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Larry and Nancy: where were we?
her domineering husband. These Hodgkin sensitively unpicks, finding the reality ‘far more complex’. Miller, to do him justice, encouraged her to keep up her painting, hardly any examples of which, alas, survive. Come the war, they were back in Greece, where Larry acquired a job with the British Council, and awaiting the arrival of their daughter, Penelope. There was a further relocation to Egypt, ahead of the Nazi invasion, where Larry worked as a press attaché at the British Embassy. In summer 1942, bored and disillusioned, Nancy wrote from Jerusalem to tell him the relationship was over.
It would take an exceptionally tolerant student of the Durrells’ marriage not to end up making a few judgements on the people involved in it. Self-centred, breastbeating Larry distinguishes himself by a near-complete indifference to his wife’s feelings, ambitions and emotional and sexual wellbeing (‘Another panic this month over Nancy’s period. That girl is a pest’) and by returning the words ‘Why don’t you shut up?’ to most of her attempts at conversation. Nancy, while deserving the Catherine Dickens Award for longsuffering stoicism in the face of husbandly vainglory, rates a second trophy for habitual vagueness. Among various high-grade achievements in this field, she is unable to remember where she and her spouse first met (‘in a pub, or somewhere’), details of her artistic commissions (‘he wanted me to do a drawing of some sort, a woodcut of two animals’) and even, when it came to the protracted divorce proceedings, the date of their marriage.
At least some of this talent for imprecision has rubbed off on Joanna Hodgkin, her daughter, who can’t decide whether Nancy is six or only three inches taller than her diminutive first husband, and at one point describes a cartoon she contributed to Graham Greene’s short-lived weekly magazine Night and Day as depicting a caveman dragging a cavewoman out of a wood, whereas it clearly shows a Roman soldier clad in chain mail and sandals. On the other hand, the animating spirit that pulses through this joint biography is thoroughly to be applauded. As the product of Nancy’s second marriage, to the infinitely nicer-sounding Edward Hodgkin, Joanna Hodgkin clearly burns to tug her silent, ironic and intermittently glacial mother out of the shadow in which she happily sequestrated herself (Nancy died in 1983, leaving a fragmentary memoir). Hodgkin’s final judgement, inspired by a Durrell memorial event on Corfu, is that Nancy’s supporting role in bringing ‘all these people to this place at this particular moment’ was ‘quite an achievement’. Loyally, if somewhat haphazardly written, full of arresting details from the Miller ménage and the perilous wartime escape across the Mediterranean, Amateurs in Eden is full of good things, while never quite convincing the reader that the material is strong enough for its rather exorbitant length. To order this book for £20, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 36
The great Bicentennial Dickens Jubilee Olympics are upon us. On television, radio, in the theatre, on film and even in the bookshops, there is no escape from garbled versions of the work and accounts of the man. How many people will actually read the novels in 2012 is another matter, but some of the books under review might encourage them to engage with a more authentic Dickens. The onevolume The Selected Letters of Charles Dickens (Oxford University Press 458pp £20) is a good place to start. While Simon Callow’s claim that ‘if not a single novel or story of Dickens were to survive, his letters alone would constitute one of the glories of English literature’ may be an exaggeration, they do give a vivid impression of this extraordinary and multifaceted man. Jenny Hartley has risen splendidly to the difficult challenge of making a representative choice from c at h e r i n e p e t e r s
Sparkler of Albion the twelve-volume Pilgrim Collected Letters. An affordable selection of this quality has long been needed, and Dickens lovers will all be grateful to Hartley for her skill and judgement.
Another essential volume for the reader of Dickens is the new ‘Anniversary Edition’ of The Oxford Companion to Charles Dickens (Oxford University Press 675pp £25), the first for a decade. It has a wonderfully informative index, always a good indication of a really well-conceived companion. As well as the obvious themes and subjects, there are entries on all the literary and theatrical figures of the age who had any connection with Dickens, some of them too obscure to figure in other guides to Victorian literature. I wish OUP would also reissue an equally treasured volume, The Dickens Index (Oxford University Press, 1988), which, as well as giving biographical information, is the most complete guide to the details of Dickens’s fiction. The Oxford Companion has lengthy and informative entries on each of the novels, but the Index is a treasure chest of unexpected facts. If you want to know who Pedlar and Pool were, or where Jerry Cruncher lived, The Dickens Index is the only place to look. I am convinced it would still sell well, in print or online.
