Publishing Perils: Mark Twain, Amanda McKittrick Ros, and the Exuberant Afterlife of Irene Iddesleigh 

“Over the years A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage has been ignored almost entirely by the myriad scholars who have scrutinized every other scrap of Twain’s writing voluminously.” – Roy Blount Jr., foreword to the Norton edition (2001)

“Ros’ writing is not just bad, in other words; its badness is so potent that it seems to undermine the very idea of literature, to expose the whole endeavor of making art out of language as essentially and irredeemably fraudulent—and, even worse, silly.” – Mark O’Connell, Epic Fail (2013)

[Irene Iddesleigh, first edition cover]

I’ve intimated before that I have a rocky relationship with American literature, so it probably comes as little surprise that I have an especially adversarial relationship with the man considered to be the American author par excellence, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain (1835-1910). I respect Twain’s command of place and characterization, but his patented brand of gee-whiz American folksiness drives me right up the wall. And he can’t write a compelling female character to save his life (No, I haven’t gotten to Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc yet, but good lord is that one going to be Twain’s last chance with me…). He’s a good example of an author who I’ve read extensively out of a sense of obligation to the history of the craft rather than enjoyment. I’m still recovering from my junior year of high school English where I had to read both Huck Finn AND Pudd’nhead Wilson (hot take: I think Pudd’nhead Wilson is better). But there was no hope for me that year—the other Honors English class was run by a man infamous for his obsession with Ernest Hemingway, so you know what they were reading instead…

[Hello darkness, my old friend…]

Buffalo, New York, where I grew up, has an interesting history with Mark Twain. Twain lived in the city from 1869-1871, a handful of years the author himself called a “sorrowful and pathetic brief sojourn” during which his infant son, Langdon, died of diphtheria, and Twain lost a great deal of money trying to prop up a failing local newspaper, the Buffalo Express. Even in a lifetime littered with poor financial decisions, Twain’s misadventures in the Queen City are notable. But fortunately for him, Buffalo is a place with a deep affection for valiant failure, and so the city has always celebrated its very tenuous connection to Twain and his legacy. The Young Men’s Association Library, which would eventually become the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, has possessed the second part of Huckleberry Finn’s original manuscript since the novel’s publication in 1885, and obtained the first part after it was unceremoniously discovered in an attic trunk in Hollywood in 1990. And in 2000, the same year I was neck-deep in the Twain oeuvre in school, the library acquired the rights to a previously unpublished Twain short story, A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage.

Technically, the story had been published in an extremely limited (sixteen copies) run by two men in 1945 hoping to establish copyright on the manuscript. However, the US Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the contesting Twain estate that the men’s ownership of the unpublished manuscript (bought at auction) did not invest them with  the publication rights. Part of the reason Twain hadn’t published the story during his lifetime was that it had arisen out of an unfinished scheme proposed to friend and editor of The Atlantic Monthly, William Dean Howells. Twain had suggested to Howells that the Atlantic get eleven authors and Twain himself to each write a short story with the same plot—presumably based on the title of Twain’s version. It’s a nifty idea, but for a variety of reasons it never panned out and Twain’s manuscript, written in 1876, lay dormant until the legal fight in the ‘40s. It would take an additional sixty years to hash out who owned what.

But the library was understandably excited when it announced its imminent publication of a “new” Mark Twain story, so there was a great deal of local brouhaha leading up to its release, which I’m sure was what my English teacher was tapping into that year. Among the general festivities, the library decided, given that almost no one knew the plot of the story, that they would resurrect Twain’s original idea and hold a contest inviting the public to write their own version of the ending, releasing the first two chapters of Twain’s story as the prompt. My teacher was also enthusiastic about this, and as a result, one of our assignments was to write our version of the ending. I was full-on sick of Mark Twain by that point in the year, and I wrote my entire assignment fueled only by the furious desire to prove that I could do a better job with this stupid story than whatever he’d come up with. My teacher loved it and insisted that I submit it to the library’s contest in the young writers’ division. Honestly aghast that my hate-writing had somehow worked, because I still thought the story—and my contribution to it—was stupid, I procrastinated on my editing and revisions until almost the absolute last minute and sent it in to the contest, having done a gloriously rage-filled and half-assed job. I received an honorable mention.

[And a plaque (in my maiden name—I was sixteen), a copy of the story (great…), and an invite to the subsequent gala. I didn’t go partly because I was afraid that I’d be forced to admit to someone important that I’d basically entered myself as a prank, and not out of a deep reverence for the author or the source material. My entry really wasn’t very good, but I felt vindicated that the girl who won my division took the story in a similar direction as I did, which was assuredly not what Twain had in mind (her version was definitely better written—she undoubtedly put more effort in—and she deserved to win, IMO).]

