Sample Essay from Brooker Prize Winner

 

 

 
Cultured Insolence: Wit in British Literature

Erin Wonder

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Previous Prize Recipients

 

As a high school freshman, I began the lifelong task of building a personal library. At that point, my passion for reading was in its fumbling, defiantly precocious adolescent phase-I read the "classics" more to prove that I could (and to show off, of course) than because I had a real appreciation of their value. For the first year, my taste in books wasn't what one would call "refined": I bought the cheapest new copies I could find of the books I thought I had to read to be smart. This led to quite a few Bantam Classics editions of novels that I have yet to actually read (the shiny spine of Uncle Tom's Cabin, for one, remains woefully uncreased). However, by my sophomore year, I had read enough to develop the vague intuition that I would rather enroll in a semester of British Lit than American Lit. It was in the ridiculously cumbersome textbook for that class that I "discovered" the always intelligent, and often biting, phenomenon of British wit, in the form of Jonathan Swift's An Indecent Proposal. At about the same time, I stumbled upon Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, and the marriage of these two manifestations of British humor led to the writing of a Gulliver's Travel parody written in an irreverent style picked up from Adams. It was a shining example of brazen imitation, in which a "Marvin the Paranoid Android"-esque anti-hero named Mangel Wurzel saves the Pillilutians from a lumbering giant. I thought it was great at the time; now I try to avoid thinking about it. But regardless of the quality, or lack thereof, of my fictional endeavors, the story was indicative of the extent to which British humor had invaded my brain. I was immediately taken by its intelligence, understatement, irony, verbal humor, and self-deprecation, as well its tendency to embrace absurdity and eccentricity. Although styles of humor change over the years, that peculiar brand of wit continues to be a defining characteristic of British writing and has, in a sense, come to symbolize British culture in general. It would take a more astute literary historian than myself to trace this cultural phenomenon to its roots, but perusal of nearly any recently published British novel will show that the tradition of cultured insolence is alive and well today.

To my mind, the unique combination of the sophisticated, the sophomoric, and the satirical that comprises British humor doesn't seem to lend itself to pristine, shelf-bound leather volumes. Like the original audiences of Shakespeare's plays, composed of both the poor masses and the pampered elite, my vision of the ideal volume of Brit wit combines the classy with the plebeian: a sleek, understated, sturdy, but well-worn paperback, preferably with the previous owner's name jotted on the inside cover. I love finding inscriptions in used books; seeing the name of someone who has previously enjoyed a novel is almost as good as having someone there to laugh (or smirk, as the case may be) right along with you. On a recent whim, I actually went so far as to conduct an internet search for the name of the previous owner of my copy of Addison and Steele's Selections from The Tatler and The Spectator and found her teaching English at a university in Indiana. We have since exchanged e-mails; she remembered the book, as well as the class for which she took notes in the margins, notes which have in turn enhanced my own reading. For this reason I tend to avoid buying new books whenever possible: despite the increasing aestheticism applied to cover art and design, new books don't really have any character. They're also ridiculously overpriced and, on top of everything, lack that lovely, musty smell characteristic of old volumes.

Thus, most of my books were purchased at used bookstores, used book sales, or antique shops around the Midwest. My family vacations during high school usually consisted of visiting strings of small towns in Iowa (my home state), Illinois, or Minnesota, and I made sure we stopped in every used bookshop along the way. Most of these little towns run together in my memory; consequently, I have a hard time remembering the exact location of the stores where I purchased most of the books. However, I can chart in detail how one author led me to another, who in turn led to more writers and more books; to use a hackneyed metaphor, Jonathan Swift and Douglas Adams are the trunk from which my collection has branched out and flourished. Reading Jane Austen led me to Anthony Trollope, Barbara Pym, and Stella Gibbons; Malcolm Bradbury's Eating People is Wrong pointed me in the direction of Lucky Jim; a passing mention in Noël Coward's autobiography introduced me to Saki. Over the years, I have, of course, purchased, read, and enjoyed books written on all seven continents (even Antarctica, if you count Scott's Antarctic journals), but no other national body of literature has managed to attain the position of high esteem in which I hold the British.

