Why has Norah Hoult been overlooked?
A hyphenated identity and snobbery towards women obscured Hoult’s fine writing
Norah Hoult’s “Cocktail Bar” was written after the war and the mood and greyness of post-war London is evident in several stories.
I first discovered Norah Hoult in what I consider to be one of the most serendipitous ways of chancing upon a writer you’ve never heard of: in an anthology. Cutting the Night in Two: Short Stories by Irish Women Writers (New Island, 2001), edited by Evelyn Conlon and Hans-Christian Oeser, featured 34 stories by women, and among them, Hoult’s Nine Years is a Long Time. Written 80 years ago in an Ireland asphyxiated by morality and religion, it must have been shocking by the standards of the day. A long-married couple have a secret, which is that they make ends meet by allowing men to pay the wife for sex. It is the title story of a collection published in 1938, one year after the new Constitution of Ireland in which Éamon de Valera was specific in his wording about women and their role in society:
The State shall, therefore, endeavour to
ensure that mothers shall not be obliged
by economic necessity to engage in labour
to the neglect of their duties in the home.
Reading Hoult’s incendiary story of sex work is probably not the type of labour Ireland’s conservative taoiseach had in mind (and de Valera and Hoult were acquainted), but it is typical of the themes present in her work, many of which are evident in this reissued collection. Unsurprisingly, this book – along with seven of Hoult’s other works – was banned under the Censorship of Publications Act (1929). Thanks to her ongoing engagement with contentious subjects – in the eyes of a patriarchal church – her work was banned more times than the work of Edna O’Brien and John McGahern was censored.
Eleanor Norah Hoult was born on September 10th, 1898, in Dollymount, on Dublin’s north side into a mixed marriage. Her Catholic mother Margaret O’Shaughnessy and Protestant father Powis Hoult had defied their families and eloped. When Norah was nine her mother died, followed quickly some months later by her father.
Eleanor Norah Hoult was born on September 10th, 1898, in Dollymount, on Dublin’s north side into a mixed marriage
She and her brother were sent to England, pinballing between relatives and boarding schools. After school, she found work with various newspapers and magazines, and wrote many book reviews over the course of her life, notably for the New Statesmen. This proximity to words and books may have been formative in the move towards her own writing, and her first book, Poor Women!, a collection of stories, was published in 1928. It was followed by a novel, Time, Gentleman, Time! in 1930 and Apartment to Let in 1931. That year, she moved to Ireland where it’s believed she mostly stayed – save for the occasional London trip – until a move to New York in 1937, the year Coming from the Fair was published. After two years, she recrossed the Atlantic to London, just as the second World War was breaking out, and for the next 18 years would remain there, working and writing at a consistent rate. The 1950s were spent mostly in London, but 1957 saw her final relocation, back home to Ireland where she remained until her death in 1984. Over the course of her life, Hoult wrote 25 novels and four short story collections, including her Selected Stories in 1946.
The peripatetic nature of her life added to the sense of Hoult as an outsider; of one rooted in both Irish and English traditions, and this key element contributes to the pervading tone of Cocktail Bar. Written while in England, Hoult’s vantage point allowed her to see Ireland from another angle. Like Joyce’s precision about Dublin while in exile, Hoult was free to dissect Ireland’s morality, its view of women, and the rural and urban lives at the mercy of the church’s hierarchical control.
Cocktail Bar was her third short story collection, published in 1950 and in many ways it’s a post-war collection. The stories are predominantly set in London but even they centrally or tangentially examine Irishness. The collection is bookended by two such stories. “Irish Wedding” examines the rituals and traditions ingrained in the ceremonial day of an Irish marriage, further heightened when the participants are far from home. At its heart are two conflicted archetypes of the Irish: the carefree drinkers, and the conscientious hardworkers who worry about money. Joe Maginnis, the best man, spouts rhetoric about Ireland’s saints (notably naming only male martyrs) “all these and many more are drawing down upon us the graces of Heaven, and have secured for us till time ends the name of the Island of Saints and Scholars for our beloved country. None of us need be ashamed of being Irish . . .”
The collection closes with the melancholic Gus Simons sitting in a Mayfair bar in the company of two woman, Molly and Vera. Much alcohol has been consumed, and Molly calls Vera “a bitch”, without explaining cogently her reasons for doing so. A discussion between all three on the word and its implications ensues. “I don’t think I said bitch,” said Molly, “I think what I said was a bit of a bitch.” Gus, suddenly distraught at his surroundings and the hollowness of the night, asks Laurie Burke the Irish barmaid why she doesn’t return to work in her father’s shop instead of degrading herself by serving drinks in a bar. Laurie is firm with him, and the pang of shame that her father owns a butcher’s, and not something more refined, resurfaces. In “The Rich Man”, the small town of Kilveena seethes and gossips about the success of Patrick Mulligan who is a prosperous businessman. “There was only one man, he thought, too, that came in for anything like the same criticism that he did. And that was the Parish Priest.” Hoult is expert on that evergreen Irish trait of begrudgery, and the envy of others’ success.
