One of the joys of browsing along library shelves is that you find old books. Perhaps I could better phrase that as “elderly volumes,” books that were published decades ago and are still available in their original binding. In a bookstore, one can find books published years ago and still in print but in contemporary binding, but, on the whole, bookstores seem to stock recently published books unless there’s a recent television connection. For example, H. E. Bates enjoyed something of a resurgence in sales after the Darling Buds of May series came out, and after the two adaptations of Love in a Cold Climate were aired decades apart, Nancy Mitford’s books became easy to find in bookstores.
One recent find for me was Monica Dickens’ Joy and Josephine. The print is fairly small; the paper, yellowed to the point of being tanned, but the binding is barely smudged or worn. I can’t help wondering what the history of the volume is. Surely it hasn’t been in a public library since 1949. It does contain an old style library envelope for a circulation card, and the card shows dates from 2007 to 2012, presumably the last time it was lent out before the new computerized system came in. Underneath that envelope is someone’s signature. Perhaps that someone donated their long held copy to the library. Who knows?
This is all something of a digression of course from the novel itself.
I remember my mother being rather fond of Monica Dickens, especially the autobiographical One Pair of Feet about Dickens’ experiences as a student nurse in the same system in which my mother trained. I read One Pair of Feet many years ago, and I have read Dickens’ autobiography An Open Book, but I think Joy and Josephine is the first of her novels that I have read.
It’s a straight forward story about a girl who is adopted during the first world war. She isn’t told until her late teens that she’s not the birth daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Abinger who bring her up in their corner grocery store in North Kensington. When the secret of her adoption is revealed, she must deal with the fact that as a baby she survived a fire in the children’s home from where she was adopted, and there may be some confusion about which of two babies she is. Is she Joy Stratton the niece of a baronet or is she the daughter of an unmarried Irish girl who left her baby on the doorstep of a Catholic priest? In what stratum of society should she look for her place?
What interested me most about this novel, I think, was Dickens’ description of life around the Portobello Road in the period between the two wars. While I don’t sense that Monica Dickens intended the novel to be a social novel in say the mode of Elizabeth Gaskell’s work or of her own great-father Charles, I did appreciate that Monica Dickens was drawing from life.
The novel felt a little dated not only in its style but also, of course, in the secret at its core. Today, DNA testing would answer Joy or Josephine’s questions quite easily, and I found that having that knowledge distracted me from the other aspects of the novel. Dickens’ characterization is believable and sensitive; individual characters are never one- dimensional. Joy and Josephine is a novel about self-definition, about families, about love, about making ethical choices, about honour and loyalty. It is never saccharine, and while its conclusion is satisfactory, it remains somewhat open-endedly realistic. I’m glad I found it.