In her 1960 novel As Strangers Here, re-issued by Turnpike books this year, Janet McNeill focuses her attention on middle and working class Belfast society in the years before what became known as The Troubles (generally seen as having started in the late 1960’s). The scope of the novel is mainly domestic; she explores the underlying tensions of that society within the confines of family life. Like the writers she has often been compared to – Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor and Barbara Pym, McNeill has a practised observant eye.
Janet McNeill was born in Dublin in 1907 where her father was a Presbyterian minister. In 1913, the family moved to England when her father was appointed to a church in Birkenhead. Janet’s father returned to Northern Ireland in 1924, although was later forced to retire through ill-health. Janet McNeill then moved to Belfast, where she worked as a typist and secretary at the Belfast Telegraph. After her marriage, Janet McNeill and her husband Robert Alexander moved to Lisburn to bring up their children. In 1951 Janet McNeill began to write following a BBC competition. She went on to write radio plays, novels for adults and many children’s books. It was for her children’s books that she became best known.
“It had always seemed to him incongruous that in his ministry there should be so much necessity for conventional flippancy. He had colleagues to whose tongue a story would rise to meet any occasion and it was, he knew, the popular approach. These people had come to enjoy themselves, and whether he liked it or not he must wear the mask of a mild humourist.”
Belfast clergyman, Edward Ballater, fears for both his family and his faith. Edward has concerns about the depth of his congregation’s faith – their attitudes to Catholics in the community just a part of his worries. Edward is called upon to help a young man, a member of his community who has been picked up by the police, suspected of involvement in a violent crime. In time, Edward begins to suspect that Ned Donnelley’s family have been lying to him – lies which have had a terrible effect on the how he thinks of himself.
On the day that Edward goes to Ned’s aid at the police station, an I.R.A bomb is thrown. Edward and young Ned find themselves in the role of unexpected heroes, risking their lives to save others.
…He had often tried to prepare other people for death.
He thought of the words that he had used – texts, phrases from hymns, familiar blessed words that by their association carried with them more authority than anything original or spontaneous that he could have said. “At evening time there shall be light.” It was the one he could remember. Old people loved it. It was no good to him. This wasn’t his evening, but the middle of his afternoon, an interruption in a busy working-day. He had always believed that there was a rounded plan for his life, a framework of Divine intention within which his free will had a share of work to do. It was senseless as well as hurtful to accept that his services could be so lightly dispensed with. Yet acceptance was necessary. So often on the faces even of the dying who had long expected to die he had seen in the last moment an incredulous surprise. Not me? Not my turn to die?”
Life at home is difficult too, though Edward has been deluding himself about the truth of the situation. Edward’s wife Florence has been an invalid for several years. Keeping to her room, tapping on her bedside table for attention – her behaviour is rather reminiscent of Victorian invalids. Her illness is unspecified – vague references to bleeding and headaches the only clues we get. Edward and Florence’s son, Colin is married to Clare; the couple are already sniping at one another in the chill of their small flat. Colin was always the apple of his mother’s eye – she watches keenly for his visits, but Colin is beginning to show his own frustration with his mother’s illness. Joanna, Colin’s anxious teenage sister, has grown up in the shadow of her mother’s illness. While her father is out in the evening, Joanna checks the gas taps, checks the back door, checks again, and on returning to her room worries that she may have not checked after all.
“Once out on the landing she felt compelled to make the entire tour again in case anything had been overlooked. There were people who could go to bed light-heartedly as if it were the most natural thing in the world, doors unlatched, lights still burning, one day’s mess left over till the morning of the next day, lying down untroubled. But going to bed was, in a sense like dying, and how could one sleep with an unlatched door on one’s mind any more than with a sin on one’s conscience?”
McNeill often shows wry humour, showing understanding for the absurdities of human behaviour, for example in her depiction of a church treasure hunt. Edward wedged into his own car with four parishioners, as they run around trying to find the contents of their list which includes a chocolate mouse and a hair from the beard of a red haired man. Edward finds himself almost without realising it drawing ever so slightly closer to family friend and parishioner Marion Powell. Marion is friend of Florence’s from girlhood – the only person now outside of the family and the doctor who visits Florence. Marion’s husband Toby has disappeared – again – this time with the girl from the corner shop. Marion, wishing for his return, listens out for his car in the drive; Edward can’t even bring himself to say his name.
Although As Strangers Here takes place in 1950’s Belfast, a place rife with social tensions, McNeill does not really concern herself with the wider political situation; her focus is the domestic, within that society. The devil they say is in the detail, and it is certainly in the detail in writers like Janet McNeill which lifts the narrative above the ordinary. Subtlety and astute observation combine with superb characterisation to bring us a novel of family disharmony set against the background of society in some crisis.
Turnpike books also publish The Small Widow and The Maiden Dinosaur – which I have yet to read – and this reader is grateful that at least some of her novels have been brought back for us.