Writer, researcher, translator, critic

Exist Yesterday.

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1928: Lady Cynthia Asquith (ed.)


This week I'm thinking about a 1928 British anthology of humorous short stories edited by Lady Cynthia Asquith, daughter-in-law of the former Prime Minister, published originally under the title The Funny Bone, but my edition is titled New Tales of Humour. It contains eighteen stories, mostly quite short, all of which are meant to be funny and some of which actually achieve that ambition.

Many, if not all, of these stories had appeared in the popular press before being collected here, presumably by the simple process of bourgeois scribblers being asked by an aristocrat to contribute a previously uncollected piece to her new anthology. Lady Cynthia dabbled in story-writing and anthologizing (her ghost stories are best remembered today) as another member of her class might have dabbled in horse-breeding or colonial atrocity; her story, the last in the collection, is entirely artificial in both theme and construction (there are no people like that, nor do they behave in those extraordinary ways), but suavely rendered enough that the comedy, or perhaps at best the amusement, of her jury-rigged situation is clear.

Most of the stories have an undercurrent of class difference, even when deeply sublimated. I mean, of course they do, they're British — but the late 1920s was a point when it was fashionable for artistically-inclined aristocrats to be sympathetically class-conscious. The 1926 general strike, Labour's increasing strength as a political party, and the promise of Soviet utopianism had made engaging with the ideas and cultures of the Non-U almost imaginable. In the grimmer Thirties, aristo fiction would withdraw back into its ivory tower, as escapist fiction would into the Never-Never Land of purely hypothetical wealth, but here, even when they're sneering or uncomprehending, nearly all of these writers touch on class, humoring the hypothesis that the lower orders are in fact people.

The first story is (of course it would have to be) by P. G. Wodehouse, who steps away from his usual clubmen and county seats for a trifle about a lower-middle-class family with a prizefighter for a patriarch. Never the most confident sketcher of any society outside the wholly imaginary upper classes of his novels, which were drawn from the stage rather than from life, he fails to imbue the working-class cast with the slightest shred of credibility, and the story ends up reading more like a pastiche of something Barry Pain or W. Pett Ridge might have written thirty years earlier during the fin-de-siècle vogue for humorous Cockney stories. (Shaw's Pygmalion came out of that vogue, not that he'd have admitted it.) It still functions perfectly reasonably as a story, because Wodehouse was nothing if not a conscientious craftsman, but it lacks the spark of his top drawer.

I won't go through every story in the volume, but just glance over some of the highlights. Of the names that have any particular resonance today, E. F. Benson's deliciously catty story about a pianist who collects wealthy widows is perfectly consonant with his Mapp and Lucia novels; L. P. Hartley's highly embroidered shaggy-dog story about a sensational tattoo is very different from the more vinegary fiction he would become known for; Elizabeth Bowen's dryly tart story about a girl plaguing a young curate is possibly the best thing in the book; and Compton Mackenzie's sketch about showgirls unconsciously bleeding a Frenchman dry feels incomplete, perhaps trimmed from one of his longer novels about the theater.

Some of the names were well-known at the time but obscure today: George A. Birmingham was an Irish cleric whose output of comic fiction rival Wodehouse's for sheer volume (story: telegraphed), Somerville and Ross were Anglo-Irish cousins who often set their fiction on the hunting field (story: incomprehensible), J. Storer Clouston was a Scottish antiquarian whose 1899 comic novel The Lunatic at Large was something of a generational touchstone (Wodehouse and G. K. Chesterton certainly both borrowed from it) (story: counter-revolutionary), Denis Mackail was a chum of Wodehouse's and also a prolific writer in a light vein without anything like his friend's control over his material (story: sweet), Stacy Aumonier was considered one of the greatest English short-story writers at the time of his death in 1928 (story: slight), and D. B. Wyndham Lewis and J. B. Morton were both conservative Anglo-Catholics who succeeded one another in writing the "Beachcomber" column in the Daily Express, for many years considered the gold standard in popular comic writing in the UK (stories: meta-parodic).

As befits an anthology edited by someone entitled to preface their name with Lady, there are more women represented than there almost ever are in such anthologies. Aside from the names mentioned already: Helen de Guerry Simpson takes a typical magazine-story setup and upends it, with possibly the funniest result in the book, Ethel Sidgwick reverses the standard young-love-oppressed-by-overcautious-parents formula delightfully, and Hilda Hughes begins with a terrific farcical conceit but fails to stick the landing.

Hughes is among the select names in the Table of Contents who are utterly forgotten now: bets presumably taken by Lady Cynthia on the strength of early promise who failed to pan out with a significant literary career. Of these, Hughes and Norman Venner at least published a handful of novels in the late 20s and early 30s which were reviewed respectfully and are difficult to get hold of now, while Iolo Aneurin Williams seems to have written exactly one piece of fiction, "The Man Who Stole the Pelican" (it's about exactly what it says on the tin), in the course of a quiet scholarly and political career.

Oddly enough, it was Hughes, Venner, and Williams that I bought the book for; my researches into comic fiction had unearthed all of their names and I wanted to get a sample of their work before I put time and real money into trying to track down more. Williams can be set aside: although his story is a model of one branch of comic fiction (and has been dissected as such in textbooks), it's a one-off. Hughes, who seems to have been a friend of Lady Cynthia's (or at least her stories turn up in her anthologies), didn't impress me enough to try to chase down the two novels I know of. Venner, on the other hand, produced perhaps the most perfectly-balanced story in terms of psychological and social reality versus comic-fiction unreality in the collection. His books are going on my must-find list.

Although my judgment on much of the work in this book has been negative, I can't stress enough how much I love reading old, time-discolored books like this one. It's a bit taller than the average work of popular fiction, and the paper is textured differently than the U.S. books of the era I'm used to, which adds to a subterranean feeling of exclusivity and aristocratic remove. Even the fact that every time I touch a page tiny particles of it cling to my fingers is part of the sensuous pleasure of the experience. There's nothing particularly creditable in any of this; in fact I would probably be more ethically sound if I wasn't on some level delighted by the smugly self-centered cultural products of an empire that was actively enriching itself off its murderous "administration" of a quarter of the globe. May future generations be more skeptical of the Peak Television pumped out by an even more rapacious empire today.