If you loved Helene Hanff’s “84, Charing Cross Road,” this is the summer book for you. As you may recall, 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 – the world’s leading authority on Anthony Trollope and Max Beerbohm, as well as a longtime New Yorker – has adopted this format for his comparably delightful, if fictional, Correspondence: An Adventure in Letters.
Larry Dickerson, “as American as you can get,” is a retired bank clerk who has inherited a cache of letters written to his great-great-grandfather, a 19th-century English bookseller. But these aren’t just any letters. Jeremy MacDowell corresponded with the greatest novelists of the day: Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, George Eliot, Trollope, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Butler. As the baseball fan Larry boasts, “How’s that for a line up?” From all of these authors, MacDowell elicited frank statements of their literary aims and opinions. He also managed to snag two letters from Charles Darwin and several from the critic George Henry Lewes, the consort of George Eliot, as well as a few from the novelist Elizabeth Gaskell about the Brontes.
Having decided to sell this amazing archive, Larry writes to Christie’s auction house in London and soon initiates a series of e-mails with Stephen Nicholls of the books and manuscripts department. The two men – the unread, slightly vulgar but intelligent American and the suave, well-educated Englishman – gradually come to like and trust each other. Before long, Larry decides he wants to transcribe all the letters himself, partly with the idea of producing a little book in honor of his great-great-grandfather. This leads to an intense course of reading and study, enrollment in a class on the Victorian novel at the New School, and a series of discussions with Stephen about book illustrations, 19th-century publishing practices, the nature of narrative and the impact of Darwinism.But that’s just the contemporary thread of Correspondence. Inspired no doubt by the example of Beerbohm’s virtuosity as a pasticheur, Hall boldly re-creates a dozen or so seemingly genuine letters from Dickens, Hardy and others. In these, Hall mimics the various authors’ styles convincingly, while the opinions they express reflect our modern knowledge of their lives and work.
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