Walter Hartright’s narrative
In early 1863 Theophilus Camlet’s publishing empire was housed in a Janus-faced building that took up the end of a block bounded by Prince’s Street, Lisle Street and Leicester Street in Piccadilly. To the passerby it appeared to be two entirely separate concerns. On the bustling Prince’s Street side a panelled door painted a sober grey conducted the visitor into the reception room of Covenant Pamphlets and Printed Materials, the original business dedicated to improving literature, informative pamphlets, and tracts.
A Quaker-like atmosphere pervaded there, a polished oak floor and gleaming woodwork. The walls above the rail were hung with racks displaying available pamphlets, everything from “The Doctrine of Substitution According to the Church Fathers” to “Sailor Knots: An Introduction (With Diagrams)” to “The Propagation of Begonias and Other Tender Perennials,” this last penned by Camlet himself. Over the fireplace was an etching of the youthful Jesus astounding the elders in the temple, flanked by dour mezzotint portraits of the founders of the two businesses that had amalgamated to form Covenant. The mantelshelf was adorned with their best-seller, John Calvin in ten volumes, bound in brown calf. It was a respectable room, but quiet. Few visitors sat in the plain wooden chairs.
If one pushed through the crowds on Lisle Street to the less elegant Leicester Street side of the building, however, there was another panelled door, exactly similar except that it was painted a glossy blue. The crowded reception room of Sensational Books was twice as large as the Covenant side, and boasted a bright, figured carpet and a horsehair-upholstered suite of furniture. The walls above the wainscoting had never been painted, but this was of no moment, since they were solidly covered with framed book-cover illustrations. Camlet pioneered the application of a printed illustration onto the front cover of the cheaper book editions.
These images could charitably have been described as vivid. In pride of place over the mantel was the cover from the best-selling two-shilling edition of Daisy Darnell: The Most Dangerous Woman in Europe. A Titian-haired stunner wearing a low-cut, arsenic-green evening gown of the most extreme fashion gripped a gold-mounted air pistol in her white satin, opera-gloved hands. Her rosy upper lip was lifted in what might have been a smile but was more probably a snarl. No books were offered for the visitor’s perusal. They had been purloined so often that Camlet displayed only the covers and, in a wall-mounted glass case, the very air pistol in the illustration.
There was always someone waiting there, nervous authors balancing boxes of manuscript on their knees, impatient artists with big, black portfolios, or occasionally an adventurer or reformed criminal hoping to peddle his life story.
A single receptionist presided over both these rooms, his kiosk being built into the party wall with a counter on either side. When I came in to the Sensational Books side in February, Mr. Totnes was just dissuading a trio of downcast schoolboys who had finished ogling the air pistol. “No, Miss Darnell does not reside here, young sirs. I am informed her current residence is Buenos Aires. I am afraid we do not have her direction. No, we cannot accept letters addressed to her.”
Mr. Totnes remembered me with cordiality. “Mr. Hartright, sir. Mr. Camlet mentioned you would be coming by before day’s end. Step straight on through, do. He’s nearly done with Mr. Flawne.” The schoolboys and waiting authors gazed at me with envy as I obeyed.
The offices on the ground floor were the original chambers dedicated to religious translation and pamphlets. Camlet’s own office was at the far end, an oak-panelled chamber with wide windows. These looked out onto the stableyard at the back. Bookcases held copies of every publication both presses had ever issued.
This room was adorned with neither lurid book covers nor religious imagery, but simply a family portrait over the fireplace. It was a recent one, painted only last season. In a profusion of vivid fuchsia silk skirts Marian stared boldly out, her brilliant dark eyes brighter than the diamonds at her throat. The children were grouped around her: lanky Micah standing at the back, blonde Lottie nearly as tall on the other side, Lester in white ruffles on a footstool with her usual open book, and William Walter Halcombe Camlet at his mother’s knee, clutching her finger. A glorious gold ring set with three square sapphires was just visible in his chubby baby grip.
The master of this little empire was a mild-mannered fellow of almost extraordinary ordinariness, with round, steel-rimmed spectacles, high in the forehead, and getting a little prosperous paunch under his grey suit. His faultlessly barbered fawn-brown hair had grey threads in it, and his side whiskers squared off his face by dipping down and then up into a moustache.
“Ten minutes, no more, Hartright,” Camlet greeted me. “The shilling railway edition is due out this year. Give Flawne and me the benefit of your artistic eye.”
“Art has nothing to do with it,” Sensational’s managing editor declared. “How d’ye do, Mr. Hartright. A pleasure to see you again. It is well known that purple does not display well on stands at the newsagents. Loathsome hue!”
