An Adventure in Letters

Suppose that a retired bank clerk from New Jersey has inherited a mass of valuable letters to his great-great-grandfather. Let’s imagine this ancestor was a book-seller in Victorian London who had corresponded at length with the leading writers of his generation. To Dickens and Thackeray, Eliot and Trollope, Butler and Hardy, he put such questions as Why did you write? How do you write? From what sources did you get their characters and ideas? What do you see as the purpose or usefulness of illustrations to your novel? What do you think of the books of your peers and competitors?

An intriguing conceit, no? But John Hall brings it off convincingly in this series of contemporary letters (mostly emails) between Larry Dickerson, the bank worker, bent on getting as much money as he can from this stash, and Stephen Nicholls, the patient and helpful head of Christie’s manuscript department in London. Nicholls leads Dickerson through the intricacies of the auction process but also helps him enter into the Victorian mind, a domain Dickerson eventually embraces with enthusiasm. That result is a book that is part suspense novel, because we wonder if Dickerson will finally decide to sell the letters or keep them for himself; part literary tour de force, because the old letters lead us into the thoughts of the foremost novelists of the period; and part humorous tale, because of Dickerson’s personality. He is a character such as the department of heads at Christie’s have seldom encountered, and we watch as this unschooled, bluff, blunt man emerges into a self-educated Victorianist.

This is a book for lovers of Victorian literature, but it is also a bracing antidote for those less enthusiastic readers who may have found Dickens a little too melodramatic, Thackeray too allusive, Trollope too protean, and Hardy too pessimistic. For both kinds of readers Hall’s book offers the hope of redemption, a thoroughly engrossing ramble through the literature of the enduring Victorian galaxy.

This charming epistolary novel is sure to appeal to any lover of Victorian fiction.

A charming diversion: N. John Hall, best known for his biography of Anthony Trollope, here delivers a novel in letters about a retired New Jersey bank clerk who comes into possession of his great-great-grandfather’s correspondence with an all-star cast of nineteenth-century novelists: Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and the aforementioned Mr. Trollope among them. His attempts – through communications with an auction house – to understand the value of what he has inherited make this curious book a leisurely treat.
Barnes & Noble Review

Correspondence is a fascinating read that will prove hard to put down. Highly recommended.”
Midwest Book Review, “The Fiction Shelf”

In this ‘Adventure in Letters,’ N. John Hall thus manages to convey a good
deal about the Victorian novelists and their aesthetics, and to do so
in a playfully entertaining manner.
Washington Post

N. John Hall is a Distinguished Professor at Bronx Community College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. Twice a Guggenheim Fellow and the author of many books, he is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on Anthony Trollope and Max Beerbohm.