My Sister Phyllis Pearsall Gross
And the Meaning of Truth
A Partial Summary of Errors In
Mrs P's Journey,
The Remarkable Story
Of The Woman Who Created
The A-Z Map,
a Book by Sarah Hartley
It's relatively easy for me to create this webpage after compiling similar lists of errors to be found in the two books by my sister. That's because Phyllis had a hidden purpose in her writing, and I was continually forced to distinguish between what she chose to reveal and what she was hiding, so I could decode and expose what she was actually saying amidst what she was concealing.
But with Mrs P's Journey it won't be anywhere near so hard to summarize the many errors and outright falsehoods this book contains. That's because the author is quite forthright about the problems she encountered in her task and the many liberties she believed she had the right to take with her subject. Sarah Hartley freely admits she encountered a major problem from the very beginning, she actually tells us this on the first page of her preface:
"The trickiest aspect of writing about someone who, by her own admission, would elaborate on the truth and indeed, came from a family that would do so liberally, was to record the truth. Many rumours have encircled Phyllis's life, and inevitably in a few interviews she gave, she even contradicted herself. Her memoirs tripped themselves over with such extraordinary anecdotes that, without evidence to prove otherwise, I can only assume them to be true."
This is bad news enough, but leaving aside Hartley's provocative assertion that no member of our family can be trusted, the news gets far worse on the very next page, where she openly confesses to having added fictions of her own invention:
"I did not set out to prove or disprove her legendary journey or her traumatic childhood. When I have come across conflicting research, I have included both. I have written the truth according to Phyllis. For I am convinced that every story, every memory and every encounter that she described, she believed to be true. Of course, when starting from such a shaky foundation, I have not felt uncomfortable interweaving elements of fiction into fact...If there is a scene, or a word, or a character, you believe to be too fantastical, it is likely they are real."
And in the book's very first chapter Hartley goes even further: she asserts that she alone knows the true story, and she challenges those of us who actually knew Phyllis and were genuinely close to her to come forward and contradict her:
"Those who cite her surreal story as a Chinese whisper of exaggeration and self-publicity should now step forwards, and take a glimpse inside the curious world where Phyllis...was born."
Well, I am Phyllis' half-brother, I do not elaborate liberally on the truth, as Hartley confesses to doing (nor does any member of our family do so other than Phyllis), and I fully accept this challenge.
The problem here of course is that Mrs P's Journey has been published, reviewed, and publicized as a biography and is classified as one by most libraries around the world.
But it is not a true biography in any sense of the word. A genuine biography would never have included those passages in its earliest pages, rather it would have begun with an author's avowal that in researching the book all possible attempts had been made to discover everything about its subject. It would mention the scholarly and popular sources consulted, the experts on the subject who had been queried, and carefully explain what methodology had been followed. Since Phyllis ended up spending as many as three years in New York (and since our father lived in the US for almost half his life, and only a quarter each in England and his native Hungary), she would also have sought out sources in North America. It would also include a bibliography of other books about its subject, and in the case of an even slightly serious work it would end with a respectable section of endnotes.
But none of this is to be found in Mrs P's Journey. The latest wikipedia entry refers to it as "a semi-fictionalised biography." I believe even this description is far too generous. As I shall make clear on this webpage, Mrs P's Journey contains far too many fictions, errors, untruthscall them what you willto be considered a biography at all. Its creation may in fact turn out to be viewed as a major literary scandal of our time. That is why I have written a letter to the publishers asking them to acknowledge that they simply made a mistake publishing this book in the first place and to withdraw their support from it even at this late date. You can see that letter by clicking here.
But what is Mrs P's Journey if it is not a biography? I can persuasively demonstrate that it belongs to a well-established genre of publishing known as "Chick Lit" and only purports to be a biography. Yet as scandalous as this may seem, this piece of Chick Lit was seriously received and reviewed by all the British newspapers I have consulted so far.
At the very best it might be tenuously claimed that Mrs. P's Journey straddles the boundaries between Chick Lit and biography. But one year after Simon and Schuster published this book, it was republished in 2002 by Pocket Books, one of Simon and Schuster's well-known Romance and Chick Lit imprints. This alone constitutes further evidence to prove my point. (Those who wish to confirm that Pocket Books serves as one of Simon and Schuster's Chick Lit imprints can go to an independent link to do so by clicking here.)
