I Am Jonathan Scrivener

Valancourt Books have valiantly republished Claude Houghton's forgotten bestseller I Am Jonathan Scrivener (1930). This prompted us to dive into the fathomless archives where somewhere we have the manuscript.

“So remarkable in truth is this novel that I cannot understand why it is not universally known and admired.” - Hugh Walpole (1935)

“I Am Jonathan Scrivener remains a tantalizing, highly diverting philosophical novel of rare elegance and wit.” - Michael Dirda (2013)

Valancourt sum up the plot thus:

James Wrexham is thirty-nine, lonely, and stuck in a dead-end job when he comes upon an advertisement for a position as secretary to Mr. Jonathan Scrivener. Much to his surprise, he is hired at a lavish salary despite never even meeting Scrivener, and he is told to take up residence at once in the flat of his new employer, who has suddenly disappeared. Mystified by Scrivener’s strange conduct and desperate to learn something about him, it seems Wrexham will get the answers he seeks when Scrivener’s friends begin to visit the flat: Pauline Mandeville, an ethereal beauty, Francesca Bellamy, a widow who may be responsible for the death of her husband, Andrew Middleton, a disillusioned alcoholic, and Antony Rivers, a handsome playboy. But as each of them unfolds his story about Scrivener, it seems that none of them are describing the same person, though all are obsessed with finding him. Why has he hired Wrexham, and why does he seem to have thrust this unlikely group of people together? Is Scrivener engaged in an inscrutable experiment, or could he be laying some kind of trap? 

Our catalogue entry borrows some of the language of the original cataloguer (and former owner) Peter Howard of Serendipity books, himself something of a Scrivener figure - in the sense that you could also get many different and differing accounts of him by those who knew him. As his daughter Esme said "He was loved and hated, sometimes by the same person, over the course of his life. He was extremely generous to those he favored…" The fascinating thing about the book is the idea that it may have inspired the movie Citizen Kane which follows something of the same formula. The suggestion that it was an influence came partly from Orson Welles' biographer the actor and writer Simon Callow. Here is the catalogue entry:

Plain tan wrappers, holograph title not in Houghton's hand, clam-shell box. Typescript, often or always (?) carbon, but obviously Houghton's final revised version, as there are a remarkable number of corrections, several in his hand, especially in the final third, with deletions a prominent force. pp 412. 84 leaves have corrections, deletions, paste-overs, ink additions, pencil strike-throughs, starting with the addition of a title added by paste-over on the first leaf. Very substantial deletions occur on many pages. This corrected typescript is accompanied by a transcription on foolscap paper in Houghton's hand, of fifteen different extracts of reviews from the contemporary press. Ink. 'I am Jonathan Scrivener', first published in London, 1930, was far and away Houghton's most celebrated fiction, his finest psychological crime novel, cited in Hubin and a substantial best seller. It has been cited as an influence on Orson Welles in the making of Citizen Kane-- he was attracted by its 'prismatic approach.'

One thought on “I Am Jonathan Scrivener

  1. Caliban

    Interesting, particularly the bit about the book being an input on Citizen Kane. The other 30s book that suggests itself is Symons masterpiece Quest for Corvo. Similar structure and an equally fantastick character. Did Welles have a copy?


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