My Sister Phyllis Pearsall Gross
And the Meaning of Truth
How the Critics Handled Mrs. P's Journey...
I first heard about Mrs P's Journey in 2006, five years after it was published. Since I am Phyllis' brother, I immediately ordered it and was extremely surprised by what I found. The author admitted that she had freely added fictional passages to what purported to be a biography, but I immediately became aware that even the so-called historical sections were one-sided and inaccurate.
The book seemed angled towards tube-traveling young ladies who needed to believe that their jobs and lives were worth pursuing, that they could somehow find a way all on their own to put men in their place, to triumph both in life and in love, as Phyllis had allegedly done. The problem of course was that what Phyllis had accomplished had not been on her own at all but enjoyed continuous and precisely targeted support from our father and other family members, as I have tried to make clear on other pages of this website.
I looked at most of the reviews then available on the web and was amazed to find that British critics were largely taking this book quite seriously both as history and biography. Perhaps the most uncritical of all was the review that appeared in Britain's supposedly foremost arbiter for intellectual content, the Times Literary Supplement. Unfortunately I did not download all the reviews at that time, and most of them have since fallen off the web. I have more recently retrieved a sufficient number of them and have also found a treasure trove of brief reviews and comments made by readers unfortunate enough to have purchased the book as a result of those early notices.
Simply to strike a more positive note, I am beginning this section with excerpts from two reviews that indeed took this book quite seriously but nonetheless sounded a few skeptical notes. These will be followed by the many scathing comments about Mrs P's Journey posted on line by those who bought and read it, leading up to the scandalous treatment that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement.
Here's part of what the Observer had to say:
"Like the old map Phyllis had to use when first setting out on her project, there are limits to Sarah Hartley's map of her life. Interesting details promised in the enthusiastic jacket blurb, such as her knowing Vladimir Nabokov, T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, are lacking, with the few chapters set in Paris almost ignoring these relationships. Questions about Phyllis's own failings are raised but not examined in depth. Furthermore, the narrative often relies on an annoying tone that is akin to a Victorian melodrama: 'A single wail from Bella [her mother], stranger than any noise they had ever heard, rose out from the depths of her crumpled body.'"
This mood is very much echoed by most of what appeared in the Sunday Telegraph:
"Pearsall herself wrote two privately published memoirs. They have plainly been an indispensable source for the biography, but also, alas, a dangerous one. Just how much the style and approach are Pearsall's and how much Hartley's isn't clear, but wherever responsibility lies the result is overwrought and overwritten, florid and slapdash.
"Here is the heroine at school for instance: 'For some the sea acts as a metronome by tempering their restlessness and lulling their subconscious, but even the dragging lure of the waves could not harness the troublesome teenage girl cooped up at Roedean.' And here is a glimpse of Venice in the Twenties, where 'couples draped like sloths across one another kissed in the rocking gondoliers'. (It would have been better if Hartley had written 'gondolas', but only just).
"One unhappy result of Hartley's decision to set down what she calls 'the truth according to Phyllis' is that she concentrates far too much on Pearsall's early life. We are two-thirds of the way through the book before we reach the A-Z itself. Before that we hear about Pearsall's Hungarian-born father, the impossibly overbearing Alexander Gross (a successful map-maker himself, until he went bankrupt and left for America); about her gifted Irish-Italian mother, who went insane; about her husband, who soon fades out of the picture.
"There are glimpses - not entirely convincing - of bohemian life in Paris, and of her beginnings as a painter in London (it was after getting lost on the way to a patron's house in Maida Vale that the idea of the A-Z first occurred to her), though oddly enough there is nothing to indicate that her brother, the artist Anthony Gross, was a distinguished figure in his own right.
"Not only are the pages of the book devoted to the A-Z of much more general interest; they are also better written...But we could do with more. The story soon wanders off again into biographical byways.
"According to the old rhyme geography is about maps and biography is about chaps. But this is one biography which would have been better if it had had rather more about maps and rather less about chaps - or chapesses."
