Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The wonder of molesworth

molesworthFancy a grown man saying hujus hujus hujus as if he were proud of it it is not english and do not make SENSE.

This is going to be a short and sweet review because, to be frank, I could certainly spend a thousand words – far more – telling you about the denizens of st. custard’s. However, there is little point in my doing that when the best thing by far about the molesworth books is getting to know them all via the narrator, viz one nigel molesworth, skoolboy and philosopher.

nigel is quite something.  The people at TIME magazine – who allege, although I have yet to see it myself, that the problem with molesworth is “whimsy, which has long been the curse of British humour” (to which I sa chiz chiz chiz) – call him “a sort of cross between Tom Brown and a wombat”.  Maybe the people at TIME magazine thought that was witty.  Who knows.

I don’t think I could come up with a pithy qualifier for molesworth, because he is far too complex a beast to be the easy victim of someone else’s facile one liner.  He is at once universally recognisable and incredibly distinctive.  Like most of us, his true passions (warfare, adventure films, unhealthy food, the invention of terrible instruments of revenge) are constantly thwarted by the things people insist on imposing upon him (latin verbs, maths, caesar, foopball, dancing, skool sossidges and the KANE).  His spelling is atrocious, his self-representation is that of an unrepentant thug, but his talent for observation and for parody is outstanding.  I don’t agree with Thomas Jones, who claimed – rather grumpily – in the LRB that Molesworth is only really funny to people who read him at school, and went on to suggest heftily and with a great deal of distaste that enjoying the whole thing is essentially a sign of being a posh type who knows about gerunds.  I’m not sure what nigel ever did to merit the series of scathing putdowns in that particular review, although I quietly suspect the real target was molesworthophile Philip Hensher.  At any rate, I do not agree in the least that the world seen through the eyes of molesworth is “terribly cosy”.  I think it’s actually rather scary.  But that might be because I never grew out of my own molesworth phase: I’m still regularly baffled by the people around me – particularly the grownups –  even though it has been over ten years since I left my own skool.

But then, I don’t go to molesworth for a reaffirmation of my political perspectives in the first place; and why would I?  The setting may be English, the class more or less upper, and the skool private, but I don’t think the humour is defined by any of that.  Even in an age when the kane is a long gone horror, the rusians are no longer rotters (or not for the same reason), most of us don’t have Latin and students are generally spared from learning wet and weedy pomes like THE BROOK, there’s something about molesworth’s narration which remains deeply funny.  Perhaps it is because I, at least, know the feeling of being well and truly disgruntled; and I wish I could express it half as eloquently as he does.

The Compleet Molesworth is published by Pavilion Books, ISBN: 1851450017

9 comments on “The wonder of molesworth

  1. Hilary
    October 2, 2009

    Ah, Kirsty, how well you summed up the pleasures of nigel molesworth. You’ve also managed in a few elegant words, to convey what took me many more defensive ones, the case for enjoying a book that has absolutely no connection with any aspect of my life. It’s funny; it’s hilarious; it’s slightly surreal; it’s got bad spelling and grammar; it’s deeply silly. It’s a perfect, joyous treat. What else do you need to know?

    I couldn’t agree more with you, or less with Time about molesworth and whimsy, lack of. However, the US is a tough nut to crack, and seems to see whimsy everywhere. Reading that splendid vintage review (thumbs up to Time for putting their archive online), my thoughts flew to Dorothy Parker on Winnie The Pooh: ‘Tonstant Weader thwowed up’. Hmmm – might be a bit stronger case there ….

  2. Jackie
    October 2, 2009

    What a weird statement for TIME magazine to make. Obviously someone with no sense of humor. I read these books as an American adult, even farther removed than Hilary(who at least was in the UK) & still got a great deal of enjoyment out of them. I was constantly breaking into giggles from the observations, the misspellings & the whole style of the books. They aren’t something to be taken seriously, they are simply fun. Anyone who can’t see that is just a fuddy-duddy.

  3. Mary
    October 2, 2009

    Love it, Kirsty! I found his vision of the world quite scary too.

  4. Peta
    October 3, 2009

    My battered copy of The Compleet Molesworth has been read so many times that it’s falling apart. I did first “discover” the books whilst I was at school but it certainly was not an educational experience in any way similar to his so the appeal was not familiarity. I still remember the surprise (possibly fury…) my parents expressed one birthday when I sent out my own version of The Molesworth Self-Adjusting Thank You Letter” and the character of Fotherington-Tomas (he is utterly wet and a sissy) is one of my favourites.

    I think I might have to dig it out for a browse…

  5. brideofthebookgod
    October 3, 2009

    I have always loved Molesworth, and totally agree with Peta about Fotherington-Tomas; hullo birds, hullo sky is a phrase I still use a lot, along with as any fule know – get a lot of bewildered looks though….

  6. Clare
    October 3, 2009

    TIME magazine – I diskard it!

  7. Hilary
    October 3, 2009

    Oh yes! Fotherington-Thomas-isms – how they litter my conversation too! A particular favourite is ‘I forgive you, molesworth [or whomever], for those uncouth words.’

    And that indispensable verb ‘I diskard …’ – impossible to function without it.

    I was touched to find out from that epically grumpy LRB review that Geoffrey Willans died young in 1957. It made me feel a little guilty that I’d never sought out information about him.

  8. Moira
    October 4, 2009

    A couple of years ago, I started a newsletter with the immortal words “As any fule kno” … but it never made it past the proof-reading stage because the consensus was that the massed ranks of the newsletter readers (who number about 3,000) wouldn’t recognize the reference and would simply think I’d finally taken leave of my senses …

    Ho hum.

    Or even chiz.

  9. sharonrob
    October 5, 2009

    Thanks for the lovely review Kirsty. I discovered Molesworth when I was at boarding school in the 1970s and immediately recognised a kindred spirit. As you say, there is nothing cosy about his world; it is full of swots, sneks, bulies, masters and the kane. Ronald Searle’s drawings add a lot of humour but they are also full of fear and violence. Nigel’s world is not for wets and weeds.

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This entry was posted on October 2, 2009 by in Entries by Kirsty, Fiction: humour.

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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