Invisible Ink: No 146 - Barry Pain

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The Independent Culture

We tend to think of the late Victorians as a patrician, humourless lot, but a sprightly sense of fun emerges from some, and this is best exemplified by Pain's comic stories. Born and educated in Cambridge, this son of a linen draper emerged into a world where everyone was sure of their place. Adept at parody, verse and light humour, Pain became a journalist and contributor to Punch magazine. His first novels are hard to find, or even read about, and sound dull, with titles such as In a Canadian Canoe, and Graeme and Cyril.

But then came the Eliza stories, and fame. The first were published in 1900 and sold on station bookstalls, achieving huge success. Keith Waterhouse accurately described the stories as the missing link between Diary of a Nobody and The Diary of a Provincial Lady. Eliza and her unnamed husband live sedate suburban lives, planning dinners and holidays, dealing with neighbours, servants and office politics – and bickering. It's the arguments that make the books so funny, for Eliza's husband is infuriatingly pompous, priggish and exact in everything, and therefore in constant need of having his wrong-headed commands undone by his wife. He's a brilliant comic creation and follows in a long line of annoying little British men which eventually leads to Basil Fawlty. Eliza acts as his foil and exudes the patience of a saint. The fifth volume introduces Eliza's son– the model of his father – and, in him, the father's fussiness has turned into something altogether darker and less pleasant.

Perhaps that's because Pain himself had another side; he wrote a large body of horror stories. "The Undying Thing" was admired by HP Lovecraft, and Robert Louis Stevenson compared him to Guy de Maupassant. His novel The Octave of Claudius became a silent chiller called A Blind Bargain, starring Lon Chaney in a dual role as a mad doctor and his hunchback servant. In it, the doctor strikes bargains with living specimens to use them for experimentation. The film is now sadly lost. In "Not On The Passenger List", a wife is tormented by her dead husband on a ship. The switch between amusing household vignettes and tales of devil-worship, monsters and witchcraft didn't damage his readership; Pain remained popular for years and, after eventually fading into obscurity, was revived on radio as recently as 2002. The Eliza stories are timeless and still very funny.