Kathleen Sully, the Vanished Novelist.

Brad Bigelow of The Neglected Books Page wrote an essay on a writer about whom he says, correctly, “Her name means nothing to you. I can say this with confidence because it meant nothing to me and I have been studying English novels and novelists great and obscure for over forty years.” She has a Wikipedia page only because he created it. Her life was awful, but her novels sound remarkable:

Kathleen Sully’s writing is almost addictively readable. Her prose is spare, unstudied, brisk. She relies heavily on dialogue—but not on deep conversations. Scenes move quickly. Emotions run close to the surface. Merrily to the Grave was fuelled by a raw energy, a brutal honesty I’d only seen in Orwell or Patrick Hamilton. […]

There were hints of Joyce’s rawness, of Lawrence’s bluntness and, in Sully’s use of dialogue, of Ivy Compton-Burnett, but only hints. Her first novel, Canal in Moonlight, opens: ‘Bikka’s rats are large, fierce and tenacious. They find rich pickings in the garbage of the extravagant Bikka poor which nourishes bodies and whet appetites for yet more.’ […]

Kathleen Sully’s 1960 novel, Skrine, set in the aftermath of some unspecified global apocalypse, opens with a woman murdered for a pack of cigarettes. A Man Talking to Seagulls opens—and closes—with a body lying dead on a beach. In Through the Wall, little Celia Wick shivers outside while her parents fight, throwing plates and punches. ‘The Wicks were the scum of Mastowe: drunkards, loafers, petty thieves, and worse,’ Sully writes. And yet through this grim world flows a current of magic and spirituality. At night, Celia rises up from her miserable bedroom and flies above her street, up into the moon, ‘a million years away to where tigers ate apricots, and birds, honey-coloured and smelling of wall-flowers, flew in and out of her heart.’

The nameless madwoman in ‘The Weeping and the Laughter,’ one of the short novels in Canaille, tells how she used to ‘flow through the top of my head, go to the window, jump off into space and fly about like an owl.’ In A Man on the Roof, a dead husband comes back to his wife as a ghost and the two carry on as if nothing had happened. One of Sully’s later novels, A Breeze on a Lonely Road, is about a solicitor searching for the people and places he dreams about each night. As a man stands over a dead body at the end of A Man Talking to Seagulls, he suddenly realizes ‘that he beheld a husk—that the man was elsewhere—no matter where—but somewhere—and that life was life and could not be denied or extinguished—ever.’ The only equivalent I knew to this combination of realism and the fantastic was the magical realism of Latin American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez—but Sully began publishing a decade before these works were known in England. […]

So, I began looking into Kathleen Sully’s life and critical reputation, trying to understand why she had gone from being such a prolific and original writer to being utterly forgotten. Aside from contemporary reviews when her books were first published, critical assessments of her work are virtually non-existent. Walter Allen, part of the bedrock of the English literary establishment of his time, considered her work worth mention alongside that [of] Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh and future Nobel Prize winners William Golding and Doris Lessing in his 1960 survey, The Novel To-day. Ironically, Allen’s short paragraph on Sully is still the only critical consideration of her work to appear in print in the last nearly-sixty years. Her name appears in no encyclopaedia, in no dictionary of biography, in no other survey of the English novel.

One reason for her critical neglect is that she didn’t fit in—a reflection of the institutional prejudices of the English literary world. She was a woman writing when writing was a man’s game—not just a man’s game, but a public school/university-educated man’s game. She was the wrong age: too young for the generation of Greene, Waugh and Elizabeth Bowen, too old for the likes of Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch and the Angry Young Men. Tony Richardson and Lindsay Anderson, then rising stars in a new wave of gritty, ‘kitchen sink realism’ theatre, were so impressed with her early novels they chose her first play to initiate a bold new series of Sunday night ‘productions without décor’ at the Royal Court Theatre in London—but remembered her years later as a ‘middle-aged woman standing in the wings.’ […]

In his survey, Walter Allen precisely assessed the cost of her uniqueness: ‘Kathleen Sully is a novelist very much on her own, which may account for her comparative lack of critical recognition.’ By her eleventh novel, The Fractured Smile, The Times Literary Supplement—‘that British bastion of highbrow book culture,’ as Publisher’s Weekly once called it—seemed to have found a way to deal with her: ‘Miss Sully has established a reputation as something of an eccentric among novelists.’ By her 14th novel, the TLS simply stopped reviewing her work entirely.

By all means read the full post, which starts very vividly:

‘NOVELIST LECTURER VANISHES’ announced a headline in The Sheffield Telegraph on Wednesday, June 26, 1963. ‘What has happened to Kathleen Sully, the writer who should have arrived in Sheffield yesterday to lecture at the Sheffield Arts Festival?’ the reporter asked.

It’s been one of my aims over the years to call attention to neglected female writers, and I’m glad to be able to share the news (found at MetaFilter) about this one. Just the titles make me want to read her: Skrine! A Man Talking to Seagulls! Canaille! Thank goodness we’re slowly getting away from the misogyny that helped consign her to the dustbin, and I hope some fearless publisher starts reprinting her work (as happened with Dorothy Richardson).


  1. To pick a couple of nits:

    the garbage of the extravagant Bikka poor which nourishes bodies and whet appetites

    “whet” is Bigelow’s typo for Sully’s “whets”

    She was the wrong age: too young for the generation of Greene, Waugh and Elizabeth Bowen, too old for the likes of Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch and the Angry Young Men.

