Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Satirical, Stuffy Victorian Novel

If writers have nightmares that they rarely put on paper, they’ve got to resemble the farcical bit of writing that is Stephen Leacock’s “Gertrude the Governess, or Simply Seventeen,” a satire of the traditional, stuffy Victorian novel along the lines of those written by the sisters Bronte or Jane Austen.

It’s nightmarish, of course, in that it resembles the stratified and stiff Victorian society the Brontes and Austen lived in but does not, in fact, resemble the carefully created stories, the deep characters or the limpid language we’ve come to associate with the best novels of the age. Instead, it reads like a cheap imitation copy of a fake. Behold:

“What a dull morning,” Gertrude had said. “Quel triste matin! Was fur ein allerverdamnter Tag!”

“Beastly,” Ronald had answered.

“Beastly!!” The word rang in Gertrude’s ears all day.

After that they were constantly together. They played tennis and ping-pong in the day, and in the evening, in accordance with the stiff routine of the place, they sat down with the Earl and Countess to twenty-five-cent poker, and later still they sat together on the verandah and watched the moon sweeping in great circles around the horizon.

It was not long before Gertrude realized that Lord Ronald felt towards her a warmer feeling that than of mere ping-pong. At times in her presence he would fall, especially after dinner, into a fit of profound subtraction.

So we have here, as Larry Donner might say, all the elements of a Victorian novel, we have the tension, the horror of courtship – but you might want to know a little bit more about Victorian living before you set a novel in the era. And you’ve made ping-pong feel dirtier than I’ve ever had it feel before. Ever.

Of course it’s the smart author who can turn a nightmarish imitation of something into a satirical take on something. I’m not that smart; I’m still in the nightmare stage. But perhaps studying things like this will help me recognize my own follies.

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