We’ve had some odd day-jobs for authors in this column, but I don’t think we’ve ever had a novel from a caterpillar before
Richard Haydn was a character actor who voiced that hookah-puffing larval member of the Lepidoptera family in Disney’s 1951 version of Alice In Wonderland. He also appeared in The Twilight Zone, The Man From UNCLE, Mutiny On The Bounty, The Sound Of Music, and Young Frankenstein, specialising in slightly twittish academics. And he was an author who ended up playing the character he created.
There’s an odd strain of comic novels for which the English once had a penchant; stories of ordinary lives narrated by pompous self-deluding men, the most obvious example of which is Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith. It has never been out of print, and gave us the word Pooterish, meaning self-important, mundane, narrow-minded, inhibited. Similarly, the Eliza stories by Barry Pain concern the intelligent, long-suffering wife of a pretentious bore. These male characteristics could later be discerned in more modern comedy icons, from Basil Fawlty to Victor Meldrew.
Haydn’s 1954 novel, The Journal of Edwin Carp, purports to be a diary gifted by the widowed Mrs Maude Phelps, whom Edwin has delayed marrying for nine years. Our hero, between bouts of “intestinal distress”, records his daily household trials in all their mind-numbing banality, from his lack of musical ability and repeated failure to spot the blindingly obvious, to his battles with truculent paying guests, his housekeeper, his deaf mother, and his annoying stepson. Geoffrey Willans mined similar territory with My Uncle Harry in 1957; Harry is a British clubman, an ever-dissatisfied fusspot who annoys more than he amuses, and both books sported illustrations by Ronald Searle, who also managed to pop Nigel Molesworth into Edwin Carp’s life.
In all honesty, Carp’s diary isn’t convulsively funny, but it intrigues by conjuring a world now lost from view, where Sundays were only fit for a walk in the park, entertainment was created at home, and being made late for breakfast was an event that warranted a diary entry. Carp will quote Othello, and in the same breath worry about repairing a drainpipe. His concerns are the same as ours. He frets about being unfit, or over-indulging, or upsetting his relatives. He’s vain, procrastinates, humiliates himself, and gets into a lather over absurdities. In short, he’s an Englishman. And he’s finally back in print.