Interview: Marian Therèse Keyes on Anna Maria Hall (1800-1881)

This interview marks the publication of A Life of No Light Toil: The Anna Maria Fielding Hall Reader Edited and Introduced by Marian Thérèse Keyes, one of the 2022 Arlen Classic Literature Series.

Is this your first book, Marian?

This is actually my 5th book! Over the last few years I was involved in 3 publications that tied in with the Decade of Centenaries at dlr Libraries – 2 of those with New Island Books. People on the Pier celebrated the bicentenary of the pier in 2018 and Betty Stenson and I worked on that. Then Divine Illumination in 2019 marked the centenary of Sr Concepta Lynch’s astonishing Oratory in the grounds of the Dominican Convent, Dún Laoghaire. I worked with Librarian Nigel Curtin and Archivist David Gunning on the latter and we also produced What’s in a Name: Dunleary, Kingstown Dún Laoghaire in 2020, marking 100 years since the name change back to Dún Laoghaire during the War of Independence. My first book was Politics and Ideology in Children’s Literature (Four Courts Press, 2014) co-edited with Dr Áine McGillicuddy.

Did it feel strange to cross over from being a librarian to writing and editing?

Not at all! To be honest, most of my working day at dlr LexIcon was spent writing – whether it was blurb for festival brochures, e-bulletins, press releases, book reviews, promotional event literature or text for exhibition panels. Many of these exhibitions are collaborative ventures working with, for example Anne Makower and Christopher Fitz-Simon for the recent All Right on the Night or with Jennifer Johnston’s family for the exhibition celebrating her 90th birthday in 2020. Online versions of these and other exhibitions can be seen at I would see these exhibitions as ‘mini-publications’ as it’s so important to condense and edit the material into manageable panel lengths to attract and sustain audience interest.

Can you tell us about Anna Maria Hall and her work? 

I first came across Anna Maria’s work when I was cataloguing a major collection of children’s books in London in the mid-1990s. I found out she was Irish (born in Dublin in 1800 and spent her childhood in Wexford until she was fifteen when she went to London) and I wondered why I had never heard of her. Her books were beautifully produced, often had Irish themes, characters and settings and were illustrated by many well-known artists of her day, frequently of Irish extraction. As I delved further, I found out that in addition to over 40 children’s books, she was famous in the 1830s and 40s for her Sketches of Irish Character, novels, plays, gift books, annuals and travel literature – the pre-Famine 3 volume Ireland: its Scenery, Character etc. produced jointly with her husband was highly successful. She worked hard as an editor in the periodical press, her husband said she had produced over 150 books in her lifetime – other commentators have suggested that she produced between 400-500 books including the joint publications – and yet by the time of her death in 1881, most were out of print. I was obsessed by the extraordinary invisibility of someone so fêted and highly regarded in her lifetime.

What do you most admire about her?

I admire Anna Maria Hall’s passion for her work, her zeal to give her readers, especially children good quality books that would prove educational and enjoyable. Through her travel writing, she sought to encourage people to visit Ireland and to sample the unique ‘character’ of the Irish people and she attempted to capture the customs, tales and traditions before they vanished. Many letters exist demonstrating how generous she was to young women writers, newly arrived in London and seeking work writing for the annuals, magazines and journals of the day – she was generous with her many contacts and selflessly nurtured her protegées.

I was also rather envious of her disciplined approach to her daily work routines. Such was the order of her writing room that she boasted that she could go to any of her bookshelves in the dark and lay her hand on what she wanted. Yes I’m a librarian but I can categorically state that I will never have my bookshelves at home in that kind of order!

By all accounts she was quite an activist and philanthropist – can you tell us something about that aspect of her life?

 She played an important role in the setting up of the Hospital for Consumption at Brompton – the Halls lived nearby from 1839-49 and as this was quite a rural part of London in the mid-nineteenth century, the hospital was sorely needed. Throughout her writing life, she was a passionate advocate for the plight of governesses, not only through her writings but also her frequent bazaars and fund-raising activities in support of the Asylum for Aged and Decayed Governesses. She was also tireless in her support of temperance causes and produced Boons and Blessings, a beautifully illustrated volume of cautionary tracts in 1875.

What is your favourite of her books/stories?

I have a particular fondness for the autobiographical Grandmamma’s Pockets (1849) as it features the young Annie Fielder – it sets the scene of her life in Wexford and includes many of the characters that appeared in her earlier Sketches. Marian (1840) is another important book, an early example of a boarding school novel, pre-dating Jane Eyre by a decade and featuring a foundling narrative, an Irish laundress – Katty Macane, a heartless school mistress Arabella Womble, and lots of twists and turns to keep the reader guessing. I really enjoyed her popular play The Groves of Blarney, a melodramatic story of disguise, kidnapping and revenge, based on a real incident in Blarney in County Cork in 1812. There’s a lightness of touch in her delineation of her characters and the humour and energy permeates the dialogue keeping a lively pace throughout. She excelled in her portrayal of lovable rogues, romance and farce and this play is, in my opinion on a par with the plays of D.L. Boucicault much later in the century.

Can you give us an example of a passage that gives a sense of her style?

I enjoy how often Anna Maria refers in her later books to what she read as a child in Bannow, Wexford where she had no friends of her own age or siblings but loved her many pet animals and especially her many books. Her favourite books fed her imagination and had a lasting impact on her writing.

She began reading – perhaps for the twentieth time – Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream; breathing on the leaves, that they might turn without crackling, and pausing every now and then to contrast some of its passages with the Faery Queen; and when it grew so dim of light that she could not see, she started at the hooting of the owl she had heard from infancy, and fancied the shadows of the copper beech, as they lay upon the snow, men in armour, and the poplar trees to be Knights Templar; and one in particular Goliah himself.

Mrs. S.C. Hall, Grandmamma’s Pockets (1849)

Another favourite passage is one where she shows her sense of fun when describing some of her male characters. She made no secret of the fact that she had a preference for penning her heroines over her heroes and also that she saw herself as addressing predominantly female readers. Nonetheless, despite her protestations, her novels had many well-rounded and complex male characters, but she evidently enjoyed describing some men who were clearly in thrall to their overbearing wives.

Poor Lady Bab had the satisfaction of possessing a singularly tame and gentlemanly-looking husband… Mr. Hesketh was a sort of hanger-on to his wife’s reputation, having no very distinctive attribute of his own, except, indeed, that he played the flute, and frequently formed a sort of soft undulating accompaniment to his wife’s eloquence, which he was ever politely careful not to interrupt.

Mrs. S.C. Hall, Marian; or a Young Maid’s Fortunes (1840)

What are you working on now? Are there more books in the offing?

I always enjoy doing some research – finding out more about lesser-known women artists and writers has been a hobby of mine for years. Since I retired at end of February this year I’m renewing my love of Art History – I used to teach in Limerick School of Art and Design back in the late 1980s and I spent the 90s working in the National Art Library in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. At present I’m researching women book illustrators who were active here in Ireland in the 1930s and 40s but have been side-lined or forgotten. So, who knows, I’ll see what I can discover first!

New Titles in the The Arlen Classic Literature series include: A Name for Himself by Catherine Dunne, Pray for the Wanderer by Kate O’Brien, Another Alice by Lia Mills and Carmen Cavanagh by Annie Smithson.

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