Words to Remember

Amanda McKittrick Ros predicted she would achieve lasting fame as a novelist. Unfortunately, she did

Amanda McKittrick Ros
"Amanda McKittrick Ros, who died in 1939, abused the English language in three novels and dozens of poems." Illustration by Eric Palma

There has never been a shortage of bad writers. Almost anyone can bang out an atrocious book, but to achieve fame and adulation for it takes a certain kind of genius.

In this literary sub-genre, Irish writer Amanda McKittrick Ros reigns supreme. "Uniquely dreadful," proclaims the Oxford Companion to Irish Literature. "The greatest bad writer who ever lived," says author Nick Page.

Ros, who died in 1939, abused (some would say, tortured) the English language in three novels and dozens of poems. She refers to eyes as "globes of glare," legs as "bony supports," pants as a "southern necessary," sweat as "globules of liquid lava" and alcohol as the "powerful monster of mangled might." The Oxford literary group "The Inklings," which included C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, held competitions to see who could read her work aloud longest while keeping a straight face.

Mark Twain considered her first book, Irene Iddesleigh, as "one of the greatest unin­tentionally humorous novels of all time." Consider this passage: "Speak! Irene! Wife! Woman! Do not sit in silence and allow the blood that now boils in my veins to ooze through cavities of unrestrained passion and trickle down to drench me with its crimson hue!"

In Ros' last novel, Helen Huddleson, she named characters after fruits, including Lord Raspberry (and his sister Cherry), Sir Peter Plum, Christopher Currant and the Earl of Grape. And Ros' penchant for alliteration resists restraint: The villainous Madame Pear, she wrote, "had a swell staff of sweet-faced helpers swathed in stratagem, whose members and garments glowed with the lust of the loose, sparkled with the tears of the tortured, shone with the sunlight of bribery, dangled with the diamonds of distrust, slashed with sapphires of scandals...."

Ros' husband, a train station manager in a small Northern Ireland town, financed the publication of Irene Iddesleigh as a tenth wedding anniversary present. A reader sent a copy to humorist Barry Pain, who in an 1898 review called it "a thing that happens once in a million years." Initially entertained, he soon "shrank before it in tears and terror." In the preface to her next book Ros attacked Pain as a "clay crab of corruption" and a "cancerous irritant wart." Like many novelists, she believed her critics lacked the intellect to appreciate her talent and came to believe that her growing legion of detractors conspired against her for revealing the corruption of the ruling class—thereby disturbing, as she put it, "the bowels of millions."

In the past century, a few Ros enthusiasts have kept her legend alive. A biography—O Rare Amanda!—was published in 1954; a collection of her most memorable passages was anthologized—Thine in Storm and Calm—in 1988; and two years ago, she was feted at a Belfast literary festival.

Ros imagined "the million and one who thirst for aught that drops from my pen," and predicted she would "be talked about at the end of a thousand years."

She's well on her way.

Miles Corwin is the author of three books and teaches literary journalism at the University of California at Irvine.

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