James Hanley (novelist)

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James Hanley
Liverpool Waterfront.jpg
Liverpool waterfront
Born (1897-09-03)3 September 1897
Kirkdale, Liverpool, Lancashire, England, UK
Died 11 November 1985(1985-11-11) (aged 88)
London, England, UK
Resting place Llanfechain, Powys, Wales, UK
Occupation Novelist, playwright, radio and television dramatist, and short story writer
Literary movement Expressionism, Modernism, English literature, Welsh literature in English
Notable works Boy, The Furys, The Closed Harbour, Levine
Spouse Dorothy Enid "Timothy" Thomas (neé Heathcote)

James (Joseph) Hanley (3 September 1897 – 11 November 1985) was a British novelist and playwright of Irish descent.



Born in Kirkdale, Liverpool, Lancashire, in 1897 (not Dublin, nor 1901 as he generally implied) to a working class family. Both his parents were, on the other hand, born in Ireland, his father Edward Hanley around 1865, in Dublin, and his mother, Bridget Roache, in Queenstown, County Cork, around 1867. However, both were "well established in Liverpool by 1891", when they got married. Hanley's father worked most of his life as a stoker, particularly on Cunard liners, and other relatives had also gone to sea.[1] James also grew up living close to the docks. He left school in the summer of 1910 and worked for four years in an accountants' office. Then early in 1915, aged 17 he went to sea for the first time (not 13 as he again implied).[2] Thus life at sea was a formative influence and much of his early writing is about seamen.

Then, in April 1917, Hanley jumped ship in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada, and shortly thereafter joined the Canadian Army in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Hanley fought in France in the summer of 1918, but was invalided out shortly thereafter. He then went to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, for two months, in the winter of 1919, to be demobbed, before returning to Liverpool.[3] He may have taken one final voyage before working as a railway porter in Bootle. In addition to working as a railway porter, he devoted himself "to a prodiguous range of autodidactic, high cultural activities – learning the piano, regularly attending […] concerts […] reading voraciously and, above all, writing."[4] However, it was not until 1929 that his novel Drift was accepted, and this was published in February, 1930.[5]

1930s: Marriage and early works[edit]

Hanley's second novel, Boy (published by Boriswood in 1931), was praised by William Faulkner amongst others, but was later, in 1934, suppressed for obscenity.[6] This led to a famous court case which Hanley's publisher lost.[7]

Hanley moved to near Corwen, North Wales in 1931, where he met Dorothy Enid "Timothy" Thomas, neé Heathcote, a descendant of Lincolnshire nobility. They lived together and had a child, Liam Powys Hanley, in 1933, but did not marry until 1947.[8][9]

Hanley published two further novels about life at sea Ebb and Flood (1932) and Captain Bottell (1933), before publishing The Furys (1935), the first in a sequence of five loosely autobiographical novels about working class life in Liverpool. In 1938 Hollow Sea was published, "A major novel" that "could have been a great one".[10]

As war was approaching, In July 1939, Hanley moved to London, to write documentaries and plays for the BBC.[11] His direct experience of the Blitz is seen in his novel No Directions (published with an introduction by Henry Miller in 1943). He moved back to Wales, to Llanfechain, the other side of the Berwyn Mountains from Corwen, in the early years of the war, where he remained until 1963, when the Hanleys moved to North London, close to their son Liam.[12]

After World War II[edit]

In the 1950s he wrote some of "his finest novels", Closed Harbour (1952), The Welsh Sonata (1954), Levine (1956), and An End and a Beginning (1958), the final volume of the Furys sequence.[13] Then in the 1960s, because of his lack of financial success as a novelist, Hanley turned to writing plays for radio, television, and occasionally the theatre.[14] Hanley returned to the novel form in the 1970s, publishing Another World, A Woman in the Sky (1973), A Dream Journey (1976) and The Kingdom (1978), all of which "were positively received".[15] Several of Hanley's later novels were derived from earlier plays.[16]

Hanley's final novel, The Kingdom, was the last of several works with Welsh setting that include a section of Don Quixote Drowned (1953), The Welsh Sonata (1954), and Another World (1972), as well as Grey Children (1937), a non-fiction work on unemployment in South Wales.