Wikipedia defines Chick Lit as follows:
"Chick lit typically features a female protagonist whose womanhood is heavily thematized in the plot. Though most often set in a contemporary world, such as in Waiting to Exhale, there is also historical chick lit. The issues dealt with are often more serious than consumerism...As with other types of genre fiction, authors and publishers target many niche markets. Protagonists vary widely in ethnicity, age, social status, marital status, career, and religion."
This definition is amply wide enough to include Mrs P's Journey as an example of Chick Lit, and I have asked Simon and Schuster to confess that they conceived, created, published, publicized, and marketed this book as a form of Chick Lit from the beginning. Or alternately to state categorically that this was not the case. Most "Chick Lit" products tend to be novels, but the many admittedly fictionalized elements in this book clearly draw it well within this other category. To the extent that Mrs P's Journey obeys the rules of Chick Lit rather than those for a biography, this matter clearly comes close to constituting a literary scandal.
At its worst even its defenders concede that Chick Lit can become simply horrendous, but that is not the whole story. There is of course a legitimate place for Chick Lit, as a new generation of literary critics has pointed out. At its best it can provide an amusing but realistic account of the problems faced by working women today and even suggest solutions to those problems. But when Chick Lit passes over unannounced into a biographyand when critics fail to notice its presencea new situation has clearly arisen.
What are the rules of Chick Lit? They couldn't be simpler, there are really only three, though they can each subdivide into variant sub-rules depending on the plot and the characters. Here they are:
1. The heroine must be in a struggle against all odds, with the "odds" frequently portrayed as a man, whether a father, a lover, a boss, or a traditional enemy.
2. She must come close to losing this struggle, even if it means being totally subjugated, seduced, financially ruined, or killed.
3. She must rely on her inner feminine strength and at the last possible moment turn the tables on her tormentor(s) by resisting, outdoing, or totally destroying them.
As we shall repeatedly observe, Mrs P's Journey fully complies with all these rules, just as it does not obey the rules that would apply to a genuine biography. Critics tend to look down on Chick Lit not because they harbor prejudice against women but because the entire genre does precisely that: it assumes that women and girls must be so simple-minded that they will take these stock situations and manipulated plots seriously. that they are totally motivated by the color of a dress, the brand of a convertible. Yet none of the critics whose reviews I have seen so far caught on that they were dealing with Chick Lit, and only a few pointed out stylistic deficiencies, all the while swallowing whole the notion that they were dealing with a legitimate biography.
So is Mrs P's Journey a genuine biography, or is it Chick Lit? I regard this question as so important that I have devoted an entire separate web page to seeking out the answer. You can go to it by clicking here.
Now it's time to get down to some real specifics about this book. Let's start right at the beginning with its subtitle:
"The Remarkable Story Of The Woman Who Created The A-Z Map"
This statement, description, blurb, whatever, is already completely false. This is in fact the conclusion a genuine biography would need to arrive at after a thoughtful assemblage of indisputable facts. It is not reasonable to state a book's conclusion at its very beginning, especially as a blurb for sales purposes, unless you are prepared to back it up with facts. But the author of this book has totally failed to present these facts. And despite their glaring absence, the publishers went ahead and issued it anyway. So here we have more evidence that we may already be dealing with Chick Lit.
My sister Phyllis most definitely did not create the A-Z Atlas (sorry, not "Map" but "Atlas" in its earliest appearance). This is simply family knowledge, shared by myself, my father, my brother, my mother, Phyllis' niece and nephew, and many others. It is also backed up as independent cartographical research by Peter Barber, head of the British Library's Map Division.
Now that we've discussed the subtitle and talked about my sister's claim to having created the A-Zher stratagem for outdoing our fatherlet's jump ahead to the climactic scene where, according to Hartley, Phyllis supposedly first lights on the idea.
As readers have complained, it takes the author more than 200 pages to get there. We're at the bottom of page 203, where Phyllis "becomes determined to find a street map of London." By the top of page 204 she has gone to Foyle's to seek out the last Ordinance Survey Map of the city, completed in 1919, even though there are street maps of the city on sale all around her.
But it is now 1936, and by the middle of that page she has realized that many new roads are missing from the map. She concludes that 'This just will not do' (yes, in italics).
And through the magical stylistics of Chick Lit she immediately launches into an imaginary conversation with her mother:
"She knew what her father would have done. She also knew that her mother would have laughed and said 'You show your father, darling. Just you show him what you can do, and beat him at his own silly game.'"
