Book Review: “Irene Iddesleigh” by Amanda McKittrick Ros (1897)

Irene Iddesleigh is a novel about a woman who marries a wealthy aristocrat but whose marriage quickly collapses when he discovers her love for another man. He keeps her a prisoner in his estate, but she ultimately flees, leaving behind not only her estranged husband, but their son as well.

What makes this book, ah, distinctive, is the prose style. Here, for example, is the beginning of Chapter V:

Our hopes when elevated to that standard of ambition which demands unison may fall asunder like an ancient ruin. They are no longer fit for construction unless on an approved principle. They smoulder away like the ashes of burnt embers, and are cast outwardly from their confined abode, never more to be found where once they existed only as smouldering serpents of scorned pride.

What does this mean, you ask? Frankly, I have no idea. Let’s try some of the dialogue:

“The sole object of my visit, my dear Irene”—here Sir John clasped her tender hand in his—“tonight is to elicit from you a matter that lately has cast a shadowy gloom over my anticipated bright and cheerful future. I am not one of those mortals who takes offence at trifles, neither am I a man of hasty temper or words—quite the contrary, I assure you; but it has, fortunately or unfortunately, been probably a failing amongst my ancestors to court sensitiveness in its minutest detail, and, I must acknowledge, I stray not from any of them in this particular point.”

Not exactly spare, is it?

Okay, it’s time I told you the background on this book: it’s considered to be one of the worst novels of all time. Luminaries like Mark Twain, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis mocked it for its legendary badness. (Supposedly, Tolkien and Lewis’s group The Inklings would hold competitions to see how long it was possible to read from it without laughing.)

I admit, I find this all a little distasteful. Ros was a self-published author, whose husband financed the publication of her novel as an anniversary present. So, when I read that Twain, Tolkien, Lewis et al. mocked her work, it brings to mind the traditionally published authors who sneer at indie authors of today. Oh yes; I am very inclined to be sympathetic to Ros.

So is it really one of the worst books ever written? Or did successful literary men simply delight in kicking a humble woman while she was down?

One of the main charges leveled against Ros is her use of purple prose, and as the above passages demonstrate, there is solid evidence to convict her of this. I didn’t cherrypick the worst examples, either. The whole thing is like that. Here’s another one:

The thickest stroke of sadness can be effaced in an instant, and substituted with deeper traces of joy. The heart of honest ages, though blackened at times with domestic troubles, rejoices when those troubles are surmounted with blessings which proclaim future happiness.

You might say that sounds long-winded and pompous. Maybe it does. And yet, is it so different than this?

Men thin away to insignificance and oblivion quite as often by not making the most of good spirits when they have them as by lacking good spirits when they are indispensable. Gabriel lately, for the first time since his prostration by misfortune, had been independent in thought and vigorous in action to a marked extent — conditions which, powerless without an opportunity as an opportunity without them is barren, would have given him a sure lift upwards when the favourable conjunction should have occurred.

That is from Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, which is not regarded as one of the worst books ever written. Let’s try one more:

While I looked, I thought myself happy, and was surprised to find myself erelong weeping—and why? For the doom which had reft me from adhesion to my master: for him I was no more to see; for the desperate grief and fatal fury-—consequences of my departure—which might now, perhaps, be dragging him from the path of right, too far to leave hope of ultimate restoration thither. At this thought, I turned my face aside from the lovely sky of eve and lonely vale of Morton—I say lonely, for in that bend of it visible to me, there was no building apparent save the church and the parsonage, half-hid in trees; and, quite at the extremity, the roof of Vale-Hall, where the rich Mr. Oliver and his daughter lived.

That is from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, which is one of the most beloved British novels in history. And yet, while this prose may not be exactly purple, it is at least a very suspicious shade of blue.

To be clear, I like both Jane Eyre and Far from the Madding Crowd. And even my well-known penchant for contrarian takes does not extend to arguing that Irene Iddesleigh is as good as either of them. It distinctly isn’t. But still, you can see similarities. These apples have fallen from the same tree, even if one is a bit misshapen and has these weird brown spots.

And what tree is that? The tree is Victorian Romanticism. Its roots are deep and its seeds are everywhere. While its fruit can be justly criticized for being overwrought and melodramatic, it is also really, really popular and enduring.

Virtually all Victorian prose, even the good stuff, seems excessively florid to the modern reader. Expectations of what writing should be were just different back then. If we condemn Irene Iddesleigh for being flabby and flowery, mustn’t we say the other Victorian novels exhibit many of the risk factors for same?

