Charlotte M. Kelly
WHEN I WAS TEN I WROTE A POEM
Blarney Castle is now very old,
About it a story is told
Of a wonderful stone in the wall:
If you kiss it you're likely to fall.
After this remarkable effusion
the Muse mercifully abandoned me, and for the next twenty years
my pen was inactive. Not so myself. I finished my education at
the Bar Convent, York, the oldest school for Catholic girls in
England, I spent a year in Lille, teaching English and studying
French, with a passing glance at the history, literature and
art of France. There was a winter in Switzerland, some leisured
months on the Riviera, a delectable spring on the Italian Lakes,
and a rapid tour of Belgium. Here was material for the aspiring
writer, but it just never occurred to me to use it, except in
voluminous letters to my friends.
Only when I settled down in
Dublin, my native city, did chance-or more properly, Providence-start
me on a career that, despite its trials and tribulations, has
given me untold joy.
It all began when someone was
asked to review a novel by Maurice Walsh for an Irish periodical.
That someone passed the job to me-if I would do it. I would,
if I could. I doubt if many books have ever received such attention
from a reviewer. I read and reread, I wrote and rewrote. Restricted
to a few hundred words, I found space for a colourful quotation
and a moral reflection. Then I copied the final draft in my best
handwriting and sent it off. I can still recall the excitement
with which I saw my masterpiece in cold print. It seemed incredible
that I-I had written it. That review was followed by others,
but still it never struck me to "write," until an enterprising
editor of the same periodical gave me my first commission. It
was one that today would fill me with dismay, but then I tackled
it cheerfully. Would I do three 3,000 word articles on the brothers
Vrau, industrialists in the north of France and pioneers of Catholic
Action? The source from which I was to get my information was
a closely printed 400 page biography published early this century
in French. I had never heard of the Vraus, but the town in which
they lived was, by the dispensation of Providence, the one where
I had learned my French. I knew the background, I knew the language.
All I had to do was to write the articles. Well, I wrote them-I
don't know how long I took, months probably-and they were published
unaltered. I was a writer.
About this time, I began to
work in the Central Catholic Library, Dublin, and, fired with
enthusiasm, took a course in library training in University College.
I was duly conferred with my Diploma, but I never got a job as
a librarian, though I did and still do voluntary work in the
Central Catholic Library. This is the place to pay tribute to
the invaluable help that I and many other writers have received
from the Library. But for it, I should never have been able to
In 1931, I used the first money
I had earned with my pen to visit my old school in York and was
invited to record my "impressions" in the school magazine.
This is where Providence really took a hand. One of the "old
girls" to whom the magazine was sent was married to a member
of an English Catholic publishing firm. He read what I had written
and sent me a friendly and unofficial-how unofficial I was to
learn later-invitation to write a book for girls, using the school
as background. "But I can't write a whole book!" I
protested. I had never even written a short story. A well-known
writer had told me: "You can either write fiction or you
can't." This was my chance to find out if I could, or not.
I began. My characters came
to life, spoke, moved, thought, apparently of their own volition.
That was an unforgettable day. My pen (I could not type at this
period) travelled fast, presenting a photographic and embarrassingly
eulogistic picture of my school days, and with the sketchiest
of plots. As an expression of affection and gratitude it was
a pleasing production; as a story it was an arrant failure. The
publishers returned it with polite regrets. It seemed the end
of everything. In fact, it was only the beginning. That manuscript,
unpublished to this day, not only supplied me with the material
for countless short stories, it proved that I could create characters,
but that I knew nothing about plot-making. This defect was remedied
by my taking a correspondence course in short story writing,
which taught me the technique, if little else. Following that
rejection, however, came the suggestion that I try another tale,
with a Swiss background. I wrote the story. It was refused, fortunately.
For it was to be the first of a number of serials that the editor
of Ave Maria has accepted since then. I had never heard of the
magazine until some one said to me about this time: "Why
don't you write something for the Ave Maria?" Without much
hope, I sent it a little tale about a gentle French demoiselle
I had met abroad. It was accepted and I was asked for more. Thus
began a long and happy association that continues to this day.
Stories, articles, juvenile and adult serials, found a welcome
in its pages, and two of my books, a juvenile, Those Terrible
Trents (1948), and a novel, Laughter of Niobe (1949), were published
by the Ave Maria Press.
Now my years of travel began
to yield a harvest as I wrote for other American periodicals,
and for Catholic and secular publications in England and Ireland.
I have always loved writing for children. My first story for
the Catholic Children's Realm, an old-established English magazine,
appeared in the mid-thirties, and I am writing for it still,
as well as for the fat shiny Annuals that appear in London at
My endeavors to find publishers
for my books were a series of triumphs and disappointments. My
story about Switzerland, The Mystery Man, was eventually (1948)
brought out in book form in London by Newnes, years after it
had been refused. An English publisher accepted one book and
put me under contract for two more. Five years later I bought
back the unpublished manuscripts. There was a slump in the juvenile
market. . . if I could wait. I had waited long enough. The books
were subsequently serialized in the United States.
I did not confine myself to
fiction, however. An article intended for a minor Catholic magazine
was passed on to the editor of a learned quarterly, whose contributors
had strings of letters after their names. It was accepted, and
others suggested. The payment was negligible, but it was the
honour and glory to be there at all. It was then that I learned
the mingled pleasures and pains of research; the wearisome plodding
through old letters, old documents, the dusty files of newspapers,
for some essential information, the exultation of finding in
a yellowed newssheet a three inch paragraph that supplies the
clue to a baffling problem.
But a newly appointed editor,
looking in vain for letters after my name, began to wonder what
I was doing in such company. Diplomatically he accepted my next
article, but delayed publication so long that I demanded it back-
something that I'm sure none of his other contributors have ever
done. We parted without ill-feeling, but with mutual relief.
(Perhaps he had heard about the shiny Annuals!)
Should Catholics write only
about Catholics, and on subjects of Catholic interest ? That
is a question one often hears. To my mind, the answer is this:
if you want to make money don't write such books or articles;
if you want to write them, don't expect to make money-at least
in the British Isles. It's as simple as that, so take your choice.
Some writers have no choice, if they depend on the pen for a
living, and the living of others. But for those who write for
jam, rather than for bread and butter, the choice is there, unless
you happen to be a Graham Greene or a Frances Parkinson Keyes.
Personally, I am in the "writing
for jam" category. I write fiction for both Catholic and
secular publications, but my articles have usually a Catholic
interest and are published in Catholic magazines. I am a little
chary of Catholic novels, because I feel that no form of writing
has so many pitfalls. It is comparatively easy to write a poor
Catholic novel; it is immensely difficult to write a really good
one. My ambition is to write books for Catholic children; not
'pious' tales, but good honest stories such as the non-Catholic
publishers will produce, with the important addition of the background
of religion that a Catholic child takes as a matter of course.
I am never quite satisfied when I write any other kind of tale
for children. Such a book as I described, A Year for Sally Ann,
was published for me by Walker of London in 1957.
What advice would I give to
young writers? First, to thank the Almighty for an inestimable
gift; and secondly, to write and write and write, until your
fingers ache, your eyes burn, and the words cease to have any
meaning, and the pile of rejection slips mounts steadily, while
the acceptances can be counted on the fingers of one hand. If
this prospect appalls you, throw your typewriter into the river
and take a job as a dishwasher, a band leader, anything you like.
But if, disappointed, disillusioned, weary to the point of exhaustion,
you still pound away, then you have within you that something
that neither school, nor course, nor "easy-aid" can
give you: the God-given gift of creative power.