Show him you can "beat him at his own silly game." This is the quintessential slogan in many Chick Lit fantasies, and of course Phyllis is almost supernaturally empowered by its force.
Suddenly, on that very same page, still in 1936 and by the most miraculous of phone connections, Phyllis is in fact talking directly to our father:
'Papa? It's me, Phyllis.'
'It must be rather late there.'
'Midnight. LookI want to do a street mapof London. There aren't any decent ones, you see. I don't know the place and I keep getting lost, so what everyone else does I have no idea. There's a terrible gap in the market, and I want to fill itfor you, Papa, and for Geographia. What do you think?"
I'll spare the reader the rest of their conversation, except to say that it certainly never happened, is entirely invented, and makes perfect sense only as Chick Lit. As is true for much of the rest of Mrs P's Journey.
Hartley's main human source for this book was Phyllis' late-life companion Esme Wren, who even then was beginning her descent into Alzheimer's. My niece Mary tells me that Hartley complained to her that she was having trouble finding qualified informants to help her complete her book. Perhaps she also voiced the same complaint to her publishers, and it was they who advised her to simply start fictionalizing and go the Chick Lit route. Or perhaps she came up with the idea on her own, and they agreed.
However this may have happened, Hartley's reliance on miraculous phone connections is scarcely over. Consider the following, excerpted from the brief account I wrote of this matter:
"Phyllis absolutely did not publish the A-Z Atlas on her own. It was largely our father's work, based on one he had published years earlier, as Hartley could have determined if she had ever bothered to read the countless cables between them she reports finding, only to question on page 45 'Why they did not simply pick up the telephone...'"
Imagine, Phyllis was not only instantly able to reach Papa by phone in 1936, but the two of them had no need to send cables back and forth during later decades when they could simply have enjoyed long conversations on the phone.
Both these assumptions are equally simplistic and quite typical of Hartley's approach, totally ignoring the realities of long distance telephoning during the 30s, 40s, and 50s, when it could take hours just to reach a long distance operator and even further hours for the operator to link you to a poor connection. That our Papa was also the true Papa of the A-Z was something Phyllis herself conceded over three decades by prominently printing on the cover "Produced under the Direction of Alexander Gross, F.R.G.S." (as shown even in one of the Hartley book's illustrations, and as appeared on all publications by both the US & UK companies).
But as little as Hartley knows about phoning during the Thirties, she knows even less about what it was like to send a telegram or cable. At the very beginning of her Chapter 22 she posts the text of a cable Papa supposedly sent to Phyllis during 1936. She is proud of having discovered the existence of this cable, it is after all the keystone of her argument that Phyllis bravely defied our father and was clearly the creator of the A-Z. She believes it shows that Phyllis was wise and our father was foolish, that she was totally right in opposing him. In other words, it is pure Chick Lit. This is why she places it at the very beginning of her chapter and why she displays it entirely in capital letters in the very style of cables.
It shows Papa insisting in no uncertain terms that the atlas of London should not be called the A-Z at all but must be entitled the "Okay Atlas." I have already explained the reasons why Papa would never have suggested this title, but never mind. Hartley has found the final proof that Phyllis acted as a true woman and valiantly defied Papa, and by showing us this cable she has settled the matter once and for all.
Alas, she couldn't be more mistaken. The "cable" she shows us is 150 words long and contains no end of small words like "the" and "of" and "to," not to mention numerous repeats and complex punctuation. But there was a whole grammar to writing cables back thenno more than 25 words were permitted, and senders were admonished to avoid all unnecessary words and totally omit small ones. As late as the Sixties I can remember having a message handed back to me for serious rewriting by a telegraph clerk .
Which of course means that the entire argument advanced in this chapter is invalid, though I have already shown the other reasons why it is false here. Yes, you can find a message worded exactly the same on page 29 of Phyllis' book Bedsit, but not in caps at all and not at the beginning of a chapter but towards its very end, as though Phyllis were sneaking it in and hoping we wouldn't notice. Nor does Phyllis claim it was a cable.
I want to be as merciful as I can to this book's author and also spare myself all possible unnecessary labor. I will not go through Mrs P's Journey line by line or even page by page to point out all the appalling misstatements of facts and events or afflict readers with its endless patches of purple prose. I will simply select a few high points, a few glaring examples, and let others infer the rest. Depending on your point of view, Mrs P's Journey is either unspeakably underwritten or unspeakably over-writtenor perhaps both simultaneously. It's for you to decide. And by clicking here, you might also want to take a look at reactions from readers who made the mistake of buying the book.
