Eva Hanagan: The Jane Austen of the 20th Century by Patrick Hanagan

Eva came from an established Highland family and was brought up in Inverness. However, to describe her as a Scottish writer is only part of the story as her writing is in the mainstream of literary English women writers. Hence the Auberon Waugh comment that “she was the Jane Austen of the 20th Century”.

Her seven primary novels were very well received over the years of publication, with glowing reviews ranging from “a delicious piece of water colour gothic” to “one of those rare novels, small and perfect.”

A number of factors were very influential in guiding her subject matters in the novels. First, her family background in Scotland where she was brought up in a cultured and well read family. This is reflected in the mannered middle class sensibilities of many of the protagonists in the novels. The world she was boroughs up in centred on the great depression of the 1930’s which pricked her early conscience and she retained a certain Fabian socialist philosophy throughout her life.

Second, her formative experiences in post war Vienna as an impressionable young woman in the foreign office. As she stated in an interview with The Herald: “when you’re older and you look back, these drawers in your memory slip open and it’s never really bright morning again. You see the absolute depths of human depravity.” Indeed, her work can be infused with brooding dark forces which work their way through tragic loves. Yet there can be redemption as expressed in anguished spirituality or amnesia, or a more conventional renewal of life in hope.

Third, there is the atmosphere created in the novels from the interactions of the different environments she had experienced : early Scottish years, living in different parts of the continent and in North Africa, and later years in the Home Counties. This  is seen through an overriding mystery of nature and all things and descriptions of the innocent and tragic in life.

Less well known was her work in promoting literature through a number of particular activities. The most important appointment she undertook for a number of years was that of writer in residence at Ford open prison in Sussex. This was seminal in being the first appointment by the Home Office to such a position. However she placed little value on creative writing courses , her view being that you cannot teach writing. The best you could do was to tutor classes in the appreciation of writing.Writers are born not made.

Also of particular note was the texts on novel writing she prepared for the Writers Bureau which continue to be used to this day.

The handbook on writing a novel was first published in 1988 and is now standard source material. Perhaps worth quoting her on what inspires a novel ” your own experiences of life, your powers of observation, the cultural environment… they generate the ideas themselves”. Equally   “that ( in writing ) ultimately there is a part of the process which is really beyond examination or explanation”.

As a 20th Century novelist with a subtle and well-crafted mastery of the English language she is in the finest tradition of classic English  18th and 19th Century literary writing. Exceptionally, all her novels were so well constructed that hardly any editing had to be done, quite an achievement in terms of the fastidious editing of firms like Duckworth at the time!

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