Joy and Josephine (1948) by Monica Dickens

Book review by Sylvia D: What a shock it must be suddenly to discover in your teens that the people you thought were your parents are only your adoptive parents. And what a much greater shock it must be to discover that no-one actually knows who you are. You must be overwhelmed by a sense of a complete loss of identity. This is the idea on which the novel Joy and Josephine by Monica Dickens (1915-1982) is based.
In an episodic approach Dickens recounts the early years of Josephine (Jo) who grows up on the Portobello Road in the shabby grocery store run by Elsie and George Abinger whom she thinks are her parents. The first time we meet her is when she is six. Mrs Abinger, a plump, hard-working woman, is trying to bring her up to be ladylike but Jo prefers a more exciting life. She hangs out with three children from the higher- class Moore family who live up the hill and with two boys, Norm’ and Art, who spend their days roaming the streets. They decide to dig a tunnel to rescue Norman and Arthur’s father from Wormwood Scrubs. It all ends in tears and accusations of betrayal.
Six years later Mrs Abinger uses a legacy to pay for Jo to attend the local high school and the second episode is the story of the family going away to stay in the same seaside town as the very suburban family of Jo’s best friend at school, Pauline Gray. Families from the Portobello Road and from Wimbledon did not have much in common and Dickens uses a light touch to describe the frequent awkward moments. The holiday is truncated when Mrs Abinger is taken ill.
Another jump forward and Mrs Abinger has become so ill that Jo has to leave school to help her father in the shop. Her father is a finnicky, lazy man, always boasting about how busy he is. Whilst the reader has known the story around Jo’s adoption from the start of the book, George in a fit of rage now reveals all to his adoptive daughter.
Jo had been born in 1918 and was one of two babies in a Devon orphanage. When one of them accidentally died in a fire, no-one could say who the surviving child was. They looked very alike but had not been labelled. One had been a foundling, left in the porch of St Joseph’s, the local church, whilst the other baby had been the orphaned niece of a young convalescing officer, Sir Rodney Cope. Appalled at her father’s revelation, Jo decides she must be the other baby. She goes off in search of Sir Rodney and another identity and becomes Joy Stretton.
The contrast between the lives of Jo Abinger and Joy Streeton could not be more different. The effete Cope lives a bachelor existence in a Mayfair flat but he takes her in and turns her into a lady. She is on the point of marrying a very desirable, wealthy young man with a large hall and a dragon of a mother when the Second World War intervenes and Joy becomes a munitions worker.
The story then takes another twist and a drunken, noisy Irishwoman appears claiming Joy is called Kathryn and is her daughter. The reason why Dickens makes Joy reluctantly accept this women as her real mother doesn’t ring true to me. After further vicissitudes, Joy returns to the Portobello Road. Her insensitive father is killed by a bomb. She and Mrs Abinger move to a cottage near the orphanage in Devon. Billy, one of the Moore children who has flitted in and out of the story, turns up at the former orphanage which is now an officer convalescent hospital. Jo/Joy realises she has always loved him.
This is a long book in three sections entitled Josephine, Joy, and Joy and Josephine. It is highly contrived but Dickens, who herself adopted two children, asks the reader to suspend belief as she seeks to explore the theme of nature versus nurture. Are you what you are because of your genes or because of the way you have been brought up? Thus, although Jo, as Joy, enjoys some aspects of her life as a lady, on occasions she feels more affinity with her previous incarnation:
‘Sometimes, she even wondered whether she could be Joy Stretton after all, for at the factory she felt more like Jo Abinger. It reminded her of the old life, the best parts of the old life; the noise and warmth and safety of a herd; the incurious, rackety bonhomie, the honest show of affection or dislike, and the whistling at the cinema, instead of ‘Darling’ breathed to friends and enemies alike and the shocked shushing when people clapped at concerts.’
Dickens’ writing is very patchy. There are some paragraphs that really sparkle but in other places I was taken aback by the school-girlishness of her prose. Characterisation is Dickens’ greatest strength. Here is Sir Rodney’s mother-in-law:
‘She was broad as she was long, wore magenta or emerald green or both together and fur coats like hearth rugs. Her hair was dyed and tonged into rusty sausages, and old paint lay thick in the folds of her cheerful face. She had a whisky voice and a smoker’s cough and the monstrous coarse humanity of the good old music-hall sport.’
Jo never discovered whether she was Joy or Josephine but by the end of the book she has found her own identity:
‘That evening, instead of going straight home, she climbed the steep lane, crossed the road, and went through the church-yard to St Joseph’s. She stopped in the porch as she always did, wondering if she had ever lain swaddled there. Joy or Josephine? She would probably never know, but it didn’t seem to matter. She was herself. And Billy was coming to supper to-morrow.’

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