Kathleen Sully, the Vanished Novelist
November 15, 2023 6:20 AM   Subscribe

"[Kathleen Sully's] 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.’

She didn’t write the sort of domestic dramas and comedies that were considered standard middlebrow fare. There is not a lot of tea being served in china cups and saucers in her books. Sully’s characters ate bread and drippings huddled around the kitchen table. They didn’t fit the mould of other fiction of her time. ‘Her people constantly say the untoward thing, move strangely against conventional furniture,’ as one reviewer put it. But they weren’t rebels, either. Sully’s novels are utterly a-political and virtually a-historical: while they’re mostly set in mid-20th century Britain, they provide few references to events that might allow one to pin the story to a specific time."
posted by BenAstrea (7 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
I read this article this morning and it is fascinating.

Sully sounds wonderful, her life is epic, tragic & mundane in unequal parts, the books sound like they are well worth seeking out.

Also: Neglected Books is an absolute treasure; best of the web!

Thanks for posting.
posted by chavenet at 6:55 AM on November 15 [4 favorites]

That's interesting, thanks. I have come across her at Furrowed Middlebrow, who has a shorter mention of her but gives a couple of quotes I don't think Neglected Books has - "Betjeman wrote, "It is no good my going on describing this book or trying to convey its at once hopeful and desolating climax. … Her book will either disgust you or do what it did to me, purge you with pity and frighten you with its sense of loneliness".
posted by paduasoy at 6:56 AM on November 15 [5 favorites]

That is quite the bit of literary detective work. I think I might like to read some of those early novels, for some of the same reasons I like early Orwell. The people sound like they would be right at home on the road to Wigan Pier, or among the down-and-out in London.

Also, what a sad story. Particularly those last two couplets of Vicki's poem.

Thanks for that, BenAstrea.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 7:17 AM on November 15 [1 favorite]

I love a good tip on an overlooked and underrated writer. It sounds like she is ripe for rediscovery and hopefully republication.
posted by larrybob at 9:48 AM on November 15 [1 favorite]

Oh, this looks great; I will forward that article to my book club!
posted by suelac at 11:38 AM on November 15

A stray mention of a neglected writer in another article on Kathleen Sully, one Phyllis Paul, led me to discover that she didn’t have a Wikipedia page. Inspired by this post and Brad Bigelow of Neglected Books I decided to remedy that.

Thankfully, she’s being published again now. A scholar Glen Cavaliero, was the only one to keep her name in the discourse for decades, and he seems to have been instrumental in her first republication. She looks like a fantastically interesting writer.
posted by Kattullus at 9:27 AM on November 17 [4 favorites]

Mod note: [btw, this post has been added to the sidebar and the Best Of blog]
posted by taz (staff) at 1:30 AM on November 18 [2 favorites]

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