The collection closes with the melancholic Gus Simons sitting in a Mayfair bar with two woman, Molly and Vera. Much alcohol has been consumed, and Molly calls Vera “a bitch”, without explaining cogently her reasons for doing so
The best stories in the book are those that directly deal with Ireland, and are told from the point of view of two very different girls. In “The Holy Picture”, the nameless “little girl” works for her mother in their cheap guesthouse, and is befriended by a woman who appears glamorous by virtue of her Englishness. In “Which Bright Cup?”, a young woman is torn between home and emigration; between the familiar, if dreary choice of marriage to a local man and the chance to leave for America. Her confidence is at odds with many of the other young women in these stories, so sure is she of her own desirability. In “When Miss Coles Made the Tea”, a young deaf girl who is her parents’ pride and joy lands a job in a book shop. In her naive attempts to be an all-rounder, she becomes the target of a bully, accused of having ideas above her station, and teased about her disability. Hoult is unflinching when she writes about class. Her characters are frequently unsympathetic to those less fortunate than them, often to the point of glaring snobbishness. Mrs. Cook-Burton, the widow of “Observation”, expounds thinly veiled xenophobia, spouting about “foreigners, including all those who were not English or Scotch”. Jane Redways, the small-town bully of “Three People and Jane”, preys on new arrival Mrs Temple who is lonely, as several of the female characters in these pages are. Many of these women are powerless and on the margins; attempting to stave off a looming sense of isolation that’s palpable in the work. Hoult herself was married from 1929 to 1933, to writer Oliver Stonor, but she walked out upon realising that there were domestic expectations, which may have impinged on her writing. It would seem that her craft – and her independence – mattered hugely to her.
Cocktail Bar was written after the war and the mood and greyness of post-war London is evident in several stories. It shares the same atmosphere of Bowen’s London war stories, particularly “Pink May”, “Mysterious Kôr” and “The Demon Lover”. There is a similar sense of dread and defeat, of not knowing what will happen next. Hoult, like Bowen, may be reacting to earlier Modernism, and in many of the acts of walking the city, there is an echo of Woolf’s psychogeographic essays, and the fictional wandering of Clarissa Dalloway. Hoult shares a sense of dual identity and double nationality like Maeve Brennan, although Hoult’s city reflections are closer to Brennan’s Long-Winded Lady non-fiction, than to her short stories.
The boroughs Hoult’s characters move through are the more affluent ones of west London, not the enclaves synonymous with the Irish. We never learn where the opening wedding takes place, and there are no references to Kilburn or Cricklewood.
This book also appeared on the cusp of the 1950s, which arguably saw the largest wave of Irish and Afro-Caribbean immigration to the UK in the 20th century. This shifting population demographic and the emerging multiculturalism are only hinted in the stories, but a new England is being born, whether its residents like it or not.
These 12 stories are both of their time and timeless. Desmond Clarke, writing in Ireland in Fiction, described the collection as “12 stories on defeat and incompatibility”, which while somewhat accurate, masks the flashes of humour that Hoult is capable of. The vast majority of her work is not in print, except for There Were No Windows, republished in 2005 by London’s Persephone books, and what can be found secondhand. Hearteningly, there is renewed interested in Hoult on several fronts. Writer and academic Louise Kennedy, who is currently engaged in research on Hoult (and helped fill in biographical blanks here), feels that Norah being overlooked has occurred for a couple of reasons.
"Hoult’s hyphenated identity 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."
Editing two all-female anthologies has shown me how easy it is for writers to be forgotten, particularly if they are women. This is exacerbated if they do not cleave to one nationality, one location, or one set of circumstances. What is clear, from the sheer volume and breadth of her work, is how much Norah Hoult had to say and how unafraid she was of articulating things that many others didn’t dare to. I hope this collection will send people searching for her sizeable catalogue of writing, and will garner Hoult the recognition she deserves.
This is Sinéad Gleeson’s introduction to Cocktail Bar by Norah Hoult, just reissued by New Island. Gleeson’s debut book, Constellations, is due out in spring 2019 with Picador. The Long Gaze Back, the anthology of Irish women writers she edited, is this year’s selection for the Dublin One City: One Book Festival