8th January, 1946
Mr. Sidney Stark, Publisher
Stephens & Stark Ltd.
21 St. James’s Place
Susan Scott is a wonder. We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, but much more thrilling from my standpoint was the food. Susan managed to procure ration coupons for icing sugar and real eggs for the meringue. If all her literary luncheons are going to achieve these heights, I won’t mind touring about the country. Do you suppose that a lavish bonus could spur her on to butter? Let’s try it—you may deduct the money from my royalties.
Now for my grim news. You asked me how work on my new book is progressing. Sidney, it isn’t.
English Foibles seemed so promising at first. After all, one should be able to write reams about the Society to Protest the Glorification of the English Bunny. I unearthed a photograph of the Vermin Exterminators’ Trade Union, marching down an Oxford street with placards screaming “Down with Beatrix Potter!” But what is there to write about after a caption? Nothing, that’s what.
I no longer want to write this book—my head and my heart just aren’t in it. Dear as Izzy Bickerstaff is—and was—to me, I don’t want to write anything else under that name. I don’t want to be considered a light-hearted journalist anymore. I do acknowledge that making readers laugh—or at least chuckle—during the war was no mean feat, but I don’t want to do it anymore. I can’t seem to dredge up any sense of proportion or balance these days, and God knows one cannot write humor without them.
In the meantime, I am very happy Stephens & Stark is making money on Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War. It relieves my conscience over the debacle of my Anne Brontë biography.
My thanks for everything and love,
P.S. I am reading the collected correspondence of Mrs. Montagu. Do you know what that dismal woman wrote to Jane Carlyle? “My dear little Jane, everybody is born with a vocation, and yours is to write charming little notes.” I hope Jane spat on her.
From Sidney to Juliet
10th January, 1946
Miss Juliet Ashton
23 Glebe Place
London S.W. 3
Congratulations! Susan Scott said you took to the audience at the luncheon like a drunkard to rum—and they to you—so please stop worrying about your tour next week. I haven’t a doubt of your success. Having witnessed your electrifying performance of “The Shepherd Boy Sings in the Valley of Humiliation” eighteen years ago, I know you will have every listener coiled around your little finger within moments. A hint: perhaps in this case, you should refrain from throwing the book at the audience when you finish.
Susan is looking forward to ushering you through bookshops from Bath to Yorkshire. And of course, Sophie is agitating for an extension of the tour into Scotland. I’ve told her in my most infuriating older-brother manner that It Remains To Be Seen. She misses you terribly, I know, but Stephens & Stark must be impervious to such considerations.
I’ve just received Izzy’s sales figures from London and the Home Counties—they are excellent. Again, congratulations!
Don’t fret about English Foibles; better that your enthusiasm died now than after six months spent writing about bunnies. The crass commercial possibilities of the idea were attractive, but I agree that the topic would soon grow horribly fey. Another subject—one you’ll like—will occur to you.
Dinner one evening before you go? Say when.
P.S. You write charming little notes.
11th January, 1946
Yes, lovely—can it be somewhere on the river? I want oysters and champagne and roast beef, if obtainable; if not, a chicken will do. I am very happy that Izzy’s sales are good. Are they good enough that I don’t have to pack a bag and leave London?
Since you and S&S have turned me into a moderately successful author, dinner must be my treat.
P.S. I did not throw “The Shepherd Boy Sings in the Valley of Humiliation” at the audience. I threw it at the elocution mistress. I meant to cast it at her feet, but I missed.
From Juliet to Sophie Strachan
12th January, 1946
Mrs. Alexander Strachan
Of course I’d adore to see you, but I am a soul-less, will-less automaton. I have been ordered by Sidney to Bath, Colchester, Leeds, and several other garden spots I can’t recall at the moment, and I can’t just slither off to Scotland instead. Sidney’s brow would lower—his eyes would narrow—he would stalk. You know how nerve-racking it is when Sidney stalks.
I wish I could sneak away to your farm and have you coddle me. You’d let me put my feet on the sofa, wouldn’t you? And then you’d tuck blankets around me and bring me tea. Would Alexander mind a permanent resident on his sofa? You’ve told me he is a patient man, but perhaps he would find it annoying.
Why am I so melancholy? I should be delighted at the prospect of reading Izzy to an entranced audience. You know how I love talking about books, and you know how I adore receiving compliments. I should be thrilled. But the truth is that I’m gloomy—gloomier than I ever was during the war. Everything is so broken, Sophie: the roads, the buildings, the people. Especially the people.
