Monday, June 25, 2012

British Humour after the Great War


As part of my investigation of comic writing, I bought a used copy of Stephen Leacock's 1938 book Humor and Humanity.  Leacock's old-fashioned and idealistic view of written humor is summarized in the book's preface. 

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The author has given to this book the title Humor and Humanity, rather than the obvious and simple title Humor, in order to emphasize his opinion that the essence of humor is human kindliness.  It is this element in humor which has grown from primitive beginnings to higher forms: which lends to humor the character of a leading factor in human progress, and which is destined still further to enhance its utility to mankind.
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In the book, Leacock recommended A. A. Thomson's 1936 book Written Humour for details of British humor.  I went searching for this book and discovered that it had nearly been lost to obscurity.  Only twenty copies were available within the vast Interlibrary Loan system of libraries.  This posed a potential problem: libraries are often reluctant to loan out books that are essentially irreplaceable.  Fortunately, Interlibrary Loan found a library willing to loan the book.   Within a few weeks a worn and fragile volume from the San Diego State College Library was sent to me.

Thomson began with general descriptions of the various realms of humorous writing and then compared the genial, civilized British approach to humor with the snappy approach favored by the Americans.

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American humour displays even sharper contrasts with our own, and anyone who wishes to sell his stories to the American magazines must frankly recognize this fact.  I have an American cousin, a charming and intelligent companion, who sincerely believes that the English have no sense of humour whatever.  This view, comic as it may seem to us, is shared by many good American citizens, who would not otherwise speak evil of us.  They think us slow, dull, and stand-offish, too prim and formal to appreciate a funny situation or a swift wisecrack.  We, on the other hand, can be just as intolerant, and sometimes express the opinion that American humour is a mere form of slapstick, incredibly crude and unedifying.  Neither of these opinions give a fair all-round view of the position.  They underline but do not explain, certain obvious differences. The fact is that while English people, as a rule, prefer their humour to ripple along with a quiet whimsicality, many Americans like their laughter in a more exuberant form, deriving great pleasure from wild exaggeration, picturesque hyperbole, and the shuttlecock and battledore of swiftly bandied repartee.
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I should explain that a battledore is a small racket used to strike a shuttlecock.  The ancient Indian game of "battledore and shuttlecock" is the ancestor of our modern game of badminton.  In Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers, Sam Weller says, "Battledore and shuttlecock's a wery good game, vhen you an't the shuttlecock and two lawyers the battledores, in which case it gets too exciting to be pleasant."

Thomson recommended A. A. Milne, a Punch humor writer later famous for his Winnie the Pooh children's books, as a master of British whimsy.  Here is the beginning of Milne's 1920 humorous essay "On Going into a House."

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It is nineteen years since I lived in a house; nineteen years since I went upstairs to bed and came downstairs to breakfast. Of course I have done these things in other people’s houses from time to time, but what we do in other people’s houses does not count. We are holiday-making then. We play cricket and golf and croquet, and run up and down stairs, and amuse ourselves in a hundred different ways, but all this is no fixed part of our life. Now, however, for the first time for nineteen years, I am actually living in a house. I have (imagine my excitement) a staircase of my own.

Flats may be convenient (I thought so myself when I lived in one some days ago), but they have their disadvantages. One of the disadvantages is that you are never in complete possession of the flat. You may think that the drawing-room floor (to take a case) is your very own, but it isn’t; you share it with a man below who uses it as a ceiling. If you want to dance a step-dance, you have to consider his plaster. I was always ready enough to accommodate myself in this matter to his prejudices, but I could not put up with his old-fashioned ideas about bathroom ceilings. It is very cramping to one’s style in the bath to reflect that the slightest splash may call attention to itself on the ceiling of the gentleman below. This is to share a bathroom with a stranger—an intolerable position for a proud man. To-day I have a bathroom of my own for the first time in my life.
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Milne has a pleasant style as an essayist, but his writing is unlikely to elicit knee slaps and guffaws from the 21st century reader. 

In the realm of humorous fiction, Thomson awards the honors to P. G. Wodehouse for his "spirit of sheer irresponsible fun which blends narrative, characters, and dialogue into one glorious whole."

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Of all humorists, Wodehouse is perhaps the most difficult to analyse.  The frameworks of his stories are not elaborate, and the plots of his novels would probably seem quite ordinary comedy plots, if handled by somebody else.  What he gives to his work is something that is part of his own rich ad joyous personality.  His touch is not deliberately fantastic, for his characters are, within the limits of gorgeous exaggeration, real enough, nor is it, in the ordinary sense, farcical, for farce, even at its swiftest, always has something a little heavy-footed and pedestrian about it.  I am inclined to think that it might be said of Wodehouse, as Chesterton said of Dickens, that he is really a fairy-tale writer.
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Here is a sample from Wodehouse's 1917 story "Bill the Bloodhound."

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There's a divinity that shapes our ends. Consider the case of Henry Pifield Rice, detective.

I must explain Henry early, to avoid disappointment. If I simply said he was a detective, and let it go at that, I should be obtaining the reader's interest under false pretences. He was really only a sort of detective, a species of sleuth. At Stafford's International Investigation Bureau, in the Strand, where he was employed, they did not require him to solve mysteries which had baffled the police. He had never measured a footprint in his life, and what he did not know about bloodstains would have filled a library. The sort of job they gave Henry was to stand outside a restaurant in the rain, and note what time someone inside left it. In short, it is not 'Pifield Rice, Investigator. No. 1.—The Adventure of the Maharajah's Ruby' that I submit to your notice, but the unsensational doings of a quite commonplace young man, variously known to his comrades at the Bureau as 'Fathead', 'That blighter what's-his-name', and 'Here, you!'

Henry lived in a boarding-house in Guildford Street. One day a new girl came to the boarding-house, and sat next to Henry at meals. Her name was Alice Weston. She was small and quiet, and rather pretty. They got on splendidly. Their conversation, at first confined to the weather and the moving-pictures, rapidly became more intimate. Henry was surprised to find that she was on the stage, in the chorus. Previous chorus-girls at the boarding-house had been of a more pronounced type—good girls, but noisy, and apt to wear beauty-spots. Alice Weston was different.
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Even after nearly a century, Wodehouse's prose still sparkles.

In the realm of burlesque and nonsense, Thomson applauded the work of six writers: Lewis Carroll, Stephen Leacock, Ashley Sterne, D. B. Wyndham Lewis, F. W. Thomas, and Maurice Lane-Norcott.  In our day, Lewis Carroll remains universally renowned.  Stephen Leacock may no longer be a household name, but many of his collections of comic stories remain in print.  (Seven of his volumes adorn my bookcase.)  But the remaining four men are seldom spoken of today. 

I intend to check out Ashley Sterne's writing.  Interlibrary Loan lists a mere four copies of Ashley Sterne's 1926 story collection Knotted Yarns.  I placed my request today, hoping that one of the four libraries trusts me with its copy.

Here's a contemporary review of the collection from the London periodical The Age:

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"Knotted Yarns," by Ashley Sterne (Nisbet and Co. Ltd, London) are a series of sketches of the broadly burlesque kind, which have been contributed to the "Passing Show," "London Opinion" and the "Bystander."  They represent the limits to which an English humorist will go, and are, as a flapper would say, "screamingly funny."  The very title of the first one – The Sheik, the Shriek and the Shrike – is enough to bring a smile to the reader's face.  The sketch is funny enough to convulse one.  The second one – The Charity Which Stayed at Home – concerning the heartburnings of a vicar who wins 10,000 pounds in a lottery reads like Anthony Trollope run mad.  The others are in similar strain.
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The collection sounds jolly good!   

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