Book Review: Mrs P’s Journey
by Matthew Ruddle
Mrs P’s Journey by Sarah Hartley
Phyllis got lost in London. We’ve all been there. Lost in a big city, trying to find that little, hidden gem a friend told us about, going around in circles, walking down the wrong side street, and ending up in a dead-end. We retrace our steps, double-check the street names, and somehow, accidentally, find our destination. Finding your way around an American city, for example, isn’t too bad, due to the way the streets are set out in a systematic grid system, but in older European cities, like London, the streets are unpredictable and haphazard, with complete disregard for logic or common sense.
These days, help is readily at hand; we can check our phones, use sat nav, or click on a website and find the way to our destination in a matter of seconds. However, Phyllis Pearson didn’t have the technologies of today when she got lost in London in the 1930s. There wasn’t even a street map available to help her.
Phyllis, who? I hear you ask. Well, she had an unremarkable name, but lived an extraordinary life, and founded one of the UK’s most famous and recognizable brands. Phyllis Pearson, the Mrs. P of the book’s title, created the world’s bestselling map of London, the A-Z. She literally walked all of London’s 23,000 streets, by herself, during the course of one year, to make a new map of London, to help people find their way around the city. Her company, Geographers’ Map Company, was founded in 1936 and is still going strong today: http://www.az.co.uk
However, this book isn’t really about the A-Z publishing phenomenon. Sarah Hartley captivates the reader with Phyllis’ life story, from the moment her father first met her mother, through childhood and boarding school, her many adventures abroad, and her chaotic family life. The very fact that Phyllis survived being raised by her two extremely mismatched parents would be an achievement enough; indeed, the story of her parents’ explosive marriage would have made a remarkably entertaining and engaging story all by itself, without Phyllis ever being mentioned. The author herself says that, at times, Phyllis’s life story seems too unbelievable to be true. It reads like an engaging novel rather than a straight forward biography, with so many sudden changes in circumstance. As a child, Phyllis receives a baby elephant as a birthday present, which indicates how wealthy her parents had become, but later she finds herself homeless in Paris, sleeping rough on the streets and rummaging for stale bread to eat, dipping it in fountains to make it more edible.
The author blurs lines between fact and fiction, choosing to write imagined conversations and created scenes, alongside quotations from Phyllis herself, and text taken from letters and telegrams between Phyllis and her family. Some readers might become frustrated at Hartley’s storytelling style, but I enjoyed the ways in which the story is so vividly bought to life. The author expertly guides the reader through the colorful twists and turns, creating a rich and entertaining map of Phyllis’ extraordinary life.
Mrs P’s Journey is one worth taking.
Written by Matthew Ruddle, author of the following blogs: