Janet McNeill

Life
1907-; b. 14 Sept., Dublin; dg. of Rev. Wm. McNeill, minister of Adelaide Rd. Presbyt. Church and later Trinity Rd. Church, Birkenhead, 1913; ed. Birkenhead Girls’ Public School and St. Andrew’s University, Scotland, BA and MA in Classics, 1929; returned to Ireland due to ill-health of her father, re-established as minister at Rostrevor, Co. Down; became secretary with Belfast Telegraph 1929-33; m. Robert Alexander, chief engineer in Belfast surveyor’s office, 1933, with whom settled at “Hawtree”, Lisburn, Co. Down, and had four children; received a typewriter as wedding gift from her father; took 2nd prize in BBC (NI) drama competition with Gospel Truth (1946), an ironic study of joyless religiosity [var. prize-winner with Signs and Wonders, 1951]; suffered brain haemorrhage, 1953; wrote her first novel, A Child in the House (1955), later filmed for the BBC film by Ronald Mason; elected chairman Belfast Centre of Irish P.E.N. 1956-57; member BBC Advisory Council 1959-64; addressed P.E.N. on “The Regional Writer and His Problems” and contrib. text as article to Belfast Telegraph (8 Dec. 1956, p.4); other novels, The Other Side of the Wall (1956), concerning the failure of would-be writer Dick Fawcett; Tea at Four O’Clock (1956, rep. 1988), A Furnished Room (1958), Search Party (1959), As Strangers Here (1960), The Early Harvest (1962), The Maiden Dinosaur (1964), the story of Sarah Vincent, an intelligent but stranded school-teaching spinster, and a group of Belfast friends facing the limitations of their own society; moved to Bristol, 1964; Talk to Me (1965) and The Small Window (1967); also ten works for children, featuring Specs McCann, subject of cartoon series by her friend Rowel Friars; (e.g., My Friend Specs McCann, 1955); concentrated on children’s novels after 1966. IF2 DIW DIL OCIL

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Works
Novels
, A Child in the House (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1955); The Other Side of the Wall (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1956); Tea at Four O’Clock (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1956); A Finished Room (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1958); Search Party (London: Hodder & Stoughton [1959]); As Strangers Here (London: Hodder & Stoughton 1960); The Early Harvest (London: Geoffrey Bles 1962); The Maiden Dinosaur (London: Geoffrey Bles 1964; rep. Belfast: Blackstaff 1985), and Do. [in USA] as The Belfast Friends (Boston: Houston Mifflin 1966); Talk to Me (London: Geoffrey Bles 1965); The Small Window (London: Geoffrey Bles 1967), Do. (NY: Atheneum 1968); Short fiction, A Light Dozen (London: Faber 1957).

Short fiction (collections), A Light Dozen (London: Faber 1957); Special Occasions (London: Faber 1960); Wait For It, and Other Stories (London: Faber 1972); Just Turn the Key, and Other Stories (London: Hamish Hamilton 1976).

Children’s Books, My Friend Specs McCann (London: Faber 1955); A Pinch of Salt (London: Faber 1956); Specs Fortissimo (London: Faber 1958); This Happy Morning (London: Faber 1959); Various Specs (London: Faber 1961); Finn and the Black Hog (London: Novello [1962]), [libretto for children’s opera, music by Raymond Warren]; Try These for Size (London: Faber 1963); Tom’s Tower (London: Faber 1956); I Didn’t Invite You to my Party (London: Hamish Hamilton 1967); A Helping Hand (London: Hamilton 1971); Much Too Much Magic (London: Hamilton 1971); The Prisoner in the Park (London: Faber 1971); The Nest Spotters (London: Macmillan 1972); A Fairy Called Andy Perks (London: Hamilton 1973); The Other People (London: Chatto & Windus 1973); The Snow-Clean Pinny (London: Hamilton 1973); Umbrella Thursday and a Helping Hand (Harmondsworth: Puffin 1973); The Family Upstairs (London: Macmillan 1974); The Magic Lollipop (London: Knight Books 1974); We Three Kings (London: Faber 1974); Ever After (London: Chatto & Windus 1975); Go On, Then (London: Macmillan 1975); Growlings (London: Macmillan 1975); My Auntie (London: Macmillan 1975); Billy Brewer Goes on Tour (London: Macmillan 1977); The Day Mum Came Home (London: Macmillan 1977); The Hermit’s Purple Shirts (London: Macmillan 1977); Look Who’s Here (London: Macmillan 1977); The Three Crowns of King Hullaballoo (London: Knight Books 1977).

