Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 27, 2013

Anne of the Iron Door (2011), by Alan Loney

Anne of the Iron Door

I’m still to catch up on my reviews, the books I read while I was away but didn’t have time to blog here.  But this one I read on the night I came home, and I just have to tell you about it straight away.

Anne of the Iron Door, by Kiwi Alan Loney is an enchanting little novella that I discovered quite by accident, all by myself. I’ve never seen a review of it, nor so much as a mention anywhere – I had to add it to GoodReads myself because it didn’t even have a listing there.  Which just goes to show that the market does not always work as it should, because this book deserves attention it does not seem to have had.

Perhaps ANZ LitLovers can help to redress that lack of attention? This little blog gets about 10,000 hits per month with visitors from around the world, so I am hoping that some of you will be tempted to find out about this little treasure for yourselves and that the Black Pepper website will be inundated with orders.

The Black Pepper publishing company is a very small outfit here in Melbourne, producing mainly poetry but also a really interesting prose list.  Here on this blog I’ve reviewed

It was while I was visiting the Black Pepper website to add their link to one or other of these reviews that I stumbled on Anne of the Iron Door by Alan Loney.  Who could not be captivated by the cover art, which is a detail from a German tapestry? And then when I read the blurb, well of course I had to buy it:

In the city of Strasbourg in 1436, a woman sued the father of printing, Johann Gutenberg, for breach of promise. Her name was Ennelin zu der Iserin Tur, in English, Anne of the Iron Door. The outcome of the court case is not known, but it is known that Gutenberg never married, and he did pay taxes for ‘another person’ in Strasbourg sometime before 1440. Not much is known of Gutenberg the man, although a number of official documents still exist that mention him.

Of Anne we know practically nothing beyond her remarkable name. In Alan Loney’s extraordinary fable he uses the historical records to weave a fictional life for Anne, almost purely for the purpose of keeping her name alive. In Anne of the Iron Door Loney creates a world of deceit and betrayal, disease, unicorns, playing cards, the birth of printing, and a strange tale of mutually unrequited love.

Gutenberg! Now there’s a name to conjure with!  But what I really loved about this book was the characterisation of Anne – called Enne in the story – and her mother, Elle.  And I loved the author’s storytelling style – it was as if he were sitting on my sofa with an after-dinner glass of wine in his hand, telling the story of these three to my guests and to me, enlisting us in the tale, making us complicit in the decisions he has made about how to tell it, confiding that it’s a fable and hardly a word of it is true and yet making us believe in it implicitly. In the process Loney transforms the name Gutenberg into a rich, vivid image of a man both loving and loved.

Here’s how the tale begins:

There was a man who changed the world, and a woman who changed him.  His name was Johann, her name was Ennelin.  He became very famous, but hardly anything is known about her.  Her full name was Ennelin zu der Iserin Tür.  In English she is Anne of the Iron Door.  Let’s call her Enne, as he did.  Her name and her invisibility has haunted me for years.

His full name was Johann Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg, where Gutenberg was the name of the family house in which he was born.  These days we tend to call him Gutenberg, but in his day he was called, and his name spelled, in all sorts of ways – Henchen, Henchin, Hengin, Henn, Henne, Johan, Johann, Johannes, Hans, Hanns, Hanss, Hannsse.  I was tempted to call him Henne, but then his name and hers would be almost identical.  Let’s call him Johann, as Enne did.

Enne and Johann were in love, and each loved the other until each of them died.  You may say that being in love is not special.  Millions have done it, and for many it was not special in the long run, and for a number of others it cost them their lives.  You are right.  But if things become special because you focus on them, then let’s adopt this view of Enne and Johann.  (p.1.)

The world of Enne and Johann is complex, mostly because of money.  Johann needed it for the long years that he experimented in secret and he wasn’t very good at managing his affairs, while Enne and her mother had a social position to uphold and only a courtesan’s means of maintaining it.  But this was the early 15th century, and although they were patricians Enne and her mother were not at court, and when a hand is unwisely over-played things go most horribly wrong.  The iron door that slams shut on the love of Enne and Johann is cruel indeed yet this is a playful book, playing with prose and poetry, and patterns and pictures.  The engravings are charming, and add to the cunning symbolism.  They’re also a vivid reminder of the significance of Gutenberg’s invention.

I have seen a Gutenberg Bible at the British Library, and I’ve read about the man at Wikipedia.  But it’s only now – having read this work of invention that keeps reminding me that it’s not true – that I feel as if I know the man – and the brave, honourable woman who loved him.

Alan Loney blogs at Electio Editions.

You can also read the launch speech by Alex Skovron (who wrote that marvellous book The Poet) but beware, he refers here and there to matters I have chosen to omit because I took so much delight in the constant element of surprise in this book.

Author: Alan Loney
Title: Anne of the Iron Door
Publisher: Black Pepper 2011
ISBN: 9781876044695
Source: Personal library, purchased from the publisher’s website $26.95


I don’t think you can get a copy from anywhere except direct from the publisher.


  1. Oh, it does sound very sweet, Lisa.

    This reminds me of my experiences with similiar small presses in Ireland — I buy lots direct from New Island Press and Liliput Press, and every time I go to review these books on GoodReads I have to actually create the entry for them. Mind you, the other day I had to create the entry for Jennifer Johnston’s new book, which infuriated me — I really do think she’s getting a raw deal from her publisher.

    But anyway, thanks for letting me know about Black Pepper publishing… I’ll be sure to check out its site.


    • That is odd about Jennifer Johnson, you’d think major authors wouldn’t have that kind of problem. It’s understandable with small publishers, and (provided I’ve got time) I don’t mind doing it for them.
      PS Love the name Liliput Press! Clever, like SPUNC (Small Press Underground Networking Community)


  2. This sounds fascinating Lisa .. love the style from what you’ve quoted … we went to the town where he lived – Mainz – on our last trip. His is fascinating story of commitment and perseverance. They (the museum I mean) mentioned his personal life a little, but he is definitely a if not the major son of Mainz. I need to check out this book.


    • Excellent, because when you review it, it will get more publicity!


      • Trouble is, you know me … I’m so behind. I’ve barely spent half an hour a day reading over the last couple of weeks. So little time has never been truer than it has been this Xmas period.


        • I’m the opposite, I’ve had time to read (who can sleep in a Queensland bedroom that isn’t air-conditioned?) but not to write reviews. I still can’t believe the way the internet connection fades in and out up there, I mean, Burleigh Waters is hardly the remote outback … oh well, I’m enjoying catching up:)


          • It’s a worry isn’t it – we find that at the NSW South Coast too, though things may have got better there since we last spent real time there.


  3. This sounds so good. I’ve put in a request for my library to purchase this one – it may raise the profile a little if the request is approved and the word is spread….


  4. […] of these ideas morph into longer works, like those of Alexis Wright,  Brian Castro, Murray Bail, Alan Loney and Gerald Murnane whose ‘experimental’ fictions I really […]


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