My first example, which I have also presented in my brief account, is a paragraph 48 words long, but unfortunately not a single one of those 48 words is remotely correct. Yet its foolishness does not end theretwo of those words are so mistaken that they would immediately provoke uncontrollable laughter from 100 million Americans and cause another 100 million to question how any author could ever be so guilty of such sloppy research. Here's the paragraph from page 129, purporting to describe our father. If you are British, you will probably not be able to spot the error:
"At Staten Island, where he had first queued among the filthy masses, shuffling forward into the Land of the Brave, he recognized himself, twenty years earlier, in those with the trembling lips, as he watched face after desperate face stutter to officials with a few words of English."
I wonder if a more perfect example of English ignorance and insularity has ever been penned. The most grievous error, certain to provoke laughter or disbelief in the US, is of course "Staten Island." The author must have watched a BBC travelogue on New York or at best taken a hazily remembered three-hour tour of the city. What Hartley meant was not Staten Island at all, but of course Ellis Island, on the same level with Valley Forge and Gettysburg as a major landmark in US history. Staten Island of course exists, but it is simply one of New York's five major divisions or boroughs.
But the mistakes in this paragraph don't stop there at all. At the time Papa arrived in New York, he would have undoubtedly been carrying a British passport, which would have immediately exempted him from the rigors Hartley describes in her purple prose, "filthy masses," "trembling lips" and all. For many Britons the US exists mainly as an unreal domain whose principal purpose is to make them feel superior to supposedly less enlightened peoples. This is simply another example of British condescension towards Americans (and indeed all other peoples) which I noted so often during my eight years residing in London.
Even assuming the worst-case scenario, that for some reason he might not have had a British passport, Papa was an intensely clever person whose English did not stutter, and even at his lowest ebb he would certainly have been able to make himself stand out among others in a queue, assuming he was asked to wait in a queue in the first place.
Now let's take what may be the most dramatic tale about Phyllis that Hartley has to tell us, her prolonged description of a non-existent love affair in 1924 with Vladimir Nabokov, who much later would write the novel Lolita. To make matters worse, she actually entitles this chapter Nabokov's First Nymphet. Let's tune in and listen to some of what Hartley has written:
"As he walked into what he believed would be the empty dining room, his eyes fell on the back of a girl, the one who had moved into the attic. Seated at the table set for lunch, her dark head tilted to one side, was balanced by two plaits that dangled over the back of her slim red cardigan. Perhaps she was completing some schoolwork. Her feet, he noted, that peeped below the long dark skirt, were hooked around the legs of her chair, not able to reach the floor. Her hands seemed as small as her black buttoned shoes, but would her face be as pretty?"
And on and on it goes for more than a page, constantly adding more suggestive details and building immense sensual suspense, until it reaches a climactic crescendo, announcing Hartley's message:
"Maybe Vladimir saw in Phyllis' little girl's body, starved of food and affection, a willingness to please, an openness so different from the intricate ploys of the fleshy French girls. She was, undoubtedly for Vladimir, a nymphet, years before Lolita was ever conceived."
There are many problems with this alleged event. First of all Phyllis herself devotes barely three lines to their meeting (3-Street p. 204), and she herself may not have been telling the truth. And not even Phyllis claims that they did anything more together than go to the movies (which also may not be true, after all her book was published sixty years later and thirty years after Lolita was published, plus which my sister simply loved to embellish her relationships with important people).
More centrally, I have so far not been able to establish that Nabokov was in Paris at that time. This alleged romance between Phyllis and Nabokov is quite likely on the same level as Hartley's fiction of Phyllis spouting existentialism in Paris twenty years before the philosophy came into existence. Or the tales of her meeting Joyce, Pound, and Eliot also to be found in that chapter. She certainly never told me about any such meetings, and she certainly would have done so if they had actually happened, even if she had only imagined them happening.
The likelihood of any close ties between them is minimal, as must also be any similarities to Nabokov's novel. First of all, his character Lolita was twelve years old, while her older lover was a middle-aged professor of literature. But Nabokov was born in 1899, which means there were never more than seven years separating these two alleged love birds. Hartley suggests that Phyllis and Nabokov met in Paris, which would necessarily place Phyllis at twelve in Paris in 1918, at a time when she was far more probably at the Roedean school in England.
