Coming to the end of a really good book can pitch you into a slough of despond. This happened to me again recently when I finished The Pickwick Papers for the umpteenth time. Even though I know the novel well, I still have a sense of loss on reaching the final page.
Left wanting more Victorian sparkiness, I wondered where next to turn. The Pickwick Papers is unique in its pace and optimism – G. K. Chesterton said it was ‘something nobler than a novel’, carrying ‘that sense of everlasting youth – a sense of the gods gone wandering in England’. Superb though Dickens’s later works are, there is in them that encroachment of increasing gloom and disenchantment that is almost entirely absent from Pickwick.
So who, then? Trollope? Not really a thigh-slapper. Thackeray? Possibly. A dose of Becky Sharp or Pendennis might well do the trick. But then I have it: Cuthbert Bede. Well, the Reverend Edward Bradley writing as Cuthbert Bede. I first happened across him while mining the rewarding and delightfully chaotic depths of a West Country bookshop. He has been out of fashion for a considerable time, always a recommendation as far as I’m concerned, but I think his series beginning with The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green deserves to be regarded as a mid-Victorian comedy classic.
In a space barely two feet wide between packed shelves, I managed to prise out a dusty 1855 sixth edition. I opened it and discovered a whole new pleasure. At the beginning of Chapter 1, ‘Cuthbert Bede MA’ suggests his readers consult ‘the unpublished volume of Burke’s Landed Gentry’ to learn a little about the Green family. There follows a long list of mishaps, including various forms of financial ruin and the death of a Green blown up in his laboratory ‘when just on the point of discovering the elixir of life’.
We quickly deduce that despite having a documented lineage stretching back to 1096,
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