Gentle, absurd, socially-driven, Victorian-ish humour in fiction/memoir
March 14, 2019 10:11 AM   Subscribe

I really love the particular style of humour that writers like Gwen Raverat and L M Montgomery deploy in their work, and I'm looking for examples of stuff in a similar vein that I'm likely to enjoy.

I'm in the middle of Gwen Raverat's Period Piece at the moment and it's scratching a very specific itch, and one which I also associate with LMM.

Passages like the chapter in Anne of Ingleside at the sewing circle where one of Anne's children hears all manner of other people's secrets and the whole tone of Period Piece really do it for me (the Aunt Etty passage that concludes, "'I could SWALLOW the Pope of Rome, but what I can NOT swallow is the Celibacy of the Clergy'", had me howling). Vicars being disgraced and children having very strange beliefs about "adult" concepts and the way the world works.

I think it's the level of detail and absurdity around the social behaviour they describe and observe in other people, mixed with a touch of Victorian morality and often a religious angle. A lot of my enjoyment revolves around the fascinating social mores and beliefs of people who didn't have 24/7 access to Wikipedia on their phones (or, indeed, to many reliable sources of information about the world).

As an example of something that should have worked but didn't, Noel Streatfeild's A Vicarage Family felt like it ought to have hit this spot but it fell short - not funny enough and the structure felt too loose.

It's a fundamentally gentle style of humour, pointed and needling in places in its own way but always tremendously polite and usually good-natured. LMM in particular massively shaped my sense of humour and the absurd as a child, so I'm looking for things that make me feel similarly warm and comforted and amused, but ideally things I haven't already read. Strong preference for female authors.
posted by terretu to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (20 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Cold Comfort Farm perhaps?
posted by wellifyouinsist at 11:10 AM on March 14, 2019

I'm not familiar with either of those authors, but based on your description some things that seem to match include:

Cold Comfort Farm, by Stella Gibbons
Basically everything by Mark Twain (including his less well known stuff, like Innocents Abroad or Eve's Diary)
Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (less on the social angle, more on the gentle Victorian humor angle)
posted by phoenixy at 11:12 AM on March 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Catriona McPherson's Dandy Gilver books. "A hedonistic mix of historical fiction, black comedy and murder mystery" THE LADY"
posted by Carol Anne at 11:14 AM on March 14, 2019

Most of Georgette Heyer's Regency novels should work (I know, not Victorian, but they do have that gentle, observational humor you mention). I would start with Bath Tangle, The Grand Sophy or Venetia.
posted by peacheater at 11:27 AM on March 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

cold comfort farm is set in the late 1920s/early 1930s

the peterkin papers
posted by brujita at 12:04 PM on March 14, 2019

I enjoyed Heyer's Regency novels until I read The Grand Sophy. It contains one of the most odious stereotypes of an evil Jewish moneylender I have ever read. Had it been written during the Regency period it would pass as an historical artifact but this book was published in 1950 when the entire world should have known better. This fits with a couple of recent discussions about separating the art from the artist. In this case I don't know whether to separate this book from the rest of her oeuvre.
posted by Botanizer at 12:07 PM on March 14, 2019

I've enjoyed Alan Bradley's books. The heroine is only 11, but the post-war sensibility is somewhat Victorian and the humour is subtle. PG Wodehouse is not at all subtle, but very funny. My sister adores Barbara Pym. For more subtle Heyer, try The Quiet Gentleman, you will love Drusilla.
posted by Enid Lareg at 12:34 PM on March 14, 2019

Quick control-f for Diary of a Nobody -
okay, try it: Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith, serialised in Punch 1888-89, published as a book 1892. It relies a lot on aspirational embarrassment but it is actually quite sweet. Mr Pooter is a very silly man but all's well that ends well and the late Victorian sensibility and sense of absurdity is genuine. You should be able to find it on Gutenberg for free.
posted by glasseyes at 1:19 PM on March 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Marietta Holley, or Josiah Allen's Wife. She wrote all through the mid - late 1800s (I have nine of her books, all vintage) in a dry wit that I find funny. Perhaps this will be what you are looking for?
posted by annieb at 1:33 PM on March 14, 2019

I love this question! You might enjoy E.H. Young's novels. I think her work has a kindred sensibility to Montgomery's.
posted by prewar lemonade at 2:26 PM on March 14, 2019

Cranford is lovely.
posted by antiquated at 2:31 PM on March 14, 2019

From 1930, The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield, which is available on the Australian Project Gutenberg website: November 7th.—Plant the indoor bulbs. Just as I am in the middle of them, Lady Boxe calls. I say, untruthfully, how nice to see her, and beg her to sit down while I just finish the bulbs. Lady B. makes determined attempt to sit down in armchair where I have already placed two bulb-bowls and the bag of charcoal, is headed off just in time, and takes the sofa.

And yes, Three Men in a Boat.
posted by ALeaflikeStructure at 4:08 PM on March 14, 2019 [3 favorites]

MeTa about Georgette Heyer
posted by trig at 4:59 PM on March 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Maybe Connie Willis' To Say Nothing Of The Dog? Don't let the time traveling put you off, the book can be enjoyed by people who don't read sci fi.

I'm also going to recommend Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough's Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. Two sheltered recent college graduates on their grand tour of Europe during the 1920s.
posted by Constance Mirabella at 7:21 AM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Seconding To Say Nothing of the Dog, especially in concert with Jerome K Jerome's Three Men In A Boat—the two novels are inextricably linked and I think you'll like them both better if you read them both!
posted by branca at 7:40 AM on March 15, 2019

Seconding Diary of a Provincial Lady.

I also love Nancy Mitford's novels for this type of humor.
posted by Jess the Mess at 9:20 AM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Barbara Pym is lovely but definitely not Victorian nor does she mine charming childlike misapprehensions for comedy. While Cold Comfort Farm was written in the '20s (but confusingly set in the future, which isn't obviously apparent but for a few oddities), the family at the farm provide the charming childlike comedy.
posted by dotparker at 9:22 AM on March 15, 2019

The History of Mr. Polly, by H.G. Wells.
posted by VelveteenBabbitt at 10:04 AM on March 15, 2019

If you read To Say Nothing of the Dog and want to read more Willis, you might like Bellwether. It's set in modern times (or modern times when it was written) but it's funny and sweet. I do not recommend Willis' other time travel books - not because they're bad but because they fall on the opposite end of the spectrum of what you're looking for.
posted by Constance Mirabella at 5:28 PM on March 15, 2019 [1 favorite]

Here I am again recommending Joan Aiken, who was alive in the 20th c but wrote in a kind of early 19th century mode, especially in her books for children. Look at your local library, many of the books for adults are no longer in print. She did a couple of “sequels” to Austen novels and one I really loved about twins who were separated from each other which I can’t pinpoint (am on my phone, sorry.)
posted by Lawn Beaver at 7:46 PM on March 16, 2019

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