06 August 2020, The Tablet

James Hanley: a writer’s writer

Catholic authors

James Hanley: a writer’s writer

A blue plaque marks James Hanley’s London home


Acclaimed by critics and peers, James Hanley’s dark stories of working-class life in early twentieth-century Liverpool have so far failed to capture the imagination of the general reader. It’s time for that to change, argues one of Hanley’s fans

What do we mean by the term “Catholic writer”? Who are they? Growing up in a traditional Catholic household in Liverpool in the 1950s and 1960s the answer was immediately obvious: Chesterton and Belloc, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. On my father’s bookshelf Maisie Ward’s plump life of Chesterton nestled against a forbidding black tome A Manual of Logic, a relic of his days listening to Latin lectures at the Gregorian University while at the English College in Rome.

One name that wouldn’t have been mentioned was that of James Hanley, the most important Liverpool writer of the first half of the twentieth century (if we agree to park Malcolm Lowry across the water in the Wirral) not a single one of whose books, I would guess, could be found in a Liverpool bookshop today.

Known as a writer about the sea, a sort of English Conrad lavishly praised by many of his literary contemporaries but never becoming a household name, Hanley’s best claim to fame is The Furys, his massive saga of a Liverpool-Irish Catholic family published in a series of five volumes between 1930 and 1958. Originally planned as a trilogy, the series grew to five as Hanley continued, as he told an interviewer, to give his characters “another squeeze”.

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