Hanley also frequently published short stories and book reviews, throughout his career, and some of these stories were subsequently collected and published in book form.[17]

Hanley published an autobiographical work, Broken Water: An Autobiographical Excursion in 1937, and while this generally presents a true overall picture of his life, it is seriously flawed, incomplete and inaccurate. Chris Gostick describes it as "a teasing palimpsest of truth and imagination".[18]

Hanley's brother was the novelist Gerald Hanley and his nephew the American novelist and playwright William Hanley. James Hanley's wife also published three novels, as Timothy Hanley. She died in 1980. James Hanley himself died in 1985. He was buried in Llanfechain, Wales.[19]

In 2001, to mark what was then believed to be the centennial of James Hanley's birth, a one day conference was held in Cambridge, while in 2002 the University of Wales published a major study of James Hanley's life and work: James Hanley: Modernism and the Working Class, by John Fordham.

St. Garmon's Church Llanfechain. The Hanleys lived in Llanfechain from December 1940 until 1963, and Hanley was buried there.


1930s and 1940s[edit]

Hanley's first publication, the novel Drift (1930), was written under the influence of James Joyce, as a quotation blurb on the cover of the cheap edition of 1932 underlines: "The portraits of Joe Rourke and his mother are, indeed, two of the most profound expressions of the Catholic soul I have yet seen; truer and finer, in my opinion, than anything in Joyce’s A Portrait of an Artist or the vicious caricatures of Liam O’Flaherty".[20] While Drift is about an Irish Catholic family, the setting is Liverpool, and in the 1930s Hanley wrote largely about the Irish community in Liverpool, especially with the semi-autobiographical novels about the Fury family, The Furys (1935), The Secret Journey (1936), and Our Time is Gone (1940), as well as Ebb and Flood (1932). Hanley wrote two further novels about the Furys of Liverpool, Winter Song (1950), and An End and a Beginning (1958), though Irish and especially Roman Catholic characters continue to have a significant role throughout most of Hanley’s career.[21]

James Hanley consistently explored the lives of men and women "in extremis", that is in dramatically precarious states of fear and isolation, which tend to lead to violence and madness.[22] A grim early example is in the novella The Last Voyage (1931). John Reilly is a fireman who is still working only because he has lied about his age, and now faces his last voyage.[23] Reilly although he is in his mid-sixties has a young family, and therefore the family will have to live on his inadequate pension.[24] In another sense this is Reilly's last voyage, because despairing as to the future he throws himself into the ship’s furnace: “Saw all his life illuminated in those flames. ‘Not much for us. Sweat, sweat. Pay off. Sign on. Sweat, sweat. Pay off. Finish. Ah, well!’”.[25][26]

In Boy (1931) young Fearon’s isolation and suffering arise because no one cares for him. The story of Boy is "sordid and horrible".[27] The young protagonist’s parents are only interested in the wages he can earn, and encourage him to leave school as soon as possible.[28] Likewise society is unconcerned about the harsh, unhealthy conditions he endures cleaning ships’ boilers. Then, when he goes to sea, he is sexually abused by his fellow seamen. Finally, when young Fearon is dying in agony from a venereal disease caught in a Cairo brothel, his Captain smothers him.[29]

It is not surprising that Hanley should show an interest in such extreme situations, given his early awareness of the precariousness of life in the working class world that he came from. Hanley would also have sensed, very early in his life, that individual lives of the working poor and their children was of little value in a modern industrial city like Liverpool.[30] All this encouraged his exploration not only of working class life but also the emotional life of characters on the periphery of society.

