Funny Mummy

E.S. Turner

  • The Penguin Stephen Leacock by Robertson Davies
    Penguin, 527 pp, £2.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 14 005890 7
  • Jerome K. Jerome: A Critical Biography by Joseph Connolly
    Orbis, 208 pp, £7.95, August 1982, ISBN 0 85613 349 3
  • Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome, annotated and introduced by Christopher Matthew and Benny Green
    Joseph, 192 pp, £12.50, August 1982, ISBN 0 907516 08 4
  • The Lost Stories of W.S. Gilbert edited by Peter Haining
    Robson, 255 pp, £7.95, September 1982, ISBN 0 86051 200 2

Stephen Leacock, the English-born, Canadian-reared humorist, has a single entry in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations: ‘Lord Ronald ... flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions’ (1911). Innumerable speakers, writers and politicians have helped themselves to this very serviceable joke; Leacock himself, writing in old age, used it without acknowledgment to illustrate a scientific disquisition. Perhaps he had forgotten that he was the originator of it.

As a humorist, Leacock could fairly be said to have jumped on his horse and galloped madly in all directions: into the realms of nonsense, fantasy, burlesque, parody, satire and the wisecrack – ‘Advertising ... the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it’. In the process, he made himself a tremendous name and earned the high respect of those whose workaday trade was irreverence. But oblivion creeps up fast on funny men, and today he is in danger of being looked on as a mummy from some remote archaeological site of humour.

The bald facts of his life are these. He was born in Hampshire (or possibly the Isle of Wight) in 1869 and accompanied his parents to Canada when he was six. He had a rigorous upbringing on a farm, graduated at Toronto University, then taught for ten years before taking a degree in philosophy at Chicago. In 1903 he joined the staff of McGill University, Montreal, and from 1908 to 1936 was Professor of Political Economy and head of the Department of Economic and Political Science. From 1911 he began turning out humorous books with titles like Literary Lapses, Nonsense Novels and Behind the Beyond, and became a highly-paid lecturer. He died in 1944.

Leacock held his own in the world of Will Rogers, Robert Benchley, James Thurber, the early Wodehouse, A.P. Herbert and ‘Beachcomber’. Americans, or some of them, accepted him as a successor to Mark Twain. His Yankee-style hyperbole did not, for once, upset the British, for he practised the tricks of ‘sly English humour’ too. He was too near academe to be a cracker-barrel philosopher. His style was zestful, easy and lucid, free from tags and tired allusions. J.B. Priestley, who edited The Bodley Head Leacock (1957), claimed that, at his best, the Professor, by steering between the ‘amiable nonsense’ of English humour and the ‘hard-cutting wit and almost vindictive satire’ of America, was able to express an essentially Canadian quality and outlook, much to be valued in a land which had long been looking for a voice. This may well be so, though one would hate to be called on to identify a Canadian joke.

Leacock said he would rather have written Alice in Wonderland than the Encyclopedia Britannica, but there were sixth-formers (of whom this reviewer was one) who would rather have written his ‘Boarding-House Geometry’ than Alice in Wonderland. These specimen postulates will give the flavour:

All boarding-houses are the same boarding-house.

Boarders in the same boarding-house and on the same flat are equal to one another.

A single room is that which has no parts and no magnitude.

The landlady of a boarding-house is a parallelogram – that is, an oblong angular figure, which cannot be described but which is equal to anything.

Any two meals at a boarding-house are together less than two square meals.

The clothes of a boarding-house bed, though produced ever so far both ways, will not meet.

Ranking with ‘Boarding-House Geometry’ was the fantasy about A, B and C of the mathematics problem papers, an exercise which has inspired emulators. Another famous short piece, about an awed young man opening his first bank account, was used by George Eastman, the American pundit on humour, as the roll-’em-in-the-aisles centrepiece of his lecture for nearly twenty years.

All three items appear in the present Penguin anthology. Robertson Davies’s choice follows closely that of J.B. Priestley, but this is no doubt because large areas of the humorist’s works are undeniably dated. There is a generous helping from Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, the nearest he got to writing a novel, and also from the less satisfying (and uncompleted) The boy I left behind me, the nearest he got to autobiography. The parodies, as of Pickwick in the throes of Prohibition, do not wear too well, though ‘My Victorian Girlhood’, a skit on memoir-writing by the upper classes, remains first-rate.

For much of the volume we are in a remote wood-chopping world, a species of Arcadia – though a far from innocent one – in which earth-shaking events do not intrude. Leacock, it emerges, first became a humorous lecturer to raise funds for the Belgians in 1914, but, apart from that, World War One (in this volume, anyway) hardly registers. Suddenly, on page 310, there is a reference to Hitler, and the shock is like that administered in The Code of the Woosters when Wodehouse starts writing about dictators.

The small-town satires are the best items. They do, however, make one ponder Leacock’s statements, in his rather dull book on what makes us laugh, that humour is ‘the kindly contemplation of the incongruities of life and the artistic expression thereof’ and that ‘the essence of humour is human kindliness.’ Not much human kindliness enters into ‘The Spiritual Outlook of Mr Doomer’, in which the dying man makes a beautiful end surrounded by such devotional works as the State Inheritance Statute. The only common faith among those present is faith in money. When the doctor says he must leave the patient to ‘other ministrations’, they call in the broker Jarvis, a most sympathetic man who ‘does all his firm’s business with the dying’. References to the ‘Other side’ are understood to mean New Jersey across the river, where the inheritance tax is more lenient. In a race against time, the dying man signs stock transfers and blank certificates:

‘The room is getting dim,’ he said, ‘I can see nothing but the figures.’

‘Never mind,’ said Jarvis, much moved, ‘that’s enough.’

‘Is it four hundred and thirty?’ he asked faintly.

‘Yes,’ I said, and I could feel the tears rising in my eyes, ‘and fifty cents.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in