The King, Henry IX, nicknamed "Hottie", is given an equerry called Brendan Urquhart-Gordon, who is known as "Bugger". This is how the class divide is represented: "[He recalled] the Prince at the piano singing 'My Old Man's A Dustman': 'My old men's a dustman, He wears a dustman's het, He wears cor-blimey trousers, And he lives in a council flet!' The Fourth Estate had not been slow to point out that the truth was otherwise: Henry's old man was Richard IV, and he lived in Buckingham Palace."Clint Smoker, Amis's tabloid journalist, writes for a tits-and-bums newspaper not unlike the Daily Sport. The moral dilemma they face - how to respond when stills, and later a DVD, emerge of the naked princess in a compromising position - is a workable one, and yet Amis immediately prevents the reader from engaging with this situation by overloading the scenes with bizarre, unfunny slapstick. More interesting to me is trying to understand why a novel that sounded so promising should prove such a dramatic and disturbing misfire.
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Amis's narrative concerns - chiefly, tabloid journalism, pornography and the Royal Family - are interesting, and several novelists have successfully addressed these subjects in recent years (Irvine Welsh's Porno, for example, explored the making of a low-budget porn film with much funnier results than anything on offer here.) Creating an imaginary royal family seems an unusually coy move, given that they have been fair game for satirists throughout the ages, but this is not, in itself, an invalid artistic decision. I would recommend that Amis does not strain his relationship with Updike any further by sending him, or indeed anyone else whose friendship he values, a copy of Yellow Dog. No doubt most reviewers will seize on the book's manifold weaknesses and use this as an opportunity to write off Amis for good. Reviewing Amis's ninth novel Night Train in The Sunday Times, John Updike confessed that the fact that he wound up hating the book amounted to a "painful personal failure". It is one of the hazards of dressing in the clothes of another, that a fragment of the original will always escape the new wearer's possession But perhaps that is only as it should be.. Matilda runs away from Isa's to try and find her mother and her own identity, and we travel with her as she ventures to London alone, trawling the filthy streets and the homes for the poor. Bront? story seems to have been abandoned after her marriage to Arthur Nicholls (perhaps, as a result, Boylan suggests, of his criticism that once again she had set her novel in a school).
It has been described by one biographer, Lyndall Gordon, as a move "into a new and more ambitious phase of her career, which would bring out the figurative meaning in the most powerless member of society: the abandoned girl".If that was Bront? intention, then Boylan has been utterly faithful to it. As Bront? fragment ends, Boylan's begins, and, as the little girl is lodged with her, Isa Chalfont tells us the story of her own past, how she came to be married, widowed and living on her own: "Lest you now imagine all mansions to be mirages, allow me to reassure you for I, Isabel Chalfont, widow of this parish, have passed a portion of my life in one."Immediately Boylan begins her part of the narrative, we see familiar themes of Bront? appear: the house as prison; the unidentified or mysterious female figure; the crossing of class boundaries; the unlikely love affair. An heiress, she is spoiled by the school's proprietors until they discover that her father's identity and address are bogus and her school fees are unpaid. Who is this little girl? She cannot say, as she appears to have lost her memory.A local gentleman, Mr Ellin, is struck by her and decides to investigate. In the fragments that remain of Bront? "Emma", a youngish widow named Isabel (Isa) Chalfont tells of a beautiful, if showily dressed little girl called Matilda Fitzgibbon, who is deposited at a small school in her neighbourhood. Two chapters of this later work survive, and Boylan opens with them here at the start of her own novel.This entire enterprise is a hugely daring one, and it is greatly to Boylan's credit that Bront? voice in these first two chapters segues imperceptibly into her own. This is more than mere impersonation on Boylan's part - this is living in the mind of another writer, and for Boylan to have succeeded in this task as much as she has is truly impressive.