OUP have also unearthed Dickens’s anonymously published Sketches of Young Gentlemen (1838) and Sketches of Young Couples (1840), sequels to Sketches of Young Ladies by the forgotten Edward Caswall, also included in the same volume (Oxford University Press 221pp £9.99). Where Caswall generalises and
Literary Review | f e b r u a r y 2 0 1 2 12 l i t e r a r y l i v e s flattens, Dickens individualises, starting to turn sketch into story, ‘character’ into person, by adding dialogue and embryonic storylines. It is surprising that his cover was not blown, for the satiric, pathetic and humorous early Dickens is clearly seen in ‘The Bashful Young Gentleman’ and his mishaps at the dinner-table, or ‘The Theatrical Young Gentleman’ and his claimed inside knowledge. There are hints in ‘The Plausible Couple’ that were later to be developed into the Veneerings in Our Mutual Friend.
Hilary Macaskill’s Charles Dickens at Home (Frances Lincoln 144pp £25) is a lavishly illustrated piece of heritage book-making that describes the various places Dickens lived and visited. It provides a good guide for the ‘Dickens Trail’ tourist, giving information about the settings of the novels – though little on the novels themselves – and an outline of Dickens’s life. This is soft-focus Dickens, with the difficult and upsetting elements smoothed over. Catherine Dickens ‘left the matrimonial home’, with no suggestion that she was forced out, and a photograph of Ellen Ternan is captioned ‘a close companion’. There is little description of the places where Ternan lived and Dickens stayed under various aliases. The photographs are mostly modern, and illustrations to the novels are often from sentimental Edwardian editions rather than those of Phiz and Cruikshank.
More restricted in scope, but all the better for its narrower emphasis is Dickens’s London by Peter Clark (Haus 130pp £9.99). This is a small, delightful book, handsomely produced and shaped to fit an overcoat pocket, describing walks around parts of London associated with Dickens’s life and writings. Five walks in central London are described in detail, with well chosen black-and-white photographs and maps which mark the Dickens associations en route. Six peripheral areas are covered more briefly. A neat device is the use of bold type for quotations from Dickens. The book is dedicated to Clark’s grandson, and it would be fun to do these walks with a teenager reading Dickens for the first time.
Finally two widely contrasting books, both important additions to our understanding of Dickens. The first is a rough nugget of important research, the second a sparkling gem of biography. In Charles Dickens and the Blacking Factory (Oxford-Stockley Publications 320pp £24.95) Michael Allen, author of Charles Dickens’ Childhood (1988, revised 2012), has investigated a crucial period of Dickens’s early life. His book is not easy reading, but the information in it will be taken seriously by Dickens scholars. Allen has unearthed, patiently worked through and transcribed a mass of legal material from the National Archives, much of it handwritten and unpunctuated, documenting
Dickens and his characters, by J R Brown (1889)
actions for breach of copyright and ‘passing off ’ between different branches of the Warren family during and after the time Dickens worked in one of the Warren blacking factories. He has also transcribed criminal court proceedings for embezzlement and receiving stolen goods, and delved into the official records to discover the links between the Lamerte family and their relations by marriage, the Woodds and the Worms – names so Dickensian they seem scarcely credible. During Dickens’s time at the blacking factory the owner was actually William Woodd rather than anyone called Warren. All were Jewish, and some were criminal: Henry Worms was sent to the hulks and then transported, leaving behind a wife and eight children. Allen makes a good case for considering him to have inspired both
Fagin and Magwitch. These documents are printed in full and make up about half the book with other archive material.
Allen’s new information also casts doubt on aspects of Dickens’s account of his time in the blacking factory, used by Forster and every subsequent biographer. According to this account, his aunt’s stepson, James Lamerte, who lodged with the Dickens family and first encouraged his interest in the theatre, found a job for the twelve-year-old in Warren’s Blacking Factory at 30 Hungerford Stairs. The boy worked – he could not remember for exactly how long – in the rat-infested, ruinous building until the business moved to Chandos Street off the Strand. There he worked with other boys in the large window, attracting the notice of crowds of passers-by, which increased Dickens’s sense of humiliation and despair. In August 1824 his father quarrelled with James Lamerte, and his son left the blacking factory.
Allen has found no record of anyone called James Lamerte in any branch of the family. The only person who fits the profile is George Lamerte, born in 1802, whom Dickens names as the general manager at Hungerford Stairs and Chandos Street when he was there. Why Dickens remembered (or chose to present) one person as two is an intriguing psychological enigma. The business moved to Chandos Street early in 1824, which also brings into question how long – if at all – Dickens was employed at Hungerford Stairs. Allen has a tentative solution to this, which I do not find entirely credible. I hope there is more to discover; Michael Allen is the person to do it.
Simon Callow does not claim to be a Dickens scholar, but he is steeped in Dickens’s writing, and he knows Dickens inside out. He has spent years performing in Dickens adaptations, recreating Dickens’s readings, and as much as anyone can, becoming Dickens. His Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World (HarperPress 220pp £16.99) is a comprehensive biography as enthralling as one of his own performances. Among its many merits is Callow’s entertaining and engaging account of Dickens’s essentially theatrical view of the world, which Dickens himself was very well aware of.
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