by Daniel Pool
Review by Cathleen Myers
Remember the episode of Blackadder III in which the clueless servant Baldric used the only copy of Dr. Samuel Johnson’s still unpublished Dictionary to light a fire in the Prince Regent’s sitting room? Preposterous, you say? Except that the episode happens to be based on a true story. In the mid-19th century, long before the advent of the Xerox machine, Thomas Carlyle lent John Stuart Mills the only copy of Volume I of his History of the French Revolution - which Mills’ maid used to light the fire.
Also stranger than fiction is the true story of W.H. Smith, whose rise from clerk to Publishing Magnate to Secretary of the Admiralty inspired the character of Sir Joseph Porter, KCB, in H.M.S. Pinafore. In a moment worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan, as Smith rose to take his Honorary Degree at Oxford, a chorus of undergraduate burst into song: "Stick close to your desk and never go to sea/And you all may be Rulers of The Queen’s Navee!"
In the words of the Prince Regent himself, Dickens’ Fur Coat and Charlotte’s Unanswered Letters is a cracking good read, using an anecdotal approach to tell the story of the evolution of the Novel Publishing Biz into a mega-business in the 19th century. Like a good Victorian novel, Pool’s book interweaves several tragic-comic plots, including the rags to riches rise of Charles Dickens, master of the serialized novel; the true story of the Bronte sisters’ rise to international stardom - a tale as romantic as any of their novels; the rise of Mudie’s - the most fashionable of all Circulating Libraries and the three-decker novels they popularized; the rise of the literary publicist, the gossip columnist, and the cult of the Celebrity Author; and the various author sex scandals that rocked the publishing business - and were terrific for business.
Pool (best known as the author of the readable but occasionally inaccurate reference book What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew) is not really a professional historian but a widely read amateur in love with the 19th century. His novelistic prose style is delightful but his inexperience occasionally shows: Rosina Bulwer-Lytton, the beautiful, allegedly mad wife of the popular novelist, was never "Lady Rosina" but the daughter of an Irish commoner; Pool - who included a chapter on the English peerage in his first book - should know that a woman below the rank of Earl’s daughter doesn’t become "Lady Rosina" just because her husband is created a baronet or even an earl; she was Rosina, Lady Bulwer-Lytton. Why can’t Americans get this right?
Pool also wonders, fatuously, why so many good female novelists had difficulty with the serialized novel format. "The price of eggs, Mr. Pool," as Virginia Woolf would have observed. He also dismisses the Novel of Sensation (the novel with a puzzle) as mostly trash, ignoring the very real masterpieces the genre produced, including the haunting and very modern novels of Sheridan le Fanu. Nor can Mary Elizabeth Braddon simply be dismissed as a producer of trashy best-sellers. Thackeray himself observed that "if I could plot like Miss Braddon, I’d be the greatest novelist in the world." Her own life with a lover who could not marry her because, like Mr. Rochester, he had an insane wife in private care was certainly stranger than fiction.
All in all, however, Pool’s new book is a real page-turner. Don’t miss it.
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