Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1092
Hanley, James 1901–
Hanley is a British novelist, playwright, short story writer, and essayist. His most distinguished works are his novels of the sea and of war in which he exhibits a tragic vision of solitary man sometimes compared to Hardy's.
A Woman in the Sky is a variation on what seems to have become [Hanley's] favourite theme: the importance attached by the lonely to the lives they have made for themselves. Every invasion, however well-meaning, is an erosion of their liberty. Usually they defend their little worlds of obsession or fantasy against all comers. In [this] book these worlds have already collapsed….
Like Another World, [this] novel carries all the confidence and conviction that Mr Hanley has brought with him from his ten-year stint as a playwright. The density of narrative which distinguished the major novels has been replaced by a kind of skeletal framework, the barest points of reference to time and place and situation.
The genius here (is it too strong a word?) lies in the way in which a characteristic density of effect builds up from such a tremendous economy of means; and in the way the simplicity, even the poverty, of common speech, the abrasive sounds of the near-inarticulate, acquire through stubbornly persistent rhythms and repetitions a richness and a depth that reveal the endless subtleties and inconsistencies of the characters, and the magic of the private worlds they create.
"Up and Out," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), October 5, 1973, p. 1157.
A Woman in the Sky is not so much about the bleakness of the cold, impersonal urban landscape—which is not to underestimate the outrage with which Hanley depicts it—as it is about the resources people find to contend with it. The most valuable of those, Hanley suggests, is human intimacy, and that is the real subject of his novel….
Hanley unfolds [his] tales of intimacy slowly, lovingly, until at the end the reader is totally engaged with the human fabric he has woven. There is true desperation in all these lives—the scene in which Mrs. Kavanaugh, alone in her room, cries out in terror against the night is profoundly frightening—but there is also compassion. Its embodiment is Lena Biddulph. She is a strange, harsh woman, who greets strangers with drunken sarcasm and shouts angrily at chilly bureaucrats. Yet the tenderness with which she cares for Brigid Kavanaugh—writing letters for her to her imaginary son, steering her through battles with the bottle, shielding her against loneliness—elevates her to a sainthood that is quite unexpected and wholly affecting.
A Woman in the Sky is a small book—terse and, when to be so is most important, reticent. But it is large with compassion, concern, understanding. It is a beautiful piece of work, with a dignity to match that of the two women who march in such odd triumph through its pages. (p. 28)
Jonathan Yardley, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 30, 1974.
James Hanley … became immediately notorious for his Boy (1931), an angry novel about the humiliations and indecencies suffered by an adolescent on a merchant steamer. Finally suppressed under British obscenity laws, the book became a cause célèbre and Hanley's reputation seemed secure. His popularity reached its flood in the late 1930s and early 1940s with several first-rate novels about the war at sea and at home in England, and with the opening volumes of his Furys saga which traced the generations and fortunes of a lower class, Liverpool-Irish family. And then it ebbed. Though praised for his "importance" by such writers as Auden, Forster, Herbert Read and Henry Green, save for a fierce and respected coterie, Hanley was hardly read in Britain by the 1950s and practically unknown in the States. In 1962, with some twenty-two novels and fifteen books of short stories behind him, and studied neglect before, Hanley published a novel, Say Nothing, and abandoned the writing of fiction….
[In 1972] Hanley broke a decade of silence with Another World. Set in Wales, where he has lived for the past forty years, it is a novel of pursuit and salvation, telling how a minister tries to save a lady recluse from a hell as private and claustrophobic as the room in which she lives. The book proved that Hanley had lost none of his force as a novelist, nor any of his compassion for those marginal people who, whether adrift at sea, terrified in a London blitz, or alone in a small Welsh rooming house, retreat to their own painful fantasies within rather than face the nightmare realities without. Like Another World, A Woman in the Sky is also a novel about loneliness and age, about that apathy bordering on the total loss of will power, and about the need to foster obsessions, if not, in fact, about the compulsion to pursue them. But it is a much bleaker and more terrifying book, and one which makes us feel the sting of death even as we witness the desperate uncoiling of life. (p. 601)
Hanley's spare style … and his long passages of staccato dialogue … strip all melodrama from the interplay of feelings, yet leave all emotions naked and still vastly human….
A Woman in the Sky is a reaching out: not to push down barriers, or to collar the reader with message and moral but to tear away the fabric society weaves about old people, more often concealing their vulnerability than protecting their individuality. (p. 602)
Robert K. Morris, "Saved and Damned by Imagination," in The Nation (copyright 1974 by the Nation Associates, Inc.), May 11, 1974, pp. 601-02.
On the evidence of A Woman in the Sky Hanley is a writer to be taken very seriously. His prose is spare, clipped, almost palpably careful, yet it is charged with a deep undercurrent of emotion. Hanley is writing about people who "don't matter," and with great tenderness he shows us how very much indeed they do matter. (p. 538)
A Woman in the Sky is one of those books that we reviewers persist in calling "minor," as if we were reluctant to go on record with the vigorous praise we actually feel. So let me say that this novel is not minor at all. In compassion, feeling, sheer human understanding, it is enormous. Hanley's people are as real as any you will meet anywhere, and their unexpected, quirky triumphs will move you profoundly. (p. 540)
Jonathan Yardley, in Sewanee Review (reprinted by permission of the editor; © 1974 by The University of the South), Summer, 1974.