Helping out the Joneses

Today I’m ‘celebrating’ by helping out the Joneses. I wouldn’t dare to try and keep up with them.  I think Julia’s status is currently FRAZZLED and Kathleen is in New Zealand headed for Cambodia. I, as ever, am sitting at home in front of a computer keyboard.

So today it’s a tales of two Joneses. Unrelated to each other and to me. But here goes. Today Kathleen has a second opinion review up on IEBR. So actually it’s a trilogy of Joneses. No wonder we can’t keep up.

Okay. Firstly: This week sees the ebook launch of The Adventures of Margery Allingham.

Kathleen has posted a review of this on Amazon. I hope she’s not going to mind that I’ve nicked it under the Reading Between the Lines label under a ‘reciprocity’ agreement I’ve just made up. It’s all promotion after all.

margeryThe great thing about e-books is that you can update them very easily when new information becomes available. Julia Jones biography of MA was first published in 1991 by William Heinemann and has just been republished under her own imprint `Golden Duck’ with new photographs and updated information – I’ve just read it and am delighted that it’s now also released as an e-book.

The title is a little misleading, since Allingham’s adventures are `mental and moral’, and mainly on paper, channeled through her hero Albert Campion in the groundbreaking thrillers she wrote through four decades. I read her books when I was in my twenties and liked them more than Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers – there was always an element of humour, clowning, with an undertow of morality. They reminded me a little of the old Mystery plays – a mix of buffoonery and serious discussion of Right and Wrong, the one highlighting the other. Albert Campion – the mysterious, aristocratic figure at the centre of the plot, is both the buffoon and the moral compass of the novel.

I was always interested to know more about the author who wrote the novels, but somehow missed the publication of Julia’s book first time out (where was I?) Fortunately I’ve now managed to rectify that omission. Reading this biography of Margery Allingham has illuminated the novels for me in just the way I would have hoped.

I’d already read about Margery’s disfunctional, workaholic, journalistic family in Julia’s new book `Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory: The Working Life of Herbert Allingham (1867-1936), which shows Margery’s father’s heritage, writing serials for `penny dreadfuls’, and depicts his marriage to Margery’s mother as turbulent and unsatisfactory. Em Allingham didn’t care much for marriage or motherhood and had huge mood swings that were difficult to live with. Margery was a precocious child who grew up nervy, and insecure, with a pronounced stammer. She didn’t thrive on education and left school at 16 to her parents’ disappointment. Encouraged to write as a young child by her parents, there seemed no other career she would ever consider and she began to submit to periodicals, as her father had done, and wrote reviews and story-lines for a film magazine.

The plot of Margery’s first novel, published while she was still a teenager, was `found’ during a seance with her family around a Weedja board. Her subsequent plots were rather more thought-out, but she was always an instinctive writer.

If Margery was professionally precocious, she was emotionally much slower to mature. There was a youthful `crush’ on a young female friend, a brief love affair with a man, before she married someone she’d known for years – the son of a woman her father had almost married in his youth – the artist Philip (Pip) Youngman Carter. He was socially confident, handsome in a silent movie `spivvy’ kind of way – the kind of man depicted in cartoon casually folded against a wall, smoking a cigarette in a long holder, wearing a striped blazer and white trousers, being charming to women. He had no regular work, but designed Margery’s book covers and gave her editorial feedback. They lived in a kind of student menage with two or three other friends, all mainly supported by Margery’s writing.

She had been brought up with a workaholic writing ethic – her father wrote thousands of words a week come hell or high water until he died, worn out by the treadmill. Margery did the same. She was overweight and in poor health – probably because of thyroid problems that often went untreated. This was partly her fault – she hated consulting doctors – and partly because the doctors she did consult seem to have been less than competent. At one point she was sectioned and given electro-convulsive therapy for depression probably caused by her thyroid condition. As well as health issues, she was constantly pursued by the Inland Revenue and lived, until the end, haunted by the fear that she was going to be made bankrupt by their demands. Margery wrote book after book to pay the tax bills racked up by her previous publications.

Her marriage to Pip, which had begun with such cheerful, youthful optimism, soon stagnated. Pip was extremely selfish, unwilling to have children, and a serial adulterer. While he philandered in London, living the high life (he was in the same social circle as Prince Philip), Margery stayed in her Essex home and wrote. When doctors found a lump in her breast, she ignored it.

After her death, Margery’s papers and those of her father, were left to her younger sister Joyce, who had lived with her during the final decade of her life, and – through Joyce – they were made available to Julia Jones. The results are two carefully researched and beautifully written family stories – Fifty Years in the Fiction Factory: the Working Life of Herbert Allingham, and `The Adventures of Margery Allingham’. I enjoyed them both and, as a good biography should, have been tempted to re-read the novels.

