James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): Reading & Writing



The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby

Guessing that this memoir was written when James McKenzie was much older, after World War I, because of his articulate language and writing style, now gives him a chance to relate and recall any experiences he had with reading and writing, growing up, despite his delayed education.

Firstly, James McKenzie mentions certain novels when describing his childhood such as Dickens’ ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’, comparing it to his Grandfather’s shop, giving us an insight to his reading at a later stage: ‘It outvied the “Old Curiosity Shop”. The contents of this shop was the result of the old man going over to Chelsea buying old clothes & hats and any article of [unreadable] –  he was a judge.’ (4). Also, he recalls his life like being a novel,  when describing his life with his rich Uncle and Aunt,

‘I was called to Scotland Yard dealing with some of the affairs of this estate (of which I could remember). But to begin my Reminesiences I will admit it seems like reading a novel, but truth is stranger than fiction, we are told!’ (35)

With having time to reflect as an old man, he is able to share his memories, comparing them to adventure novels and how his life is out of the ordinary. As autobiographies are memories rather than a full record of someone’s life, maybe in McKenzie’s mind, as Dickens was a popular entertainer a few years before, referring to him might have encouraged publishers or even other members of his ‘family’ to read and understand what his life would have been like.

Referring back to Nicholas Nickleby, his writing style in a way is like Dickens’ himself. Nicholas Nickleby as Paul Schlicke states, ‘was to be in a word, entertainment. By filling his books with humour and pathos, he hoped to arouse ‘merriment’ and ‘sympathies…’[1]


Dickens giving a reading (The Guardian, above)



I think McKenzie’s reading influences his writing as further in his career, after being in the popular entertainment business for almost over 25 years, he starts to write his own poetry. After meeting a friend who sadly died in the Great War, he writes a poem called ‘The Last Showman’ dedicated to his life and their friendship, strangely though, McKenzie never reveals his name:

‘The Last Showman’

(1) As I sat in my chair in my humble abode,

By a great blazing fire, with a map of the Road,

I thought of the past and many old friends,

Of the good old sort, whose kind there’s an end:

I was wafted away to a solitary spot,

Although it was cold I felt very hot.

I could see a long winding disolate Road,

and a giant old figure standing by an old load.

It was an old caravan in a state of decay,

I could see it had been many mile in its day.

The old man beside it was looking my way.

(2) His hand outstretched as if something to say.

I felt very strange as I met the old man,

and had a weird feeling as I stood by the van.

In an instant a change took place in my sight;

the van is garnished with gold and even so bright,

The old man grows younger and [unreadable] so,

and I feel a bit of youthful than a moment or so,

He laughs very loud as he clutches my hand,

my knees give a bit, it’s a trouble to stand,

My fears very soon vanish as he puts me to rest,

When he tells me joyfully I am his guest.



[1]    Schlicke, Paul, Dickens and Popular Entertainment, Unwin Hyman, London, 1988 pp34

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