Is “Irene Iddesleigh” the worst novel ever written? It has long held that coveted title, despite much serious competition. Some years ago, for instance, John Sutherland — an expert on popular fiction — sent The Washington Post’s Book World his list of the 20 worst bestsellers of the 20th century. He chose Judith Krantz’s “Dazzle” as the “vulgarest” novel he had ever read. As it happens, I had reviewed that very book, opening my piece with these sentences: “I read Judith Krantz’s ‘Dazzle’ in one sitting. I had to. I was afraid I couldn’t face picking it up again.”
Still, if there is a “Pride and Prejudice” of kitschy bad fiction, Amanda McKittrick Ros’s 1897 masterpiece of overwriting is it. The book’s legion of avowed “admirers” includes Mark Twain, the Bloomsbury Group, Aldous Huxley and C.S. Lewis. At parties, ardent devotees have been known to compete in seeing how long they can read aloud from its pages without laughing. “The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature” aptly sums up Ros’s work as “uniquely dreadful.”
Like so many books today, “Irene Iddesleigh” was self-published, the costs being underwritten by Ros’s husband as a 10th-anniversary gift. It was followed by the comparably awful “Delina Delaney” and “Helen Huddleson,” as well as two volumes of poetry: “Poems of Puncture” and “Fumes of Formation.” One never quite forgets, try as one might, the delicately phrased couplets that open “Visiting Westminster Abbey”:
“Holy Moses! Take a look!
Flesh decayed in every nook!
Some rare bits of brain lie here,
Mortal loads of beef and beer.”
Such noble lines even William McGonagall — widely revered as the worst poet in British history — would be proud to have penned. Still, I would have expected Ros to have adopted a more elevated tone. Her collection’s title, after all, carries a whiff of Enoch Soames’s inimitable “Fungoids.” Is it happenstance that this decadent aesthete — best known from Max Beerbohm’s sketch of his career — disappeared in the very year that “Irene Iddesleigh” was published?
Ros’s novel begins with a cri de coeur from its doomed romantic heroine:
“Sympathise with me, indeed! Ah, no! Cast your sympathy on the chill waste of troubled waters; fling it on the oases of futurity, dash it against the rock of gossip, better still, allow it to remain with the false and faithless bosom of buried scorn.”
As critic Thomas Beer observes in his introduction to my worn 1927 copy of the book, Ros’s style “has the final merit of concealing thought and plot. Your mind rocks along in an amiable delirium.” Still, the overall design is clear. “Irene Iddesleigh” recounts a tragic love story: The 40-year-old Sir John Dunfern falls hard for Irene, the adopted daughter of Lord and Lady Dilworth. At first things go well. “Love’s path, on which Sir John was known now to tread with the step of intensity, seemed smooth as the ice of Inglewood.” But, alas, Irene’s “polished affection” for him turns out to be nothing but a “foul gloss.”
In fact, she secretly loves another, but when her noble fiance suspiciously asks about her tutor Oscar Otwell, rather than confess, Irene decides instead on “clearing the weft of truth that had been mixing with the warp of falsehood to form an answer of plausible texture.” In short, she comes up with a plausible-sounding lie. Meanwhile, Oscar has been crushed by her engagement:
“Love, alas! When smitten with the sword of indifference, dieth soon, but once struck on the tunneled cheek of secrecy with the hand of pity there leaves a scar of indelible intolerance, until wiped out for ever with the curative balsam of battled freedom.”
Why is Irene marrying Sir John? Because Lady Dilworth insists that she find a suitable, i.e. wealthy, husband: No one knows that the Dilworths are actually penniless. In any event, the wedding takes place, presided over by the Bishop of Barelegs and Canon Foot, and a year later Irene gives birth to a son. Unfortunately, during a postpartum fever she breathes out Oscar’s name and Sir John grows slightly unhinged. He soon imprisons his unhappy wife in a dungeon-like chamber.
Nonetheless, Irene eventually manages to send a note to Oscar, begging for help in escaping. Simply wild with rage over her incarceration, he writes back, “Your suggestion shall undoubtedly have my prompt attention.” The intrigues that follow I will leave to the reader’s imagination, but they ultimately result in the errant couple fleeing, via ocean liner, to our own “land of laudable ingenuity,” where — in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. — Ros’s morally compromised heroine enters into a bigamous marriage. Like all 19th-century tales of female infidelity, “Irene Iddesleigh” doesn’t end happily.
Today, what stands out from the novel — aside from its cliched plot turns and winding, elaborate sentences — are its truly bizarre “poetic” expressions: “the meddling mouth of extravagance swallows every desire, and eats the heart of honesty with pickled pride,” “the lonely stare of grave bewilderment,” “inhabitants of the grim sphere of anticipated imagery,” “the village of Opportunity,” “the tuitional click of bygone attachment,” “bathed in the ocean of oblivious ostentation,” “the lake of evasion,” “the muddy drops of rancid rascality” and, not least, the mysterious “polluted stocks of magnified extension.”
So, is “Irene Iddlesleigh” really the worst novel ever written or should that honor be reserved for some other, even lesser book? What do you think? Among “serious” modern works of fiction, I might nominate Harold Brodkey’s laborious magnum opus, “The Runaway Soul,” through which I once plowed my weary way. In truth, while Ros’s pathos-filled classic now reads as unintentionally comic, its euphuistic style isn’t that much different from the circumlocutions found in late Henry James. Moreover, I really like that phrase, “the grim sphere of anticipated imagery,” whatever it means.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
By Amanda McKittrick Ros