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Vance, Joseph

"In fiction, coincidence needs to be used as sparingly as death."

But people do die, and people do happen to borrow other people's luggage. And I do happen to discover forgotten Victorian page-turners in secondhand bookshops.

Layers deep in artifice, the supposed publisher of this surprising work explains that he was sent the MS. by a Mr. F___ of Kensington, who bought it from a young woman who had substituted a copy of the Daily Telegraph for a stack of papers when she was a servant in a lodging-house "where there was an author".

Me, I was just looking for something to read on the train: not necessarily disposable, but it would have to be portable and offer enough pages to keep me absorbed and out of mischief – chance would be a fine thing – travelling from London Waterloo to Brussel Zuid without Chris to talk to. The surroundings of Waterloo station are not in general propitious for such searches, but I struck lucky on Lower Marsh and found a small, solid hardback from the World's Classics series.

In the event, it took me two or three days to finish it, and I didn't begrudge a moment. "Picaresque" might be one description, stuffed with characters and events and little images that stay in the mind's eye: the surly landlady, for instance, when her slatternly maid-of-all-work has started a chimney-fire:

Skinner she stood and used many expressions till the Engines knocked and she went upstairs for to deny them. But their helmets carried that weight that Skinner she was demolished like, and gave in.

The preface to the Cloister and the Hearth claims "There is a musty chronicle, written in intolerable Latin …" Finding something like Joseph Vance reminds me how many other musty chronicles there must be, neatly typeset in a now outdated English. I wonder what other discoveries lie ahead.

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