During that year Nabokov was first in the Crimea and later the Ukraine. To my knowledge Phyllis did not make her way to Paris until after Papa's financial crisis in 1922. She was at best in Paris between 1922 and 1927, when she and her husband Richard Pearsall took off for Spain, where they supposedly remained for eight years. Unfortunately for any meeting between Phyllis and the author of Lolita, wikipedia places Nabokov in Berlin between 1922 and 1937 and in fact refers to this period as the author's "Berlin years."
I want to become as selective as I can in calling attention to the errors, distortions, sheer fictions, and total untruths in this book. I have before me a list of at least thirty such instances, not counting all the overwrought Chick Lit passages or the feverish thickets of purple prose. One of the first goals of a Chick Lit narrative is to concoct a dark and menacing male enemy circling around the heroine, in the book's early pages Phyllis' mother Bella. Naturally for Hartley this enemy becomes our father.
But on pages 39-40 she can't help telling us about how closely Papa and his wife worked together in the office despite their differences, certainly a rarity for the second decade of the twentieth century. But this comes well after she has made it clear how genuinely villainous he was on page 30:
"To many, Alexander Gross will be remembered as a significant figure in map publishing, but the altruism found in many great pioneers was sorely lacking in him. Although desperate to be one of the people, he had no feelings for the people; he was hardly brimming with enthusiasm to inform the masses and it is doubtful that he cared one jot about revolutionizing how Great Britain was depicted..."
And on it goes... If you have looked at the page describing my experiences with Papa over nore than twenty years, you will already be aware that this paragraph is almost certainly mistaken. Anyway, by page 59 his wife has become so furious about his infidelities that she comes into the office for the sole purpose of hurling a pot of ink in his face. And this extreme act comes before she had actually gone to the police during World War I to denounce him as an Austro-Hungarian soldier. And both events are prior to her fall from a horse, after which her mental processes became even more unhinged.
As I've pointed out on another page, both Hartley's and my sister's accounts of these events are only the "She said" side of a long descent into divorce and worse. There is always a "He said" side to these events as well, and Hartley nowhere tries to seek it out. But why would she?after all, this is Chick Lit, where the male cannot be anything but a villain, the female a formidable hero, and nothing approaching true biographical research is permitted.
There is more misinformation in Chapter 15, where according to Hartley our father "despite a solid Swiss bank account...had chosen to settle in a measly one-bedroom apartment in Chicago." My niece Mary and I are in agreement that no such Swiss bank account existed. But why on earth had he gone to Chicago, after all New York would have been a more likely choice, whether he was ready to start a new map company or not. Here is Hartley's answer:
"Instead of seeking out the European aristocracy in New York, he moved west to mix with clusters of Hungarian exiles and Eastern European immigrants, who taunted what they believed was his English accent, who questioned why a man with such dainty manners and bespoke suits would not confide in them, wondered why he refused their offers of beer in this time of Prohibition (he brewed his own) and why he picked up prostitutes."
I believe this entire paragraph to be nothing but fiction.even its smallest element is false, he never brewed his own beer, or he would have told me about it if he had. And there was one very simple reason why he went to Chicago: he had met my mother in New York and wanted to be near her.
What's more he did not go to Chicago first, but to Saint Louis. That's because my mother taught Latin and History in a southern Illinois high school, and Saint Louis was the nearest major city, just across the river. He wanted to set up a school for teaching English to immigrants, but he had trouble finding enough students in Saint Louis, which is why he moved to Chicago, further from my mother but still within traveling distance. This relationship went on from 1923 until 1931, when I was born, and of course he remained quite close to both of us thereafter. Ample evidence for all of this can be found on other pages of this site.
Now let's take a look at Hartley's account of why my sister's marriage to Richard Pearsall broke up. Phyllis told me her side of their breakup more than once, though each time a bit differently. The author makes much of the fact that even after eight years together the marriage was never consummated, at least as recorded on their separation papers. Here's a few lines of what Hartley writes:
"Was Richard Pearsall a homosexual? There is no evidence to suggest he was. Apart from having a strict Roman Catholic upbringing..."
But why doesn't Hartley ask the other obvious question: "Was Phyllis a Lesbian?" Here the answer is certainly yes, or at least she soon became one, if she wasn't one already. Why is the author being so timid, is male homosexuality open for discussion, while the female variety is off limits?
My own background in medicine and sexology can be followed in the two final chapters of The Untold Sixties. I'm not a full-fledged doctor, but at least I've had some professional training. So here's what MAY have happened between Dick and Phyllis.
