Archive for the ‘A.P. Herbert’ Category

When one thinks of the literature of the 1920s (as we’ve had cause to do recently thanks to the 1929 Club last week), we think of a world still coming to grips with the devastation of the First World War and the societal upheaval it caused.  We think of escapist mysteries with war-damaged detectives, and bleak memoirs of the Western Front, and women – loudly, angrily – asserting their place in the world.  We do not always think of ditzy debutantes but, joyously, that is what we get in The Trials of Topsy by A.P. Herbert, a collection of satirical pieces from Punch which was first released in 1928.

The dispatches, written with breathless illiteracy by Lady Topsy Trout to her dear friend Trix, record her navigation of London society – and, loathsomely, the country – while her parents eagerly await her selection of a spouse.  Topsy certainly has an active social life but, as we can tell from the opening, her ambitions may not be exactly aligned with her parents’ yet:

Well Trix darling this blistering Season is nearly over and I’m still unblighted in matrimony, isn’t it too merciful, but you ought to see poor Mum’s face, my dear, she’s saturated with the very sight of me poor darling, not that I don’t try…

Young Topsy is sage enough to recognize that an endless whirl of parties and over-the-top extravaganzas, while providing material for her letters to Trix, is no way to live, especially after meeting Mr Haddock (“only I do wish his name wasn’t Albert”) who has no shortage of down-to-earth interests.  He admits to writing a little and soon Topsy too finds herself writing for a paper.  When he takes up campaigning for a seat in Parliament, Topsy becomes a devoted campaigner – and an incredible hit with the proletariat in Mr Haddock’s humble riding.  He even engages her in good works, to her amazement:

Well, Trix, my partridge, I’ve just had the most drastic adventure, well when I tell you that Mr Haddock used to do good works at some settlement oasis or something in the East End and every now and then a sort of nostalgia  for Whitechapel comes over him or else it’s a craving for goodness or something, so he goes down to some morbid club and plays Halma with the poor, which I think is so confiding of them because I’m sure he can’t play Halma well one day he asked me if I’d care to go with him, but my dear the very thought of Halma merely decimates me, and my dear you know I dote on the poor but I never can think of a thing to say, well then he said would I help send some poor children off to the country, and that sounded more adequate because if you can’t think of anything to say to children you can always tell them to stop doing what they’re doing, and anything that means sending children somewhere else must be doing a good action to somebody, because I do think that children are a bit superfluous, don’t you darling, and besides I wanted to show Mr Haddock that I have a good heart really though I will not play Halma if it means a Revolution.

All these un-deb-like activities clearly have an impact on her many admirers.  Though Topsy claims to repel the most attractive of her suitors – “my dear the rows of men who’ve departed to India and everywhere just as I was beginning to think they were rather tolerable, really darling in my humble way I’m quite populating the Empire, because my dear I do seem to have a gift for dissipating the flower of our youth to the four corners” – some are determined enough to follow her changing interests and adapt themselves to her.  Just not always successfully:

Well my dear it seems poor Terence has decided I’m a high-brow and my dear since we last met he’s been reading a book, my dear too unnatural, my dear one of those cathartic female novelists who adulate Sussex and sin and everything, and my dear they’re always bathing in no-piece costumes, and of course my poor Terence was utterly baffled because it seems there isn’t a white man from cover to cover and no horses and scarcely a hound, well I must say I thought it was rather a lily-white gesture for a subaltern in the Guards to read a book for my sake…

While Topsy’s sense of grammar (if someone ever taught her how to use a period, she has long forgotten the lesson.  Thank goodness she seems not to have been introduced to exclamation points) is in doubt, her charm and energy never are.  She dashes through life with good intentions but her youth and ignorance generally lead her into trouble – all the better from the reader’s perspective.  This is classic Punch, making gentle yet still affectionate fun of an oblivious character and her class while still making her loveable.  And despite her ditzy moments, Topsy’s judgement is clearly excellent as evidenced by her review of a play – she arrived late so didn’t catch the title – she was sent to review:

…it was the most old-fashioned mellodrama and rather poor taste I thought, my dear all about a black man who marries a white girl, my dear too American, and what was so perfectly pusillanimous so as to make the thing a little less incompatible the man who acted the black man was only brown, the merest beige darling, pale sheik-colour, but the whole time they were talking about how black he was, my dear too English.  Well of course the plot was quite defective and really my dear if they put it on in the West End not a soul would go to it except the police possibly because my dear there were the rudest remarks, well this inane black man gets inanely jealous about his anaemic wife the moment they’re married and my dear she’s a complete cow of a woman, my dear too clinging, only there’s an obstruse villain called Yahgo or something who never stops lying and my dear for no reason at all that I could discover, my dear it was so unreasonable that every now and then he had to have the hugest solilliquies, is that right, to explain what he’s going to do next, well he keeps telling the old black man that the white girl has a fancy-friend, well my dear they’ve only been married about ten days but the black man merely laps it up, one moment’s he’s Nature’s honeymooner and the next he’s knocking her down, and what I thought was so perfectly heterodox he was supposed to be the world’s  successful general but my dear I’ve always understood the sole point of a real he-soldier is that they’re the most elaborate judges of character and always know when you’re lying, and if this black man couldn’t see through Yahgo it’s too unsatisfying to think of him winning a single battle against the Turks.

As the book ends, Topsy is contemplating a more active role in politics after assisting Mr Haddock’s campaign alongside the redoubtable private secretary Taffeta (“there’s simply nothing she doesn’t know except the love of a clean-limbed Britisher, my dear it’s rather poignant, but if you will wear pince-nez and brown boots and the badge of the Guild of the Godly Girls it does make it difficult for Destiny doesn’t it darling?”) and we can only quake with delight at the prospect of what she could get up to.  Thankfully, that is chronicled in Topsy, MP and I’m eagerly awaiting my library copy now.  Even better news is that Handheld Press is releasing a collection of the Topsy stories next year called The Voluble Topsy to bring joy to the masses – though no doubt headaches to Kate and co who have to proof all of Topsy’s characterful typos.

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