I like novels that make me laugh. Very few do. Writing humor is difficult, even though readers may imagine that being funny is easier than being important, weighty, and ponderous.
The novels of Barbara Pym make me laugh, often out loud, and when writing Always Gardenia I wanted to emulate her wry humor (I know, hubris!). To start my writing sessions, I often chose passages from her books that I found amusing, sat down with a yellow legal pad and a pen, and copied them out long hand, hoping to catch the cadence of her prose and absorb whatever it is that makes her writing funny.
Dissecting the pleasure of humor is, I know, much like analyzing the pleasure of a kiss, but I was wondering this week if I could study one or more of Pym’s novels and come up with a list of what she does that makes me laugh. I decided to start with her posthumously published novel Crampton Hodnet, which I reread last December with many smiles, chuckles, and even LOL moments. Hazel Holt, Pym’s literary executor, says that “. . . everyone who has read the manuscript [of Crampton Hodnet] has laughed out loud — even in the Bodleian Library.”
1. Barbara Pym chooses amusing names for her characters.
One of the main characters in Crampton Hodnet is the imperious but laughable Miss Maude Doggett, a formidable 70-year-old woman whose “chief work in life was interfering in other people’s business and imposing her strong personality upon those who were weaker than herself.” Of course she would have a stolid name like “Doggett,” only a couple of consonants away from “dogged.” In the novel’s first scene, at a tea party in Miss Doggett’s home, we meet two awkward Oxford undergraduates, with the charming names of Mr. Cherry and Mr. Bompas. The middle-aged coed dormitory monitor is Miss Rideout. Two Oxford dons are Arthur Fenning and Lancelot Doge; other walk-on characters are a Miss Nollard and a Miss Foxe. And the young coed who catches the fancy of middle-aged don Francis Cleveland is Barbara Bird; his practical, homemaker wife has the sensible name of Margaret.
2. Pym’s characters make odd offhand remarks that they do not realize are funny, much as one hears people do in real life.
When the vicar suggests that the new curate might take up lodgings in Miss Doggett’s home, she says, “Of course I don’t pretend to be a young woman. . . I don’t think I could spend my time running up and down stairs with glasses of hot milk and poached eggs.”
Later, when discussing the vicar, Miss Doggett says, “Of course Mr. Wardell has none of that dignity one associates with the clergy. . . He looks more like a grocer, when I see him in church, I imagine he ought to be slicing bacon.”
(Pym then shares the musings of Miss Morrow: “Sometimes one could tell, or at least imagine, what people were thinking, but that Miss Doggett should imagine the vicar slicing bacon was something entirely unexpected.”)
NEXT WEEK: CHUCKLING AT THE FAMILIAR