Wit working with Wisdom

Marylebone House author Kel Richards—just thinking out loud…

The comic novel has been one of the most powerful (and delightful) strands in the whole story of the English novel. I remember laughing out loud the first time I read Jane Austen’s Emma. But brilliant though they are Austen and Dickens are almost late arrivals in the world of the comic novel. Long before they added sparkle Henry Fielding’s foundling Tom Jones was delighting readers and Laurence Stern in Tristram Shandy was inventing the post-modern novel several centuries before post modernism had been thought of.

In his famous book on Dickens G. K. Chesterton mounted a powerful argument that Dickens’ masterpiece is his first and funniest novel Pickwick Papers—rather than one of the later (and grimmer) tales.

Chesterton himself was a fine comic writer, and his wit turns up in his essays and verse as well as in his novels and short stories (his “theological thrillers). Chesterton understood that a joke is lot like poetry, in that it is (to slightly paraphrase Coleridge) “the right words in the right order”. That is what makes us smile or even laugh out loud. Change a word, or change the order, and the joke falls flat.

The master of this sort of amusement was P. G. Wodehouse. Writing to his brother Warnie in 1939 C. S. Lewis called Right-Ho Jeeves “one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Fink-Nottle’s speech at the speech-day made me laugh out loud in an empty lounge.” (An effect I believe Gussie Fink-Nottle has had on every other reader of the book!) Lewis was himself, of course, an extremely witty writer.

And wit is at its most effective when it helps us painless absorb ideas or observations because our funny bone is being so tickled that our minds are open.

Like most other journalists I have read (and re-read) Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop—which we find a devastatingly accurate portrait of our profession, devastating precisely because it so funny.

William Boot (the hapless protagonist in Scoop) is employed by newspaper magnate Lord Copper. Whenever this media tycoon makes a remark that is correct his hovering circle of acolytes all respond with “Definitely, Lord Copper” but when he says something that is appalling ill informed, or just plain wrong (“Kiev is the capital of Russia I believe”) they all reply “Up to a point, Lord Copper.” Which is why so many journalists around the world still reprimand erring colleagues by saying “Up to a point, Lord Copper.

And one of the cleverest, and most effective, combinations of wit and wisdom is C. S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. From the first letter in the series we can see the amusement in Screwtape (experienced tempter that he is) countering a drift towards Christian thinking not with arguments but by prompting his “patient” to think it’s time for lunch. And when Screwtape angrily explodes (in Letter XXII) into an entirely different form is becomes broad farce—but the point is powerfully made.

Now the above idle thoughts have been prompted by the fact that this is a game I play myself. The four novels in the “Inklings mysteries” series (The Corpse in the Cellar, The Country House Murders, The Floating Body and The Sinister Student) are—all of them—both “theological thrillers” and comic novels.

As I write these words I am working on the plot climax in the fifth and latest entry in the series, and the scene is coming pure farce—and all the better for it.

The stream of the comic novel is a broad one, and it is a delight to even paddle in its shallows.

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