'Essays On the Art of Comedy'

by Phineas Redux


Essay 02. Comedy - The Path-Finders

Disclaimer:— This essay is copyright ©2018 to the author.


Thomas Love Peacock 1785-1866, spent most of his working life as a high official of the East India Company, not a small concern. He also led a minor literary life as a purveyor of satiric novels, all following the same theme and structure; a group of people would collect at a large country pile to discuss the society of their times and the curious by-roads of philosophy then prevalent. The works were wordy rather than action oriented and full of dry humour. A small sample from 'Nightmare Abbey' 1818, will show the lie of the land for all his novels—

'Scythrop . . came into sudden and violent contact with Mr. Toobad, and they both plunged together to the bottom of the stairs, like two billiard-balls into one pocket. Mr. Toobad, rising slowly, . . said, ". . what but a systematic design and concurrent contrivance of evil could have made the angles of time and place coincide in our unfortunate persons at the head of this accursed staircase?" . . "Nothing else, certainly," said Scythrop ". . Evil, and mischief, and misery, and confusion, and vanity, and vexation of spirit, and death, and disease, and assassination, and war, and poverty, and pestilence, and famine, and avarice, and selfishness, and rancour, and jealousy, and spleen, and malevolence, and the disappointments of philanthropy, and the faithlessness of friendship, and the crosses of love—all prove the accuracy of your views . . . it is not impossible that the infernal interruption of this fall downstairs may throw a colour of evil on the whole of my future existence." —"My dear boy," said Mr. Toobad, "you have a fine eye for consequences."—'

Sarcasm and satire rate highly in Peacock's novels, all characters being figurative portrayals of particular standpoints in moral, political, or society positions of the times. They could never be said to have set the literary landscape on fire, but he still has a reputation nowadays with those who enjoy these things.

Next comes, of course, Charles Dickens with such characters as Mr Pickwick and his cronies. Dickens, in my view, always tended to the Theatrical Farce in his humour; and his players have a scent of the stereotype about them, but where they appear they make their presence notable.

From about the period around 1890 until 1910 there seems to have been a noticeable easing of the moral strictures and outlooks of the preceeding late Victorian period. Aspects of society and certain types of persons, both male and female, hitherto ignored could now be included in novels and stories; themes which a few years previously would have been snubbed were discussed openly; areas of Comedy, before proscribed as common or lewd, became the mainstay of certain types of literature; and characters were portrayed for their own humorous sakes rather than to point a moral; while various lifestyle choices, until then wholly excluded from mention, were now routinely discussed, as a general widening in coverage of aspects of society not till then allowed took place. It would be true to say that the society of 1910 was less restricted, more open, and far moderner, in our sense of the term, than the society of 1880.

One of the first of these new relatively unrestricted authors was Arthur M Binstead 1861-1914, who worked on sporting newspapers in the late 19th century in Britain. He had a comic turn of phrase, writing several humorous novels whose style was said to have influenced the early P G Wodehouse. 'Gal's Gossip' 1899, and 'More Gal's Gossip' 1903, tell of the wiles of a young lady making her way in the world; while 'A Pink 'Un and a Pelican' 1899, tells anecdotes about two men and their reminiscences of a sporting life betting on almost anything that moved; the Pink 'Un being the slang name for 'The Sporting Times' a newspaper which focused on sport, mainly horse-racing, while the Pelican referred to the short-lived but notorious men's club 'The Pelican' 1887-1891.

However, class conciousness was still in full-swing; many stories revolving around the delight and enjoyment middle-class readers could derive from the activities of the lower and working-class. I have not forgotten authors like Jerome K Jerome and his 'Three Men in a Boat' 1889; such works being in the forefront of novels portraying midle-class people simply out to enjoy themselves in their contemporary world and nothing more.

Around the turn of the century W W Jacobs came to the fore with his humorous short stories, mainly about a longshoreman who tells tales of characters he has met along the Wapping wharves. His most famous tale, however, is 'The Monkey's Paw'; a story whose sense of terror and horror continues to reverberate even today. During this period, say from 1900 till the start of the First World War, we have a plethora of new authors coming into the field of humour; such as Edith Somerville and Martin Ross (actually Violet Martin), two Anglo-Irish female cousins who co-authored a series of stories about an Irish Resident Magistrate; and the first appearances of the early works of P G Wodehouse. A British writer of humour, well-regarded in his day, was Barry Pain 1864-1928, who was known for parody stories and humorous tales. 'Eliza' 1910, begins—

'—"Suppose," I said to one of the junior clerks at our office the other day, "you were asked to describe yourself in a few words, could you do it?" His answer that he could describe me in two was no answer at all. Also the two words were not a description, and were so offensive that I did not continue the conversation."—'

Another work of his, 'Edwards' 1915, about a jobbing-gardner includes the pithy statement—

"Sometimes I get asked by an employer whether I am married or single. "Single," I says. And at the same time I leans my hand against a old tree or grips the handle of my spade. It's safest to touch wood when you say anything that might sound like bragging.'

Or a late work 'Marge Askinforit' 1920 (yes, really), a parody which more or less begins—

'I was christened Margarine, of course, but in my own circle I have always been known as Marge. . . . My elder sister, Caseine—Casey, as we always called her—was supposed to be the most like myself, and was less bucked about it than one would have expected. . . . We were devoted to one another, and many a time have I owed my position as temporary parlourmaid in an unsuspicious family to the excellent character that she had written for me.'

It was against this sort of opposition P G Wodehouse fought his early battles for literary supremacy—and we can only be glad he won, I think.

A lady who dragged the humorous tale to greater heights was E M Delafield who, between 1930 and 1940, wrote four books about an upper-middle class lady, starting with 'Diary of a Provincial Lady', and concluding with 'The Provincial Lady in Wartime' 1940, a book which is interesting for its portrayal of an obviously lesbian woman working as head of an ambulance group stationed in an underground garage below an expensive apartment building in London.—

'October 1st.—Am at last introduced by Serena Fiddlededee to underworld Commandant. She is dark, rather good-looking young woman wearing out-size in slacks and leather jacket, using immensely long cigarette-holder, and writing at wooden trestle-table piled with papers. . . .Bell is once more banged . . .answered by smart-looking person in blue trousers and singlet and admirable make-up. Looks about twenty-five, but has prematurely grey hair, and am conscious that this has given me distinct satisfaction. (Not very commendable reaction.) Am overcome with astonishment when she enquires of Commandant in brusque, official tones: Isn't it time you had some lunch, darling? Commandant for the first time raises her eyes and answers No, darling, she can't possibly bother with lunch, but she wants a staff-car instantly, to go out to Wimbledon for her. It's urgent.'

From this point in time, or from slightly earlier, we come into the realm of the modern satiric writer, one of the first being Aldous Huxley; whose work, among others, we will consider in the next essay.


The next essay in this series will arrive shortly.