This is probably the aftereffect of a horrid dinner party I went to last night. The food was ghastly, but that was to be expected. It was the guests who unnerved me—they were the most demoralizing collection of individuals I’ve ever encountered. The talk was of bombs and starvation. Do you remember Sarah Morecroft? She was there, all bones and gooseflesh and bloody lipstick. Didn’t she use to be pretty? Wasn’t she mad for that horse-riding fellow who went up to Cambridge? He was nowhere in evidence; she’s married to a doctor with grey skin who clicks his tongue before he speaks. And he was a figure of wild romance compared to my dinner partner, who just happened to be a single man, presumably the last one on earth—oh Lord, how miserably mean-spirited I sound!
I swear, Sophie, I think there’s something wrong with me. Every man I meet is intolerable. Perhaps I should set my sights lower—not so low as the grey doctor who clicks, but a bit lower. I can’t even blame it on the war—I was never very good at men, was I?
Do you suppose the St. Swithin’s furnace-man was my one true love? Since I never spoke to him, it seems unlikely, but at least it was a passion unscathed by disappointment. And he had that beautiful black hair. After that, you remember, came the Year of Poets. Sidney’s quite snarky about those poets, though I don’t see why, since he introduced me to them. Then poor Adrian. Oh, there’s no need to recite the dread rolls to you, but Sophie—what is the matter with me? Am I too particular? I don’t want to be married just to be married. I can’t think of anything lonelier than spending the rest of my life with someone I can’t talk to, or worse, someone I can’t be silent with.
What a dreadful, complaining letter. You see? I’ve succeeded in making you feel relieved that I won’t be stopping in Scotland. But then again, I may—my fate rests with Sidney.
Kiss Dominic for me and tell him I saw a rat the size of a terrier the other day.
Love to Alexander and even more to you,
From Dawsey Adams, Guernsey, Channel Islands, to Juliet
12th January, 1946
Miss Juliet Ashton
81 Oakley Street
London S.W. 3
Dear Miss Ashton,
My name is Dawsey Adams, and I live on my farm in St. Martin’s Parish on Guernsey. I know of you because I have an old book that once belonged to you—the Selected Essays of Elia, by an author whose name in real life was Charles Lamb. Your name and address were written inside the front cover.
I will speak plain—I love Charles Lamb. My own book says Selected, so I wondered if that meant he had written other things to choose from? These are the pieces I want to read, and though the Germans are gone now, there aren’t any bookshops left on Guernsey.
I want to ask a kindness of you. Could you send me the name and address of a bookshop in London? I would like to order more of Charles Lamb’s writings by post. I would also like to ask if anyone has ever written his life story, and if they have, could a copy be found for me? For all his bright and turning mind, I think Mr. Lamb must have had a great sadness in his life.
Charles Lamb made me laugh during the German Occupation, especially when he wrote about the roast pig. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers, so I feel a kinship to Mr. Lamb.
I am sorry to bother you, but I would be sorrier still not to know about him, as his writings have made me his friend.
Hoping not to trouble you,
P.S. My friend Mrs. Maugery bought a pamphlet that once belonged to you, too. It is called Was There a Burning Bush? A Defense of Moses and the Ten Commandments. She liked your margin note, “Word of God or crowd control???” Did you ever decide which?
From Juliet to Dawsey
15th January, 1946
Mr. Dawsey Adams
St. Martin’s, Guernsey
Dear Mr. Adams,
I no longer live on Oakley Street, but I’m so glad that your letter found me and that my book found you. It was a sad wrench to part with the Selected Essays of Elia. I had two copies and a dire need of shelf-room, but I felt like a traitor selling it. You have soothed my conscience.
I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.
Because there is nothing I would rather do than rummage through bookshops, I went at once to Hastings & Sons upon receiving your letter. I have gone to them for years, always finding the one book I wanted—and then three more I hadn’t known I wanted. I told Mr. Hastings you would like a good, clean copy (and not a rare edition) of More Essays of Elia. He will send it to you by separate post (invoice enclosed) and was delighted to know you are also a lover of Charles Lamb. He said the best biography of Lamb was by E. V. Lucas, and he would hunt out a copy for you, though it may take a while.
In the meantime, will you accept this small gift from me? It is his Selected Letters. I think it will tell you more about him than any biography ever could. E. V. Lucas sounds too stately to include my favorite passage from Lamb: “Buz, buz, buz, bum, bum, bum, wheeze, wheeze, wheeze, fen, fen, fen, tinky, tinky, tinky, cr’annch! I shall certainly come to be condemned at last. I have been drinking too much for two days running. I find my moral sense in the last stage of a consumption and my religion getting faint.” You’ll find that in the Letters (it’s on page 244). They were the first Lamb I ever read, and I’m ashamed to say I only bought the book because I’d read elsewhere that a man named Lamb had visited his friend Leigh Hunt, in prison for libeling the Prince of Wales.
