You read a book, laugh a lot, recommend it to your friends. Some laugh, others don’t. Why is a sense of humour so individual and at the same time so culturally specific? We are mostly moved to the same emotional responses by tragedy, but we don’t laugh at the same things and I’ve always wondered why. There are many kinds of humour and life would be intolerable without it, but as society changes, so humour changes too. We still weep at old Greek tragedies – but laugh at old Greek comedies? Not so much.
So it’s a rare treat to find comic books written a while ago that still work. In the 1940s two wonderful writers called Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon collaborated on two such novels. Their aim was to make people laugh when there was nothing much to laugh at, and if ever those kinds of books were needed, it’s now. The two had written successful comic detective stories like Bullet in the Ballet before the war, but Don’t, Mr Disraeli! (1940) and No Bed for Bacon (1941) were their first highly unreliable rearrangements of British history. They were very funny then and are very funny now, at least I think so.
I inherited my 1963 copy of Don’t, Mr Disraeli! from my father. It’s a retelling of Romeo and Juliet transferred to a glorious Victorian age that never existed, though one wishes it had. It is totally inconsequential: I can’t even begin to explain the plot, not that it matters. The basis is the feud between the middle-class Clutterwick and Shuttleforth families, and what happens when Julian Clutterwick (who looks just like John Gielgud) and Julia Shuttleforth (‘I’d forget him more easily if he didn’t look so like John Gielgud’) fall in love and want to marry.
That’s just the start. Threads of other stories criss-cross, peopled by credulous uncles, ferocious aunts, observant crossing sweepers, armies of loyal servants, a scheming French governess and all sorts of running gags that
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