Short Story


In the latter half of the twentieth century there lived and died an author named named John Chesterfield Peters. He inhabited a small apartment in Boston which he had rented since he was an undergraduate at Harvard, where he had been a favorite student of notable medievalists such as John Henry Hexley and Charlotte Dobson. His life seemed to be little influenced by his formal education, apart from his having a rather monastic disposition and a fondness for his four-poster bed. John spent most of his disposable income on good tea and good scotch, which he would be known to mix in equal proportions, and disposed of most of his free time by writing., for which distillation and percolation seemed fine assistants. He left no spouse, no lover, no children, and his small estate shall be disposed of by the courts. He died much as he lived, alone, but in good company.


As an author John Peters was entirely a failure. Nobody could ever confuse him with a character from one of his books. He never went on speaking tours, he never allowed himself to be interviewed, and yet he still managed to avoid creating the persona of a recluse, much to the disappointment of his publishers. He was no agoraphobe, no tortured hermit, no liver of a double life. He was, as a person, simply disinteresting.

In this he was utterly unlike any of his characters. In his life he never did nor saw anything which qualified him to write about the things to which he was wont to turn his pen. His works may have had fan clubs and message boards and conventions called in its honor, but he himself had none. Dealers in rare books have recently discovered that autographed volumes of his works are a great rarity, as nobody was ever particularly interested in soliciting his signature. As of yet this scarcity has not caused any precipitous rise in demand, despite the best efforts of book-dealers to conjure one.


Yet as a writer, John was one of the great successes of his generation. He is best remembered for the series of books which dominated his lengthy career, those being the tales of Jiff of Birmingham (known by the conclusion of the series as Lord General Jiffrey Peterborough, Duke of Ipswich, Marquess of Bringham and Furlow, Vicomte de Turenne, KG, OM, CH, PC, TD, FRS, and DD). The series began in 1962 with the publication of Jiff the Bastard of Birmingham, a story which dealt with a period of two years in the life of the eponymous character, a boy in his early teens in a burgeoning industrial city in the West Midlands. The series ended with the publication of Jiff Plays the Pirate some bare weeks before the death of its author, in which six months in the life of the hero are explicated as he plies the Spanish Main. No future plans for the character are recorded in the author’s personal papers, which due to the character’s popularity have been the subject of lengthy and thorough investigation.


The Jiff series contained some twentythree books at its effective conclusion, each dealing with between four days and three years in the life of the lovable Jiffrey. The books were not published in chronological order, thus that a person reading them based upon their publication date would find Jiff a man of thirty and then a boy of seventeen, a Knight of the Order of the Garter and then a squire, a Major General in the Royal British Army before posing as a camp-follower in the train of Mehmet Ali. Some books would overlap each other here and there, while some later publications would occur entirely in the time described by an earlier book. If ever one of the Jiff books mentioned parenthetically that a week went by, or a month had passed, a reader could be reasonably sure that the events of this time would be described in a forthcoming book, if they had not been so in a book already published


The story of Jiff can easily be constructed. One must simply consult John Peters’ bibliography, ordered chronologically by the events they depict of Jiff’s life. Jiff Comes into the World. Jiff the Hostage to the Sultan. Jiff the Barber’s Apprentice. Jiff the Bastard of Birmingham. Jiff the Common Soldier. Jiff the Barber of Bletchley. Jiff to the Ends of the Earth. Jiff Plays the Pirate. Jiff Plays the Priest. Jiff Married. Jiff and the Case of the Carbuncle. Jiff Takes the King’s Commission. Jiff Amongst Thieves. Jiff and his Parentage. Lord Jiff. General Jiff. Jiff and his Constituency. Prime Minister Jiff. Jiff in Crisis. Jiff and the Succession. Jiff Triumphant. Jiff in Retirement. One should also include the highly popular Jiff Enters into Heaven, which, though not nearly of such length as the other works in the series, has enjoyed a dear place in the hearts of the many Jiffies the world over.


As this legion of fans will attest (and do, given the least provocation), the life and exploits of Jiff of Birmingham were well suited to such thorough and tender documentation. John Peters’ life, as even those most devoted to his writings will admit, was not. It would not have filled a series of novels. It could not have filled a single book; it seems unlikely that it shall ever be the subject of a biography, no scholar being interested by the subject, and no publisher being daft enough to think it worth the investment of even a trifling advance.


Yet it does occur that perhaps his biography, if not meriting even a full book itself, might well be worth the length of a short story. For what is a publication history but the tale of the life of the one being published, just as the novels it lists detail the lives of the one being published upon? And such a story does the bibliography of John Peters tell! It speaks of a child born of the highest birth who is abducted by a jealous mistress and abandoned to the city streets. It talks of the child’s use as a double for the son of a duke, who unbeknownst to all is the child’s full brother by blood. It talks of the child growing into a man under the tutelage of a kindly barber, a stern bishop, the battlefields of Europe, the city streets of the age of steel and spark and sweat. It tells of a man married, a man beset by challenges, a fighter of wars, a solver of mysteries, a pillar of parliament, a leader of the army of his land. It finds him rediscovering his parentage, reconciling with his mother and his brother both, counseling his monarch, preserving his people, and navigating his country through storm and sorrow into a well-deserved place in history and beyond.


As an author John Peters was a failure, but as a writer he was one of his generation’s great successes. Yet though his greatest creation was worth thousands of pages, he at least was worth a paragraph or two. He lived his life in such a way that the life of his character would be his life, and to separate either from the other would be to leave them both incomplete. He lived as he died, a writer; no more, no less, and quite content for it to be so. Let that, then, be his story, and good and honest tribute to his memory.


~ by davekov on 23 May 2009.

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