Plays, Gospel Truth (Belfast: H. R. Carter [1951]); Signs and Wonders ([q.pub.]: 1951); Switch-On, Switch-Off and Other Plays (London: Faber 1968).

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Criticism
John Cronin, ‘Prose’, in Michael Longley, ed., Causeway: The Arts in Ulster (1971), pp.72-94, espec. pp.79-80; J. W. Foster, Forces and Themes in Ulster Fiction (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1974), pp.228-43 [incl. comms. on A Child in the House, The Maiden Dinosaur, The Small Widow and Talk to Me]; [q.a.] ‘Janet McNeill, Writer and Dramatist’, in Damian Smyth, ed., ‘Lost Fields; An Introduction to the Life and Work of Six Ulster Novelists’, Fortnight Review 306 [Educ. Supplement] (May 1992), [q.p.], rep. of article orig. in Threshold Vol. 3 No. 2 (Summer 1959); Isabel Orr, ‘A Child in the House’, 306 [Educ. Supplement] (May 1992), pp.7-8; John Cronin, ‘Beasts in the Province”: The Fiction of Janet O’Neill, in Munira H. Mutran & Laura P. Z. Izarra, eds., Irish Studies in Brazil (Sao Paolo: Associação Editorial Humanitas 2005), pp.127-42 [infra].

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Commentary
John Wilson Foster, Forces and Themes in Ulster Fiction (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1974), p.228: ‘The reader never gets the impression that McNeill is fervishly knocking at the boundary walls of her talent, and if adverse criticism be justified, we might wish that she would gamble more in the possibility of achieving work of the stature of Doris Lessing whom she sometimes manages to resemble.’ (p.128.) ‘[...] her fiction for adults conveys without brouhaha the terrifying vacuum of failure and impotence that can yawn behind the compensating ritual and fantasy of apparently respectab le and even successful middle-class lives.’ (Idem.; the foregoing both quoted in John Cronin, ‘“Beasts in the Province”: The Fiction of Janet O’Neill’, in Mutran & Izarra, eds., Irish Studies in Brazil, Sao Paolo 2005, as infra.)

John Cronin, ‘“Beasts in the Province”: The Fiction of Janet McNeill’, in Munira H. Mutran & Laura P. Z. Izarra, eds., Irish Studies in Brazil [Pesquisa e Crítica, 1] (Sao Paolo: Associação Editorial Humanitas 2005), pp.127-42: ‘Gospel Truth, her prize-winning play of 1946, is a telling indictment of a kind of dreary, Ulster religiosity which was to remain one of her principal fictional targets. Herself a daughter of the manse, she invariably writes with insight and sympathy about Presbyterian ministers but roundly condemns conformity to the letter of a joyless creed.’ (p.128.) ‘Stephen Cross, the unwitting author of all this emotional havoc, is the first in what will be along line of secually inadequate males in McNeill’s fictional world. Hansome, clever, idealistic and ruinously well-intentioned, he fails completely to response to Alison’s obvious interest in him and his judgement on secual matters is invariably poor. Naively unaware of his effect on women, he offers the comically pretentious Miss Sparrow advice which unfortunatley results in her breaking off her engagement to the church organist, Mr. Thompson. In a lighter vein, McNeill embodies her dislike of [129] joyless conformity in the excellent comic character of Sam Lumsden [...] a noisy drunkard with a ruinous fondness for poetry, but [...] now a refored character who avoids both the bottle and William Shakespeare with equal zeal. [...] In her novels, McNeill spans a similar religious gamut but moves firmly away from working-class figures like the Lumsdens to concentrate on middle-class, middle-aged Protestants as her exclusive concern.’ (p.128; see Gospel Truth, in “Notes”, infra.) Cronin describes The Maiden Dinosaur (1964), in which the liberal minister Mr Ballater refused to provide the anti-Republican rhetoric required by his congregatioin in the wake of an IRA explosion and in which the educated, articulate women who are the novelist’s principal concern no longer feel any commitment to the faith in which they were reared.’ (Cronin, p.131.)

