Writer, researcher, translator, critic

Exist Yesterday.

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1900: Barry Pain


This week I'm thinking about Eliza, a 1900 collection of brief stories — or sketches, in the phrasing of the day — by Barry Pain.

Barry Pain is largely unremembered today, and he was not immoderately popular even in his era; he had to bear up as well as he could under the exasperating honor of being a writers' writer. Robert Louis Stevenson admired his early efforts, H. P. Lovecraft considered him a master of one variety of creepy story, and George Orwell called him one of the best of the "good bad novelists" (the phrase by which Orwell distinguished genre fiction) of his youth. But despite a small latter-day reputation in the production of horror and fantasy, what the public really demanded from him was comedy, and they got it.

Cover to an early US edition.

Cover to an early US edition.

Eliza and its four sequels were his most famous work for most of his lifetime, and it's not hard to see why. Each brief anecdote is narrated by the title character's unnamed husband, and is a miniature masterpiece of unreliable narration. The pomposity, self-regard, willful ignorance, stupidity, snobbery, and weakmindedness of the narrator shines as if accidentally through every stuffy sentence and is the source of most of the humor, and Eliza's limited patience with his folly but practical ability to manage him provides most of the narrative. Some of the stories are so economical and perfectly-drawn that they leave me slightly breathless, unable to imagine how someone could even conceive them, let alone construct them as it were back-to-front (because the narrator almost never actually says what happens at any crucial juncture, leaving it to be inferred in a kind of narrative negative space), and without a word wasted. That's what you get with a writers' writer.

But in addition to being marvels of construction, the stories are also really, really funny, even over a century later. Even though there's never anything as crudely obvious as a punch line, the laughter which has been bubbling up all along somehow only really emerges with the final sentence of the sketch, as though the whole thing was a very minimalist cartoon, needing only that final stroke to complete the thought and make it hilarious. I wish I knew how he did it.

Only the first volume of the Eliza books has been digitized at archive.org. It was succeeded by Eliza's Husband (1903), Eliza Getting On (1911), Exit Eliza (1912), and Eliza's Son (1913), of which only the 1911 sequel is available for free elsewhere; but all five have been collected in a volume which sells relatively cheaply. I would recommend it if you enjoy British striving-class humor; in terms of incident it's a bit like a gender-swapped Keeping Up Appearances, although it's much better written.

I've known for some time that Barry Pain would be one of the major landmarks in my map of light fiction around the turn of the century, but I'm pleased to finally have read just how good his work was, and I'm eager to read more of it, especially the Cockney stories which first made his name (he holds the dubious honor of being the first fiction writer to attempt to transcribe Cockney speech as it was spoken in the late 19th century rather than simply copying the transcriptions of Thackeray and Dickens two generations earlier). But I've got much more of the map to fill out first.