    To me this conveys a ridiculous idea: that every 20 years the literary establishment lets in a new cohort of writers within a 10 year age range, and anyone born in the wrong decade is permanently excluded. Maybe what Bigelow means is that Sully was too old when started to be published: not as youthful-exciting as Lessing, not as mature-established as Bowen.

  2. Sully was born in 1911 and published her first novel in 1955. Muriel Spark was born in 1918 and published her first novel in 1957. Both novels got admiring reviews, and both writers were (apparently) unconventional. Spark was — rightly — acknowledged from the start. So I don’t think age and misogyny alone adequately explain Sully’s obscurity.

    I tried to see what libraries near me (Northern California) have any of her novels. UC Davis has one (in storage). Stanford has two. UCLA has many or most, as do the universities of Utah and Alberta. As one used to be able to find obscure books, I am a little shocked.

    I don’t like reading novels online, but the Internet Archive has Merrily to the Grave.

  3. So I don’t think age and misogyny alone adequately explain Sully’s obscurity.

    No, I’m sure her unconventional style and grim subject matter had something to do with it as well, not to mention her apparent unconcern with public relations (not showing up at a rare chance to lecture is not a wise career move).

  4. Before reading Bigelow’s essay, I opened Merrily to the Grave at random. Chapter 9 ends thus:

    Madge was sitting next to Alfred, both in dressing-gowns, and Madge tried to draw him out. but he was intent on showing Hesta how much he was enjoying the breakfast or how much it ought to be enjoyed.

    Elsie giggled and ate much more than anyone thought such a scrawny torso could hold.

    It was a day of eating and drinking, talking and laughing or trying to laugh.

    Most of them were happy all day; the rest were happy most of the day.

    Too soon the all-day party was ended and they were in a ring, all lights on, singing together ‘Auld Lang Syne’.

    Round and round they went: the Thydes still together, Edward still watching Madge’s bare shoulders, Madge watching Johnny, Johnny at Hesta’s side.

    Some were wondering where they would be in a year’s time, the next Christmas.

    Henry thought he would not be there.

    Alfred and Edward wondered.

    Hesta never doubted that she would be there whoever else was or was not. And the party was over.

    And chapter 10 begins thus:

    Johnny was not musical; he did not understand music.

    He knew he was what is known as a lowbrow, and he thought that Elsie’s songs, because he neither liked nor understood them, must be highbrow or good.

    He made it his business to tell Elsie of a talent contest being held in the town at the Dome, and Elsie, who already knew about it but needed moral support, thanked him and said she would enter, but what of the house? Would they support her?

    Johnny said he was sure they would all go along and clap.

    When Johnny told Hesta she looked concerned, but was loath to say anything unkind about Elsie’s voice. If the poor girl had someone to admire it, even if that admirer was unmusical Johnny, she did not consider it right to interfere.

    I have no idea what the novel is about, but the style instantly makes me think that something terrible will happen, however prosaic the events narrated. It kinda reminds me of Dylan Thomas’s Adventures in the Skin Trade.

  5. Stu Clayton says

    the style instantly makes me think that something terrible will happen

    That’s an effect Compton-Burnett has on me.

  6. Her style seems more Henry Greenish than Graham Greeneish (which I mean as a compliment). I’d have thought NYRB Press would have reissued something of hers by now; it seems very much up their alley.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    Her style seems more Henry Greenish than Graham Greeneish


  8. There is so little information available about Sully online that one half suspects she is Bigelow‘s fictional creation.

    Apparently her children were uninterested in (or unable) promoting her legacy. A shame, judging from the blurb on the Merrily to the Grave book jacket, she had quite a varied life. Professional swimmer?

  9. Huh, I just discovered she has an entry in Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, A Checklist, 1700-1974!

  10. There are quite a few Google hits for “KATHLEEN SULLY”. The top ones are about the Neglected Books article, but there are more below that.

    She died in 2001. One wonders what she thought about her drop into obscurity during her own lifetime.

  11. Read the article, as I should have in the first place.

    A scary read… dysfunctional marriages, estranged children, mental illness….

    If that’s what it takes to become a powerfully unique voice, give me anodyne banality anytime.

    PS: I thought I had created a neat, unique phrase with “anodyne banality”. I googled it and found 30 hits. “Anodyne banality” is a thing, as I suppose it should be, since it describes many people’s lives.

  12. J.W. Brewer says

    @Bathrobe: If you want a less common alternative, google informs me that as of just now ‘Your search – “banal anodynity” – did not match any documents.’

  13. Stu Clayton says

    One wonders what she thought about her drop into obscurity during her own lifetime.

    If there was such thought at all, she is to be pitied for it – not for falling off the stage. Non-obscurity is a perch on a landslide. Anyone whose self-esteem depends on sitting pretty at that location is a loser.

    It’s no fun being famous, or even infamous. It promotes cockiness. It’s a falling sickness (“Pride goeth …”). Read all about it in the electronic newspapers.

  14. I suspect if she were worried about obscurity she would have shown up for her lecture, or at least called to explain her absence. She seems to have wanted to concentrate on writing while ignoring the publicity-mongering, and good for her.

  15. Stu Clayton says

    I wonder whether the name Dana Katherine Scully (the character in X-Files played by Gillian Anderson) is a sci-fi cognoscentious “gesture” towards the name Kathleen Sully. In connection with the listing in Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature, A Checklist, 1700-1974.

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