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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

See the Old Lady Decently


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Title: See the Old Lady Decently
Author: B.S.Johnson
Genre: Novel
Written: (1975)
Length: 139 pages
Availability: See the Old Lady Decently is currently out of print
  • First published posthumously, in 1975
  • With an Introduction by Michael Bakewell
  • See the Old Lady Decently was the first volume of what was intended to be a trilogy, the remaining volumes to be titled: Buried Although and Amongst Those Left Are You

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting, varied effort

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. A 10/8/1975 D. Keith Mayo

  From the Reviews:
  • "It's by no means a hard book to understand; you'll need about 15 pages worth of practice, all told. (...) This is an extraordinary novel, full of agonized, half-articulate emotions. B.S.Johnson could not have confronted himself with a more harrowing challenge." - D. Keith Mayo, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Published posthumously (1975), it is a complicated book, mixing facts about his mother's youth as a waitress with documents including letters from her father in the army and facsimiles of the official correspondence concerning his death. (...) The jokes may not be up to much, but in the end it seems right to admire the author's nerve." - Frank Kermode, London Review of Books (5/8/2004)

  • "The notion of moral accountancy recurs in Johnson's final novel, the posthumous See the Old Lady Decently. Intended as the first part of a trilogy, it presents in parallel the death of Johnson's mother and the demise of Empire, through a collage of personal fragments." - Henry Hitchings, Times Literary Supplement (18/6/2004)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       See the Old Lady Decently was the first volume of an intended trilogy ("The Matrix Trilogy"). It tells the story of Johnson's mother, beginning with her own birth in 1908 and culminating in the author's birth in 1933. The second volume would continue to 1945, while third was to focus on his mother's death, in 1971, but Johnson did himself in before completing the set. The trilogy itself was to be about his mother, but also motherhood more generally -- in particular the mother country, Britain, and its decline through the century.
       See the Old Lady Decently is made up many different pieces, short sections with different foci. Several strands run through the novel, identified by the section headings. There are letters and poems. There are sections devoted to Britain (identified as "GB") and the Empire as a whole ("BB" -- for Broader Britain). There are sections from Erich Neumann's The Great Mother ("N"). There are sections devoted to the very nasty chef for whom Johnson's mother worked, Virrels ("V"). And sections from Emily's life. And some invented fictions and various comments from the author himself.
       The blend is fairly effective, as a portrait of life in early 20th century Britain, as commentary on the decline of empire, as an homage to dear old Mum -- and to motherhood generally. From brutal Virrels to political considerations to the small stories that fill the short novel, Johnson has packed a great deal in here. It is entertaining and thoughtful throughout.
       Johnson himself also frequently makes his presence known, describing the process of writing -- and, in particular, the frequent and various interruptions. "Where were we ?" he wonders on occasion. And:

What do all these letters mean ?

And what is it that I am saying in all this ? That that is how people live, die, suffer ?

Is that all there is ?
       This exasperation with the inadequacy of art can be found in much of Johnson's writing, though here the temptation to read more into it here -- given the author's imminent suicide -- is harder to resist. "I can manage no more", he says. "My mind may be going." And so on.
       But one should focus on the rest as well. Dark stuff, this end of empire. Fun stuff, many of these tales. Clever stuff, abounding. And there is also the author's own birth, the very strong final section of the book, beautifully done.
       There are many fine things here. See the Old Lady Decently is certainly a worthwhile read, and one regrets that Johnson was not able to complete the planned trilogy.

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Reviews: B. S. Johnson: Other books by B. S. Johnson under review: Books about B.S.Johnson under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Works by fellow innovative writer, Ann Quin
  • See also Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       English author B. S. (Bryan Stanley) Johnson (1933-73) studied at King's College, London. He wrote several highly acclaimed novels, as well as a play and poetry. He won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1967.

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