John Cronin (‘“Beasts in the Province”: The Fiction of Janet McNeill’, 2005): ‘McNeill’s authorial voice has the magisterial acidity of an impatiently intelligent headmistress. She rules her fictional world with such impressive authorit that one can understand the impatience expressed by John Wilson Foster, who [...] clearly values her work so highly that he wishes she had taken more risks. [Quotes J. W. Foster, as supra.] Most of her novels have a Belfast or Ulster setting and one might be forgiven for concluding from a reading of them that Belfast merely consists of the environs of Queen’s University and a stretch of the Antrim Road above Belfast Lough. A sedulous hunt through the [133] work might flush out an occasional Catholic servant-girl but, in the main, McNeill purposefuly avoids the more obvious tensions of Ulster’s endemic sectarianism and violence. Even when, in As Strangers Here (1960), she permits the I.R.A [IRA]. campaign of the late 1950s quite literally to explode onto the novel’s early pages, she employs this violent incident only as a prelude to probing various brands of Protestant religiosity and carefully avoids any engagement with political or historical analysis. That she knew and loathed Belfast’s sectarian bigotry is abundantly clear but her insights tned to surface in subtly comic scenes rather than in any overt condemnation.’ (pp.133-34.)

John Cronin (‘“Beasts in the Province”: The Fiction of Janet McNeill’, 2005): ‘It is possible to relate McNeill’s muted style to her choice of subject-mater and to see her menopausal, middle-aged[,] middle-class Protestants as appropriately contained within a suitably disciplined prose. To do so, however, leaves out of account the extent to which her stylistic quietism is decided not merely by its suitability to her themes and characters but, fundamentally, as a calculated response by the novelist to her dilemma as a regional writer [...]’ (p.135.) Quoting her article on Ulster regionalism, as supra], Cronin remarks: ‘The entire article shows that she is attracted by the distinctive idiom of Ulster , conscious of its likely charms for English readers but wary of committing herself to a merely regional voice. Her middle-aged, middle-class Belfast Protestants will not, therefore, be allowed to lapse into any colloquialisms.’ (p.137.) Cronin lays emphasis on a chapter in The Maiden Dinosaur (1964) when Sarah Vincent and her friend Adie are subjected to literary condescension by Charles McKenna, a radio interviewer, especially the phrases ‘canaries pecking lightly at life’ and the author’s reflection: ‘This is where the beast should have made his entrance, but there was no sign of him. Beasts in the Province are private animals, secretly cossetted. One requires a licence from London or America to justify a public parade.’ (MD, pp.98-99; here p.139.) This ‘highly entertaining’ episode is called an ‘arguably unnecessary to the plot but entirely necessary to the author’ and ‘her most explicit and forceful articulation of her own creative isolation.’ (p.141.) ‘Sadly, while she pinned down her Charles McKenna with the enviable skill of a talented lepidopterist, she nevertheless, in the long run, chose the Charles McKennas’’ of her world as her audience, thereby doing special violence to her own intelligence [...; 141] she eliminated from her workd anything that might have badged it as merely provincial’ (p.141-42.)

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Quotations
The Maiden Dinosaur (1964) [Mr Ballater regards his congregation:] ‘Their complacency irritated him indescribably, a well-dressed, well-fed flock whom the Welfare State had robbed of all stimulus to effort and the necessity for fear [...]. What keeps you so smug? Is it your faith in God and in the permanence of spiritual values even among the world’s destruction that lets you sit there with your hands folded and a peppermint tucked into your cheek, discreetly warming your innards?’ (p.79) ‘[...] the city was full of gospel halls where salvation could be bought not by the blood of Christ, but by a bit of a thrill and some exhibitionism. Ulster men are reserved by circumstances, not always by inclination, perhaps that was why these places made such an appeal, where the sensational was justified under the pretext of religion. / Sanctification ceremonies, holiness meetings, they were advertised in the press every week, often with a photograph of a pastor with a large compelling face, confident in the flush of his anointing. Some of them came from across the water, but many were local men, rebels from their orthodox Church, enjoying the light of conspicuous piety and the power that went with it.’ (p.140.) ‘There had been no Church service and they sang “The Lord’s My Shepard” at the open grave, firmly, withoutht the invitation of the minister and without any fuss. The Lord is my Shepard and the twenty-third psalm is His sheep-dog, though the lusty Jewish King would have been surprised to find himself in the same flock as these gloved and saddened ladies who came to Kitty’s funeral on the day when they should have gathered for their tea-party [...] For most of them, brought up in Provincial religious homes, faith as they grew older had become an individual solitary relationship, shy, ingrown, a protest against the public emphasis on their Protestantism, against too loud Orange drums and the hysteria of spawning Mission Halls. / They were products of their environment and generation who had retained the habit of faith as they had the habit of cleaning their teeth, both learnt in childhood, and recognised that these were private occupations. But death was an event where the presence of God the Father was justified.’ (174-75; quoted in John Cronin, op. cit., 2005, pp.130-33.)

