Correspondence: An Adventure in Letters

Overview

Suppose that a retired bank clerk from New Jersey has inherited a mass of valuable letters to his great-great-grandfather. Let's imagine this ancestor was a book-seller in Victorian London who had corresponded at length with the leading writers of his generation. To Dickens and Thackeray, Eliot and Trollope, Butler and Hardy, he put such questions as Why did you write? How do you write? From what sources did you get their characters and ideas? What do you see as the purpose or usefulness of illustrations to your ...
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Overview

Suppose that a retired bank clerk from New Jersey has inherited a mass of valuable letters to his great-great-grandfather. Let's imagine this ancestor was a book-seller in Victorian London who had corresponded at length with the leading writers of his generation. To Dickens and Thackeray, Eliot and Trollope, Butler and Hardy, he put such questions as Why did you write? How do you write? From what sources did you get their characters and ideas? What do you see as the purpose or usefulness of illustrations to your novel? What do you think of the books of your peers and competitors?

An intriguing conceit, no? But John Hall brings it off convincingly in this series of contemporary letters (mostly emails) between Larry Dickerson, the bank worker, bent on getting as much money as he can from this stash, and Stephen Nicholls, the patient and helpful head of Christie's manuscript department in London. Nicholls leads Dickerson through the intricacies of the auction process but also helps him enter into the Victorian mind, a domain Dickerson eventually embraces with enthusiasm. That result is a book that is part suspense novel, because we wonder if Dickerson will finally decide to sell the letters or keep them for himself; part literary tour de force, because the old letters lead us into the thoughts of the foremost novelists of the period; and part humorous tale, because of Dickerson's personality. He is a character such as the department of heads at Christie's have seldom encountered, and we watch as this unschooled, bluff, blunt man emerges into a self-education Victorianist.

This is a book for lovers of Victorian literature, but it is also a bracing antidote for those less enthusiastic readers who may have found Dickens a little too melodramatic, Thackeray too allusive, Trollope too protean, and Hardy too pessimistic. For both kinds of readers Hall's book offers the hope of redemption, a thoroughly engrossing ramble through the literature of the enduring Victorian galaxy.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Hall's (Belief: A Memoir) new novel unfolds in e-mails between Larry Dickerson, a loquacious retired bank clerk, and Stephen Nicholls, an often pedantic but patient employee at Christie's from whom Dickerson wants an appraisal of his great-great-great grandfather's correspondence with some of the most famous figures of the 19th century. Though their e-mails span more than one year, they never build to have the impact of the best epistolary works, which vividly illuminate time and place. Expected comparisons between Americans and Brits appear (baseball, cricket, vocabulary) along with gentle humor, repetitive discursions, and Dickerson's increasing interest in—and reluctance to part with—the words of writers including Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray, and Darwin. The novel's most salient character, Charlie Dover, another Christie's employee, isn't introduced until late in the game, and an 11th-hour threat to the deal is resolved easily and with few consequences. Rather than emerging as one man's believable journey into the pleasures of researching Victorianism, or as a quirky, behind-the-scenes examination of one of the most storied auction houses, Hall's latest is an entertaining novelty. (Mar.)
Michael Dirda
If you loved Helene Hanff's 84, Charing Cross Road, this is the summer book for you…Hanff's little classic of bibliophilia presents the letters between a feisty New York writer and a gentlemanly English bookseller, the result being a kind of epistolary romance, with sidelights on many of the older classics of English literature. N. John Hall…has adopted this format for his comparably delightful, if fictional, Correspondence: An Adventure in Letters…[which] manages to convey a good deal about the Victorian novelists and their aesthetics, and to do so in a playfully entertaining manner.
—The Washington Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781567924121
  • Publisher: Godine, David R. Publishers, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/28/2011
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,509,813
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

N. John Hall is a Distinguished Professor at Bronx Community College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Twice a Guggenheim Fellow and the author of many books, he is considered one of the world's leading authorities on Anthony Trollope and Max Beerbohm.
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