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The bottomless well of British humor

Posted in Characters

There's no question — P. G. Woodhouse does it best.

His well-honed diction for the innumerable stories of those bumbling idiots (by and large) who came up through the English public school system to graduate (or not) as members of the nominal Drones Club have been delighting readers for decades.

Bertie Wooster and his keeper (um, valet) Jeeves are the best known players in this sunny world of nothing-ever-goes-permanently-wrong. Bertie and his fellow drones while away their time concocting preposterous schemes and shrinking from their occasional responsibilities.

But Wodehouse is just one of a great many witty authors utilizing this trope of companions in feckless idiocy. One of my other favorites is Georgette Heyer (1902-1974). It doesn't matter whether or not you like the romance genre — Jane Austen's “Comedies of Manners” launched a century-later fashion in Regency romance and Heyer is by a very great margin far the best author of these. The characters and the plots are light and amiable, the period research is impeccable, and her language is a delight. Instead of the Drones Club, we have a class of rich, young men referred to as Corinthians, among other things.

Follow along, if you can, while three friends who went to school together attempt to philosophize about a tangle they've gotten involved in, and one of them (the dimmest) tries to recall his (largely wasted) Classical education. (And, of course, there's been drink taken…)

‘Sherry’s going to Bath.’

Marmaduke stared at him. ‘Why?’ he asked.

‘Just what I’ve been wondering all the evening, Duke. You know what I think? Fate! That’s what it is: fate! There’s a thing that comes after a fellow: got a name, but I forget what it is. Creeps up behind him, and puts him in the basket when he ain’t expecting it.’

‘What sort of thing?’ enquired his host uneasily.

‘I don’t know,’ replied Ferdy. ‘It ain’t a thing you can see.’

‘If it’s a ghost, I don’t believe in ’em!’ said his host, recovering his composure.

Ferdy shook his head. ‘Worse than that, Jack, dear boy! I’ll think of its name in a minute. Met it at Eton.’

‘Dash it, Ferdy, I was at Eton the same time as you were, and you never said a word about anything creeping up behind you!’

‘I may not have said anything, but it did. Crept up behind me when I broke that window in chapel.’

‘Old Horley?’ Mr Westgate said. ‘You don’t mean to tell me he’s come up to London? What’s he creeping up behind you for?’

‘No, no!’ replied Ferdy, irritated by his friend’s poverty of intellect. ‘Not old Horley! Thing that made him suspect me when I thought my tracks were covered. Not sure it ain’t a Greek thing. Might have been Latin, though, now I come to think of it.’

‘I know what he means!’ said Marmaduke. ‘What’s more, it proves he’s cast-away, or he wouldn’t be thinking of such things. Nemesis! That’s it, ain’t it, Ferdy?’

‘Nemesis!’ repeated Ferdy, pleased to find himself understood at last. ‘That’s it! Dash it, it all goes to show, don’t it? Never thought the stuff they used to teach us at school would come in useful, but if I hadn’t had to learn a lot of Greek and Latin I shouldn’t have known about that thingummy. Forgotten its name again, but it don’t signify now.’

He seemed inclined to brood over the advantages of a classical education, but his brother brought him back to the point. ‘What the deuce has Nemesis to do with Sherry’s going to Bath?’ he demanded.

Georgette Heyer — Friday's Child (1944)

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  1. It’s me, of course, but I’m having a harder time with British humour lately – it exhausts me.

    In my younger, more flexible days I read everything, including gobs of the stuff, but I’m finding it more tedious than fun recently. Except Sayers’ bits, which will always work for me. Peter, Harriet, family, friends, and offspring seem to work for me any time I need something reliable to read.

    July 8, 2022
  2. Marie Jackson
    Marie Jackson

    Thank you so much for this quotation.
    I absolutely love this book, and have been trying to find this passage to pass on to someone.
    (I could just re-read the book, but then I would get completely involved in it and forget to note the passage!)
    Heyer’s characterization is masterly. She gives you the person through their conversation and behaviour, without feeling the need to waste time in description, which would bog down the plot.

    March 28, 2023

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