I’ve written before about the urban legend surrounding Phyllis Pearsall, and her oft-repeated claims that she created the A-Z by walking every inch of London streets even though she could have just picked up the London street atlas created by her father, Alexander Gross, a few years before.
Pearsall related how she single-handedly created the A-Z in a pair of self-published unreliable memoirs and this became the definitive account after the publication of this biography. The story of Pearsall’s life has now been made into a musical, The A-Z Of Mrs P, at Southwark Playhouse.
The veracity of Pearsall’s claims is robustly challenged by her half-brother, Alex Gross, who has created a website dedicated to establishing the truth behind the creation of the A-Z and the key role played in it by his and Pearsall’s father, Alexander Gross. The image below comes from Gross’s map and show how much it looks like the A-Z. An excellent comparison of the two maps can be found in Peter Barber’s London: A History In Maps.
A summary of Gross’s argument can be found here. Gross is hugely critical of the story Pearsall created. He is adamant that Pearsall was operating at the direction of her father to update his already existing London street atlas and is dismissive of her claims that she walked the streets for 18 hours herself, or delivered early copies of the A-Z herself by wheelbarrow. I have no way of telling whether Gross is accurate in his own recollections, but I know that his skepticism towards Pearsall’s claims are shared by Peter Barber, who is head of the map collection at the British Library.
Gross is scathing about Sarah Hartley’s book on Pearsall, Mrs P’s Journey, claiming it has more in common with ‘chick lit’ than it does biography (never having read either ‘chick lit’ or Hartley’s book, I cannot pass opinion on this). Gross also casts a withering eye over Pearsall’s own books about her life in great detail. There is also considerable biographical material on Gross’s relationship with both his father and half-sister, later describing her as ‘urbane, witty, and utterly personifying the spirit of the English eccentric’, something that goes a long way towards explaining why her version of history has been so widely embraced by the British public.
Interesting that Alexander Gross’s website is full of exactly the same solecisms as he accuses PP and Sarah Hartley of. I met PP a couple of times and she was indeed a very charming lady, but I would no more believe her version of her life than I would my own grandmother’s. At least Hartley’s version states unequivocally that it’s semi-fiction – Alexander Gross puts forward many suppositions and presents them as hard fact. He amusingly describes PP’s autobiography as a “notable British literary fraud” – for that to be true, the book would have to be considered as a work of English literature, and with the best will in the world, it isn’t. Both PP and Hartley’s versions are of an interesting story, but neither of them are very well written. Alexander Gross adds another interesting but badly written version of events.
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