Such was the success earlier this year of the memoir of a tragic childhood by a first-time author, Judith Kelly, that its publisher, Bloomsbury, laid down plans to produce a paperback edition to build on the 30,000 copies sold in hardback.
Until, that is, one reader noticed striking similarities between sections of the autobiographical work and text from a comic novel by a prominent British author. Yesterday, Bloomsbury, the publishing house behind the commercial phenomenon of Harry Potter, announced that it was indefinitely postponing the paperback edition of Rock Me Gently amid claims that it plagiarised not one but three other works, including Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. The book also appears to borrow from a section of Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre.
A spokeswoman for Bloomsbury told The Independent: "We currently have no plans for a paperback edition. Judith is mortified by what has happened. We take responsibility for the book and we have withdrawn it until we can be certain there be will no further problems."
The alleged plagiarism came to light when another writer, Hilary Mantel, was told by a reader at the Cambridge Literary Festival in April that she might find it "interesting" to compare Kelly's work with her own novel Fludd, a darkly comical study of religious faith, and a collection of short stories, Learning To Talk. When Mantel, one of the 17 writers on the long-list for the Man Booker prize this year, read the book and catalogued 10 separate points where text from her work appears to a greater or less extent unchanged in Rock Me Gently, she wrote to challenge Bloomsbury.
One line from Fludd, published in 1989, reads: "'I could drink sleep,' she said, 'I could eat it. I could roll around in my dreams like a pig in mud'." In Rock Me Gently, the following sentence appears: "Now I could drink sleep. I could eat it. I could roll around in my dreams like a pig in mud."
In a letter to Mantel, Bloomsbury's senior editor, Alexandra Pringle, said Kelly, a graduate from Chelsea School of Art and a former television producer for Reuters and BSkyB, had inadvertently included the sentences because of her photographic memory.
Ms Pringle wrote: "[Judith Kelly] has a remarkable memory, and during the decade in which she was working on her book, some of her wide-ranging reading emerged in her own prose without her realising it."
Bloomsbury said it had no reason to doubt that the events described by Kelly in her book, a moving and shocking account of the cruelty of nuns running a convent orphanage in Sussex in the 1950s, had taken place.
Kelly, 61, was sent to the institution as an eight-year-old following the death of her alcoholic father because her mother could not cope on her own.
The memoir, which has won plaudits for bringing to light abuse at Nazareth House in Bexhill, East Sussex, has a graphic account of how Kelly's best friend at the institution drowned in the sea while the nuns looked on, praying. The author, who ran a helpline for victims of abuse by Catholic clergy, relates how she was blamed because she lost her friend's grip before she disappeared beneath the waves.
Mantel, who has won a number of literary awards, said that while the suffering of those in Nazareth House was not doubted, the plagiarism undermined the memoir's credibility.
She said: "What Judith Kelly has done is to misrepresent her past by passing off as her own memory conversations and descriptions that are taken from other authors. I have no desire to pursue her but it does compromise the authenticity of what she writes. To apparently take lines from my novel, which is about comic grotesques, and use them in a subject as deeply serious as hers is very surprising indeed. I would rather that the book was withdrawn."
Sources at another publisher, Virago, confirmed that they were seeking legal advice about the similarity of lines in Rock Me Gently to the acclaimed 1933 novel Frost In May by Antonia White.
The alleged similarities
Fludd, Hilary Mantel: "The parlour was both stuffy and cold, and smelled mysteriously of congealed gravy. Over the mantelpiece, Christ hung in a heavy gilt frame, thin yellow tongues of light streaming from his head. His ribcage was open, neatly split by the Roman spear, and with a pallid, pointed finger he indicated his exposed and perfectly shaped heart."
Rock Me Gently, Judith Kelly: "In the centre of the room hung a heavy gilt frame showing a picture of Christ with yellow beams of light streaming from his head. His ribcage was neatly split and with a pale pointed finger he indicated his exposed and perfectly heart-shaped heart. There was a mysterious smell of congealed gravy in the air."
King Billy is a Gentleman, Mantel: "My childhood seemed to belong to some much earlier, greyer world. It was my inner country, visited sometimes in dreams..."
Rock Me Gently: "My childhood had been consigned to some much earlier, greyer world. It was my inner country, rarely visited."
Brighton Rock, Graham Greene: "'But you believe, don't you,' Rose implored him, 'you think it's true?' 'Of course it's true,' the Boy said. 'What else could there be?' he went scornfully on. 'Why,' he said, 'it's the only thing that fits...' 'And Heaven too,' Rose said with anxiety..."
Rock Me Gently: "'But you believe, don't you?' I implored her. 'You think it's true.' 'Of course it's true. What else could there be?' she went on scornfully. 'Because it's the only thing that fits...' 'And Heaven too,' I said with anxiety."
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë: "That forest-dell, where Lowood lay, was the cradle of fog and fog-bred pestilence, which ... breathed typhus through its crowded school-room and dormitory, and, ere May arrived, transformed the seminary into an hospital. Semi-starvation and neglected colds had predisposed most of the pupils to receive infection: forty-five out of eighty girls lay ill at one time."
Rock Me Gently: "The convent was a cradle of fly bred infection at that time. With the oncoming of warm weather, disease had crept into the orphanage and breathed its foul breath through the kitchens and refectory. Lack of food, rat-ridden dormitories and clogged drains had primed the children to catch infections. Before May arrived, 45 out of 60 girls lay ill and classrooms stood almost empty."
Frost in May, Antonia White: "Her lids grew heavy and her crossed hands began to uncurl. She had just time to remember to whisper 'Jesus' before she was fast asleep."
Rock Me Gently: "My lids grew heavy and my crossed arms began to uncurl. I had just time to remember to whisper 'Jesus', when Ruth's gruff voice rung out."Reuse content