Invisible Ink: No 147 - Thomas Guthrie

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The Independent Culture

Pity the comic writer; loved by the public but forever dismissed by critics, never taken seriously, rarely regarded as important.

Such was the lot of the English novelist and journalist Thomas Anstey Guthrie, the son of a military tailor, born in Kensington, London, in 1856. He gave up the legal profession to write, adopting the pseudonym F Anstey after a printing error favoured his middle name. Although he was determined to be a serious writer, the public insisted on regarding him as a humourist. His novel The Giant's Robe concerned a plagiarist – ironically something of which he was himself accused – but it was as a master parodist and satirist that he went to work for Punch magazine, becoming a mainstay there for many years.

Guthrie's greatest ability was to portray the fantastic in everyday terms. As a result, his comic novels bore the test of time and have worn well. The first, Vice Versa, concerns a magic stone brought back from India that allows a father and son to switch bodies, granting them a better understanding of each other. The book has been filmed at least five times and many other variations, such as Big, Freaky Friday and 18 Again! copied the original, not always acknowledging Guthrie.

Many of his works contain fanciful elements that gently poke fun at modern (that is, Victorian) life. To my mind, the best of these is The Brass Bottle, in which untried architect Horace Ventimore runs an errand for his girlfriend's father and ends up purchasing an old bottle at an auction. Upon uncorking it, he encounters a grateful old genie who grants him wishes, each of which places him in a disastrous situation. The author delights in poking fun at the Victorian middle classes; they complain about the horrible taste of the exotic banquets created by the genie, they worry about the cost of having a dazzling Arabic palace replace their dark terraced house, they fret about what the neighbours will think when a golden chariot turns up in the street, and, after the genie suggests that Horace should ditch his priggish fiancée for an alluring Arabic princess, it's hard not to agree. When Horace's future father-in-law is transformed into a one-eyed mule, the family seem more concerned about the damaged furniture.

Many film versions followed, the most famous featuring Barbara Eden, who parlayed the role into the TV series I Dream of Jeannie.