My Caravaggio Style by Doris Langley Moore

Review by Simon, 18 February 2020

It’s always exciting when Dean Street Press announce the next batch of novels in their Furrowed Middlebrow series, chosen by Scott at the excellent Furrowed Middlebrow blog. Every time I want all of them, and every time I only manage to read a handful – but thank you very much to the publisher for sending me a review copy of My Caravaggio Style (1959) by Doris Langley Moore. Don’t worry too much about the title – I’ll come onto that in a bit.

Quentin Williams is the narrator. He works in an antiquarian bookshop and is the writer of fairly unsuccessful biographies of people nobody much cares about. In a chance conversation with a passing American, he somehow manages to suggest that he has access to the memoirs of Lord Byron, believed to have been destroyed. One thing leads to another, and Quentin decides that he’ll give forgery a go.

Moore was a Byron expert and there is plenty of background detail about Byron here – or, rather, enough so that those of us who’ve never read a word of Byron don’t feel entirely adrift. She even does a good job of making you feel the significance these memoirs would be, though mostly because they’d be worth a lot of money. The cleverest thing is that we are always reluctantly on Quentin’s side when it comes to the forgery – because he is such an intensely dislikeable person.

I hope this was deliberate. He is arrogant, careless of the feelings of others, and particularly unpleasant to his girlfriend Jocasta. Every time he describes her, he talks endlessly about her beauty and stupidity. It’s the sort of viewpoint that is at the very worst edges of men-writing-about-women, so either Moore was impersonating a terrible man, or needed a quiet talking to. Let’s assume the former. This is the sort of thing Quentin says about Jocasta…

Such a vapid and unworthy comment quite irritated me. I had never regarded my beautiful Jocasta as an intellectual girl but she had been brought up by highly cultured grandparents, and I saw no reason why she should appear – no, I won’t say vulgar, for she had too little pretension ever to be that, but – I can only repeat – childish.

While we cannot forget the chief reason that he is dating her – she is so beautiful, y’all – it’s never clear what she sees in him. And, indeed, she’s very keen that they get married, despite him having no redeeming qualities at all. Quentin is rather easier to cheer for when he visits his great-aunt – by some convoluted reasoning, he needs some manuscript books from her attic and also needs her to witness him receiving them. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but Moore can be very witty – particularly in these sections. For example…

It was curious that so much good will towards the human race should be combined in my great-aunt with an inveterate reluctance to allow any member of it whom she saw at close quarters to be comfortable.

To distract Jocasta from finding out about the forgery, Quentin sets her off doing a research project on Byron and animals. She gets really into it and starts to love reading Byron – rather ludicrously, Quentin gets terribly jealous that she should love Byron. His reasoning is fairly unhinged: Byron was a notorious womaniser and thus he doesn’t want his girlfriend falling in love with him. Despite, of course, Byron being long dead. And so he tries to write things in the forged memoir that will alienate Jocasta…

It’s all bonkers, but Moore manages to make the logic of the novel work well. I found that I wanted Quentin to succeed in his efforts, even as I wanted Jocasta to get as far away from him as possible. It’s always fun to read about literary obsessions taken to great lengths, and once different Byron scholars get involved (including ‘Doris Langley Moore’ as a character!) it’s all very amusing and dramatic.

And the title is apparently a reference to something Byron said about his own writing, though that does make it one of those slightly silly titles that only makes sense to the in-crowd. That aside, Moore did a great job of making this interesting to someone who doesn’t care at all whether or Byron’s memoirs are discovered.

Another success for Furrowed Middlebrow. Just as long as Moore knew she was creating an idiot and not a hero.

Simon is a Shiny Editor At Large, he blogs at Stuck in a Book where this review first appeared.

Doris Langley Moore, My Caravaggio Style (Dean Street Press, 2020). 978-1913054618, 211pp., paperback.

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