There is an exploration of another type of extreme situation in those works of Hanley which deal with a shipwreck, such as “Narrative” (1931), and the World War II novels The Ocean (1941), Sailor’s Song (1943), though these extreme situations are undergone by groups of men, and “were primarily inspiriting in their representation of maritime heroism”.[31]

After World War II[edit]

Characters in extreme situations is also the subject three novels of Hanley's maturity, published in the 1950s, The Closed Harbour (1952), Levine (1956) and the last of the Furys saga, An End and a Beginning (1958), where the male protagonists, following some trauma, are both unemployed and isolated from family and society.[32]

Hanley’s protagonists tend to be solitary figures and his concern is with loneliness, rootlessness, violence and madness and "he was never a political novelist or propagandist".[33] His described himself as an anarchist, in a statement sent to International Pen. "I have been labelled a 'Proletarian writer' [… which] is to be party to more than one quite absurd theory, one of which is that only one section society is evil, and only one section capable of soaring; this message comes out of Communist vacuums […] My whole attitude is anarchial (sic), I do not believe in the State at all ".[34]

Works set in Wales[edit]

Hanley lived a large part of his writing life, from 1931 until 1963, in Wales, and wrote several works with a Welsh setting and subject matter.[35] The first full length work was Grey Children: A Study in Humbug and Misery (1937). The subject matter of this non-fiction work, unemployment in industrial South Wales, though has more in common with Hanley’s novels of the 1930s about the struggles of working class Liverpudleians. In genre Grey Children belongs with George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier, published earlier in 1937.[36]

It was not, however, until 1953, over twenty years after Hanley moved to Wales, with the publication of “Anatomy of Llangyllwch”, in Don Quixote Drowned, that he wrote at length about that part of rural North Wales where he lived. Hanley uses the fictional name “Llangyllwch” for the village of Llanfechain, where the Hanleys moved in the early 1940s, on the other side of the Berwyn Mountains from Corwen, close to the English border.[37] This is a series of essays and anecdotes about the villagers of Llangyllwch/Llanfechain, though the boundary between fact and fiction is vague.[38]

A local character from Llanfechain was the source of the central character, Rhys, in The Welsh Sonata (1954), which was Hanley’s first full-length novel with a Welsh setting.[39] This novel marks an important step forward in Hanley’s attempt to give form to his feelings about Wales. The Welsh Sonata is narrated from the perspective of Welsh characters, and Hanley occasional uses Welsh words, and he adopts, at times, a poetic style.[40]

Almost twenty years after The Welsh Sonata, in 1972, Hanley’s second Welsh novel, Another World appeared. One critic found in this work “deafening echoes of Under Milk Wood", while another saw allusions to “the magical quality of The Mabinogion".[41]

Hanley’s third Welsh novel, A Kingdom (1978), published "remarkably" when he was 80, was his last novel.[42] As he had been living in North London since 1963, this is very much written at a distance.[43] There is a suggestion of the influence of the austere poetry of Hanley’s friend, Welsh poet-priest, R. S. Thomas rather than Dylan Thomas, in this "elegiac evocation of hill-farm life".[44]

Works for radio, television and the theatre[edit]

In addition these novels wote many plays for radio and television, as well as occasionally for the theatre. While he wrote mostly for the BBC, it appears that his plays were also produced in several other countries, including the CBC in Canada.[45] Hanley play Say Nothing was on stage for a month at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East in 1962 and off Broadway, New York, in 1965, while Inner Journey was on stage in Hamburg in 1966, as well as New York's Lincoln Center for a month in 1969.[46]


Following Hanley's death in 1985 there has been the occasional reprinting, including, by Harvill The Last Voyage and Other Stories (1997) and The Ocean (1999); and more recently by OneWorld Classics, Boy (2007) – with an invaluable biographical postscript by Chris Gostick – and The Closed Harbour (2009). Several titles are also available from Fabers reprints on demand service.

In terms of both James Hanley's reputation and our understanding of his work, an important landmark was the publication in 2002 of John Fordham's James Hanley: Modernism and the Working Class by the University of Wales Press. Particularly useful is his suggestion that Hanley is not simply a realist or naturalist, but because of his use of expressionistic techniques, should be seen more in the context of modernism.[47] Fordham's study also contains important, new biographical material.