At the same time both of these articles basically took Hartley's book seriously as a genuine biography and raised no questions concerning its authenticity. Far less kind on the whole, but far more to the point, are the many on-line criticisms that appear on Amazon. Names of those posting have been omitted here but can be determined by searching for the book on their website. Each one of them had unfortunately succumbed to the publicity and bought a book:
"2.0 out of 5 stars
"Muddled and disappointing, September 20, 2004
"The story of the remarkable woman who came up with the London A-Z map is well worth telling. From a traumatic upbringing, Phyllis Pearsall became a one-woman cartographic dynamo who worked tirelessly well into her 80s.
"Unfortunately, this book is muddled, amatuerish and disappointing, reading more like a self-published book than one from a respectable mainstream publisher. The structure is all over the place and the copy-editing woeful."
* * *
"If I could give it half a star I would be happier... 22 Nov 2007"
* * *
"This is an object lesson in how to make a potentially interesting subject very dull indeed. The author rambles with no thought for chronology and has created a very convoluted story. The only time that she ditches her somewhat florid prose is in the sections that deal with the technicalities of cartography. Leaving aside the argument of who actually invented the A-Z as we know it today, Phyllis Pearsall's background and story would make interesting reading in the hands of a different author."
* * *
"How NOT to write a biography, 2 Jun 2005"
* * *
"This is an extraordinarily badly-written book, doing the subject no favours at all. There are countless factual and chronological errors (such as having a hospital full of war wounded men, two months before the war has begun). The life of 'Mrs P' is really not put into context at all, and we get very little idea of what she was actually like in her adult years. There is far too much about her parents and too little about the reception of the 'A-Z' and how it changed life in London.
"What ought to have been a truly fascinating and revealing book is both irritating and disappointing."
* * *
"Interesting subject, poorly written, 27 April 2005 By A Customer"
* * *
"While I was intrigued by the life Ms. Pearsall seemingly led, the writing of this 'biography' really lets her down. Ms. Hartley jumps around in time so the reader is confused. Then, all of a sudden, in chapter 21 she uses the first person, as if quoting from a diary or an auto-biography, when in fact she's apparently just jumping into Ms. Pearsall's skin for a random chapter. I find her approach irresponsible, as she is respresenting a real woman's life and takes great liberties with filling in the blanks. Finally, the writing itself is not very good, with several grammatical errors that undermine the credibility of the entire work."
* * *
"Mrs P did not create London's first A to Z atlas.,
"27 Jun 2001 By A Customer
"Phyllis Pearsall did not produce London's first A to Z. She produced the first atlas of London to be called an A to Z. Slightly different.
"She did not tramp the streets mapping every road in London. This task had already been done by several others, including Bartholomews and Philip. She added some street numbers - very useful, but not quite as sensational.
"Curiously, in her autobiography, From Bedsitter to Household Name, Pearsall steers clear of claiming to have produced the first London pocket atlas. In fact, she even alludes to the 'competition'. Perhaps she was bothered about law-suits which might have followed such a claim.
"Anyway, Ms Hartley has, in a strange version of Chinese Whispers, taken Pearsall's odd, badly written autobiography, uncritically believed everything it claimed, added some points which it DIDN'T claim, and on such poor foundations has built a very wobbly building.
"Once you accept that Pearsall did not produce London's first A to Z, then the whole house of (index) cards comes tumbling down..."
* * *
"3.0 out of 5 stars Not what I expected, 2 Aug 2002 By A Customer
"What attracted me to this book was the prospect of reading about the development of the A-Z map. Maybe I didn't read between the lines of the front cover properly. Anyway, I didn't really expect to spend quite so long reading about Mrs P's parents. It is not until page 204 that Mrs P decides to write the A-Z, and when it happens there is not enough detail. I admit that Mrs P's early life is interesting but I found the emphasis rather poorly balanced considering the book's main selling point. It is also written in a rather confusing manner. Has Sarah Hartley not heard of chronological order? While it moves froward in time in a general manner the narrative constantly flits backwards and forwards a few years, often leaving one confused as to what exactly has happened. Massive potential here in the subject but could have been executed better."