I intend to continue the trend of letting books and authors find me as much as I find them; it's like a never-ending treasure hunt, with all the clues buried in the pages. However, I would also like to add depth to my collection of works by individual authors whose writing I particularly enjoy, such as Beryl Bainbridge, Evelyn Waugh, and George Bernard Shaw. When the opportunity presents itself, I would love to acquire older copies of those books that I'm particularly fond of, although I'm hampered in this endeavor by the typical fiscal restrictions of a college student. There are a few tomes that I'm specifically hunting for, such as a 1947 first edition of Present Indicative, Noël Coward's autobiography; a copy of the Reverend Sydney Smith's collected writings, Twelve Miles from a Lemon; and an edition of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday that wasn't published by Barnes and Noble or Dover Thrift Editions (surprisingly, I have yet to find one in a used bookstore; I'm starting to suspect that someone out there is hoarding all the good copies). Eventually, I'd like to have such an extensive collection of humorous British writing, comprised of both major and minor literary figures, that I might thoroughly map out the evolution of dry wit upon my bookshelves. If my present collection is any indication, I'm sure to find this an entertaining endeavor as well as a worthy one, for, in the words of Victorian novelist George Meredith, "The well of true wit is truth itself."


Ms. Wonder won the 2nd-year prize in 2007
for the collection described in the preceding essay.

Her bibliography follows.

 

Adams, Douglas. The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. New York: Ballantine Books, 2002. Paperback; good condition (slight wear to cover).
A great example of modern British popular humor-the satire is all but hidden amongst the absurdity. This fairly recent edition contains all five volumes of the renowned "trilogy".

Addison, Joseph and Richard Steele. Selections from 'The Tatler' and 'The Spectator'. San Francisco: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964. Paperback; decent condition (cover creasing, some underlining and margin notes).

Amis, Kingsley. Lucky Jim. New York: Viking Press, 1958. Cover design by Edward Gorey. Paperback; decent condition (some stains on pages, cover is slightly soiled).

Austen, Jane. Emma. New York: Signet Classics, 1980. Paperback; good condition (some wear to cover).

Bainbridge, Beryl. An Awfully Big Adventure. London: Penguin Books, 1991. Paperback; condition noted below.
I went to great lengths to find a copy of this novel that wasn't a tie-in with the 1994 film adaptation, and my search eventually took me to the online catalog of a small used bookshop in England. It wasn't in great condition when I got it, but its "well-loved" appearance and excessive underlining are mostly due to my frequent readings-it's one of my favorite books.

Bradbury, Malcolm. Eating People is Wrong. Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1991. Paperback; good condition (fading on spine).

Chesterton, G.K. The Man Who Was Thursday. New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 2004. Paperback; excellent condition.

Coward, Noel. Play Parade. New York: Doubleday, Doran, and Co., 1934. First edition hardcover; condition noted below.
I found this one inexplicably nestled amongst a bunch of books on naval history in a small-town Illinois antique store that deals primarily in refurbished furniture. It's in excellent condition, with an introduction by the author himself, and contains my favorite Coward comedy, "Private Lives".

Coward, Noël. Pomp and Circumstance. New York: Doubleday and Co., 1960. First edition hardcover; condition noted below.
This hardbound first edition is the only novel Coward ever wrote; it's a clean copy in very good condition, although the drab cover seems to indicate that it once had a dust jacket that has since gone missing. Of note is the diaeresis in Coward's first name, an affectation he adopted during the latter part of his career which is usually dropped by contemporary publishers.
Coward, Noel. Present Indicative: An Autobiography. New York: Da Capo Press, 1980. Paperback; good condition (some wear and creasing of cover).

Dickens, Charles. The Pickwick Papers. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 2000. Paperback; very good condition.

Disraeli, Benjamin. Ixion in Heaven. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1925. Illustrations by John Austen. Hardcover; good condition (cover is worn, somewhat soiled, but pages are clean).
A hardcover example from the little-known literary career of the famous prime minister. It's most likely a satire of Disraeli's political contemporaries; due to a general lack of readily available information regarding Disraeli's writing, I've been unable to fully comprehend the subtext, but I'm pretty sure he's making fun of somebody in a very clever manner. It also includes many stylish illustrations, several of them rather garishly colored.

Fry, Stephen. The Hippopotamus. New York: Soho Press, 1996. Paperback; very good condition.

Gibbons, Stella. Cold Comfort Farm. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Paperback; excellent condition.
This is the most recently published book in my collection and, to be honest, I only bought it new because I really liked the illustrations on the cover. The comical drawings of the characters nicely accompany the gently humorous satire of the novel.

Hornby, Nick. High Fidelity. NewYork: Riverhead Books, 1996. First paperback edition; good condition (slight wear to cover).

Jerome, Jerome K. Three Men in a Boat. London: Dent and Sons Ltd., 1974. Paperback; good condition (slight wear to cover).