Hanley never achieved major success as a writer, even though he often received favourable reviews, both in Britain and America and counted amongst his admirers E.M. Forster, T. E. Lawrence, John Cowper Powys, Anthony Burgess, Henry Green and Doris Lessing.[48] John Cowper Powys in his "Preface" to James Hanley's Men in Darkness (1931), comments: "There are few people who could read these powerful and terrible tales without being strongly affected" (ix). And more recently Alberto Manguel questions: "Why one of the major 20th century writers should have suffered such a fickle fate is a question to which, no doubt, modern readers will have to answer to the sound of the Author's final trumpets".[49]



  • Drift (1930)
  • Boy (1931)
  • Ebb and Flood (1932)
  • Captain Bottell (1933)
  • Resurrexit Dominus (1934)
  • The Furys (1935)
  • Stoker Bush (1935)
  • The Secret Journey 1936
  • Hollow Sea (1938)
  • Our Time is Gone (1940)
  • The Ocean (1941)
  • No Directions (1943)
  • Sailor’s Song (1943)
  • What Farrar Saw (1946)
  • Emily (1948)
  • A Walk in the Wilderness (1950)
  • Winter Song (1950)
  • The House in the Valley (pseudonym Patrick Shone) (1951)
  • The Closed Harbour (1952)
  • The Welsh Sonata (1954)
  • Levine (1956)
  • An End and a Beginning (1958)
  • Another World (1972)
  • A Woman in the Sky (1973)
  • A Dream Journey (1976)
  • A Kingdom (1978)
  • Against the Stream (1981). Published, under the pseudonym of Patric Shone, as The House in the Valley (1951)

Short fiction[edit]

  • The German Prisoner (1930)
  • A Passion before Death (1930)
  • Men in Darkness: Five Stories (1931)
  • The Last Voyage and Other Stories (1931)
  • Half an Eye (1937)
  • People Are Curious (1938)
  • Between the Tides (1939)
  • At Bay and Other Stories (1945)
  • Crilley and Other Stories (1945)
  • Selected Stories (1947)


  • The Inner Journey: Play in three acts (1965)
  • A Stone Flower: Plays One (1968)


  • Broken Water: An Autobiographical Excurssion (1937)
  • Don Quixote Drowned (1953)


  • Grey Children: A Study in Humbug and Misery (1937)

Works for radio and television[edit]

Selected: See Gibbs and BBC Archives for a fuller bibliography.

  • Convoy (a documentary drama about merchant seamen). BBC Radio, 30 May 1941.
  • Return to Danger (documentary). BBC Radio, 15 January 1942.
  • Shadows before Sunrise (drama, about the Russian composer Moussorgsky). BBC Radio, Home Service, 6 December 1942.
  • Winter's Journey (drama). CBC Radio (Canada), 29 January 1957.
  • Gobbet (drama: Inner Journey was based on Gobbet)). BBC Radio, Third Programme, 6 October 1959.
  • Say Nothing (drama). BBC Radio, Third Programme, 25 April 1961.
  • The Furys (drama) BBC Radio, North, Northern Ireland: a weekly serial from 21 September to 26 November 1961.
  • Say Nothing (drama). BBC TV, 19 February 1964; CBC TV, 5 May 1965.
  • Inner World of Miss Vaughn (drama, eventually became the novel, Another World). BBC TV, 1 April 1964.
  • Another Port, Another Town (drama) Granada TV [London], 4 May 1964.
  • One Way Only (drama: later became the novel Woman in the Sky). BBC Radio, Third Programme, 10 December 1967; CBC radio 8 December 1968.
  • It Wasn't Me (drama) BBC TV, 17 December 1969.
  • The Furys (based on the novel). Serialized on BBC Radio, February/March 2001.

