Tuesday, August 10, 2010

All About H. Hatterr

I am reading the brilliant work of comic fiction All About H. Hatterr published in 1948 by G.V. Desani (1909-2000). In the book, the character H. Hatterr tells of his rough and tumble search for Enlightenment, employing a richness of expression -- from Shakespearean cadences to pop philosophy to Hindi street slang -- that rivals the linguistic ingenuity of S.J. Perelman at his most fanciful. The wordplay is dizzying.

In his detailed criticism of his estranged wife, the "waxed Kiss-curl", H. Hatter makes reference to a bill passed by the British Parliament in the 1770s:

"All women of whatever age, rank, profession or degree, whether virgins, maids, or widows, that shall impose upon, seduce, and betray into matrimony any of His Majesty's subjects, by scents, paints, cosmetic washes, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, high-heeled shoes, bolstered hips, shall suffer the penalties of witchcraft, the marriage standing null and void." (Spanish wool was a kind of rouge.)

I searched the Internet and found that this bill crossed the Atlantic and became law in the State of New Jersey during colonial times. Later, the language of this bill was appropriated (and somewhat softened) at the time of the Civil War by Cocke County (Tennessee) Representative J. H. Randolph, who appended a facetious amendment to a bill to protect the property of married women during the Thirty-Fourth General Assembly in Memphis:

"Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee, That all women of whatever age, rank, profession or degree, whether virgins, maids or widows, that shall from and after the passage of this act, impose upon, seduce, and betray into matrimony any male subject in the Confederate States of America and particularly in the State of Tennessee, by means of scents, paints, cosmetics, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron stays, high-heeled shoes, or bolstered hips shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be fined in the Sum of One Hundred Dollars and imprisoned at the discretion the Court trying the Cause."


With the addition of several cosmetic surgeries to the list and an upward adjustment of the fine to account for 150 years of inflation, this bill would be ready to submit to the U.S. Congress.

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