Second review of Joy and Josephine by Monica Dickens (1948)

Book Review by Jane V.

The book opens with a kind of prologue. An Irish girl puts her crucifix in the folds of a newborn baby’s blanket and leaves the child in a church porch. Chapter One opens on a train travelling to the West Country soon after WW1. Seated in the carriage are three of the characters in the book: Mrs Abinger, a corner shop grocer’s wife, Miss Loscoe, a rather waspish spinster neighbour/friend and Sir Rodney Cope, Bart still in uniform and accompanied by a Moses basket containing a baby girl with whom he has no idea how to deal. It happens that their destination is the same place, a children’s home on the south coast of Devon where Miss Loscoe’s sister is employed. The two women are going there to choose a baby for Mrs Abinger, who is unable to have a child of her own, to adopt and Sir Rodney is going to park the baby who is his dead sister’s legitimate child, until such time as the family find it more convenient to look after her.

This is the first point at which the modern reader must suspend disbelief and come to terms with the book as a light hearted and picaresque romp. Surely the answer in a rational and well-heeled world would be to employ a nurse maid and a nanny to look after the orphaned child? The second suspension of disbelief comes when that very afternoon a fire breaks out, due to wiring known to be faulty, in the babies’ quarantine room where the Cope niece and a very similar baby – the foundling – are lying in cots. It is Mrs A who flicked the switch when she sneaked into the babies’ room while the matron was elsewhere. She couldn’t resist picking up the foundling baby which she was determined would be hers. To her horror the baby is wearing a crucifix and she knows her prejudiced husband would not accept a catholic child into his house. She pulls the cross off and hides it in her pocket. The faulty wiring causes a fire. One of the babies does not survive. One is rescued in the confusion – but which one? The only distinguishing feature between the two babies was the crucifix and that was hidden in Mrs A’s pocket. She does not come clean about the light switch which she has secretly flicked up again in the smoke filled room. The surviving baby has a gash on the left side of its head where a holy picture fell on it in the fire. When a nurse remembers that the foundling child had come with a crucifix which would identify it, Mrs A slips the crucifix from her pocket and hides it in the blankets wrapping the surviving baby. Incontrovertible proof that the Cope baby is the dead one and the live baby is Josephine the church porch waif. Well – we accept this kind of identity swap, deceit and ensuing confusion from Shakespeare again and again, so why not from Monica Dickens? This is the situation on which the youthful adventures of Joy/Josephine Cope/Abinger is based. Adventures worthy of the hero of a nineteenth century novel.

Mrs Abinger determines to bring Josephine up to be a cut above the neighbours’ children in Portobello Road – just in case she is Joy Cope. She dresses Jo in pretty clothes and sends her to a private dame school (where she learns little). We see Jo break out from this coddling nurture and escape into the street to play with the dirty and disreputable Goldney boys. However Mrs A is anxious for Jo to mix with the Moores, a naval officer’s family, whose address is more acceptable. Jo becomes involved with Norman Goldney’s scheme to dig his dad out of Pentonville prison by burrowing under the walls. (This episode reads like a children’s book and, not surprisingly, Monica Dickens went on to write for children). The naval kids join in but of course all is discovered and Jo is in disgrace with all parties. The Goldney boys think she has betrayed them; the Moore father forbids further contact with Jo; her adoptive mother is shamed. Renewing her efforts at grooming her adopted daughter for better things, Mrs Abinger sends Jo to the High School where does well. Jo has a crush on a sporting senior girl then becomes close friends with the daughter of a lack lustre middle class family, which delights Mrs A.

However, business in the grocer’s shop is hit by a new store opposite which poaches customers, Mrs A’s health deteriorates and as soon as Jo reaches school leaving age Mr A, an idle, opinionated man, demands that she leave school and help in the shop, doing all the work her ‘mum’ used to do. Jo succumbs to this regime. She is courted by Norman Goldney who has gone straight and works as an electrician. Jo is luke warm towards him. Always intrigued by the mystery of Mrs Abinger’s top drawer, Jo finds the crucifix in her ‘mother’s’ drawer and steams round to see Miss Loscoe to find out the significance of this object. Miss Loscoe, now old and demented is only too glad to spill the beans and tells Jo that she is adopted and is really the niece of a baronet. Jo sets off to Devon to the children’s home to investigate and then to Norfolk to visit the retired sister of Miss Loscoe who had succeeded the original matron. Jo discovers the true story of her adoption but not the mystery of her identity and determines to seek out Sir Rodney Cope and to convince him she is his niece. Sir Rodney, now a middle aged cross between Bertie Wooster and Noel Coward, accepts her and sets about moulding her so she is fit to enter society. As her Pygmalion he does a fine job and Jo becomes Joy Stretton, niece of Sir Rodney Cope and he her devoted Uncle Roddie. Jo/Joy carries off numerous society triumphs and Uncle Roddie plans to find a suitable husband for her. The old Jo surfaces from time to time, notably in her friendship with Uncle Roddie’s butler Alexander whose company and advice (‘be your own. Be yourself’) she comes to rely on, spending much time in his kitchen.