While there, Lamb helped Hunt paint the ceiling of his cell sky blue with white clouds. Next they painted a rose trellis up one wall. Then, I further discovered, Lamb offered money to help Hunt’s family outside the prison—though he himself was as poor as a man could be. Lamb also taught Hunt’s youngest daughter to say the Lord’s Prayer backward. You naturally want to learn everything you can about a man like that.
That’s what I love about reading: one tiny thing will interest you in a book, and that tiny thing will lead you onto another book, and another bit there will lead you onto a third book. It’s geometrically progressive—all with no end in sight, and for no other reason than sheer enjoyment.
The red stain on the cover that looks like blood—is blood. I got careless with my paper knife. The enclosed postcard is a reproduction of a painting of Lamb by his friend William Hazlitt.
If you have time to correspond with me, could you answer several questions? Three, in fact. Why did a roast pig dinner have to be kept a secret? How could a pig cause you to begin a literary society? And, most pressing of all, what is a potato peel pie—and why is it included in your society’s name?
I have sub-let a flat at 23 Glebe Place, Chelsea, London S.W.3. My Oakley Street flat was bombed in 1945 and I still miss it. Oakley Street was wonderful—I could see the Thames out of three of my windows. I know that I am fortunate to have any place at all to live in London, but I much prefer whining to counting my blessings. I am glad you thought of me to do your Elia hunting.
P.S. I never could make up my mind about Moses—it still bothers me.
From Juliet to Sidney
18th January, 1946
This isn’t a letter: it’s an apology. Please forgive my moaning about the teas and luncheons you set up for Izzy. Did I call you a tyrant? I take it all back—I love Stephens & Stark for sending me out of London.
Bath is a glorious town: lovely crescents of white, upstanding houses instead of London’s black, gloomy buildings or—worse still—piles of rubble that were once buildings. It is bliss to breathe in clean, fresh air with no coal smoke and no dust. The weather is cold, but it isn’t London’s dank chill. Even the people on the street look different—upstanding, like their houses, not grey and hunched like Londoners.
Susan said the guests at Abbot’s book tea enjoyed themselves immensely—and I know I did. I was able to un-stick my tongue from the roof of my mouth after the first two minutes and began to have quite a good time.
Susan and I are off tomorrow for bookshops in Colchester, Norwich, King’s Lynn, Bradford, and Leeds.
Love and thanks,
From Juliet to Sidney
21st January, 1946
Night-time train travel is wonderful again! No standing in the corridors for hours, no being shunted off for a troop train to pass, and above all, no black-out curtains. All the windows we passed were lighted, and I could snoop once more. I missed it so terribly during the war. I felt as if we had all turned into moles scuttling along in our separate tunnels. I don’t consider myself a real peeper—they go in for bedrooms, but it’s families in sitting rooms or kitchens that thrill me. I can imagine their entire lives from a glimpse of bookshelves, or desks, or lit candles, or bright sofa cushions.
There was a nasty, condescending man in Tillman’s bookshop today. After my talk about Izzy, I asked if anyone had questions. He literally leapt from his seat to go nose-to-nose with me—how was it, he demanded, that I, a mere woman, dared to bastardize the name of Isaac Bickerstaff? “The true Isaac Bickerstaff, noted journalist, nay the sacred heart and soul of eighteenth-century literature: dead now and his name desecrated by you.”
Before I could muster a word, a woman in the back row jumped to her feet. “Oh, sit down! You can’t desecrate a person who never was! He’s not dead because he was never alive! Isaac Bickerstaff was a pseudonym for Joseph Addison’s Spectator columns! Miss Ashton can take up any pretend name she wants to—so shut up!” What a valiant defender—he left the store in a hurry.
Sidney, do you know a man named Markham V. Reynolds, Jr.? If you don’t, will you look him up for me—Who’s Who, the Domesday Book, Scotland Yard? Failing those, he may simply be in the Telephone Directory. He sent a beautiful bunch of mixed spring flowers to me at the hotel in Bath, a dozen white roses to my train, and a pile of red roses to Norwich—all with no message, only his engraved card.
Come to that, how does he know where Susan and I are staying? What trains we are taking? All his flowers have met me upon my arrival. I don’t know whether to feel flattered or hunted.