Kathleen Jones

And Julia has written this review of Kathleen’s Katherine Mansfield Biography. Confusion and frazzlement has kept this off the IEBR site but now both the reviews are available for your edification via Reading Between the Lines and forwarded to IEBR.

kmKathleen Jones’s biography of Katherine Mansfield is, structurally, one of the best biographies I have ever read. The adverb is intended as high, not faint, praise. Too many biographers (and I am one) take the obvious approach of beginning at the beginning and carrying on until the end. As our subject is (usually) dead we cast the whole book in the past tense and get on with telling the lifestory. There’s a lot to be said for this approach – chronologically is how lives are lived, after all. Some biographers vary the pattern by beginning with the death, then revert to the life to explain why it has mattered. After all it’s not exactly a spoiler for the reader to know in advance what happens at the end. Kathleen Jones’s approach, however, is a good deal more sophisticated.
Jones’s first chapter has Katherine Mansfield dying of tubercolosis in Gurdjieff’s community at Fontainebleu but, before that, readers have felt the blusterly winds of Wellington, New Zealand where the child Kathleen Beauchamp was born. There’s an immediacy to the opening as the winds blow directly on the cheek of the biographer. Then this segues back to the freshness of the child’s experiences, captured in a piece of poetry written in 1906.
Mansfield left New Zealand when she was in her late teens and never returned. She wondered, later whether it hadn’t been her greatest mistake. Certainly she never settled anywhere else, this is a story of a life spent in rented houses and hotel rooms. She was never again part of a family; never found a group of people with whom she felt comepletely at ease for long. As a person this made her insecure, self-conscious, vivacious, needy, intense, changeable. As a writer there was never a readership on whom she could rely. Even when she lived so much of her life surrounded by other writers, artists and editors she existed as a hyper-critical audience of one. Of course she needed to sell her work to live and was glad to see it in print but in essence she wrote because it was her vocation, not her job. Of all her husband, John Middleton Murry’s betrayals, Mansfield might have considered that publishing unfinished and sub-standard work after her death was the worst.
On the other hand, if Middleton Murry had not set himself to peddle her myth so assiduously after she died, would she have been remembered as more than a scintillating footnote to Bloomsbury? Jones’s biography extends to the end of Middleton Murry’s life – giving a complete, and rather terrible picture. One of Jones’s most bold and brilliant structural innovations is to site an account of Middleton Murry’s second marriage within the chapters that are telling the tale of his and Mansfield’s life together. Jones does spell out the extent of the abuse that Middleton Murry had suffered in childhood. It’s a painfully convincing explanation for his emotional inadequacy. Neverthless Jones’s account of Murry’s marriage to the hapless Violet le Meistre and later to the appalling Betty Cockbayne – ensures that it is not an extenuation. Abuse was passed down to the new generations.
Mansfield cannot have been an easy person to live with, especially as the tubercolosis took deeper and deeper hold. Middleton Murry’s turning away to wipe his mouth after kissing her on their wedding day is unforgettable and Jones’s research into this disease is gruesome and fascinating. The real damage was done after Mansfield’s death. Her life blighted the lives of women and children who came after her. Although this was in no sense her fault yet it is visionary of Jones to include tbe remainder of Middleton Murry’s life as part of Mansfield’s biography. The four damaged children she never knew were also, in part, her legacy.
Although the structure of Jones’s biography is complex her style is clear and vivid. Much is written in the present tense and I was as gripped as if I was reading a novel. The life and death of Katherine Mansfield, as told by Kathleen Jones, is far more than an accomplished literary biography it is a chilling human story. Haunting.

Julia Jones


Both these reviews have been requisitioned for the Reading Between the Lines review collective because the reviewers are ‘old hands’ at IEBR and haven’t yet ‘made the switch’!  smallREADING


About callyphillips

6 Responses to Helping out the Joneses

  1. Jan Needle says:

    another fascinating piece. thanks, cally – the party’s going well!

    • You found your way here. I have some good stuff for you on your birthday! Who’d have thought that National Jan Needle Day would fall on Feb 8th every year eh?

      • Jan Needle says:

        yeah, i understand noo tecknolurgy like the back of my head. i’ve just sent you some silly stuff to your email, tho. wasn’t sure how to send it here. it’s very partyish. xx

  2. Sue Price says:

    Enjoyed both these reviews! Will be looking up the books on Amazon.

  3. Julia Jones says:

    Well thank you very much indeed Cally. I’d just read and tweeted Pauline’s review of Kathleens novel and was wondering whether Jones on Jones wasn’t too incestuous but the thing it that we have never met and yet we are working in such similar areas (biog + fiction) that it would be ludicrous not to look at one another’s work with especial interest. If I was ever to write another biography (unlikely) I would think hard about the lessons learned from Kathleen’s daring KM. Promise to get to grips with reading between the lines sooner rather than later. And thanks again

  4. Anonymous says:

    Party’s swinging. If only I can find my camera I’ll be able to take a picture of the 40 days supply of creme caramel I scored from Tesco today. It near caused a riot! (I have 10 days supply already in the house – well, minus the 6 days already gone) Hot news – I’ve decided that calories don’t count for the 50 days!
    Getting party music sorted as well, and Charles Dickens is dropping by tomorrow. The fun just keeps on coming. I’m hoping CD will raise some interesting novelistic chat!
    And Julia/Kathleen: Glad to be able to help out 2 Joneses for the price of 1.

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