Review: I Am Jonathan Scrivener by Claude Houghton

I Am Jonathan Scrivener [1930] ★★★★

London, the 1920s. James Wrexham is a lonely thirty-eight year old man just barely bearing his daily job and with no enviable prospects before him. A merely “spectator of life”, he has already resigned to just watch his life go by when he notices an advertisement in The Times. A certain wealthy gentleman, Jonathan Scrivener, seeks a personal secretary for himself and Wrexham applies on a whim. To his delight, he is accepted for an interview with one lawyer and soon given the position despite never having met the man. Scrivener is allegedly abroad and Wrexham starts his duties in his luxurious apartment on a very generous salary. If these circumstances were not odd enough already, a number of Scrivener’s supposed friends then come barging through the door and each has their own incredulous story to tell about Scrivener. Wrexham’s life turns upside down in a matter of weeks as he transforms from a lonely and desperate man to a social butterfly enjoying a life that only the very wealthy can afford. But, questions still remain – who is Jonathan Scrivener, a supposedly brilliant eccentric? Why is he hiding? What purpose may he have in hiring Wrexham? And why do Scrivener’s friends all give contradictory accounts about the man? I am Jonathan Scrivener is a deeply psychological mystery novel, “a hall of broken mirrors”-type of a book whose many elements need careful reassembling.

It sounds like the book has a simple story, but, in fact, there are many layers to it. Much like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby [1925], everyone in the novel is talking about a man they have hardly seen, if at all. Like Gatsby, Mr. Scrivener becomes almost this urban legend who is accorded all sorts of powers and brilliance, among which is immense wealth, and all sorts of skills and eccentricities: “A man of brilliant achievements, a man of remarkable possibilities” [Houghton, Thornton Butterworth Publications, 1930: 59]. The characters become obsessed with the unknown and the unreachable. Wrexham, a probable alter ego of Mr. Scrivener, obviously takes the role of Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby. This unassuming young man becomes everyone’s confidante and each character separately and as a group is trying to penetrate the mystery that is Mr. Scrivener. Is the absent man pulling the strings in the background? Do all of his supposed friends form part of a wicked experiment, a cruel game? Is he perhaps similar to Mr. Owen from Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None [1939] who prepares a trap for each of the characters?

We guess the character of Mr. Scrivener only through the “effect” that he has on others: on Pauline Mandeville, a beautiful young girl from the upper-class, on Andrew Middleton, a disillusioned alcoholic, on Anthony Rivers, a handsome playboy, and on Francesca Bellamy, a rich and famous widow who may have been responsible for her husband’s death. None of them know Jonathan Scrivener well, but each is considered to be his “friend”, and the secrets of all of them are soon probed as James Wrexham gets acquainted with the unlikely group. Symbolically, the narrator Wrexham represents a clean slate, the Fool from the Tarot deck, who carries almost nothing with him (in terms of experience or knowledge) and expects nothing in return, but who, nevertheless, starts making rounds through the variety of life suddenly on offer for him and  because of his newly-found employment. Thus, Wrexham starts attending aristocratic, sophisticated dinners with his wealthy new friends, Pauline Mandeville and Francesca Bellamy, and introduced to a more wild, extravagant and bohemian lifestyles through his relations with Anthony Rivers and Andrew Middleton. In turn, each of these people may also symbolically stand for the four elements in nature: Pauline represents Water, being almost a water nymph who has a “cooling” effect on others, Francesca is all Fire, standing for passion and force, Anthony is Air, being quite whimsical, changeable and irresponsible, and Anthony is definitely Earth, being only too fallible in the eyes of all. The question becomes – is there a “fifth element” to be discovered? Thus, through all of these people, Wrexham has an opportunity to taste life to the fullest in just a matter of weeks, but, paradoxically, the mystery of Scrivener only deepens.

Dotted throughout the novel are astute social observations, especially on the nature of the changing Britain in the early 1920s. Any humane and philanthropic principles of the previous generation give way to materialism and hedonism among the upper-classes fuelled by rising capitalism and prosperity in the early years after the war: “a car of any sort was regarded as the highest pinnacle of human felicity. The garage has become our spiritual home”; “the conversationswere always about money” and “politics had become a longer word for chaos” [Houghton, Thornton Butterworth Publications, 1930: 36]. This shift was seen especially in young people. The character of Pauline Mandeville is a prime example of a young woman from a wealthy class whose standards start to contrast drastically from that of her conservative parents: instead of following any traditions and rules blindly, she rebels, though inwardly, and seemingly lives in her own untouchable world. She is certainly not desperate to land that coveted role of a wife of a rich man, being nothing more than an elegant extension of her husband and all that he represents in society. London and England are described in unflattering terms, too: “London…[Artists] were no longer concerned with its welfare and everywhere the engineer was doing his splendid worst”; “London contains many worlds: there are slums within a short distance of its most aristocratic quarters, and deep solitudes within a few strides of its busiest thoroughfares”; “…life in England is one desperate attempt to find warmth” [Houghton, 1930: 110, 153].

It has been awhile since I read a book with as many interesting insights, too: “the terms we use to describe others usually reveal little concerning them, and much concerning ourselves” [Houghton, Thornton Butterworth Publications, 1930: 69]; “it is what a traveller becomes on his pilgrimage which is important, not where he has lodged on the way”;you can always tell when you are with your superiors – they give you the illusion that you are their equal. That’s why you like them. Conversely, your inferiors always try to indicate their superiority. That’s why you loathe them” [1930: 252]; “passion…it is what makes people interesting because it reveals them. If you can find out what a person will sacrifice to obtain his or her desire, you know everything about that person. Artist, lover, statesman, fanatic – each is revealed by the extent of the sacrifice he is prepared to make in order to feed the fire on his altar” [1930: 200]; “to know the facts is one thing; to know the truth is another…facts are to the truth what dates are to history – they record certain events but they do not reveal the significance of those events” [1930: 68].

The novel does get quite frustrating, especially in its second half when we want more developments and get endless dialogues instead. Although the “set-up” is deliciously intriguing, half-way through the book it may appear that the plot goes nowhere. The story is “adept in arousing your curiosity and a genius in frustrating it” [Houghton, Thornton Butterworth Publications, 1930: 44], to use one quote from the novel. However, what Claude Houghton did very well is to strike in his novel that delicate balance between the remarkable and the unremarkable. The book seems to be based in realism and follows a perfectly logical course of events, but we also get an occasional feel of a fantasy or a fairy-tale when reading. All the certainty in the novel sometimes gives way to complete unpredictability and, much like in the works of Franz Kafka, characters starts accepting puzzling events without a second thought.

I am Jonathan Scrivener is a psychologically penetrating and highly insightful work of fiction with deep observations on society and people’s minds and beliefs. It is both a top-notch mystery and a journey of self-discovery and from an author who most certainly nowadays deserves more recognition.

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