23rd January, 1946
Susan just gave me the sales figures for Izzy—I can scarcely believe them. I honestly thought everyone would be so weary of the war that no one would want a remembrance of it—and certainly not in a book. Happily, and once again, you were right and I was wrong (it half-kills me to admit this).
Traveling, talking before a captive audience, signing books, and meeting strangers is exhilarating. The women I’ve met have told me such war stories of their own, I almost wish I had my column back. Yesterday, I had a lovely, gossipy chat with a Norwich lady. She has four daughters in their teens, and just last week, the eldest was invited to tea at the cadet school in town. Arrayed in her finest frock and spotless white gloves, the girl made her way to the school, stepped over the threshold, took one look at the sea of shining cadet faces before her—and fainted dead away! The poor child had never seen so many males in one place in her life. Think of it—a whole generation grown up without dances or teas or flirting.
I love seeing the bookshops and meeting the booksellers—booksellers really are a special breed. No one in their right mind would take up clerking in a bookstore for the salary, and no one in his right mind would want to own one—the margin of profit is too small. So, it has to be a love of readers and reading that makes them do it—along with first dibs on the new books.
Do you remember the first job your sister and I had in London? In crabby Mr. Hawke’s secondhand bookshop? How I loved him—he’d simply unpack a box of books, hand one or two to us and say, “No cigarette ashes, clean hands—and for God’s sake, Juliet, none of your margin notes! Sophie, dear, don’t let her drink coffee while she reads.” And off we’d go with new books to read.
It was amazing to me then, and still is, that so many people who wander into bookshops don’t really know what they’re after—they only want to look around and hope to see a book that will strike their fancy. And then, being bright enough not to trust the publisher’s blurb, they will ask the book clerk the three questions: (1) What is it about? (2) Have you read it? (3) Was it any good?
Real dyed-in-the-wool booksellers—like Sophie and me—can’t lie. Our faces are always a dead giveaway. A lifted brow or curled lip reveals that it’s a poor excuse for a book, and the clever customers ask for a recommendation instead, whereupon we frog-march them over to a particular volume and command them to read it. If they read it and despise it, they’ll never come back. But if they like it, they’re customers for life.
Are you taking notes? You should—a publisher should send not just one reader’s copy to a bookshop, but several, so that all the staff can read it, too.
Mr. Seton told me today that Izzy Bickerstaff makes an ideal present for both someone you like and someone you don’t like but have to give a present to anyway. He also claimed that 30 percent of all books bought are bought as gifts. Thirty percent???
Did he lie?
Has Susan told you what else she has managed besides our tour? Me. I hadn’t known her half an hour before she told me my make-up, my clothes, my hair, and my shoes were drab, all drab. The war was over, hadn’t I heard?
She took me to Madame Helena’s for a haircut; it is now short and curly instead of long and lank. I had a light rinse, too—Susan and Madame said it would bring out the golden highlights in my “beautiful chestnut curls.” But I know better; it’s meant to cover any grey hairs (four, by my count) that have begun to creep in. I also bought a jar of face cream, a lovely scented hand lotion, a new lipstick, and an eye-lash curler—which makes my eyes cross whenever I use it.
Then Susan suggested a new dress. I reminded her that the Queen was very happy wearing her 1939 wardrobe, so why shouldn’t I be? She said the Queen doesn’t need to impress strangers—but I do. I felt like a traitor to crown and country; no decent woman has new clothes—but I forgot that the moment I saw myself in the mirror. My first new dress in four years, and such a dress! It is the exact color of a ripe peach and falls in lovely folds when I move. The saleslady said it had “Gallic Chic” and I would too, if I bought it. So I did. New shoes are going to have to wait, since I spent almost a year’s worth of clothing coupons on the dress.
Between Susan, my hair, my face, and my dress, I no longer look a listless, bedraggled thirty-two-year-old. I look a lively, dashing, haute-couturéd (if this isn’t a French verb, it should be) thirty.
Apropos of my new dress and no new shoes—doesn’t it seem shocking to have more stringent rationing after the war than during the war? I realize that hundreds of thousands of people all over Europe must be fed, housed, and clothed, but privately I resent it that so many of them are Germans.
I am still without any ideas for a book I want to write. It is beginning to depress me. Do you have any suggestions?
Since I am in what I consider to be the North I’m going to place a trunk call to Sophie in Scotland tonight. Any messages for your sister? Your brother-in-law? Your nephew?
This is the longest letter I’ve ever written—you needn’t reply in kind.
25th January, 1946
Don’t believe the newspaper reports. Juliet was not arrested and taken away in handcuffs. She was merely reproved by one of Bradford’s constables, and he could barely keep a straight face.