A suitable match is found in Archie, the son of landed Oxfordshire gentry. Jo’s future mother-in-law is a fierce old lady in a wheel chair who rules her husband and relatives with a rod of iron. Jo becomes increasingly anxious, hating visits to the family pile with its hunting parties and freezing rooms. But WW2 comes to her rescue and Jo is permitted by her fiancé to volunteer in an officers’ club. Jo becomes fed up with this and enrols on a fitters’ course which teaches her nothing. So she sets off to work in an armaments factory testing springs while also looking after Uncle Roddie who has lost Alexander to war service. It is dull work but she loves the companionship of the other girls. Norman reappears in uniform as does Billy, the naval officer’s son for whom Jo has always ‘carried a candle’. Jo, realising she can’t marry Archie, moves back to live with her ‘mother’ after her adoptive father and the shop girl are killed in an air raid.

The next episode of Jo’s life is, in this reader’s opinion, an episode too far. A slatternly Irish woman appears on the scene claiming to be Jo’s birth mother, the girl who left the baby in the church porch. Jo is once again persuaded she has found her identity when the woman claims to have dropped her baby of the right side of its head – the side on which Jo suffers headaches. Jo goes to live in the run-down hotel the woman and her husband own in London. Here Jo is set to menial work on top of her factory work. By this point in the life and adventures of Joy/Jo we ask ourselves why a girl who is intelligent, had the spirit of adventure enough to be the first child to enter a tunnel under Pentonwille, who is spontaneous enough to go rushing off to Devon and Norfolk to discover her true identity; who is adaptable enough to learn to become a society girl and determined enough to do war work, should so easily give in to the blandishments of a probably bogus claimant. Is it the old theme of ‘seeking an identity’? The novel does mention from time to time the dichotomy of nurture/nature as the determinant of a person’s character.

Jo bumps into Wilf Moore, now a naval surgeon and brother to Billy, on a crowded tube train and they talk over a drink. Jo learns that Billy is not married, as she had thought and that he is still fond of her. Jo bewails her failed search for an identity and Wilf explains that one is born with an inherent nature but this might be disguised under layers of conditioning. He also explains referred pain, suggesting that Jo might have headaches on the right side of her head from the picture falling on the left. Proof of identity eludes her once again. Well, yes – but when Billy magically reappears, curably wounded, in Devon where Jo has taken her adoptive mother to escape the blitz, Wham! Billy has loved her all along, she is retrieved from all her self-searching and all’s well that ends well.

Colourfully drawn characters (if a little on the caricature-ed side. Like Great Great Grandfather Dickens maybe?)

[Persephone: Monica Dickens, born in 1915, was brought up in London; her father was a grandson of Charles Dickens. Her mother’s German origins and her Catholicism gave her the detached eye of an outsider; at St Paul’s Girls’ School she was under-occupied and rebellious. After drama school she was a debutante before working as a cook. ‘My aim is to entertain rather than instruct,’ she wrote. ‘I want readers to recognise life in my books.’ ]

Monica Dickens certainly based Joy and Josephine on her own previous experiences of trying out different walks of life. I enjoyed this novel and felt that it was a true ‘middle brow’ read – not too serious, not too taxing, maybe a mite implausible but certainly entertaining with well drawn characters and plenty of action. I particularly enjoyed the style of writing which deftly presents characters without explaining them:

‘Mrs Abinger was nursing the baby like a statue of primitive motherhood, all arms and lap.’

Uncle Roddie who thinks that no Bath Olivers with his morning tea is the height of war-time deprivation.

A slatternly Irish woman with hair ‘like a hennaed loofa’ and trailing a ‘dry little man as silent and sombrely shabby as a mute at a cheap funeral’. Lovely similes!

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