I think at least part of the reason for the extreme contempt leveled at Irene Iddesleigh is its publication date. It’s an 1860s novel published in 1897. The reaction against Victorian Romanticism was already underway, and as Paul Graham once observed, “There is nothing so unfashionable as the last, discarded fashion.” It was just the wrong time for that sort of thing.

Still, it is definitely not the worst book I’ve ever read. It’s not good, except strictly as an exercise in campy melodrama, but it’s actually more fun than some Serious Works Of Great Literature that I’ve read.


  1. I’d never heard of this book before. Not sure I’d rush out and read it, but you make some good points about overstuffed prose in classics of the time.

    1. I agree, it’s not one you want to prioritize reading, but there are definitely worse books out there.

  2. Well I am damned angry at the Inklings and will never think of them in the same way again.
    As literary men they should have realised in writing you must consider Time, Place and Society; these being factors which are part of the formulation of a book. They had no right at all to mock a book written by someone not of their precious background. The fact they picked on one written by a woman places them in the firing lines of accusation of male prejudice, whether they meant it or not.
    Personally I find Dickens unreadable, I personally find the plausibility of his plots somewhat ‘stretched’. Having said that I could lay the same charge at other classic works of the 19th Century. It happens I am not wired to read 19th century literature.
    And you ‘said it’ Berthold in your last words:
    ‘Still, it is definitely not the worst book I’ve ever read. It’s not good, except strictly as an exercise in campy melodrama*, but it’s actually more fun than some Serious Works Of Great Literature that I’ve read.’

    * something which is alive and thriving in the 21st century, only we throw in profanities and claim it’s ‘gritty’

    1. I with you about Dickens, although I have so many friends who love his books, I feel like I should give him another chance. Then I pick one up and I think… not today. 🙂

      1. Yep. Me too.
        What really did it for me was Richard Armor’s ‘Classics Reclassified’ and his take on ‘David Copperfield’
        After a read of the peerless late Mr Armor no classic work which came under his scrutiny would ever be the same. ‘Twisted Tales from Shakespeare’, the same.

        1. Funny you mention that… I’m actually re-reading “The Classics Reclassified” right now. It’s a book that gets better every time I reread it. As a teenager, I just enjoyed the superficial parody and jokes, but reading it now I appreciate that Armour was clearly a skilled critic himself, but he wore his learning lightly and veiled his criticisms with humor.

          1. Exactly Berthold.
            That and ‘Twisted Tales of Shakespeare I never weary of reading. There are always little nuggets to unearth.
            One of America’s somewhat underrated Wits

    1. Thank you; I’m glad you liked the review.

      Yes, I thought it was a bit mean of them to do that. Especially since it was a self-published book.

  3. HBO had a series called Deadwood. It had lots of profanity, nudity, using pigs to dispose of dead bodies, but the language was in purple prose. It was a weird blending of high and low brow. I think that forcing my generation to read these books in school created the rebellion against reading. Edgar Allan Poe could be accused of purple prose, but his stories still live on. Try figuring out the beginning of A Cask of Amontillado!

  4. This author certainly took purple prose to the extreme! Well done, you, for finishing it.

    While I understand defending a fellow indie author, personally I don’t think there should be blanket support purely on that fact alone. Surely, story/plot-dialogue-setting etc matter more.

    Also, in defence of The Inklings – the members having a laugh over it isn’t as mean as it sounds; from what I understand, their meetings by then were more focussed on conversation and sometimes, they would break open the book and challenge themselves to see who could read the book longest without laughing, much like a pub game.

    And they were actually carrying on a tradition that had started just before the 1900s – it was quite the thing for dinner guests to quote her prose and play games which involved speaking in the same way Ros wrote.

    It wasn’t a case of successful male authors “kicking a humble woman while she was down”; from what I’ve read, Ros could certainly hold her own and retaliated against critics, whom she called things like ‘egotistical earth-worms’; ;bastard donkey-headed mites’; and what is possibly my favourite, ‘evil-minded snapshots of spleen’ 😂

    In fact, I would say, it’s thanks to those ‘successful literary men’ that her work is still known today 😊

    1. Thanks for adding this context. Yes, I had meant to mention in the review the Ros had a habit of responding to criticism angrily (and, as you observe, often hilariously 😀 ) I imagine her as the sort of author that one sometimes sees on sites like Twitter, getting into random feuds with people who give them bad reviews.

      And yes, you are quite right that it’s due to the folks who laughed at her work that it is still remembered!

  5. This is a point that needs to be more common. Just because a book is listed as a Classic, and just because many Victorian books are considered “Classic” doesn’t mean that the style should be so lionized. Very interesting read to choose.

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