She did throw a teapot at Gilly Gilbert’s head, but don’t believe his claim that she scalded him; the tea was cold. Besides, it was more of a skim-by than a direct hit. Even the hotel manager refused to let us compensate him for the teapot—it was only dented. He was, however, forced by Gilly’s screams to call in the constabulary.
Herewith the story, and I take full responsibility for it. I should have refused Gilly’s request for an interview with Juliet. I knew what a loathsome person he was, one of those unctuous little worms who work for The London Hue and Cry. I also knew that Gilly and the LH&C were horribly jealous of the Spectator’s success with the Izzy Bickerstaff columns—and of Juliet.
We had just returned to the hotel from the Brady’s Booksmith party for Juliet. We were both tired—and full of ourselves—when up popped Gilly from a chair in the lounge. He begged us to have tea with him. He begged for a short interview with “our own wonderful Miss Ashton—or should I say England’s very own Izzy Bickerstaff?” His smarm alone should have alerted me, but it didn’t—I wanted to sit down, gloat over Juliet’s success, and have a cream tea.
So we did. The talk was going smoothly enough, and my mind was wandering when I heard Gilly say, “… you were a war widow yourself, weren’t you? Or rather—almost a war widow—as good as. You were to marry a Lieutenant Rob Dartry, weren’t you? Had made arrangements for the ceremony, hadn’t you?”
Juliet said, “I beg your pardon, Mr. Gilbert.” You know how polite she is.
“I don’t have it wrong, do I? You and Lieutenant Dartry did apply for a marriage license. You did make an appointment to be married at the Chelsea Register Office on 13th December, 1942, at 11:00 A.M. You did book a table for luncheon at the Ritz—only you never showed up for any of it. It’s perfectly obvious that you jilted Lieutenant Dartry at the altar—poor fellow—and sent him off alone and humiliated, back to his ship, to carry his broken heart to Burma, where he was killed not three months later.”
I sat up, my mouth gaping open. I just looked on helplessly as Juliet attempted to be civil: “I didn’t jilt him at the altar—it was the day before. And he wasn’t humiliated—he was relieved. I simply told him that I didn’t want to be married after all. Believe me, Mr. Gilbert, he left a happy man—delighted to be rid of me. He didn’t slink back to his ship, alone and betrayed—he went straight to the CCB Club and danced all night with Belinda Twining.”
Well, Sidney, surprised as Gilly was, he was not daunted. Little rodents like Gilly never are, are they? He quickly guessed that he was on to an even juicier story for his paper.
“OH-HO!” he smirked, “What was it, then? Drink? Other women? A touch of the old Oscar Wilde?”
That was when Juliet threw the teapot. You can imagine the hubbub that ensued—the lounge was full of other people having tea—hence, I am sure, the newspapers learning of it.
I thought his headline, “IZZY BICKERSTAFF GOES TO WAR—AGAIN! Reporter Wounded in Hotel Bun-Fight,” was a bit harsh, but not too bad. But “JULIET’S FAILED ROMEO—A FALLEN HERO IN BURMA” was sick-making, even for Gilly Gilbert and the Hue and Cry.
Juliet is worried she may have embarrassed Stephens & Stark, but she is literally sick over Rob Dartry’s name being slung around in this fashion. All I could get her to say to me was that Rob Dartry was a good man, a very good man—none of it was his fault—and he did not deserve this!
Did you know Rob Dartry? Of course, the drink/Oscar Wilde business is pure rot, but why did Juliet call off the wedding? Do you know why? And would you tell me if you did? Of course you wouldn’t; I don’t know why I’m even asking.
The gossip will die down of course, but does Juliet have to be in London for the thick of it? Should we extend our tour to Scotland? I admit I’m of two minds about this; the sales there have been spectacular, but Juliet has worked so hard at these teas and luncheons—it is not easy to get up in front of a roomful of strangers and praise yourself and your book. She’s not used to this hoopla like I am and is, I think, very tired.
Sunday we’ll be in Leeds, so let me know then about Scotland.
Of course, Gilly Gilbert is despicable and vile and I hope he comes to a bad end, but he has pushed Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War onto the Best Seller List. I’m tempted to write him a thank-you note.
Yours in haste,
P.S. Have you found out who Markham V. Reynolds is yet? He sent Juliet a forest of camellias today.
Telegram from Juliet to Sidney
AM TERRIBLY SORRY TO HAVE EMBARRASSED YOU AND STEPHENS & STARK. LOVE, JULIET
From Sidney to Juliet
26th January, 1946
Miss Juliet Ashton
The Queens Hotel
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