But, many of you are saying to yourselves, what does any of this have to do with Irene Iddesleigh, which your title suggests is the subject of this entry? Well, Twain once called Iddesleigh “one of the greatest unintentionally humorous novels of all time,” which is relatively kind in that backhanded Twainsian way of his, given that practically everyone consistently ranks it as one of the absolute worst novels ever written. Twain’s editorial always gets a mention when Iddesleigh comes up, and I think that I have abundantly demonstrated that he brings out the teenaged contrarian in me as few others do. (Side note: I would call Twain’s own works “some of the greatest aggressively humorous novels of all time”—I just finished The Innocents Abroad earlier this month and I’m still trying to remove his jibbing, fourth-wall-breaking elbow from my rib cage). In short, I was willing to give Iddesleigh, and its author, Amanda McKittrick Ros (1860-1939) the most generous benefit of the doubt she’s had since 1896, just to swipe at Twain.

That said, as much as I’d love to top my Pudd’nhead Wilson opinion with a flaming hot take declaring that Irene Iddesleigh is a stealth classic and that everyone—especially Mark Twain—is a big ol’ dumb idiot for dragging it… I can’t do that. It’s not good, folks. The characters are flat, there are multiple plot holes big enough to drive a train through, and Ros’ prose style is… a lot. But there are a number of reasons that I’d like to get into as to why I’m also hesitant to join in the often downright gleeful evisceration this novel has been subjected to from its 1897 publication through to the present day. So let’s take a closer look.

Amanda McKittrick Ros was born Anna Margaret McKittrick in County Down, in what would become Northern Ireland. She trained as a teacher and married her first husband, Andrew Ross, in 1887. Ross, a station master in the town of Larne, paid for her to self-publish her novel, Irene Iddesleigh, under the nom de plume Amanda McKittrick Ros, as a ten-year wedding anniversary gift. And that’s my first objection to shamelessly roasting this book. Call me a romantic, but it seems needlessly cruel to dunk on something that came from such a place of love. Ros clearly enjoyed writing and I think it’s sweet that her husband was so supportive. Particularly as they were working-class people to whom such a gesture likely involved a significant amount of saving on their part. This isn’t Lord So-and-So indulging his bored wife—this meant something to this couple.

And that’s sort of my second caveat about dunking too hard on Iddesleigh: particularly in its own time at the end of the 19th century, it just reeks of classism. Working women, which a teacher at a public school of this time would have been considered, didn’t write books. Even the Brontë would have been higher up the social ladder than Ros, and laughing at her purple prose and narrative shortcomings feels mean-spirited. It reminds me of the criticisms that I talked about in my post on Jane Webb Loudon’s The Mummy! and her depiction of the flowery, verbose lower classes hopped up on universal education. It just feels like many of the critics at the time are pointing at her as if she’s a circus animal. Ooh, look at the clever teacher who thinks she can write a book! Not to mention that the types of books women of this era tended to write, especially the sort of Gothic melodrama that Iddesleigh easily slots into, were usually seen as “lesser than” by male critics of the time to begin with. And Ros had the added burden of being Irish (though Protestant), which was still something that would generally keep you out of anything resembling “respectable” literary society in the 19th century unless you were Bernard Shaw. I know Twain would argue that he as an American born in rural Missouri couldn’t possibly be classist, but even if I assumed he had somehow completely escaped all of the pervasive misogyny and anti-Irish taints of his surrounding culture, it would still remain that Ros wasn’t writing in the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave, and she would still have to deal with those prejudices.

[The nuanced face of Twain’s womanhood via A Murder, a Mystery, and a Marriage]

But before you start feeling too bad for Ros, know that a lot of this critique seems to have been water off a duck’s back to her. Completely undaunted, she went on to write two other novels and two poetry collections in addition to Iddesleigh. She was comfortable in her style and was certain that she would “be talked about at the end of a thousand years.” She believed herself to have millions of admirers and considered the critics stymied by her dense prose and whiplash plots as too stupid to appreciate her genius. And signaling that she too shared some of my suspicions as to where some of her criticism was coming from, claimed that the upper classes were trying to silence her from using her stories to reveal their moral turpitude. Which is sort of the theme of Irene Iddesleigh, if the novel can lay claim to an overarching theme.

The titular antiheroine is an orphan from the lower gentry who is taken in and raised by Lord and Lady Dilworth, who dote on her. She grows up beautiful and accomplished (though we never see any real evidence of the latter), and eventually catches the eye of the handsome but reclusive Sir John Dunfern, a neighbor of the Dilworths. Before their wedding, Sir John catches Irene talking rather cozily to her tutor, Oscar Otwell, and is immediately, excessively suspicious, but she assures her fiancé that it’s nothing. They get married and Irene is pretty much instantly bored and miserable, even though Sir John is kind and attentive in an English sort of way. It turns out that she and Oscar are really in love and she married Sir John because she felt like the Dilworths wanted her to. Why that might be becomes a little clearer when it is revealed that the Dilworths, after seeing Irene married off in high style, are abruptly broke with no foreshadowing and emigrate to America without telling Irene.

