This is the story of Phyllis Pearsall, daughter of a Jewish, Hungarian immigrant, and an Irish-Italian mother.
It manages to be both interesting and disappointing. The former because her thoroughly unpleasant father certainly led an interesting, if bizarre, life and the latter because a disproportionately large chunk of the book focuses on his attempts to “get rich quick” and break into English society, rather than the achievements of his daughter, the woman of the title: entrepreneur, millionaire, portrait painter and creator of the London A to Z. In fact it’s not until half way through the book that there’s a reference to Mrs P’s idea for a street map of London.
Incidentally, it might seem as though the A-Z has been around for ever, so it’s worth noting that its creator died as recently as 1996.
If you’ve ever walked the streets of London or any other large city you’ve probably, like me, returned home exhausted. In the days before Google maps and satnav, if you ever got lost or confused about how to get to your destination, imagine the determination and energy it must have taken her to walk over 20,000 streets during the course of a year. Not content with that, she followed in her father’s footsteps and set up her own company* in order to publish the map.
Mrs P was certainly her father’s daughter, inheriting his energy, determination and resilience. Despite that, she allowed him to bully her and take the credit for her successes, smiling as he criticised her efforts and then benefitted financially from her work.
My verdict? A book of two halves, sometimes absorbing, frequently irritating and not really what I expected. Worst of all, unfortunately, I didn’t warm to Mrs P or her family.
* The Geographers’ Trust continues to publish the A-Z of London and many other major cities.