Writer, researcher, translator, critic

Exist Yesterday.

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1882: F. Anstey


This week I'm thinking about F. Anstey's landmark 1882 comic novel Vice Versa, which is, for all intents and purposes, the point at which my (eccentric, perhaps) definition of light fiction begins. Which isn't to say that light fiction — comic fiction meant solely to be entertaining, without much of a serious point to it — didn't exist before 1882, only that this book synthesized and consolidated the vast Victorian output of comedic production from Pickwick and Punch to Pinafore and Valentine Vox — to a hard, bright, shining distillation: a novel that could be read in a single evening, telling a single story, as definite and finished as a stage comedy.

The title page of a library copy digitized at  archive.org .

The title page of a library copy digitized at archive.org.

Which it just might as easily have been, and indeed was before long: as a stage play, as a series of film adaptations, radio plays, television productions, and century-later rewrites, it has had a long and varied, if never very respected career. It's the original body-swap comedy, the model for all the Freaky Fridays and their descendants which multiple generations have grown up watching on home video. But unlike most later remakes or adaptations, which follow both parent and child through their misadventures in one another's body, the original sticks close to Paul Bultitude, the grumpy and self-important City man transformed by an incautious wish into the person of his thirteen-year-old son, the mischievous and impertinent Dick, only occasionally hearing about Dick's improvident career in his own body at second hand.

The bulk of the novel takes place over the week that Paul is forced to spend at his son's prep school, where his inability to adapt himself to the boyhood culture of ragging and resignation, with its intricate but opaque moral codes, provides much of the comedy. The subtitle Anstey gave his novel is "A Lesson to Fathers," and his prose frequently slips into the tone of a morally salubrious parable on the sad vices of boys. But there's never any doubt that his intent is parodic — his satiric eye detects nothing but imposture and self-deception from one end of the moral scale to the other, although without ever being particularly scabrous about it — and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that one of P. G. Wodehouse's favorite comedic tricks, the "it is my sad duty to report" epiphrasis on a supposed iniquity which the narrative actually treats as morally neutral if not outright laudable, was borrowed from Anstey.

"F. Anstey" was the pen name of Thomas Anstey Guthrie, a barrister by training who wrote this novel in his twenties and had such success with it that he continued to write fiction, drama, and sketches (he became a frequent Punch contributor) through the 1910s, by which time his style had become decidedly old-fashioned. Even in 1882, although the relative brevity and irreverence of Vice Versa was a breath of fresh air, his prose was still conventionally Victorian, with its winding periods and donnish quotations at the head of each chapter. I haven't read much else of his work yet, which I want to; although Vice Versa was the kind of generational success that meant that for decades comic novels would be reviewed as "not since Vice Versa has there been &c.," his subsequent bibliography promises more lightly satirical fare of just as good if not better quality, much of which is based on similarly fantastic premises.

About which a word. My conception of light fiction is not mutually exclusive with other genres: despite the fact that the endless catalogers and encyclopedians of fantastic and science-fictional literature have generally appropriated comic fantasy as belonging to their domain, and despite the fact that perhaps the vast majority of light fiction features no fantastical events whatever, my concern is not with the probability of the events but whether or not they are meant to be funny: since fantastic premises are just as likely to be meant to be ridiculous as they are to be taken seriously, they will appear here was appropriate. Light fiction is not a genre in competition with or against existing genres, but a way of looking at the existing corpus of literature that cuts across the usual genre barriers. For further evidence, even the master of light fiction, P. G. Wodehouse, who was normally a sober realist as far as fantastical events are concerned, wrote Laughing Gas in 1936, a body-swap comedy in which one of his aristocratic goofs swaps consciousnesses with a spoiled child actor in Hollywood. (His tribute, perhaps, to the novel which started it all.)

Although presumably it would be possible to write a seriously-intended novel or movie or television series in which characters swapped bodies (or minds), it does seem to have been used exclusively as a comedic premise. It's noteworthy, though, that although Anstey's novel was written for adults (of course in 1882 there were almost no novels written for adults that were not suitable for children who could hack the prose), the premise had to be published as children's fiction by 1972 when Mary Rodgers wrote Freaky Friday. J. R. R. Tolkien's observation about unfashionable literature, like unfashionable furniture, being relegated to the nursery applies to light fiction in the second half of the twentieth century as well as to fantasy in the first half: for two generations, it's been easier to find irresponsibly comedic literature in Juvenile Fiction than in Adult.