* * *
"Appallingly badly written, 1 July 2010
"I had to give up on reading this book. It was full of conjecture but all too often that is true of biographies, but what made it completely unreadable was the atrociously poor standard of English. It actually contained malapropisms! On every page there were passages which I can only describe as nonsense. Her father, as a young man, goes into a cafe where her mother, then a young girl, was waitressing. Her father noticed the the waitress is rather plain, and in the next sentence has proposed to her! It seems that the author made no attempt at all to think about what she was writing. It reads like a poor first draft. How on earth does such a poorly written book get published?
"Don't waste your money, or your time, on this book."
* * *
"Completely misses the point, 1 Jan 2009
"I was very disappointed with this book. Clearly Ms Hartley fell in love with Mrs Pearsall's dysfunctional (but not actually very interesting) parents and spends most of the book talking about them. It takes the first 200 pages to get to the A to Z and then there is only a token discussion, if anything it shows how little research or passion the author has about mapmaking or the geography of London. The book requires significant editing and as other reviewers have noted it is very poorly structured. My best guess is that Ms H wrote a magazine length article in Chapter 24 and then got so fascinated with the family, she chose to write the remaining 30 odd chapters around it. Dont bother buying it."
* * *
"Mrs. P's Journey, 15 Nov 2010
"Our book club chose this book because one of our number is a London bus fanatic and we thought he would find this account of mapping London streets particularly interesting. Unfortunately we realised when we read and discussed it that the book focused on a melodramatic fictionised account of Phylis Pearsall's life. We thought that the book was badly written - it is the author's first book and she was obviously learning her trade - as the line between fact and fiction was not clearly drawn so that there were accounts of conversations, thoughts and events that were obviously made up. The book badly needed a bibliography. However it gave our group the basis of a good discussion, looking particularly at life for women at that time. Not the best book we have read, but interesting nonetheless."
* * *
"A Kid's Review
"Didn't finish this, I found it tedious. Not a lot about how she did the A-Z, more about her weird family.Some stuff did not ring true so I thought half of it was made up."
* * *
"Confusing, 12 Sep 2008
This is an unusual book, in as much as the author seems more interested in writing an emotional story of a stressful childhood and eventual triumph rather than a biography. I agree with other reviewers - the chronology is confusing, and the accuracy of Phillis's autobiography on which it is based is questionable - her brother disputes some of the facts. We are told what her parents felt, although the author cannot possibly know. There is very little about the A-Z itself, and what role it played in making London more accessible - it is intimated that all that was avilable before this were 1919 ordinance survey maps, but the illistration of the first A-Z cover states that it is larger than other similar street atlases. It is also difficult to know what Phillis's contribution was - we are told she walked the streets, and collected house numbers, but how did she deal with surveying all the new roads which had come into existance since 1919? This is a missed opportunity to cover an interesting subject."
* * *
A few further comments from the Goodreads website:
"Extraordinarily bad book! You may think on picking this up that you will learn about the A-Z map and the woman who created it ... but you (like me) will be disappointed. 4/5 of the book is about her parents and other peoples lives (a tiny bit interesting) the remaining 5th is what you want to know about and it's just skimmed over with general points here and there. For example it jumps from the war years to the 1980s!
"In no way lives up to what it claims to be, not entirely sure why I didn't give up and persevered to the end."
* * *
"This is a biography of the woman who [sort of:] single-handedly wrote the A-Z, the most popular London street atlas. Unfortunately it has far too much about her parents and her early life, which was colourful but not particularly remarkable, and far too little about the process of mapping, and what made the A-Z different to other competing London maps.
"Its also extraordinarily badly written; melodramatic and clumsy. Its hard to do justice to the cumulative effect, but heres a sample:
"'Pacing back and forth in the darkest pit of her memory, Phyllis was aware that she lacked two vital elements of self-esteem that ought to have been rounded up and handed to her by her father. Respect and recognition. No matter how far she needed to search for the errant pair, no matter how long the journey, Phyllis was prepared to hunt them down.'"
