Thursday, March 18, 2010

Eye on the Past 725

I was fortunate enough to spend a few days recently researching in the British Library where I came across some papers which helped me to partially solve a puzzle that has troubled me for some time. The story of Johanna Macken is a most unusual one. It was a name I had heard now and again in my younger days but always, it seemed to me, a name that seemed to produce a slight frission of disapproval when mentioned by persons of a certain age. With the instincts of the Christian Brothers boy, I knew better than to ask my elders too many questions. I was later to discover that our town had produced at least one authoress whose fame had travelled far to other lands but who was perhaps not always as appreciated as she should have been in her own home town.

The future writer, Johanna Macken, was born in the late 1850's or early 1860's in the Castledermot area. I have been able to find little information about her early life which seems in any case to have been fairly uneventful but she almost certainly attended the Ballitore Quaker School which had formerly counted Edmund Burke and Napper Tandy among its pupils. It was perhaps this influence that prompted her to become a Quaker sometime in her early adult life, a move which proved to be only the first of the quaintly individualist touches that would mark her personal career from then on. For Johanna was an unusual and might I say libertarian personality for her day – a hint of which must have survived to ensure her part in the bawdy rhymes that innocently echoed around the local school yard almost a century later.

The first time I discovered that Johanna Macken had a reality outside of our schoolboy chants was many years ago in Webbs book shop on Aston Quay, home to many a lost literary treasure and a place which has long since become a casualty of Dublin's ever diminishing book trade. It was a shop I always enjoyed visiting, as much for the pleasure of chatting to its elderly guardian Tony Lamont, a man of abstruse and varied learning as for the opportunity of whiling away my hours amongst its towers of ancient tomes. On hearing I was from Athy, Tony one day chuckled mischievously to himself and fished out a greyish pockmarked little item from one of the rear shelves. It was a slim book on the history of Castledermot, obviously a product of the previous century but what caught my attention was the name boldly emblazoned on the front, that of Johanna Macken. The title recalled the star of our childhood songs - fiction made flesh and a story was then related to me which I was finally able to corroborate for myself almost 30 years later while in the British Library.

The Castledermot book was the first of Johanna's long and prolific literary career. It appears she soon thereafter began publishing under a disguised male name – in the manner of her predecessors Charlotte Bronte and George Elliott – to escape some of the prejudice against female authors that still survived in the 19th century. The Castledermot book was a local affair but my researches have shown that Johanna Macken was involved in the production of a myriad of literary creations. In the era of the three volume novel – vast affairs which were the stock and trade of the lending libraries dotted throughout Britain – Macken quickly made her mark with “Claire”, a five volume effort which won comparisons with Samuel Richardson's “Pamela” for its sympathetic account of a working girls passage through life. With the novels she produced over the next decade or so (at a rate of roughly two a year that would shame many of our current crop of authors) it seems that Johanna Macken established a solid name writing under the nom de plume “Mete Lane” as a writer of romance and adventure stories. These imagined tales of high society were a world apart from her humble lifestyle which she lived out, I believe, in a small cottage in the Kilkea area. Nevertheless they were a staple feature of the diet of the British public at the turn of the century and indeed part of the forgotten social history of the time.

But Tony Lamont had a more curious story to tell than that of a now neglected lady novelist. It seems that Johanna Macken under one of her many pseudonyms was also the author of a series of pornographic novels that were equally popular in the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras, but even less likely to be noted by the compiler of literary histories. Under the name of Jack Makedo, she wrote a number of what one might call racy page turners for Londons Blackheart Press, the titles of which are descriptive enough in themselves and need not be repeated here. It was perhaps at least one of the reasons why this strange author has become a hidden part of Athy's past. Lucrative these novels may have been, but their existence was certainly designed to pass under any official radar. It was the last of these books, “A Haunted Heart” which was destined to secure Johanna Macken, alias Jack Makedo, her own unusual place in literary history. Fifteen years before James Joyce's Ulysses would create a similar controversy, Macken's last novel was unexpectedly seized on arrival in the United States by the U.S. Post Office and those involved in its importation were charged with attempting to distribute obscene material. There was no celebrity trial for an author who was – in another of her many guises – one of Britain's most popular writers of the penny romance. The ensuing press scandal ensured that many of Macken's remaining titles were removed from the shelves of the British and Irish book shops.

All that remained in her home town, a place soon to be consumed by the larger dramas of a World War and a War of Independence (and in any case not regularly preoccupied by the scandals of the London literati) was the faint echo of a stained reputation. All that passed down to myself and my pals in much later years was the fantastical character who starred in many a ribald rhyme.

Johanna Macken faded into obscurity after the trial of her New York distributors and to the best of my knowledge never wrote another book. I have often wondered what became of her, but I understand she did remain in the South Kildare area and probably survived to a distinguished age, most likely under another of her many pseudonyms. Though the photograph reproduced here shows the lady writer in her heyday – and many of my readers who may have come across her would have done so when she was at a rather more advanced age – I would appeal to anyone who could help me to properly conclude the story of this most unusual woman.

Until then her only surviving epitaph will be that chanted in a rowdy school yard over fifty years ago.

Johanna Macken had her pride
Which was never, ever at her side
For when she had the sudden urge
She upped and wrote a dirty dirge.

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