A Collection of J.L. Carr: Harpole and Foxberrow, General Publishers

Harpole and Foxberrow, General Publishers was J.L. Carr’s eighth and final novel, published in 1992, when the author was 80. The second and last to be published by him via his Quince Tree Press, it had been back-handedly advertised as forthcoming in What Hetty Did, as telling the middle story of George Harpole and Emma Foxberrow whose stories had been told at their beginning and ends.
This last novel quickly advertises itself as being written, or perhaps compiled, by Hetty Beauchamp. No formal timeframes are given, but Hetty is clearly writing several years after the events of her novel, and in the final pages is cutting about herself as a know-nothing with illusions of cleverness, which was rather the problem I had with the girl in the course of her tale.
It’s clear from the title that Carr is, once again, drawing upon personal experience for the milieu of the story, as our star-crossed couple follow Carr’s steps into the business of Publishers and come up against all the problems that dog honest publishers’ footsteps: officialdom, bureaucracy, licenced theft of actual books, not to mention that most serious of banes for the publisher: authors.
Like The Harpole Report, this is a book constructed after the fact from disparate sources, business records on the one hand and, like before, George Harpole’s own journals, supplemented by the occasional recollection of conversations after Emma Foxberrow’s death. It lacks a specific storyline, coming closest to this in its closing pages when the Government chooses Harpole & Foxberrow to make an example of, and set a precedent over the firm’s refusal to obey its legal obligation to send (at its own expense) free copies of a number of its books to the entitled Library institutions.
Harpole is summonsed, despite the fact that he is the senior partner in name only (the printers and publishers having been bought with Emma Foxberrow’s money) and most unfairly in that he was always prepared to submit the books required but was restrained by Emma’s intransigence. And whilst there’s no doubt whatsoever that he’s guilty at Law, Harpole is found innocent by a bench of Magistrates dominated by Mr Fangfoss (of How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The FA Cup) on no legal basis whatsoever.
That’s hardly a surprise, because it’s that kind of book. It’s an improvement over What Hetty Did by virtue of not featuring the teenage Hetty in any substantive way. It mixes, though doesn’t match, characters and settings from all Carr’s novels, emphasising in the end that all his work has taken place within a private universe.
As well as Fangfoss, we meet again (complete with exterior description for the first time) Joe Gidner of Steeple Sinderby and his father, not uncle, George, narrator of The Battle of Pollocks Crossing (we also learn that Joe’s mother is the orphaned Becky Farewell). Emma and George begin the book by being expelled from Sinji, Oxgodsby and Great Minden appear as settings, whilst the business itself is set up at Jordan’s Bank, Hetty’s original home from which she runs away in her book.
It’s a book of bits and pieces, heavily overweighed by characters from The Harpole Report, which is perhaps not surprising, and to the extent that it has any narrative, save for vignettes, heavily Conservative opinions and venerations towards Margaret Thatcher, it revolves around two books, published by H&F, and written by ex-colleagues of the publishers from that book.
The first of these is ‘The Story for the English’, by previous Headmaster Edwin Shutlanger, a caustic, Engish-oriented version of the Gospels, translated to both this sceptred isle and the late 20th century and shot through with stridently exaggerated incidents that purport to be the modern world. Carr is at his most indulgent here of his views, which would make most right wing Tories cheer loudly and which, in dealing with his last book, I think I’m finally allowed to say are bullshit.
The book, which barely sells, becomes a controversial and suppressed object, which I cannot help but see as a fantasia by Carr.
The second is ‘The Jessamy Brides’ by Grace Pintle, the former Miss Grace Tollemache of Tampling St Nicholas, now married to the hidebound Mr Pintle, the outdated Maths teacher. The marriage is, naturally enough, celibate, which sheds a deal of light on Grace’s career as a writer of a particularly formulaic type of romantic fiction, involving middle-aged headmistresses falling for strong, sensual exotic dukes and princes only to have consummation prevented by the unexpected arrival of increasingly implausible third parties in increasingly remote and inaccessible places, the relationship ultimately having to be abandoned because of the lady’s duty to return to England to care for a sick/elderly relative dependent upon them.
George Harpole – the firm’s salesman – likes the books, which in itself has to be some form of black joke because they are shaped to be lightyears beyond the vapidity of the most cliched Mills & Boon fiction, but it’s Emma Foxberrow – in this book more acidic and headstrong than before, to the point of total detachment from reality – who takes on the former Miss Tollemache and forces her, over great reluctance, to write ‘The Jessamy Brides’ with the cynical aim of winning a Big Britlit Prize.
When the book does so, it triggers two things; the buying out of H&F (which is treated as a done deal by the international publishers that take over, even before H, or rather F, know about it) and the decision of George Harpole to run off and marry bookseller, Mrs Fazackerly.
Which leaves Emma Foxberrow with a prestigious career in publishing that, between what we’ve seen in What Hetty Did, and the considerably cruel quasi-elagiac closing scene of this book, ends in being dust and ashes over her realisation that she has lost her man. Though this final section is brilliantly composed, and Carr’s language is masterful, I can’t help but wonder at the underlying message. Emma Foxberrow in her first and third appearances, is presented as a bright, witty, forthright woman, master of her own life, a strong, career woman. But both in What Hetty Did, and in the closing pages here, Carr destroys her because of her concentration upon herself, and her failure to accept love from a man. In both refusing to become a wife or a mother, Emma Foxberrow is cut down.
Among the granite-like conservatism of all Carr’s books, unless he is playing one ultimate, deepest of black jokes that is too deep for me, I can only see misogyny, over and above class-conscious contempt and a loathing for the majority of mankind as vulgar, ignorant, unworthy and best left to stew in such a setting and not ‘spoiled’ by being educated or giving any sense that there might be something other to life than peasantry.
Like Dave Sim’s misogyny ultimately comes to mar the genuine quality of most of Cerebus, Carr’s belief in how things best are is seen in all his books. It is at its height at the beginning and end of his career, though in the case of his last two books, it is presented with irony and an enhanced absurdity as opposed to the serious declarations of A Day in Summer and A Season in Sinji.
I ask myself why, given the great political gulf between Carr’s opinion and mine, I have a complete set of his books. The answer is in part that it is a complete set, and I have always been a completist by instinct, and furthermore these are a set of Quince Tree Press editions: these are books of an individual quality in their physical form.
But Joseph Lloyd Carr, who preferred to call himself James, or Jim, wrote How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won The FA Cup. And A Month in the Country. For these books, he deserves recognition as an author worth taking seriously, of being better known than he ever was. You don’t have to agree with an author to find his work compelling, though it certainly makes things easier if you do. And eight books is a sufficiently small tally in which to carry passengers who you might rather prefer would keep to their cabins for the duration of the voyage.
…this is a book about books and the business of books. For Emma Foxberrow, James Alfred Pintle, Gidner, Grace, George Harpole, Mimi, Mr Fangfoss, Mts Witwatersrand, Avona Fazackerly and Edwin Shutlanger slip and slide like shadows, are moody, unreliable, bothersome. They flounder about and need footnotes to keep them from sidling off. Whereas books have body; books (if you are listening) always will say what they said last time. Or stay silent when you shut them up.
James Lloyd Carr, 1912 – 1994

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