First of all, that phrase on their separation papers may not be worth a lot. During the thirties very few grounds for divorce were recognized in England, they were probably limited to (I'm guessing here) infidelity, physical cruelty, failure to consummate, and perhaps one other. It doesn't really matter if I've got the details right here, the point is that you probably didn't want to have any of these choices present on your record. Which could have made "failure to consummate" sound like the least worst, whether it was true or not.
Could they really have failed to get together over eight long years? I tend to doubt it, plus which we're constantly told that they lived a "bohemian" lifestyle, which means they knew other people they may have experimented with. And from those experiments they may well have stumbled onto the deed itself. Even assuming Richard was totally impotent or inept, dildoes have existed since the Upper Paleolithic, and even without one there is no shortatge of kitchen, workshop, or vegetable surrogates that can serve the same purpose. English public schools for boys were well-known for their sexual fun and games, and there is no reason why girls' schools would have been any less so, considering the many pleasures Phyllis and her schoolmates may have enjoyed with their lacrosse sticks.
Sexual education was virtually nonexistent in those days, the bad Victorian times were still fresh in people's memories, and quite a few people may never have figured sex out. But I doubt if Phyllis was one of them. She probably just decided once and for all that she liked it better with women. And in her case this was certainly not a bad decision. The author of this book evidently has some medical trainingso why, oh why, did she fail to examine this topic more closely?
As little as a dozen years agothe very era when this book was being put together, could this be the reason?few had any notion what Lesbians might even be able to do together. The most you might hear was that they enjoyed more peaceful, gentle, and ladylike pleasures, they achieved long-lasting but highly refined orgasms.
But nowadays anyone can go to free websites like xvideos.com, type the word "Lesbian" in the search field, and spend hours watching precisely how women make love to one another, both the male exploitation version and the videos women make to please themselves. They can even type in the phrase "ultimate surrender" and spend further hours watching these gentle, peaceful ladies engage in brutal nude wrestling matches that almost inevitably end in prolonged face-riding triumphs or the relentless pounding of strapon dildoes within one orifice or another. I've encountered evidence suggesting such matches stretch back long before the Internet, when in a more refined milieu my sister's passion for lacrosse might even have tempted her to participate.
I hope I'm beginning to provide a picture of how uninformed and inadequate these pages about my sister truly are. For instance, in Chapter 21 Hartley actually provides us with a diary my sister never wrote, fourteen full pages of it. Here are a few breathless excerpts:
"Mama knocked on my door last night. I would have sobbed were it not a dream. There she stood, her arms outstretched, clad from neck to toe in her favorite bottle-green velvet dress, her hair finger-coiled around her face and her Ascot hat...Scooping me up into her arms she hushed me by pecking my forehead with kisses until my breathing rattled less...."
"A telegram from Papa was delivered this morning. The PS gave my spine a shiver. _PS,_ he wrote: _Adolf Hitler has passed the Nuremberg LawsJews are now second-class citizens._ I can only be grateful that Papa is in America and hail Mary full of grace that Mama insisted on my being Catholic...
[Not even at her sacrosanct phoniest was my sister ever so stupid to have believed that. She knew perfectly well what the Nuremberg Laws entailed, that they applied to every one of us down to the fourth generation...]
"Make no mistake, there were things that I loved. Turning the key into my bed-sitter after midnight and the kettle calling for my attention. Then the milky warm suds of Pears soap as I wallowed in the bath, rubbing the street out of my stockings. That first rush of air on leaving the house that pinched my nose and face and stole my breath."
[Evidently the author was unable to find an adequate description of my sister's epic walk through all of London and simply decided to write the details herself. Did it never occur to her that the details she sought were missing because the walk never took place? We assume that the mention of Pears soap is not a form of "product placement," a type of overt advertising common in films, and TV, also present in some American Chick Lit.]
There was also the matter of my sister's surname, Pearsall. Here's how Hartley handles it:
"The scurry of rumours exist to this day, at the Geographers' A-Z Map Company and even among Phyllis's most senior members of staff, about her marriage status.
"'We always wondered if there was a Mr. Pearsall,' one director admitted. 'She never mentioned him.' Had she used, they wondered, Dick Pearsall's name for business reasons, knowing that she would be taken more seriously as somebody's wife, rather than as a spinster?"
Why didn't the author just come out and state the obvious? Could it be because it just might blemish the new image of cosmopolitanism Britain, mimicking the US, strives for today? Or was it impossible to state the obvious, given the anti-Semitism that boils just below the surface in Britain, that Phyllis welcomed her new name because it didn't sound Jewish?