* * *
"Phyllis Pearsall grew up around cartography and decided after a failed marriage to make her own map of London. She did it at a time when the London maps were horribly out of date. Through a process of trial and error and thousands of miles walked, she put together the London A to Z map and created a new company in the process.
"It was the process of making the map and the effects of the map on the business, London, etc, is what I wanted to read about. From page 200 onward, Mrs. P's Journey finally comes on topic after languishing on Mrs. P's parents. While I suppose it's interesting to learn about her father's dabbling in cartography, the bulk of the book is wasted on irrelevant details."
* * *
"Talli rated it 4 of 5 stars:
"It's been awhile since I've read any non-fiction and as an avid user of London's A-Z, I thoroughly enjoyed this. What an amazing life Mrs P lived! My only small quibble is that I didn't always know where fact left off and fiction began."
* * *
"Nicolas rated it 1 of 5 stars:
"A bad book that doesn't do justice to a fascinating subject."
* * *
"Cindy rated it 2 of 5 stars:
"I so wish this was better written as its a fascinating story but the authors weaving in fiction and biography is not effective or fun reading- its annoying."
* * *
Yes, among these readers' comments there were also some positive ones, but they were outnumbered by those you have just read by about three to one. It's probably safe to surmise that those who claimed to have enjoyed the book were part of the target audience for Chick Lit: younger girls anxious to know how their lives and loves and livelihoods were likely to turn out but also older ladies ready to place the blame for their less happy times exclusively on men.
Yes, these are very real people, I could not have reached the age of 82 without having met them, and I would not dream of treating them with either disdain or condescension. But a biography must still be a biography, and the author of Mrs. P's Journey has at best only partially written one. The book was published as a biography by Simon and Schuster in 2001, but just one year later one of their Chick Lit imprints, Pocket Books, brought out their own edition.
And now as promised let's turn our attention to the review that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. Since I'm going to be ripping this review to pieces (as it deserves), it is only fair that I reprint it in full as the final part of this page, so that readers can draw their own conclusions.
The Times Literary Supplement has long been regarded as the ultimate arbiter of values in the world of books. In the never-ending duel that goes on between the US and England about cultural matters, for at least two postwar decades this publication was touted on both sides of the Atlantic as final proof that only the English could be relied on to apply strict and binding standards in literary and cultural matters, that intellectually challenged Americans would never be capable of reaching such Parnassan heights of critical judgment. One overdue reaction to this assertion led finally to the founding of the New York Review of Books in 1963, which publication speaks for itself. And even earlier, cynical Americans correctly pointed out that the Times publication was only able to survive due to the vast number of paid subscriptions from American college libraries.[Note]
Similarly, the British used to set great stock by their claim that Foyle's of London was the world's largest bookstore, and that the Blackwell's Group out of Oxford probably held second place. All such boasts became irrelevant when an American named Jeff Bezos founded Amazon Books in 1994. Its branches around the world have themselves become so powerful that an English friend recently asked me whether we had an Amazon in America (just as a French friend also asked me if we had Google).
I believe that the review of Mrs P's Journey that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement might have turned this entire matter from a mere embarassment for Simon and Schuster into a fullscale literary scandal, even if there were not also the Chick Lit problem to deal with.
Let's leave to one side the petty but still quite significant fact that the author of this review actually misspelled the name of the book's subject. Not once, not twice, but wait, you'll see. My sister's name is Phyllis Pearsall. The Times reviewer actually rendered her surname as "Pearson" seven separate times. But as I say, let's be generous and leave that to one side.
At a time when the names of Rupert Murdoch, Jimmy Savile, and George Entwhistle top the news from London, when Britain's frivolous libel laws over so many decades were just replaced last year, when Stephen Potter's Lifemanship and David Frost's Bluffing Your Way At Everything rule so much of what passes for debate in England, does not all of this suggest that genuine respect for the truth is in something of a crisis on England's Emerald Isle, that it may even have been largely banished from British society?
Certainly this review would seem to point in that direction. Just as Sarah Hartley totally embraced every single untruth trotted out by my sister, so the Times reviewer totally embraced every word concocted by Hartley. How can valid criticism possibly be grounded in such uncritical acceptance?
