Barry Pain and the old “new humour”

When I’m interested in something, I always try to find out everything about that thing. When I first realised I liked P.G. Wodehouse, in my early teens, I sought out everything he wrote. And when I had practically exhausted that, I tried to find out about the writers who had inspired him. That’s one of the reasons I started reading the works of W.S. Gilbert. It’s also why I read some of the works of other late Victorian and early 20th century humorists, especially F. Anstey and Barry Pain.

Barry Pain, from a photograph in the 1930 collection of his Humorous Stories.

I don’t have most of those old books any more, barring Anstey’s masterpiece the body-swapping comedy Vice Versa, and a thick volume of Barry Pain’s Humorous Stories. I was thinking recently about the things Wodehouse learned from that generation of humorous writers, proponents (along with Jerome K. Jerome) of what was known in the 1890s as the New Humour.

I think the main thing Wodehouse got from them is the importance of tone of voice. He read F. Anstey’s Baboo Jabberjee B.A., which, if you have read your Richard Usborne, you will know as a source for Psmith’s baroque way with language. The book is a mocking depiction of an Indian student with a vocabulary that is larger than his understanding of it, and I do not recommend it.

N.T.P. Murphy has elsewhere mentioned Barry Pain’s Confessions of Alphonse as a source for Wodehouse’s French chef with the approximate command of English, Anatole: “My friends, listen. Make attention a little. I am a man that knows on which side is the buttered toast.”

The point of these stories is not so much the funny incidents that are related as the voice in which they are told. It’s pure ventriloquism: imagining yourself into a completely other person and speaking in that other’s voice. Usually there’s a good deal of mockery in the impersonation (other races, other classes), but there’s usually sympathy too – as is inevitable if you spend any length of time looking from another’s point of view.

Looking through this book of Barry Pain’s humour again after so many years, I notice Mrs Murphy, stories told by a cleaning lady; Edwards, the stories of a jobbing gardener; The Diary of a Baby, which speaks for itself; and Tamplin’s Tales of his Family, which are not as near to the Mr Mulliner stories as you might expect, but have a Wodehouse tinge to them nonetheless. The Edwards stories, which tell of his tricks to keep one-up on his employers, have a certain kinship with the Jeeves stories, especially the early ones.

This ventriloquism comes through strongest in Wodehouse in, of course, the Jeeves stories through the narration of Bertie Wooster. Wodehouse immerses himself completely in this naive, silly, credulous and charming persona; you can never feel him breaking character. It is a truly amazing feat over so many stories and novels.

Barry Pain is hardly known today at all, but if one had to name any of his works that are known at all today one would have to mention his Eliza stories, which were republished in the 1980s by Black Swan, with an Introduction by Terry Jones. They were even adapted for TV in 1992, starring the late lamented John Sessions and Sue Roderick.

The Eliza stories: a TV tie-in edition for the BBC2 series starring John Sessions

It’s many years since I last read these, but I remember gently humorous tales told by a stuffy husband of family life, in which he is always in the wrong and his wife is always right, though he never notices it.

(There’s an odd kind of kinship between a lot of Pain’s works, which are really humorous monologues in written form, and comedy shows of the 1990s like Harry Enfield and The Fast Show. Edwards could be a Fast Show character.)

I have no grand conclusion to all this. Barry Pain died in 1928 at the age of 63. From photographs and portraits, he seems to have been a rather serious man; he also wrote creepy tales of the supernatural and other “serious” works. He wrote something called Graeme and Cyril which Wodehouse said was a big influence on his school stories. Maybe I need to hunt that down.

But sometimes, it’s enough to draw attention to a person’s memory, I think.

A portrait of Barry Pain by Rudolf Lehmann, reproduced in The Sketch, 1 Sept 1897.

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1 Comment

  1. Nothing to add on Pain, I’m afraid. I’m unfamiliar with his work, although like you I know Wodehouse was. One thing I’d like to suggest is that Bertie Wooster is PGW’s alter ego. I’m not the first to say this but I’ve been drawn more and more to that conclusion as a way of reconciling Bertie’s character (as a chump, to use his word) with his obvious talent for telling stories and his time as a student at Oxford. PGW never granted him a degree but he must have learned something there. Compare Bertie with PGW’s view of himself as given in various interviews, essays, letters etc. By far the only thing he takes seriously about himself is his ability to write funny stories. He otherwise presents himself as something of an uneducated fool.

    Liked by 1 person

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