Despite her ongoing apathy toward her husband, Irene does manage to get pregnant and gives birth to the couple’s son, Hugh. Sir John, still suspicious because he once saw Irene talking to her tutor, snoops about his wife’s room and discovers love letters between the two of them that postdate the marriage. He flies into a complete rage and imprisons Irene in a room the Dunfern mansion specifically has for sequestering troublesome family members (why do you have that room??) with the help of his housekeeper, Rachel Hyde (she’s basically Mrs. Danvers’ non-union equivalent). With the help of her maid, Marjory Mason, Irene is able to both get in touch with Oscar and eventually escape her confinement on Christmas Eve, and the three of them take up residence in a house Oscar is renting from his rich uncle. Realizing they can’t stay in the country where Sir John could find them, they illegally sell the uncle’s house and abscond with the proceeds to America. Sir John finds her gone, and is distraught that she would run away, for some reason. He still plans to get her back and to keep her in his will until he learns from Oscar’s former employer, a mutual friend, that Irene has bigamously married Oscar. He throws her over and focuses on raising their son. Oh, and he fires Rachel Hyde for screwing up and letting Irene escape, because she needed narrative comeuppance.

Meanwhile, Oscar and Irene blow through the money they made on the false sale of the house and are soon destitute. Oscar becomes an alcoholic who can’t hold down a job, and he starts to physically abuse her. Irene leaves him and gets a position as a governess to a rich family. Oscar tries to find her to apologize but he can’t, and he ends up drowning himself, leaving Irene a note telling her to go back to Sir John. She takes him up on this advice, but by the time she arrives, Sir John has died of something resembling a broken heart, and he used his deathbed scene to finally tell their now-teenaged son about his mother. Hugh, understandably, angrily confronts his mother and refuses to let her into the house. With no other alternative, Irene wanders out into the night, and ends up in the garden of what had been Dilworth Castle, where she dies of exposure and starvation.

Honestly, on paper, the story really isn’t any more ludicrous than most Gothic plots. What earns Ros her stripes is the execution. I can’t sufficiently explain how out of the blue the Dilworths’ bankruptcy is in the story: one minute, everything is fine, and the next, they’re fleeing across the Atlantic in the middle of the night. Now, I’m someone who has (deceased) family members who have done those kinds of runners, but what works in the real world needs to be set up in some way in a novel. Just as the reader is almost as much in the dark as Sir John is initially as to what Irene and Oscar’s deal is. There is a way to do that (making Irene the unreliable narrator would have been a banger), but again, there’s a dearth of foreshadowing of any kind that just makes everything confusing.

This lack of cohesion is what flattens a lot of the characters too. Ros herself appears to be very much Team Sir John and thinks he did absolutely nothing wrong at any point (???), but she seems unable to fully commit to Irene being the villain of her own story. Events just happen to Irene—even during the prison break she faints and is carried off premises by Marjory and Oscar—so it’s hard to blame her entirely, but she isn’t likable enough to be an object of pity and she’s isn’t charismatic enough to make a compelling villain or antiheroine. And anyone who isn’t the Dunferns is just stock background noise; though Marjory does get a cool little heist scene where she’s got to steal a key out of the Danvers-Clone’s (thanks, Jasper Fforde) room. I have a suspicion that we’re supposed to think Oscar is the real villain of the story—the untrustworthy tutor who led his beautiful pupil astray and becomes a wife-beating drunk, but we don’t see any of their relationship prior to Sir John’s proposal, so we have no idea what his motivations are.

But what haters and ironic aficionados alike really come to Ros and Irene Iddesleigh for is the prose, which must be seen to be believed:

[Despite others claiming that one has to laugh at a lot of these passages, this was the only one in the book that truly made me laugh out loud. And part of that was at myself as I had to go check to make sure there wasn’t an archaic meaning of “socialism” that I wasn’t familiar with (there isn’t).]
[Maybe I can’t laugh as readily at some of these sentences because as a writer a lot of my prose sounds like this in my head (wordy and overly-orate). Aside from catching all of my seemingly infinite number of dropped prepositions and articles, what I’m mainly paying my editor for is to tell me which of my sentences are beautiful and which are pretentious crap. Because a lot of the time, they read similarly to me.]

And it’s not just a couple of purple passages, either—the whole book is like this. Robert H. Taylor rather endearingly describes this as Ros’ “love of jeweled prose” and her general lack of concern for conventional grammar and syntax. And I’ll be the first to admit that it is a slog even at barely 200 pages. But, I would also like to point out that when James Joyce abandons even the whiff of English grammar, syntax, and word meanings in Finnegan’s Wake (which I adore, for the record), it’s high art. Ros was so unapologetic about herself and her writing that, as a fellow indie author, I can’t help but cheer her legacy on. Reign on, Amanda 👑

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