Some things never go out of style. This means, of course, comic novels published in England in the first half of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, they do go out of print. They reappear fitfully in paperback, are discovered by a new generation, then languish in thrift shops and rummage sales, where you can pick them up for a song. Here is a sample. I just put the kettle on, and tea will be ready in a moment.
First and foremost, you must meet the divine Lucia, as revealed in the series of six novels by E. F. Benson (1867-1940). Queen Lucia introduces the main character, Emmeline Lucas, who likes to be called Lucia. She of the gimlet eye and corrugated hair, patroness of the arts, and their consummate practitioner when her busy schedule allows, a gracious hostess so long as she always gets her way, Lucia is the tenacious queen of middle class society. As one of her admirers says, during her assault on London in the second novel, “Is she not great?”
Lucia's career takes her from the comfortable village of Riseholme, where she inhabits the Elizabethan splendor of The Hurst, to the coastal town of Tilling, based on Rye, Sussex. There, by a financial sleight of hand, she acquires the house of her most persistent rival, Miss Mapp. Lamb House, called Mallards in the novels, with its bow window commanding the High Street in an essentially military way, was in fact occupied by the author Benson, and before him by Henry James. Such is her prestige that tourists now reverently exclaim: “That is Lucia's house!”
Married to a retired stockbroker, Lucia also has a cavaliere servante in the person of Georgie Pillson, a middle-aged bachelor who does embroidery. These two play Mozart piano duets which each has secretly practiced beforehand, and they speak a private language compounded of bits of Italian and baby-talk. In the course of years, from the 1920s to 1940, their affair takes a serious turn. Lucia is widowed and proposes to Georgie. The suspense over their wedding night is unbearable.
London Weekend Television produced a version of Lucia in 1985, with Prunella Scales and Nigel Hawthorne. Harper & Row published a paperback reprint, with an enthusiastic foreword by Nancy Mitford, and Thomas Y. Cromwell issued all six novels in one fat volume called Make Way for Lucia in 1977.
Nancy Mitford (1904-1973) in the 1940s wrote two comic novels drawn from the home life of her famous family: The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate. Vintage has reprinted them in paper, and Modern Library has them in hardcover. Thames Television adapted Love in a Cold Climate in 1980, and the BBC did it again in 2001.
The narrator of both novels is Fanny, a stand-in for Mitford in real life. For whatever reason, the males are more eccentric than the females, and therefore more memorable. In the second novel, Cedric Hampton, heir to the Montdore title and estate, is described by an unsympathetic character as “that awful effeminate pansy,” but he charms everyone else. His distant cousin Polly, who shows insufficient interest in marriage, is sometimes claimed to be the central character. But Cedric, who always refers to himself as “one,” has the last word. In de facto possession of the estate he gloats: “So here we are, my darling, having lovely cake and eating it, too, which is one's great aim in life.”
Speaking of cold, you might try Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons (1902-1989). First published in 1932, it parodies the earthy, sexually intense novels of that time. Think of Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) and D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), but especially of Precious Bane, by Mary Webb (1881-1927). Flora Poste, the recently orphaned heroine, arrives at the farm of her distant cousins, who speak in Hardyesque accents of despair: “Child, child, if you come to this doomed house, what is to save you?” Blind optimism, apparently, with a keen eye to her city-bred comfort.
Expensively educated, Flora has a connoisseur's appreciation for her Gothick relatives, who run the gamut of repression, obsession and perversion. But Flora is funny and winning, literally so in the end. The book is available from Penguin. It was adapted for television by the BBC in 1968, as a made-for TV movie in 1995, and for radio and stage.
Ronald Firbank (1886-1926) can be called perverse, though in a different context. His five novels nearly leave plot and character by the wayside. Instead, they offer rarefied wit, an exquisite taste for paradox, and the subtle humor that Firbank finds in certain names and juxtapositions. Referring to a common English flower, he modifies it as “a bunch of purple pinks.” Or he creates a Lady Parvula de Panzoust.
Osbert Sitwell wrote an introduction to the 1981 New Directions paperback containing all five novels. He invites us to visualize Firbank installed at the Café Royal in London, jotting down bits of dialog on blue index cards and chuckling uncontrollably. No less a critic than W. H. Auden wished never again to see “a person who dislikes Ronald Firbank.” E. M. Forster gushed: “It is frivolous stuff, and how rare, how precious is frivolity! How few writers can prostitute all their powers!”
More accessible to the general reader is Max Beerbohm (1872-1956). Famous as a caricaturist, he also wrote one novel, Zuleika Dobson in 1911. From their fence encircling the Sheldonian Theatre, the busts of the Roman emperors break out in a sweat as the beautiful Zuleika arrives in Oxford. Like Flora Poste, she is a competent orphan in search of a place to put up her feet. She soon wreaks havoc in undergraduate hearts, particularly that of the young Duke of Dorset, as perfect a gentleman as could possibly exist, which is to say that he dresses well. Zuleika is prepared to love him, until she learns that the feeling is mutual, whereupon it abruptly is not. Such a strange girl, she can only love a man who overmasters and scorns her. Her whim provokes a tragedy of awesome proportions, as lovelorn students fling themselves into the river. The novel was reissued by Penguin and Modern Library.