Munro, Hector Hugh. The Complete Stories of Saki. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth, 1993. Paperback; good condition (slight wear and creasing of cover).
Until very recently, Munro's stories were usually published in "best of" anthologies, which I try to avoid. I found this little brick of an omnibus in a used bookstore in some small town on the Mississippi River. The only negative attribute of the volume is its incredibly tiny typeset.

Munro, H.H. ("Saki"). The Unbearable Bassington. New York: Penguin Books, 1947. First edition paperback; decent condition (the plastic on the cover is starting to peel off and shows signs of wear and tear, but the pages and binding are excellent).

Orton, Joe. Head to Toe: A Novel and Up Against It. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998. First edition paperback; very good condition (black mark along bottom of pages).
British black humor at its darkest, made even gloomier by the fact that Orton was later brutally murdered by his homosexual lover. Up Against It, a screenplay commissioned by the Beatles, was actually deemed too cynical and bizarre to be filmed.
Pym, Barbara. No Fond Return of Love. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1982. Hardcover; good condition (some mysterious stains on the inside covers, but the pages and binding are good and it retains the original dust jacket).

Shakespeare, William. As You Like It. New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co., 1882. Hardcover; very good condition (cover is slightly soiled).
I found this literally "pocket-sized" edition in an antique shop in Des Moines, along with half a dozen copies of Shakespearean plays used by schoolchildren in 1905. It's a perfect example of why I love browsing for books in antique stores: each volume was priced at five dollars, and I took the whole lot home. This edition was apparently designed for use by teachers-along with notes, it contains suggested examination questions, such as "What is Touchstone's agency in the play?" and "Write out your estimate of Orlando", as well as a "Plan of Study" for instructors.

Shaw, George Bernard. Pygmalion. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1959. Paperback; good condition (cover is slightly soiled).
Sterne, Laurence. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. London: The Bodley Head Ltd, 1928. Introduction by J.B. Priestley. Illustrations and decorations by John Austen. Hardcover, possible first edition; very good condition (slight wear to cover).
A hardcover edition of the first postmodern novel, it includes bold illustrations and the famous "marbled page", although the equally famous "black page" that traditionally follows the death of the vicar Yorick has been inexplicably omitted. Perhaps in recompense, the illustration on the inside cover has a centerpiece dedicated to poor Yorick.

Strachey, Lytton. Eminent Victorians. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Co., publishing date unknown (post-1940). Hardcover; condition noted below.
With this book, Strachey revolutionized the art of the biography, bringing color and humor to a previously bone-dry genre. I've been unable to determine an exact date for the publication of this volume, but, after looking into the history of Modern Library editions, it seems likely that it was published between 1940 and 1955. It's a hardbound edition in excellent condition and has the original dust jacket, which has only a few minor tears and discoloration.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels and Other Writings. New York: Bantam Books, 1984 (reissued edition, year unknown). Paperback; decent condition (slight wear to cover, creased spine).
This was the first book here to be acquired, purchased when I was more concerned with price than quality of binding. However, it holds a special place in my collection as the seed from whence my interest in British lit and wit grew.

Thackeray, William Makepeace. Vanity Fair: A Novel Without a Hero. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1893. Hardcover; condition noted below.
This was the first "antique" book that I ever bought, and also the most expensive at a whopping $35; I purchased it at an antique/bookshop in Des Moines when I was sixteen. It includes eighteen detailed engravings of various scenes by Frank T. Merrill. The binding is in excellent condition, and the embossing on the cover is almost flawless.

Trollope, Anthony. Barchester Towers. London: Nicholas Vane, 1949. Hardcover; condition noted below.
A clean, tight hardbound copy with the original dust jacket, although the jacket itself isn't in the best condition. Despite having been one of the most prolific and successful writers of the Victorian era, Trollope is sadly underappreciated in the U.S., possibly because several of his novels satirize British politics of the day.

Waugh, Evelyn. A Handful of Dust and Decline and Fall. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1966. Paperback; good condition (cover is worn and slightly creased).

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Greenwich: Appleby and Co., 1939. University Classics hardcover edition; condition noted below.
This was a gift from my sister-well, not a gift so much as a trade: her Wilde for my Steinbeck, but I feel that I got the better end of the deal. It doesn't seem to have been stored in ideal conditions-the cover is sturdy but faded and the pages are more darkened with age than one would expect, although it does as a result have that quintessential "old book smell".
Wodehouse, P.G. The Code of the Woosters. New York: Random House, 1975 (reissued edition, year unknown). Paperback; very good condition.