There's also the faulty date this author claims for Papa's death. On page 302 she opts for August, 1957 aboard the Queen Mary. But Papa passed away in March of 1958 on board the Queen Elizabeth, an event positively burned into my memory and one that totally influenced everything I did that year. The memories of other family members also converge on that period. I suppose we could find out the precise date if any of us were to phone the Cunard Line for confirmation, but for obvious reasons this is not a phone call any of us has been in a hurry to make.
I hope you are beginning to form an overview of how false this book truly rings in so many details, as I am growing weary of reproducing them. There are quite a few other blunders I could parade before you, but I think I'll make do with just a selection from the Chick Lit tidbits and purple prose passages to be found:
"Only pride, too, stopped him from ever telling his ex-wife he loved her. In a strange, destructive way Sandor _had_ loved Bella. The times when she obeyed and did not stray from her pretty role as wife and mother. When she clung to him (but not too hard) for warmth, when she travelled on business with him and promised not to speak up in company. That is when he loved her." (page 128)
"'Sandor, how I worship and adore you,' Bella would tell him every morning, and each time she said it with as much sincerity as the first time. His mother had sighed, as she too told her son how much he was loved. And so, Sandor hoped, so too will my daughter." (page 94)
" The raised voices rattled the house as Sandor continued pacing to and fro in his study. Bella reclined on the chaise longue in the conservatory, fanning away the flies, her neck mottled red with angry blotches. Then she suddenly got to her feet and screamed up to no one in particular, a hoarse, wild sound that brought Sandor flying out of his room: 'I AM LEAVING THIS MARRIAGE!'" (page 95)
"Sitting bolt upright, her throat tight, she'd spent the hour-long journey to Victoria drawing an imaginary map of London, which she superimposed on the fields and towns running by. Papa, she knew, would be north of the river and west of Oxford Street, and Mama a little further to the north." (page 98)
"Her stubborn resolve did not falter. Her mouth would have been numb from her teeth chattering. Any tears that did scurry down her cheeks were due solely to the cold south-easterly wind smarting her eyes. Like a hostage kept captive in solitary confinement, her view was monotone. Black sea, night sky. To pass the time, she dredged through her past and selected memories to play back in glorious color." (pp. 106-107)
"Phyllis never allowed herself to pick through the misery of her circumstances, knowing that it might lead to the same dark mania from which her mother suffered. Instead, she stepped over the bad times and made herself walk in the opposite direction to depression." (page 106)
"Phyllis never understood the crippling effects of control or of the resentment that dominated her father. Instead she chose to be fearless, like her motherto embrace a light-hearted acceptance of what Sandor would have called tragedies, disasters, and misfortune." (page 138)
"The thought that really tickled her as she peeled off her coat, unlaced her sodden shoes, tore off her navy-blue cardigan, her blue blouse, her petticoat, her black woolen tights that covered a multitude of bruises, her knickers, and her vest, was that she might actually smell terrible. All the matrons and nannies who had briskly flannelled her down over the years in a furious effort to purify her skin (and her behavior), would have shuddered at her present repulsive state." (page 148)
It was probably inevitable that the author would also remove Phyllis' knickers and vest [US translation: panties and undershirt]. I don't find this at all shocking, but is a biography the place for this? Taking all these selections individually or collectivelyand there are otherscan any thoughtful person claim that they truly belong in anyone's biography? Or are they not rather part and parcel of that sub-genre of literature known as Chick Lit?
I'd like to end this page the same way I began the two web pages dealing with my sister's books, if only to bring us back to the many serious questions raised by this matter. It is my sister's books that Hartley relied on as her major source of knowledge about Phyllis, and as she herself has made amply clear, she totally embraced their contents as close to a sacred gospel. If you've read this section before, you can simply skip over it and find something more pleasant to do. I'm going to do the same, for I've finally finished at least the rough drafts for most of my web pages. So if you want to have a glass of wine or just watch the telly, be my guest, I'm just about to do the same.
And now here's that final section:
Epilogue: My Sister's Many Untruths...
In my sister's two books there are many untruths, distortions, and flagrant omissions. I have attempted to provide at least a partial list of these here. The many following examples are common to Phyllis's autobiographical semi-fiction and to Hartley's book about her, though by her own admission Hartley added a number of further fictions she herself invented.
My sister Phyllis did not found the Geographers' Map Company.