As I've said elsewhere, I am reluctant to take aim at easy targets. But the Times piece is so blatantly foolish that I will briefly forego that reluctance. If we take a look at a few excerpts from this critic's alleged review, I think you'll quickly see my point:
"she walked Londons streets eighteen hours a day for a year, in order to give the city the map she believed it needed."
As I have shown quite thoroughly on this website, and as Peter Barber, the curator of maps at the British Library, has also demonstrated, this claim has virtually nothing behind it. I suspect the reviewer was either gulping down the promotional material for the book whole or may have been a personal friend of my sister during her lifetime.
"Her father, a Jewish Hungarian peasant who migrated to Britain to make money, was, it seems, a kind of devil incarnate. Sandor Gross, FRGS, was a philanderer, a liar and (though sometimes very rich) a bankrupt..."
A "devil incarnate" indeed! The reviewer is simply accepting the "She Said" side of a complex divorce process just as Ms Hartley and my sister presented it, without bothering to examine or even discover the other side. Something closer to the full truth can be found on this website.
"When the fiery, beautiful, unstable, part-Irish Bella eventually left him, he divided the rest of his successful life between sulking and visiting prostitutes."
This is absolute nonsense, and I, as Phyllis' and Tony's half-brother, am in an ideal postion to tell you precisely why and how it is nonsense. Please at least look at the other pages on this site. If this were remotely true, I simply would not be here.
"He favoured his son Tony, who grew up to be something of a washout, protesting, whenever required to face reality, that he was an artist."
What on earth is this idiotic sentence doing in a book review? Our brother Tony excelled at etching, played a pioneer's role in film animation, and as a war artist with his paintbox on his back strode ashore amidst the first wave at Normandy.
What are the precise qualifications of this reviewer as an art critic to determine who is and who isn't an artist? To what extent is this reviewer practicing true literary criticism, and to what extent are we merely witnessing deficient art history combined with wanton male-bashing?
"This history of Londons first A-Z belongs, henceforth, in any library of books about the capital."
I'm sorry, but it wasn't London's first A-Z at all, and this book is certainly not its history, it doesn't even fully qualify as a biographywith all its fictional elements weaved in it is in fact a piece of Chick Lit and was published as such under one of Simon and Schuster's Chick Lit imprints a year after its first edition. This connection to Chick Lit is something that not just this would-be book critic but the entire British literary world should have easily detected from the very beginning.
"poor Phyllis, who was sensitive to other peoples pain"
And that's the crux of the problem. No, Phyllis was not even minimally sensitive to other people's pain, or she would have never written all the falsehoods found in her two self-published books.
I don't want to waste any more of my timeor the reader'sby adding anything more here. I believe today's England may be facing a genuine crisis in reaching out to find what the truth may be. For far too long far too many citizens have held back saying anything meaningful to one another for fear of offending, and in many cases they have reached a point where no one is capable of saying anything worth listening to. I expand further on this theme on adjoining pages. In the mean time those who have the stomach for it can read this review in full for themselves. It starts right now:
TLSThe Times Literary Supplement
The leading international forum for literary culture
Published: 20 July 2001
MRS PS JOURNEY
The remarkable story
of the woman who created the A-Z.
By Sarah Hartley.
334pp. Simon and Schuster.
"A doctor wrote to Phyllis Pearsall in 1936, after buying her first edition of the London A-Z, that, through misdirection of his route to the bedside, she had killed one of his patients. He was wrong, but poor Phyllis, who was sensitive to other peoples pain, couldnt bear to check the reference for ten days. In other respects, though, she was immensely tough. At barely 5 feet tall, she walked Londons streets eighteen hours a day for a year, in order to give the city the map she believed it needed. Next, she became her own sales rep. Male booksellers harassed her because she was a lone woman, and a Mosleyite wholesaler pushed her downstairs because she looked Jewish. Finally, Mr Cruise of W. H. Smith agreed to take 1,250 basic A-Z atlases at a shilling each.
