McNeill gently portrays her sexual fear, acknowledgement of the restraint that limits her life: “Fancy dying when you’ve lived such a little life.” McNeill’s are novels that embrace the possibility of new beginnings, even in middle age or widowhood, when isolated characters abandon their own self-deceptions and begin to shape their own identity.
The revival of interest in the novels of Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor – McNeill’s work has often been grouped with theirs – suggests that it is time for such a rediscovery of Janet McNeill. She has always had her fans, in recent years Northern Irish writers such as Bernie McGill and Sharon Owens have referred to McNeill’s work, especially the influence of The Maiden Dinosaur. Perhaps it is the craft and observation in every sentence that attracts the interest of other novelists?
Today’s readers will readily identify with the stifled ambitions and frustrated craving for a fuller emotional life of McNeill’s characters. Her novels anticipated many of the concerns of feminism and gave voice to women (and men) silenced by the conventions of their time but they are timeless in McNeill’s understanding of the doubts and tensions created by family life and the approach of middle-age.
James Doyle founded Turnpike Books to publish a series of Northern Ireland’s literature – neglected authors such as Shan Bullock, St John Ervine and Janet McNeill alongside acclaimed writers such as Benedict Kiely. The Maiden Dinosaur, As Strangers Here and A Small Widow by Janet McNeill (Turnpike, £12)