Monday, 19 September 2011

Penguin no. 1529: The Unspeakable Skipton
by Pamela Hansford Johnson

My dear Willy,
Fellows of my kind are not two-a-penny. I say 'fellows' because it is among them, I suppose, that you class me. All writers who do not bring you in a stupefying profit, sufficient to house you in East Grinstead and to enable you to stuff smoked salmon, are 'fellows' to you. So I do not merely assume: so I know that it is. For if money talks, my dear Willy, so do your associates: Dickinson, for example, has a tongue like a tap with a withered washer, it never stops dripping. And it drips to some purpose when it repeats to others the things you say about them in your manifold clubs, because it spreads a useful awareness that treachery is your stock-in-trade. 

Pamela Hansford Johnson achieves something remarkable with this book. It is the study of a man whose behaviour is appalling, or unspeakable as she suggests, and yet it is pity that you come to feel for him, rather than contempt. It is impossible to think of her main character, Daniel Skipton, in any positive way: he is predatory, paranoid, conceited, and deceitful. He lives at the centre of a self-constructed universe, certain of his own brilliance, resenting that it hasn't been recognised, and taking advantage of anyone he meets. He survives on charity without feeling gratitude, and defrauds the people that befriend him without feeling shame. It all ends badly, and predictably; he invites the misfortune that befalls him. And yet as unpleasant as he is, as deserving of his downfall, I could feel nothing other than sympathy towards him. I found myself thinking poor Daniel Skipton.

Daniel Skipton is an English author living an impoverished life in Bruges. Some time in the past he wrote a single book that enjoyed a temporary success, but it has been failure ever since, and he has never earned enough money to support himself. He has survived only through the charity of others: a distant female relative who sends him an annual allowance, a publisher providing advances on a promised book, and the daughter of his landlady who sews his clothes, and cleans his room. He appreciates none of them. Instead he sits in his room in Bruges and entertains thoughts of persecution, dwells on imagined slights, and dreams of the day when his genius will be recognised and they will all be sorry. And he writes bullying and threatening letters to these benefactors begging for more funds.

Removed from the context of this story, these letters are quite entertaining. But it is through them we see most clearly his talent, and the way it is being squandered. His anger at events not aligning themselves with his sense of what is right and fair is diverted into his writing; his letters and books become his weapons of revenge. His favourite part of each day is spent writing or editing what he is certain is his masterpiece. The plot is secondary; characters are created to redress wrongs, and to humiliate anyone who he perceives to have injured him, perhaps by being more successful, or for failing to acknowledge his genius. He acts repeatedly against his own interests, and shows a complete lack of sense or foresight or planning, and he comes across as someone who needs to be protected from himself.

And yet this all sits at odds with the rest of his lifestyle. He survives between those remittances by preying on foreign tourists, both by accepting their hospitality, and by tricking them into purchases or entertainments for which he will get a cut. In all this he must be calculating, ever watchful for opportunities, falsely solicitous, and manipulative. And so there is this inexplicable dichotomy in his behaviour: calculating in one environment, unable to anticipate consequences in another.  He lives on the edge of starvation, and alienates everyone he knows; as he loses his way there is nothing for him to fall back on. It was an interesting portrayal of a paranoid and delusional personality, but a stressful book to read.

Even without the note at the front of the book, the inspiration for this character is easily recognisable as Baron Corvo. This is Frederick Rolfe, transplanted in time and space from one European city of canals to another. And while The Quest for Corvo tells his inexplicable story from the outside, here there is an attempt to understand his thinking, and why he behaved the way he did.

Also by Pamela Hansford Johnson:
Penguin no. 921 An Avenue of Stone
Penguin no. 1004: A Summer to Decide
Penguin no. 2267: An Error of Judgement


  1. I wonder if he is a precursor of the odious Dexter in David Nicholls's One Day? (Did not think much of OD I hasten to add.)

  2. Hello, Karyn! I just found your blog today (courtesy of the feature Penguin ran on Facebook), and all I can say is, WOW! I thought I was a Penguin fan until I saw this. It's awesome in every sense of the word. It's funny, I just posted about the old orange covers on my own blog last night! I'd love it if you'd come check out my meager post on the subject ( and leave me a note. It's nice to meet another Penguin lover, even if my Penguin passion is less impressive than yours, =0) .



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