I have been the recipient of a whole range of surprises this week, thanks to the Forum Cinema in sunny Hexham (sunny enough to see and enjoy the eclipse on Friday). The streaming of the Royal Ballet’s Swan Lake from Covent Garden undermined my life-long belief that I do not like ballet. Romeo and Juliet eat your heart out. With the starring roles danced – and, goodness me, acted – by look-alikes for Rafael Nadal and a particularly dangerous pussy-cat, and a production that made it riotously clear that the Prince’s Mama had good cause to worry that her son was not the marrying type (Dr Freud please note: this is a boy who rejects a bevy of princesses and runs off with a swan – a swan with issues at that), I have capitulated and am now prepared to sign up for Balletomanes Weekly. Heavens, I’m even going to go and see La Fille Mal Gardée. Second surprise was that The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is highly enjoyable. I particularly liked the moment when the only woman in the audience – possibly the only woman on the planet – who did not know that the cast included Richard Gere squeaked and almost fell off her chair with excitement when he entered Stage Left (on screen, sadly, although, Mr Gere, should you be reading this – and why wouldn’t you? – I think we can guarantee you a warm welcome in the North Tyne valleys). And my third surprise came hot on his heels. Reader, in all the wall-to-wall publicity for the film, had you seen any mention that Tamsin Greig is in it? Thought not. Don’t get me wrong: I bow to no-one in my appreciation of the comic timing and anarchic charivari conjured up by the incomparable Judi Dench, Penelope Wilton (has her Damehood been lost in the post?) and Celia Imrie. But Tamsin Greig has been quietly and flawlessly turning out wonderful performances on stage, screen and radio for a long, long time, and it seems a bit churlish of the producers to discount her as an asset.
The problem may well be that she is funny. Go on, name me ten female comedians. It’s getting a little easier since the BBC suddenly looked at itself, was ashamed of what it saw and started to make a tiny little bit of effort to include one or two women in their myriad comedy line-ups, but it’s still right up there with listing Ten Famous Belgians. And – misogynists please realise – this is not because of lack of talent. It is, I think, because of lack of audience power. So much comedy is geared towards a Y chromosome. Now, I do grasp the basic principle of syllogism, but an awful lot of my female friends and I do not fall about laughing at slapstick. Or vicious sexual degrading of women. Or Top Gear.
So can we find solace, and laughter, in books? Well, of course we can. No bookshelf set up to honour Thalia, the comic Muse, can consider itself complete that lacks the Complete Works of Dorothy Parker. The crowning glory of the Algonquin Round Table, Miss Parker stripped the skin off New York with her devastating wit. Like all the best clowns, her humour was always undercut with tragedy. Try her poem, ‘One Perfect Rose’ (one in the eye for Robert Burns). Time has reduced her reputation to little more than a handful of wisecracks and one-liners – yes, it was Parker who, on being told of the death of President Coolidge, replied, ‘How can they tell?’ – but there is so much more to her than that. Playwright, short-story writer, essayist and satirist, friend of Benchley and Wodehouse, if you happen not to have read her, what a treat you have in store.
Quieter, gentler, but surgically precise, the very English novels of Barbara Pym should also have you laughing out loud at times, and, more frequently, smiling with a wry bitter-sweet sense of recognition. Pym is the twentieth-century genius of the comedy of social observation, the heir to Jane Austen and the mistress of delicately exposing and balancing the wafer-thin line between comedy and tragedy. She burrowed into a world of church appointments and church-going that allies her to Trollope, and she is at least as good. Try Excellent Women as a starting-place. And next to Pym on our shelf this week we can have EM Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady. She was a fairly prolific novelist, but is far and away best-remembered for the hugely autobiographical Diaries, which began in the 1930s (as a serial for the journal Time and Tide of which she was a director). By turns ingenuous, candid and exasperated, the Diary and its sequels exactly capture the voice of their narrator as she tells us all that is going on in her life. When I tell you that the BBC dramatized it for radio with Imelda Staunton as our heroine, you will immediately recognise just the sort of woman Delafield creates: trying to do the best she can, keeping that upper lip as stiff as possible and revealing, without saying, the gulf between good manners and warm intimacy.
Interesting, isn’t it, the ocean-wide gap between that hard-nosed, brash-sounding American metropolitanism and the quieter domestic focus of the English comic novelists? The British seem always to have found their aptest settings in villages and the countryside. I speak, admittedly, as one who finds Wuthering Heights falling-about funny, but the pièce de résistance of the rural setting has to be Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm. How disappointing it is to discover that neither of her two sequels, Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm (a short story) and Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, are a patch on the original. Gibbons’ genius was not only to parody the purple prose of Mary Webb’s Precious Bane and others of her ilk – and, frankly, Thomas Hardy has much to answer for here – but to nail the sentiment that inspired such works. Hardy, Webb et al were not the authentic voices of the English countryside at all: they were the voices of the comfortable middle classes sitting by the fireside with all the comforts of urban or suburban life, and they wove a sentimental picture of the honesty of toil and being at one with nature quite untrammelled by the dirty, cold, perpetually damp and squalidly impoverished reality. And, rather than rail at them with an earnest diatribe laden with statistics and appealing to our (often vanishingly flimsy) consciences about our responsibility to improve the lives of others, Gibbons harnessed her comic genius to debunk and ridicule the pompous fantasists who wanted to put a stop to improvements and developments. Forget Tess of the D’Urbervilles trailing through the long grasses and living the pure and simple life. Women, rise up and fight for better bathrooms and education for all! Now that’s worth smiling about.