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.
Rachel Ferguson is a well-known name to those who adore her The Brontes Went to Woolworths (1931, reviewed here, here, here, and here too), or who wept uncontrollably at her Alas, Poor Lady (1937, republished by Persephone Books here). But she’s utterly unknown to the rest of the world. She was a great friend of Angela Thirkell, and a consummate popper-up in unexpected literary places. Her choice of writing subjects were quizzical, offbeat, perverse, odd and whimsical, with tragedy compressed beneath a joyous writing style. I have a copy of her very odd play The Late Widow Twankey (1943) which is as strange and genre-defying as anything Aldous Huxley wrote. She revelled in writing parody: Celebrated Sequels (1934) is her collection of squibs and inspired creative nonsense in which she takes the work of different authors and goes one better.
These are highly entertaining exercises in literary ventriloquism, approached in different ways. In ‘The Flints of Tilling’, Ferguson used her conversation with E F Benson on what happened after Miss Mapp and Major Benjy got married to produce a tone-perfect copy of what Benson might have written himself, had he only found the time. In ‘The Provincial Lady Goes Too Far’, Ferguson wonders what the famous diary would have revealed if E M Delafield’s The Lady had had an affair. In ‘The Man Who Knew Main Street’ Ferguson proves she can do Sinclair Lewis just as well as she can do Arnold Bennett in ‘Grand Palace’. These are the straight hommages to notable authors, presumably because their style is so well-known it was a pleasure to copy it. The Bennett chapters contain some sly digs at the myth of Edward Henry Machin from Bennett’s The Card (reviewed here) that show that Ferguson isn’t quite the ladylike worshipper one might assume. When she tackles Kipling, she digs the needle in further, bringing his Indian stories up to date to reveal the impossibility of his Victorian Imperial attitudes in a modern setting. When she does Beverly Nichols in ‘Down the Crazy Pavement’, her mockery of this fey and self-absorbed non-gardening garden-lover is so apparent as to make one want to rush straight to his books to read the originals.
Which brings me to the point of Celebrated Sequels: what IS the point of writing brilliant wit in the style of another woman, or man? When Ferguson brings the March girls into the twentieth century in ‘Little Women Filmed’, will devotees of Louisa M Alcott, or of Little Women, enjoy it? (I didn’t.) Ferguson’s pastiche is not like The Toast’s Dirtbag Little Women, which relies on modern idiom juxtaposed with familiar and classic texts to make us screech with raucous laughter. She does the opposite (and does it with a random collection of Dickens characters too, in ‘Some Mutual Friends Return’), by plonking the Victorian into the 1930s and expecting the jokes to emerge from incongruity of dialogue and character in that setting. I don’t think that works so well.
Ferguson is really far better ventriloquising as an hommage, showing how well she knows the books and the style, rather than playing with somebody else’s toys. When she does H G Wells (‘Adolescence and Mr Kipps’), or Elizabeth Von Arnim (‘The Motor Caravaners’), these are very funny and very, very clever: this is a well-read reader at work. Even when the original work was completely unknown to me, I still got the joke. Her ‘Mrs Wiggs on the Green’ very satisfyingly rounded off a reference to Mrs Wiggs and the Cabbage Patch that I had read long go and never tracked to its source. But best of all, I am now entranced by the caricature of Alice and Egerton Castle (‘My Lady Kilcroney Founds a Firm’), about the birth of Fortnum and Mason told in the very highest eighteenth-century Heyerish style, and must read the original.
The Brontes Went To Woolworths is possibly her longest piece of literary ventriloquism, when she recreates Charlotte’s letters and a diary. If you liked that, you’ll definitely enjoy Celebrated Sequels.
Rachel Ferguson, Celebrated Sequels. A Book of Parodies (Jonathan Cape, 1934).
Kate blogs about books and monsters and literary marvels at katemacdonald.net