“But the book is titled The Purple Pasha,” Camlet said. “We can’t escape it. And the young lady he’s rescuing does make a fine contrast.”
I gazed at the sketch on the display easel. It was executed in tempera on drawing board. The hero did indeed sport a purple turban and billowing cloak, and also a scimitar, a revolver, and bandoliers. A young woman cowering at his feet was being menaced by a not very anatomically correct lion, jaws agape to display a fine set of white fangs. “You are aware,” I said, “that lions live only in Africa.”
“Do they, indeed?” Mr. Flawne exclaimed. “How did editorial let that one slip by in serial publication, sir? We can make it a leopard if you like. The spots are quite fashionable.”
“The lion resides in the sultan’s zoological collection,” Camlet said. “No, we must keep the lion. But what if the cloak were, oh, green?”
“Scarlet,” Mr. Flawne suggested, scribbling a note. “And the lady in bright white, not grey, evening bodice on the gown instead of a day one, as low-cut as possible. A large, shining jewel and green feather in turban. No, scarlet, to go with the cloak. We want this image to leap up and smite the eye.”
“That it certainly will do,” I said. “Does anybody in Arabia wear a scarlet cloak?”
Both men shot me a look of incomprehension. Evidently facts were unimportant. “And don’t neglect to have her more …”
“More,” Mr. Flawne agreed.
Camlet explained to me, “More abundant. Hair, cheeks, lips –”
“Charms,” Mr. Flawne summarised. “I’ll set him on the changes. Next week?”
“That would be well,” Camlet agreed.
“My only advice to you,” I said, “is to have the artist take some sketches at the zoo. That animal’s legs clearly cannot bear its weight.”
Mr. Flawne heaved a sigh as he picked up the panel, but Camlet grinned. “See to it, Flawne.”
When the managing editor was gone, Camlet stood up and shook my hand. “Your timing is impeccable, Hartright. I’m just finished for the day. How long are you in town?”
“At least until the House adjourns at the end of March.”
“So we shall see a good deal of you. I’m delighted.” He took his top hat and umbrella from the stand behind the door, and picked up a pasteboard box. “For Marian.”
“You have her reading manuscript?”
“She enjoys contributing to the work and has a sterling track record. And it’s an easy task to fit in around the children.” Marian had been the first person to read and grasp the potential of Daisy Darnell, still far and away Sensation’s best-seller.
I followed Camlet out of the rear door into the yard, where his carriage waited for us. The coachman hastened to take my carpetbag.
“Matson, how are you?” I greeted him.
“Thriving, Mr. Hartright, thriving. And I hope Mrs. Hartright and the boys are well?”
From much practice the lie tripped easily off my tongue. “They are, thank you.”
Camlet followed me up into the carriage. “Marian has ordered a roast of beef for you, Hartright. And she’s invited a mutual friend she says you will be happy to see again.”
“Indeed?” Since I am a junior MP from Cumberland in the far north of England, I should have had little to say to a publishing magnate. But Laura and Marian are sisters closer than two blades of grass, inevitably giving us much in common.
“Yes, a childhood friend of Marian’s, Roderick Donthorne.”
Startled, I said, “Have you met Donthorne?”
“Oh yes, he’s been to dinner several times. He sent some pineapples when she was confined with William.”
“He’s in the Americas, then.”
“He’s been posted for the past year in Spanish Town, Jamaica, and is returned only for a month or so.”
I relaxed. Neither Marian nor Camlet knew that Donthorne had aspired to Marian’s hand. But he plainly could not be a danger to their union from the distance of a Caribbean island.
Camlet went on, “Tell me of dear Laura, Hartright. What Marian’s been reporting to me from her letters is worrying.”
“It’s been harrowing.” I could not convey in words the blackness of the personal events of this past season. My dearest wife had endured a miscarriage the year before last, and our hopes had been high that all was going well for her confinement this year. The stillbirth had been a terrible blow, the loss of what might have been a longed-for daughter. Camlet waited in sympathetic patience as I fought to control my voice.
“She has ever been delicate,” I said at last. “She’s not recovering well.”
“You have my deepest sympathy. Marian intends to make a long visit, I know, with all the children. She waits only for Micah’s Marlborough term to conclude at the end of June.”
“Nothing could give Laura more joy.” My brothers had perished of cholera while I was in swaddling clothes. Mysterious are the ways of Providence, for in middle life I acquired another. I gazed across at Camlet and seriously considered telling him all.