A more famous Oxford love story concerns the romantic triangle of Charles, Sebastian and Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited, published in 1945 by Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966). Waugh considered it his most serious novel, and for theme and characters, it does carry more weight than his farces Vile Bodies, Decline and Fall, and so on. The noble Marchmain family is Roman Catholic, and several characters experience religion. Back Bay issued a paperback in 2008, and Modern Library has the title. Granada made a television version of Brideshead in 1982, and there was a film in 2008.
Several of Waugh's other books appeared in paperback from Little Brown. Of these, The Loved One (1948) is a wickedly funny novel of Los Angeles and its “funeral arrangements.” Jessica Mitford, sister of Nancy, updated this topic in her nonfiction book The American Way of Death (1963) which is nearly as funny as Waugh's. Waugh also wrote a collection of stories called Charles Ryder's Schooldays (1936) which begins with a childhood sketch of the narrator of Brideshead . Waugh enthusiasts might want to seek out his historical novel Helena (1950) named for the mother of Constantine, decorator of the famous arch in Rome, and the first emperor to embrace Christianity.
As St. Jerome asked of another father of the church, “Who could ever read all that Origen wrote?” Sometimes I feel that way about Angela Thirkell (1890-1961). For the middle-aged and middle class woman who asked the lending librarian for “another nice read just like the last one,” Thirkell produced over 30 novels, roughly one a year. All are set in the imaginary county of Barsetshire, of which the cathedral city is Barchester. If Anthony Trollope (1815-1882) fans think this sounds suspicious, they have good reason. She shamelessly stole his locale.
With no more than a glance at ecclesiastical politics, Thirkell writes about the everyday lives of a large number of country folk, many of whom start out related to each other, and all of whom end up so. Typically, the action begins in spring and extends through a glorious English summer, laden with flowers and fruit. Characters are vivid, and they speak in distinguishable voices. Enjoy her shrewd perception, and laugh at characters like the flirty, somnambulistic Mrs. Brandon, or Mr. Middleton, of whom she writes: “No gentleman farmer off or even on the stage ever wore so preposterous an outfit.”
In the 1980s, I found Thirkell on the lying on the sidewalks of New York in battered Knopf hardcovers. Harper & Row reprinted six of them in paperback, the cream of the crop: The Brandons, Wild Strawberries, Before Lunch, High Rising, August Folly and Pomfret Towers. The novels written during war years are less frothy, more about making do. There are no film or television adaptions, but there is an Angela Thirkell Society, website angelathirkell.org.
If Thirkell paints England's late summer, Barbara Pym (1913-1980) depicts its autumn and the onset of winter. Her characters are generally older or retired, often unmarried, and unable to broach each other's English reserve. It sounds grim, yet the novels are very funny. Pym wrote perfect social comedies, twelve of them. Dutton issued them in hardback, and Harper & Row and Penguin each did a series of paperbacks.
Pym's commitment to spinsterhood started with the first novel, Some Tame Gazelle, written when she was only 22. She had a flair for hopeless love affairs, as confirmed in A Very Private Eye, a selection from her diaries and letters, also published by Dutton in 1984. This makes entertaining reading in its own right, as Pym's life was rich in awkward moments and a sense of the absurd. Men appear in her work as vain, insensitive creatures. Women love them in spite of their better judgment.
Gay characters appear. They may be bitchy like Ned and James in The Sweet Dove Died, or sympathetic like Piers and Keith in A Glass of Blessings. There are clerical celibates—vicars, curates and whatnot. For these, the threat of sex looms less than “going over to Rome.” The true Pym flavor comes in her anthropological observations on church life, such as “an untidy brown paper parcel from which a bit of striped material of a pajama-like nature protruded. I hung my head, as if I were unworthy of the privilege of seeing Father Bode's pajamas.”
If Pym conveys a touch of melancholy, the fictional diaries of E. M. Delafield (1890-1943) yield nothing of the sort. Starting with Diary of a Provincial Lady in 1933, our heroine goes in the second book to London, in the third on a tour of America, then in the fourth copes with wartime. Anyone who has kept a diary will appreciate Delafield's frequent queries and her recurring sense of futility, which she manages to render hilarious. Her style is so deceptively lifelike that we forget that old Mrs. Blenkinsop and the hysterical French governess known only as Mademoiselle are, after all, invented. As in Pym, a few alternative lifestylists turn up. My Friend Miss Postman, for example, lives with a lady writer.
In addition to the Provincial Lady, which has never gone out of print, Delafield wrote at least 20 other books. In 1937, she bared her love for Victorian fiction in a critical work called Ladies and Gentlemen. Here she examines the power games of family life and identifies the players: the self-sacrificing daughter, the severely punished son, the monstrous father, and so on. To illustrate the genre, she quotes liberally from the novels of Charlotte Yonge (1823-1901).
Yonge, who wrote over 100 novels and was devoted to the Anglo-Catholic movement, conjures an endless series of minor novelists, receding in time. They twinkle like stardust and melt on the tongue, unlike more massive classics. But our teatime feast, already protracted, must draw to an end.