Critical studies[edit]

  • Paul Binding, “Reappraisal” in The Fiction Magazine, Spring 1983
  • John Fordham, James Hanley: Modernism and the Working Class (2002)
  • Linneae Gibbs, James Hanley: A Bibliography (1980)
  • Chris Gostick, "Extra Material on James Hanley's Boy". In the Oneworld Classics edition of Boy (2007). ISBN 978-1-84749-006-3
  • Anderson, Kristin. A Queer Sort: A Review of James Hanley's Boy. The Dublin Review of Books
  • John Cowper Powys, "Preface" to Men in Darkness (1931)
  • Edward Stokes, The Novels of James Hanley (1964)


  1. ^ Gostick, "Extra Material", pp.182-3.
  2. ^ An important biographical source is Chris Gostick's "Extra Material on James Hanley's Boy", in the OneWorld Classics edition of Boy (2007), pp. 181-4.
  3. ^ Gostick, "Extra Material, pp.184-5.
  4. ^ John Fordham, James Hanley: Modernism and the Working Class (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2002), p.94.
  5. ^ Gostick, pp185-6.
  6. ^ Edward Stokes, The Novels of James Hanley (Melbourne: F. W. Cheshire, 1964), p.34, re Faulkner
  7. ^ Liam Hanley "Preface" to Boy (London: OneWorld Classics, 2007), pp. vii-ix.
  8. ^ Gostick, pp.187-8.
  9. ^ Fordham, pp.139, 266 fn18.
  10. ^ Edward Stokes, The Novels of James Hanley, p. 119.
  11. ^ Fordham, pp.161-62.
  12. ^ Gostick, pp.189-90,192, and Fordham, pp. 225-26
  13. ^ Gostick,. 190-91
  14. ^ Gostick, pp.190-92.
  15. ^ Gostick, p. 203.
  16. ^ Linea Gibbs, James Hanley: A Bibliography, pp.169, 170.
  17. ^ Linnea Gibbs, James Hanley: A Bibliography.
  18. ^ Gostick, p.181. Fordham and Gostick are the most reliable biographical sources.
  19. ^ Gostick, p.193.
  20. ^ London: Joiner and Steele, 1932. A quotation from The Referee.
  21. ^ See Fordham, pp.185, 187, 188, 201.
  22. ^ Kristin Anderson, "A Queer Sort", review of One Worlds Classics' edition (2007) of Boy. Dublin Review of Books: [1]
  23. ^ Stokes, p.90.
  24. ^ Stokes, p.16.
  25. ^ Paul Binding, "Man Against Fate", a review of James Hanley's Last Voyage and Other Stories. Times Literary Supplement, 5 December 1997, p.21.
  26. ^ Last Voyage and Other Stories (London: Harvill Press, 1997, p.43.
  27. ^ Edward Stokes, The Novels of James Hanley, p.28.
  28. ^ Stokes, p.28.
  29. ^ Stokes, pp.28-32.
  30. ^ Paul Binding, "Man Against Fate", p.21.
  31. ^ Fordham, p165.
  32. ^ Stokes, pp.158-165, 165-174, 79-85.
  33. ^ Stokes, p.201.
  34. ^ originally from P.E.N. online archives.
  35. ^ Fordham, pp.138-39, 225-26.
  36. ^ Fordham, p.158.
  37. ^ Fordham, pp. 203-4.
  38. ^ Fordham, p.204.
  39. ^ Fordham, p.210.
  40. ^ Fordham, p.210-13.
  41. ^ Aubron Waugh, The Spectator, 17 June 1972: 934; Mary McBride, Library Journal 97, August 1972: 2643.
  42. ^ Neil Reeve, "Introduction" to the Parthian edition of A Kingdom (2014), p.iii.
  43. ^ Neil Reeve, "Introduction", p.iii.
  44. ^ Neil Reeve, "Introduction", p.ii.
  45. ^ see Gibbs, pp.168–70.
  46. ^ Gibbs, p.175
  47. ^ See pp.116-7, for example.
  48. ^ For Forster, Green and Powys, see Linnea Gibbs, James Hanley: A Bibliography, p. 127; for T. E. Lawrence see Linnea Gibbs, p.21; for Anthony Burgess "Introduction" to Boy. (OneWorlds Classics, 2007), pp.i-vi; and for Lessings see Neil Reeve, "Introduction" to the Parthian edition of A Kingdom (2014), p.iii.
  49. ^ The Independent, 13 December 1997.

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