Four English Comedies.


While things are a bit mad here owing to the fallout of 'The Beast from the East' (which I'm sorry to say is predicted to return over the weekend) I'm going to stick to the format of mini-reviews (time has not been on my side for some time now and it's an excellent way of keeping things ticking along for the foreseeable future). This week my theme, which occurred quite naturally, was comedy and three of the four books were published in the 1930s - a fine time indeed for some gentle and witty reads.

The first book, though, was from 1900, the end of another good decade for British comedy. Three Men on the Bummel was Jerome K. Jerome's sequel to his excellent and much celebrated novel Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), published eleven years earlier in 1889. It is not as good nor as funny as its predecessor but it's still a fun read. In it we follow the three men, George, Harris, and J as they tour Germany (the Black Forest) on bike. It is, as the title describes, a "bummel", though that rather obscure word is not defined until the end of the book:
"A 'Bummel'," I explained, "I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when it's over."
It's very much a novel about the English, the traits and characteristics shown through their reaction to the German way of life. For example, George confuses bird boxes with postboxes and is assured by J,
“Those are not letter-boxes, they are birds’ nests.  You must understand this nation.  The German loves birds, but he likes tidy birds.  A bird left to himself builds his nest just anywhere.  It is not a pretty object, according to the German notion of prettiness.  There is not a bit of paint on it anywhere, not a plaster image all round, not even a flag.  The nest finished, the bird proceeds to live outside it.  He drops things on the grass; twigs, ends of worms, all sorts of things.  He is indelicate.  He makes love, quarrels with his wife, and feeds the children quite in public.  The German householder is shocked.  He says to the bird:
“‘For many things I like you.  I like to look at you.  I like to hear you sing.  But I don’t like your ways.  Take this little box, and put your rubbish inside where I can’t see it.  Come out when you want to sing; but let your domestic arrangements be confined to the interior.  Keep to the box, and don’t make the garden untidy.’”
In Germany one breathes in love of order with the air, in Germany the babies beat time with their rattles, and the German bird has come to prefer the box, and to regard with contempt the few uncivilised outcasts who continue to build their nests in trees and hedges.  In course of time every German bird, one is confident, will have his proper place in a full chorus.  This promiscuous and desultory warbling of his must, one feels, be irritating to the precise German mind; there is no method in it.  The music-loving German will organise him.  Some stout bird with a specially well-developed crop will be trained to conduct him, and, instead of wasting himself in a wood at four o’clock in the morning, he will, at the advertised time, sing in a beer garden, accompanied by a piano.  Things are drifting that way.
It is amusing, though clearly not always very kind to the Germans (which one would expect from us English: as a rule we're notorious for not liking anyone, not even ourselves at times). Some say this is why it hasn't done as well as Three Men in a Boat, but I would suggest it's more to do with the fact that it's not very good. Still, some very humorous moments, though it still may somewhat of a disappointment.

In a similar vein, The Provincial Lady Goes Further is also a comedy based on the British abroad. Also not quite as funny as the first, but still nevertheless entertaining. In this our lady ventures beyond Devon, owing to her success with her recently published novel, and buys a flat in London, mixes more with the literary society, and even gets as far as France. She is now a successful author but sees herself as anything but, and struggles to give the illusion of a great literary mind, occasionally disappointing those who meet her and feeling some frustration as a result: she has what a great many of us have: Impostor syndrome. Still things tick along quite normally at home: her husband continues to spend most of his time behind the Times and her children don't seem to quite measure up to the impossible standards of her circle. But she battles on, making astute and witty observations along the way, and reacquaints herself with an old friend, Pamela, who has become in her life somewhat notorious. Though it is outshone by Diary of a  Provincial Lady, it's still a light and deeply observant read and those who fear it will be a disappointment compared to the first needn't be too afraid.

Having re-read The Provincial Lady I decided to revisit another old favourite - Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. This book is as near flawless as a novel gets. It was first published in 1932 and has many similarities with both Mansfield Park and Emma by Jane Austen, of whom the heroine, Flora Poste, is a great fan. Like Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, Flora goes to live with her relations the Starkadders following the death of her mother and father (though Flora isn't particularly downhearted about it). She goes to Sussex, to Cold Comfort Farm, where she gets to know her extremely eccentric relations who are particularly backward and radically different from Flora's modern city sensibilities. Like Emma Wodehouse, Flora decides to organise them, smarten up the farm, and deal with whatever curse the inhabitants of Cold Comfort Farm feel is upon them. She must deal with the depressive Judith, her zealot of a husband Amos, the over-sexed Seth, suspicious Ruben, the wild and untamed Elfine ("very trying", as Flora notes), Adam and his cows (Graceless, Pointless, Aimless, and Feckless) and the matriarch of the family, Ada Doom, who once saw something nasty in the woodshed. It is hilarious, very well observed, and so very English. I could never tire of reading it.

The final book on my pile is, in terms of enjoyment, pretty close to Cold Comfort Farm: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson, first published in 1938, is a genius of English comedy. It tells the story of a downtrodden governess, Miss Pettigrew, who has been steadily demoted throughout her career. One day she is sent by her employment agency to the wrong address where she meets Miss Delysia LaFosse, a young, glamorous, Bright Young Thing. Owing to the delicate situation Miss LaFosse has found herself in, Miss Pettigrew is swiftly taken in and spends the day with Miss LaFosse and her beautiful and vibrant friends, and she solves a great many of their problems along the way making her indispensable. It is a Cinderella story for the 1930s: Miss Pettigrew is thrust into a life in contrast with her own prim, dowdy, and downtrodden existence and learns about the exciting and daring ways of the thoroughly modern youth of England. It's such good fun, often highly improbable, and above all very satisfying. I can't believe it's taken me this long to read it!

And that was last week's reading, continuing the need for some nostalgia with a heavy dose of comedy thrown in. Things are still pretty grim here: the snow has gone for now (though as I said it's expected back today or tomorrow), and we've had floods (not from the snow; the back boiler burst), collapsing aviaries and gazebos, even a visit from the fire brigade (all is well: I'll say more on that another time). I think now I may return to my Victorian reading challenge and read some non-fiction titles, which for some reason I'm in the mood for, plus it has the added advantage of catching up a little! I started What is Art? by Leo Tolstoy, and I think I may be about ready for Against Sainte-Beuve by Marcel Proust. Other than that, I'm still reading Virginia Woolf's letters.

Comments

  1. I do so love Cold Comfort Farm and Miss Pettigrew. I've liked several of the Provincial Lady books but that one is new to me, and I still haven't gotten round to Three Men on the Bummel. I should, though! Hope you aren't snowed in again...

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    1. No, snow is practically gone (little patches here and there), but apparently we're getting it over Easter... I wonder if spring will ever start, truly start I mean!

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  2. I do love Cold Comfort Farm and The Three Men series!! Also I am very glad you introduced me The Diary of The Provincial Lady, which I had a complete blast reading. Considering how stressful days have been lately, I found this novel to be Godsend! Many thanks for the recommendation! I am now on to The Lady in London; not as funny as Provincial but still very good therapy! I am in hunt for Miss Pittigrew forever and I hope to really get to the book soon! Hope things look up at your end soon! Hang in there!

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    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed Provincial Lady! It's such a great book! Miss Pettigrew is so fantastic, I hope you get it soon. And thanks for the encouraging words :)

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