NI author Janet McNeill penned brilliant novels with themes that foretold the Harvey Weinstein scandal and wage inequality
To mark World Book Day James Doyle examines the life of a largely overlooked Northern Ireland author whose works - which have been likened to those of Jane Austen - are winning a new generation of fans
In the 1930s one of the Belfast Telegraph's best-educated employees was a young woman named Janet McNeill. The paper's owner, Sir Robert Baird, would proudly introduce his university-educated secretary: "This is Miss McNeill. She knows Latin and Greek." Decades after leaving the Belfast Telegraph, Miss McNeill became more widely known as the most prominent female writer of pre-Troubles Northern Ireland. Her novels present an alternative history, from the viewpoint of women, of Northern Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, decades later, the themes of McNeill's writing and the obstacles she encountered in becoming a writer will be familiar to many of the contemporary writers published alongside her in the recent anthology The Glass Shore.
Janet was born in Dublin in 1907 where her father was a minister at Adelaide Road Presbyterian Church. Reverend McNeill was then appointed to a church in Birkenhead, in England, in 1913, and in 1924 he moved back to Northern Ireland as minister in Rostrevor, Co Down. Janet was awarded a scholarship to study Classics at St Andrews University where she was awarded a first-class degree and stayed on to complete a Masters. In 1929 she had to move back to Belfast to care for her father who was in ill health and, in 1933, Janet married Robert Alexander, the chief engineer in Belfast's city surveyor's office, and as was customary at the time she gave up her job. They soon had four children and moved to a house named Hawtree in Lisburn.
Janet had always had ambitions to be a writer; her father gave her a typewriter as a wedding present but it was not until her children were older and in school that she began to write. It is difficult not to sense Janet's own frustrations in her characters and to read a biographical hint into a sentence from an early novel: "Life had made demands on art, and art had suffered."
Eventually, in 1951, Janet 'dared' herself to enter a BBC playwriting competition. She came second with Gospel Truth and the success launched her into a prolific writing career. Between 1955 and 1967 she produced numerous works for children, many plays and 10 novels. Initially she focused on radio plays, which were regularly broadcast on the Home Service, but became best known as a writer for children. Janet's character Specs McCann was the basis for a newspaper cartoon strip (illustrated by Rowel Friers), which a generation of children followed avidly.
Her real legacy, however, are her novels for adults. Janet's first novel, A Child in the House, was published in 1955, the same year that Brian Moore published The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. While the two writers shared an interest in depicting the loneliness of life in a dour Belfast, Janet was 48 years old while Brian Moore was 34. The difference in their ages reflects the years Janet had spent raising her family. Brian Moore had a son at this time but then he also had a wife (so there was nothing to prevent him working on his novel).
Janet McNeill's path to becoming a writer and the way her work was gradually forgotten after her death in 1994 serves as a wider portrait of the struggles women, and not only writers, had in the mid-20th century, especially in a society that had preserved the conventions of the Victorian age for as long as Northern Ireland. In her life Janet gave the impression of obedience to those conventions but her novels are unforgiving in their criticism. Janet's themes anticipate many of the concerns of the feminist movement of the 1970s and beyond, the world of Harvey Weinstein and wage inequality at the BBC would be all too familiar to her.
Turnpike Books has published new editions of three of her best novels: As Strangers Here, The Maiden Dinosaur and The Small Widow. These perceptive and elegant portraits of men and women who are often invisible to the people around them have found a new readership.
In the 21st century, readers identify as much with the stifled ambitions and frustrated craving for a fuller emotional life of Janet's characters as her original readers.
As Strangers Here demonstrates, Janet offers a perceptive portrayal of Northern Ireland as it was before the start of the Troubles, yet she rarely engages directly with religion or politics. This is a novel all too aware that Northern Ireland is "a place whereby unhappy history chained the future to the past" but Janet turns away from the wider issues to focus, with a remarkable honesty (especially for the daughter of a clergyman), on the Rev Ballater's struggle with his marriage and frustration with his family life. Janet's focus on domestic life is typical of her writing; her subtle, evocative style, ironic humour and the unflinching honesty of her observations of human psychology are more interested in the individual and not the society around them.
Janet's finest novel The Maiden Dinosaur parallels one of the most famous (and celebrated) Northern Irish novels, Brian Moore's The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne. Brian Moore once wrote of his novel, "I make no apology for its being about an uninteresting woman" and McNeill could have said the same. Sarah Vincent, the central character of The Maiden Dinosaur, appears to be an aged schoolgirl, particularly to the friends she has known since school. They are women who were brought up to be innocent, even in middle-age: "We were instructed to be pure, but no one gave us any information how to be anything else." Yet Sarah has a vital inner life as a poet, though one whose work is dismissed by a patronising, male, critic: "'Work in miniature, perhaps one might say,' the young man smiled, making it sound like needlework." In middle-age Sarah begins to acknowledge the restraint that has always limited her: "Fancy dying when you've lived such a little life." She embraces the possibility of a new beginning, and to believe in the possibility of love.
Janet McNeill's final novel for adults, The Small Widow, was, possibly, her finest depiction of the frustrations of family life. When Harold dies Julia is left to build a new life while grieving for what she has lost. She is independent for the first time in her life, but who is she when she is no longer a wife and is a mother to children who no longer need her? The revival of interest in the novels of Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Taylor - and Janet's work was once published alongside their novels by the iconic Virago Modern Classics in their ground-breaking series of women's literature - suggests that it is time for Janet's novels to be rediscovered.
She has always had her fans. In recent years Northern Irish writers such as Bernie McGill and Sharon Owens have often recommended McNeill's work. Bernie has written of the "insight, honesty and humour" of The Maiden Dinosaur, which is now on the syllabus at Queen's University. Queen's has also established an archive of the documents left by Janet for future students to study. This academic interest is further raising the profile of Janet's novels. Dr Caroline Magennis, a specialist in the literary history of Northern Ireland, has written that her "sharply drawn portraits of pre-Troubles society are beautifully character driven and relentlessly thoughtful". Janet's novels deserve to be studied and they are equally rewarding for the eager reader.
Women Aloud, which celebrates contemporary Northern Irish writers, has shone a new light on the contribution of women to literary history. Janet McNeill is among those who paved the way for our contemporary writers. For much of her life Janet was regarded only as a daughter, a wife and a mother (her novels capture the frustrations of abandoning ambition for your children, reducing your personality into a role) yet they have a strength and defiance that suggest Janet never accepted such limits. Her novels have the universal appeal of those of Jane Austen, both unflinchingly examine domestic life and the conflicts that occur within family relationships; though she is unsurpassed in her understanding of the Ulster character.
James Doyle, originally from Fermanagh, has worked in London publishing for more than 20 years and is the founder of Turnpike Books. The Maiden Dinosaur, As Strangers Here and The Small Widow, all by Janet McNeill, are published by Turnpike Books and retail for £12. They are available in Waterstones (all the Irish branches) and No Alibis, Belfast, as well as all online retailers