The Other Side of the Wall (1956), Dick Fawcett: ‘How could be expect to lay a finger on the pulse of humanity if he was inadequate to the situation in his own home? You can’t write like a god and live like a fool. Or was it the fault of the community he lived in? If his interests were provincial and his circle parochial was that to be the measure of his art? The Ulsterman who writes Is always suspect. Dick embraced the old excuse. In this self-conscious Protestant community, the sensuous is condemned with the sensual and temporal beauty offers no foretaste of eternal bliss. Heaven is only black and white, no colours.’ (161-62.)

The Regional Writer and His Problems’ (address to P.E.N., rep. in Belfast Telegraph, 8 Dec. 1956, p.4: ‘The regional writer from Northern Ireland is not long in discovering when he tries to market his work across the water, that there are some regions in which a book gains by being placed, and others for no reason that a publisher or an agent can explain to him which lose, and that the scales in this case are against him.’ ‘Primarily, I think, that old bogey, the Stage Irishman, is at the bottom of it. He got there first and, as far as popular appeal goes, he knows all the answers.’ (p.4) ‘Nobody I know has ever met a Stage Irishman - he shares this honour with the flying saucer - and I don’t know enough about the peasant people in the South and West of Ireland to be able to say whether in fact he does exist.’ ‘We allow our regionalism - our difference - to stick out a mile, but make no effort to explain it. Could we not, when we are outside our own region be a little more willing to discuss ourselves and not quite so surprised when we find out how little other people know about us?’ (Quoted in John Cronin, op. cit., 2005, pp.130-33; see also under Forrest Reid.)

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References
Desmond Clarke, Ireland in Fiction [Pt II] (Cork: Royal Carbery 1985), lists A Pinch of Salt (1956 Faber 1956), stories, ill. Rowel Friers, incl. “The Last Unicorn in Ireland’, “The man who Married a Witch”, “A Pair of Magic Velvet Slippers’. “A March Hare and a Magpie”; Tea at Four O’Clock (Hodder & Stoughton 1956); Laura dominated by sister Mildred since her father’s death, is courted by George, who finds she is obsessed with the belief that her relationship with Tom caused her father’s death, at the end of the story Laura is in a mental shadow, serving tea to Mildred who is actually dead; The Other Side of the Wall (H&S 1957); Belfast family and neighbours; Search Party (H&S 1958), Kilkee Co. Down, hotel, class distinctions disappear during the crisis, with happy results; A Furnished Room (H&S 1958), Kate Bennett puts a lodger in the first wife’s room which her husband keeps as a shrine, final reconciliation; As Strangers Here (Hodder & Stoughton 1960), Rev. Edward Ballater (Presbyterian) Ulster minister with an invalid wife and an unhappy marriage, troubled children, and a dismal congreagation, is involved in the troubles when he caters to Ned, a delinquent, held in a police station which is bombed.

Blackstaff Press (Catalogue): ‘The Maiden Dinosaur: plain, perceptive and lonely schoolmistress Sarah Vincent locked in emotional time-warp [with] closed circle of middle-aged schoolfriends’; ‘deft, wry novel [by] ... Ulster Molly Keane’.

Belfast Central Public Library [to 1956] holds A Child in the House; Gospel Truth (1951); A Light Dozen (1957); My Friend Specs McCann (1955); A Pinch of Salt (1956); Tea at Four O’Clock (1956).]

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Notes
Gospel Truth (1946) concerns the Presbyterian preacher Stephen Cross whose joyless credo (‘By spending our love on what is unlovely and gives us no happy promise of love returned [...] we shall grow in grace and in the true joy of Christian service’) leads several others such as Alison Nicholson and Jenny Lumsden into arid and disastrous lives - the former opting to look after her widowed father instead of following a career as a stage-designer and travelling to America, the latter marrying her dead sister’s seducer, a worthless alcoholic. (See John Cronin, ‘“Beasts in the Province”: The Fiction of Janet O’Neill’, in Mutran & Izarra, eds., Irish Studies in Brazil, Sao Paolo: 2005, as supra.)

The Maiden Dinosaur (1964), concerning a group of Belfast women who confront their personal relationships and inevitable disappointments together, with humour and sometimes desperate courage, in which the liberal minister Mr Ballater refused to provide the anti-Republican rhetoric required by his congregation in the wake of an IRA explosion; offering a scathing view of ‘the hysteria of mission halls’. (See John Cronin, op. cit., 2005, supra.)

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