Born in Dublin in 1898, Norah Hoult was not only one of Ireland’s most prolific authors; she was also one of the most censored in Ireland. A writer of journalism, novels and short stories, an incredible eight of her books were censored. Her first collection of stories, Poor Women! was published in 1928, and she wrote two further collections, Nine Years is a Long Time and Cocktail Bar.
Her novels include Time, Gentlemen, Time!, Holy Ireland, Four Women Grow Up, The Last Days of Miss Jenkinson and There Were No Windows, which was reissued by Persephone Books in 2005. Throughout her life, Hoult lived in London and Ireland and she died in County Wicklow in 1984.
Given the fact that Norah Hoult published over 25 books and was a popular writer in her lifetime, it’s a surprise that she has been so overlooked in terms of the Irish Canon. Sinead Gleeson, who writes the introduction to this newly published edition of Cocktail Bar feels that this is, in some ways, down to her ‘in-between-ness’ and her position as a female writer.
Editing two all-female anthologies has shown me how easy it is for writers to be forgotten, particularly if they are women. This is exacerbated if they do not cleave to one nationality, one location, or one set of circumstances. What is clear, from the sheer volume and breadth of her work, is how much Norah Hoult had to say and how unafraid she was of articulating things that many others didn’t dare to.
In Cocktail Bar, the stories are set in England and Ireland, and in one case, Italy and most feature characters who have expectations about life that are not matching reality. In Expatriate, an unnamed woman has come to live in Rome, looking for a better life. As she chats to tourists who envy her this new life, she fails to mention the fact that she cannot find work and has barely enough money to eat. In the opening story, Irish Wedding a much planned for wedding of an Irish couple in London is full of small disappointments that explore the distance between anticipation and reality.
Two of the strongest stories in the collection feature young women coming to terms with the reality of their lives.
In Which Bright Cup? the vain and headstrong Sally finds herself in a situation where she has to choose between a new life in America or marriage to a solid farmer at home in Ireland.
And looking back on that wonder, and feeling it walk away from her into the blue distance, she felt dimly in a way that couldn’t be expressed that from now on she’d be a poorer, smaller, more everyday sort of person to herself than she’d ever fancied before. And she clenched her hands over that thought at the very moment he was kissing her more passionately than he had ever done before.
A precursor of Brooklyn, Which Bright Cup? perfectly captures the limited choices facing women in Ireland at that time and the pain involved in making a decision to emigrate. In The Holy Picture, a young girl lives with her family in their small hotel. The entire bedrock of what she knows about her life is thrown into disarray by the arrival of a posh English woman, whose superiority has long-lasting consequences.
Hoult is particularly good at capturing small-minded snobbery and aspiration. In Three People and Jane, neighbours in a nice English suburb find themselves bullied by the resident do-gooder with her never-ending requests for charity. In Observation, casual xenophobia and snobbery comes to the fore as a woman crosses London to visit her friend for tea.
Not all the stories here are successful – some feel pat and lacking in depth, but the best find their strength in strong characterisation, wry observation, dark humour and subtle detail.
Based on Cocktail Hour, it is evident that Norah Hoult is well deserving of a renaissance.
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