She did not create the first street atlas of London.
She did not create the A-Z Atlas of London.
She is likely to have lied about the naming of the A-Z. I have explained this in great detail here. I find it quite unlikely that our father would ever have suggested naming this work "The Okay Atlas," as Phyllis claims, thus opening the door for her to come up with A-Z.
She certainly did not walk all of London's streets while the A-Z was being prepared.
She lied continually and in many different ways about her relationship with our father.
She lied about her paternal grandmother supposedly being a gentile.
She failed to mention half of her immediate family, including a half-brother, a half-sister, and quite a few other relatives.
She failed to mention anything about her Lesbianism. She did not have many relationships with men, perhaps none.
She failed to mention all the reasons why and how she managed to spend considerable time during World War Two, often regarded as England's most defining era, chatting up and drawing women and girls of all ages. In our present age when mature individuals respect all sexual unions equally, this would be of no importance, except that my sister has chosen to take our father to task for the sexual side of his nature.
She lied in her repeated claims that Papa's New York office was a harem for his women, possibly because she lusted after some of those women herself. In the office Papa enforced a strict business-only atmosphere.
She conveniently left out almost everything about her Jewish side. (And above and beyond these books she personally lied to me over almost two decades by insisting that she and I and Papa were all gentiles.)
But my sister's most serious untruth comes in the form of a recurrent distortion that crops up again and again in the course of both her books. Throughout her narratives, despite her occasional bursts of devotion towards Papa, Phyllis does everything she possibly can to denigrate our father and exalt her own role in the beginnings of our father's second English map company and the publication of the A to Z Atlas of London, both of which were mainly our father's work.
She continually devalues his status as a British subject, his educational & cultural stature (which was considerable), his command of the English language (also considerable), and his abilities as a businessman (which Phyllis was completely dependent on). And in a few places she actually tries to suggest that Papa was a heavy drinker, something I know from having spent countless convivial occasions with him was never the case.
As I made clear in my brief treatment, Phyllis was never the least bit heroic in confronting Papa while he was aliverather she followed and obeyed him in every particular and urged me to do the same. She was in fact what Helen Gurlie Brown would have described as an English "mouseburger," ready and eager to be devoured by Papa. And this relationship, which I witnessed as the closest of observers between 1945 and 1957, was the true source of what she learned from him about business.
Phyllis also does her best to distort the events surrounding the breakup of the marriage between Papa and her mother, going to great lengths to paint Papa as an unmitigated villain, (indeed, as one critic called him, "a kind of devil incarnate") when in fact he was remarkably measured in his approach to life's problems, despite occasional sputterings, and in the long run exceedingly generous to every member of the family, and most generous of all to Phyllis.
As we all know, either from personal experience or from that of our friends (and as lawyers recognize for a certainty), whenever a marriage veers towards divorce, there are almost always two stories to be heard explaining how and why the breakup occurred, the famous "He Said, She Said" conflicting dialogue.
But what Phyllis presents us withboth in this book and in the one about family historyis only the "She Said" side of the tale. And it is this "She Said" narrative that Sarah Hartley slavishly follows in her own book, indeed she confesses "I have written the truth according to Phyllis. For I am convinced that every story, every memory and every encounter that she described, she believed to be true."
At one point in 3-Street (p. 288) Phyllis even confesses that she took her title for Fleet Street Tite Street Queer Street from the book her mother had intended to write. In other words she sees herself as writing the book her mother would have written if she could have done so.
But there is most definitely another side to these events, there most definitely is a "He Said" version of what happened between our father and Phyllis' mother. While growing up I heard it repeatedly from PapaI do not wish to present it here in any detail (and it would probably be boring if I tried), but it largely revolved around my father's disappointment at his wife's disloyalty and his repeated assertion that she had become to some extent mentally unhinged. My niece Mary tells me that our brother Tony also observed that their mother grew increasingly unstable after a fall from a horse, an incident described by Phyllis on page 116 of 3-Street.
So what we really have in Hartley's book based on those of my sister is little more than falsehoods heaped on falsehoods, with even further falsehoods introduced by some of the book reviewers, whose goal surely ought to have been to reveal Mrs P's Journey for what it undoubtedly is: scarcely a biography at all but a fairly ordinary piece of Chick Lit.
This web page is Copyright © 2014
by Alexander Gross. It may be
reproduced for individuals and for
educational purposes only. It may
not be used for any commercial (i.e.,
money-making) purpose without
written permission from the author.
my main website