This winter I have read Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Dorothy Merlin trilogy twice, and it would be fibbing to say I’m not going to read it again. Her three riotous satires on the writing life, The Unspeakable Skipton (still in print and considered a classic), Night and Silence Who Is Here?, and Cork Street, Next to the Hatter’s, have saved me from the February doldrums. These suberb comedies are loosely connected by the character of Dorothy Merlin, an obnoxious poet/playwright who extols maternity in her deliciously terrible, pretentious verses (cleverly and merrily ghosted by Johnson). In The Unspeakable Skipton, she is only a minor character, a tourist in Belgium despised and exploited by the impoverished expatriate novelist Skipton, who ekes out a living brokering fake antiques, arranging seedy sexual shows and other shady deals.
The second book, Night and Silence Who Is Here?, though not quite as perfect as the first and third, is very, very funny, a kind of Lucky Jim-ish comedy about Dorothy’s friend, Matthew, an aristocratic playboy who is lionized by an American college after Dorothy bullies him into writing articles about her. “Since he mildly liked her work, he saw no reason why not to; and as her total oeuvre consisted of twenty shortish poems and four slim verse-dramas, the labor was not demanding. He had all the luck of those who find themselves, by accident, first in the field. He was immediately accepted as the world authority on Dorothy Merlin, because he was literally the only one.”
Matthew looks forward to his term as a Visiting Fellow. But college life in a freezing New Hampshire village without shops or pubs comes as a shock since he can neither cook nor drive and must cadge meals or drink them when the union restaurant is closed (as it constantly is). He spends most of his time foraging for food and huddling in misery with the other fellows (two of whom are also English non-drivers) and thus writes little about Dorothy except for the book's title: ‘Dorothy Merlin: Tentative Steps Towards a Synthesis of Imagery” (which he steals from Cobb College's Emily Dickinson Fellow), The Fellows are both absurd and likable. Ruddick is writing about Emily Dickinson's drinking and forever cornering Matthew to listen to the latest "drinking" quotes from her poems. "Partake as doth the Bee/Abstemiously." Etc. Ruddick is really hysterical and somehow sympathetic: he's crazy but is, well, sweet.
But in Matthew's subversive protests against the inadequate arrangements for the Fellows, he begins to politick for the job as Director...
It's a very silly book, but so much fun.