"Overnight, she pushed the stock to his shops in a wheelbarrow, Paddington to Euston in twenty-one minutes. A plane crash in 1946 devastated Pearsons health at forty and left her longing to reach Zoffany Road in her first revised post-war edition. But her pluck remained, as did her skill at getting on with others, and her gift for making paintings of buildings and people-in-places.
"This history of Londons first A-Z belongs, henceforth, in any library of books about the capital. The tragedy of the Blitz lies at its heart. But what makes it such a good story is Pearsons character. Her father, a Jewish Hungarian peasant who migrated to Britain to make money, was, it seems, a kind of devil incarnate. Sandor Gross, FRGS, was a philanderer, a liar and (though sometimes very rich) a bankrupt who attempted to undermine all talent and self-confidence in his wife Bella and his daughter Phyllis. He favoured his son Tony, who grew up to be something of a washout, protesting, whenever required to face reality, that he was an artist. Sandor laid the foundations for his daughters determination and even for her mapmaking. Before his first financial collapse he had founded Geographia. But he would greet the sight of any one reading or painting with: But who will make the money? He viewed both illness and sensitivity as forms of dependence. When the fiery, beautiful, unstable, part-Irish Bella eventually left him, he divided the rest of his successful life between sulking and visiting prostitutes. Bella, meanwhile, took up with an alcoholic American painter and, after a riding accident, declined into an alleged insanity which, in the appalling conditions she was cared for, quickly killed her.
"Early in life, Phyllis Pearson adopted the motto: On we go. She loved her parents to distraction. They bought her a baby elephant for her ninth birthday, sent her to banal and hateful Roedean while they could afford it, and from the age of fourteen forgot about her welfare. As their marriage foundered, both made huge and unreasonable demands on her sympathy . She acquired the charm and winning smile that instantly won over strangers, and she projected a sense of freedom which was much admired. But she spent the rest of her life avoiding emotional involvement. Perhaps that is why her marriage to Dick, a painter friend of Tonys, was unsuccessful.
"Pearson became a Christian after years of pain following the air crash, compounded by a stroke which left her blind for two months when her father threatened to take the Geographers Map Co away from her. To that same father her last written words were almost a prayer: 'My Darling Friend and Father ... I truly know how wise you are.'
"But what is so energizing about Pearsons life, crackingly presented by Sarah Hartley in Mrs Ps Journey, is her fearlessness. She spent her gap summer in France. Tony, supposed to give her a place to stay, had decamped without a word. So she wheeled her trunk down beside the Seine and slept there on a bench for six weeks, using the facilities in various art galleries, dipping stale baguettes in a fountain, and waiting for a famous restaurant to bring out its daily trays of unwanted sausages. It was not only her bronzed skin which made her stand out among the other new students at the Sorbonne that autumn. Living outside, she had acquired an almost ecstatic love of fresh air, and of buildings and objects.
"Phyllis Pearsons one regret was that her painting, for which she received many distinguished commissions in later life, was regarded as little more than adequate. But then her parents had taken away all the feelings she would have needed to put into art."
* * *
I've reprinted this review in full here, and since I have made presentations on copyright law to groups of translators and dramaturgs, there's something I'd like to make very clear. I believe it's important that this review has been reprinted in full under the Fair Use Provisions of US Copyright Law, so that independent observers can draw their own conclusions regardless of my own opinions. I want to make this perfectly clear, since over the past decades some quite foolish events transpired under the English libel laws that prevailed until just last year. Hopefully those foolish events are now entirely a thing of the past. In general it is fair to observe that members of the British public have been far more thin-skinned about accepting criticism in the print media than other representatives of the English-speaking world.
[Note] Even today some Britons may be unable to assess the full extent of the US educational system. I remember a true story, related to me by a girl working for International Times, of the dialogue that ensued when she informed her mother that she had entered a relationship with an American studying in London:
"Yes, but what does he actually do?"
"He's at Yale, mother."
"Yes, but what on earth is Yale?"
"It's an important American university, mother."
"Oh. You mean they have two...?"
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