Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

"The Pinker of Agents": A Family History of James Brand Pinker

Academic journal article The Conradian : the Journal of the Joseph Conrad Society (U.K.)

"The Pinker of Agents": A Family History of James Brand Pinker

Article excerpt

My literary agent Mr J. B. Pinker is in attendance. I presume, my lord, we shall receive the usual witnesses' fees, shan't we? James Joyce, "Circe" chapter," Ulysses (1922)

JOYCE'S IN-JOKE reference in Ulysses to his literary agent is of the kind for which the novel is notorious. Homage, expression of gratitude, or cocked snook? One is unsure even now. J. B. Pinker elicited varied responses during a successful career in the profession he helped to established. The editor and poet W E. Henley is probably unique, however, in turning his surname into a verb: writing to H. G. Wells that his housemaid had "eloped with a local builder," he suggested that Wells "Make it a novel, & Pinkerize it" (2 October 1898; 2000: 288). D. H. Lawrence famously accounted him a "little parvenu snob of a procurer of books" (Letters 3: 692). Instrumental in encouraging the careers of several significant writers, in time he earned the steady friendship of a man as emotionally complex and demanding as Joseph Conrad, who reputedly dubbed him "the Pinker of agents" (Hepburn, ed., 1986: 1, 28).

The story of Pinker's role in Conrad's career has been told and retold in the several biographies of the writer, even if not comprehensively, and it is, in a diffuse way, available in Conrad's letters. It is not the subject of the present essay, which focuses on family history.

The entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on a person so signally important to the development of British literary Modernism begins with a disarmingly frank concession: "Few facts are known of his early background and family connections" (Finkelstein 2004). Mary Ann Gillies's more recent study of the rise of the literary agent in late-Victorian England makes much the same claim: "There is little information about James Brand Pinker 's origins." She none the less turns up several facts, citing, in particular The Literary Year-Book for 1901, which describes Pinker's employment history prior to his setting up as a literary agent, mentioning, in addition to his journalistic activities, his having been "a reader of manuscripts for a well-known publishing house" (2007: 88, 91).

Exploiting recently available genealogical resources allows the family connections of the literary agent of Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, Henry James, and many other significant writers to be filled in with some detail. His rags-to-riches history and his rise in social status are themselves a small part of the story of the English class system during the latenineteenth century: born in modest circumstances, he married well and succeeded in his affairs. He could afford to lease Bury's Court in Reigate, the large country house (now a school) built about 1877 for the brewer Edward Charrington (1812-88).1 His sons both attended public schools, Eric going to Westminster and Ralph (pronounced "Rafe" and later formally adopting the surname Seabrooke-Pinker) to Marlborough College. In time, the latter owned a country house as well as a race horse and several hunters and kept ponies for his daughter; he travelled in circles that saw him invited to a reception for Emir Saud, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and to a Navy League Dinner addressed by Winston Churchill.2

One of J. B. Pinker's first cousins, H. R. Hope-Pinker - with whom according to family legend he once had a row at the Athenasum (Source: VP) - rose to eminence as a portrait sculptor, his work exhibited at the Royal Academy and gracing more than one Oxford College, while one of his brothers-in-law, H. J. Blanch, headed a well-known century-old firm of gun-makers and was an authority on the history of English gun manufacture, publishing on the subject. The family's history, however, is mainly that of its age, one coloured by growing prosperity as the Industrial Revolution took hold throughout the country; by Empire, immigration to the "white settler" colonies, and foreign travel; and by technology triumphant.

J. B. Pinker was integrally a member of what Virginia Woolf aptly characterized as "one of those vast Victorian households, which, chaotic as they seem now, had a character and a vitality about them which it is hard to suppose will ever be matched again" (1928; rpt. …

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