Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
English literature has a rich tradition of comic writing. From Chaucer’s ‘Miller’s Tale’ to Shakespeare’s Falstaff to the early comic novels of Smollett, Sterne, Fielding, and Swift, there are plenty of laughs to be had from the pages of the literary greats. But what will raise a chuckle among 21st-century readers? In this post, we introduce who we think are ten of the greatest and most laugh-out-loud humorous writers in the English language …
1. Charles Dickens.
As John Carey points out right at the beginning of his landmark study of the author, AMAZON, Dickens was essentially a comic writer. And we should remember this fact, first and foremost, before we turn to his work highlighting the plight of the poor, or his flair for dramatic plot. Dickens’s imagination was naturally comic, and he had a talent for spotting people’s foibles, tics, habits, and mannerisms, and making larger-than-life characters out of them.
Whether it’s Mr Grimwig’s insistence that he’ll eat his own head in Oliver Twist, Sam Weller’s various macabre analogies in The Pickwick Papers, Daniel Quilp’s evil scheming in The Old Curiosity Shop, or even a relatively minor character from a lesser novel like Major Joe Bagstock from Dombey and Son, Dickens’s fiction is bursting with memorable comic characters which throw into relief the relatively conventional heroes and heroines of his books.
Recommended book: The Pickwick Papers: The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (Penguin Classics), Dickens’s first novel, and his purest in terms of comic energy and invention.
2. Oscar Wilde.
Wilde (1854-1900) is one of the most celebrated wits in the English language – some of his real-life utterances, though sometimes of dubious authenticity, have entered into the public consciousness, such as his response upon being asked if he had anything to declare after he arrived at customs in America. But Wilde wrote as wittily as he spoke, and his plays are the best place to observe his sparkling talent with paradox and aphorism.
3. George and Weedon Grossmith.
April 27.—Painted the bath red, and was delighted with the result. Sorry to say Carrie was not, in fact we had a few words about it. She said I ought to have consulted her, and she had never heard of such a thing as a bath being painted red. I replied: ‘It’s merely a matter of taste.’
The progenitor of every humorous fictional diary written since, The Diary of a Nobody (1892) was written by the brothers George and Weedon Grossmith, with the latter providing the comical illustrations to accompany their very funny account of the ordinary goings-on in the life of Charles Pooter, a London clerk.
Recommended book: The Diary of a Nobody (Penguin Classics)
No one would have eaten Filboid Studge as a pleasure, but the grim austerity of its advertisement drove housewives in shoals to the grocers’ shops to clamour for an immediate supply. In small kitchens solemn pig-tailed daughters helped depressed mothers to perform the primitive ritual of its preparation. On the breakfast-tables of cheerless parlours it was partaken of in silence. Once the womenfolk discovered that it was thoroughly unpalatable, their zeal in forcing it on their households knew no bounds.
In many ways, Saki, born Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), might be regarded as the missing link in English comic writing between Oscar Wilde and P. G. Wodehouse. He is perhaps the wittiest prose writer in the language: his language carries more of an acidic edge than Wodehouse’s, and he has a wonderful turn of phrase. His stories – many of them only 3-4 pages long – are short enough to be read in a few minutes, and take in everything from strange youths who dwell in the woods to talking cats and much else besides. If Saki is a gap in your literary reading to date, we strongly recommended rectifying that by picking up a collection of his short stories.
Recommended book: The Collected Short Stories of Saki (Wordsworth Classics). Contains all of his essential short fiction, all at a very affordable price.
5. P. G. Wodehouse.
Wodehouse (1881-1975) is widely regarded as the greatest writer of comic prose Britain has ever produced, with devotees including Stephen Fry, Christopher Hitchens, and Douglas Adams, among many others. He was hugely prolific during a career that spanned over seventy years, with creations including Psmith, the Blandings household, and the members of a golf club whose exploits featured in a number of stories and books.
But his most famous creation, without doubt, is his affable upper-class twit, Bertie Wooster, and his sagacious valet Jeeves (first name Reginald, though this isn’t mentioned much). With this double act, Wodehouse brought into being one of the most popular comic characters in twentieth-century fiction. The real charm of Wodehouse is his prose style, and nowhere is he better than when he is ventriloquising for Bertie Wooster, whose surprising and vivid metaphors and similes – like Raymond Chandler’s – are brilliantly quotable and memorable.
Recommended book: The Code of the Woosters: (Jeeves & Wooster)
6. E. M. Delafield.
Do I know, she asks, how very late it is for indoor bulbs? September, really, or even October, is the time. Do I know that the only really reliable firm for hyacinths is Somebody of Haarlem? Cannot catch the name of the firm, which is Dutch, but reply Yes, I do know, but think it my duty to buy Empire products. Feel at the time, and still think, that this is an excellent reply. Unfortunately Vicky comes into the drawing-room later and says: ‘O Mummie, are those the bulbs we got at Woolworths?’
Edmée Elizabeth Monica Dashwood, née de la Pasture (1890-1943), or E. M. Delafield as she is better known, is best-remembered for her Diary of a Provincial Lady, a journal of the life of an upper-middle class Englishwoman living in rural Devon in the 1930s. Delafield’s Diary is perhaps best described as semi-autobiographical.
Although our (semi-fictional) diarist is well-to-do herself, her friends include the extremely snobby Lady Boxe (who is not upper-middle but firmly upper-class), a type of ‘friend’ whom we can instantly recognise, and the specific details Delafield drops into her diary entries – such as the unfortunate Woolworths interjection from the daughter quoted above – make Delafield the forerunner to later masters of comic writing, such as Sue Townsend and even, perhaps, Victoria Wood. Although she occupies the other end of the British class system from those who writers, Delafield imbues her work with qualities which make her world immediately recognisable to us.
The book started life as a series of comic pieces in a magazine, Time and Tide, before becoming a full-blown book.
7. Tom Sharpe.
Sharpe (1928-2013) was the heir to P. G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh (who almost made this list and would have done if we’d extended it to 11 writers). His series of Wilt novels are well worth reading too, but it’s his hilarious satire on life within the cloisters of Cambridge University, Porterhouse Blue (1974), that earns him his place on this list. One critic described Sharpe as ‘P. G. Wodehouse on acid’: an endorsement which makes him worth reading by itself.
Recommended book: Porterhouse Blue: (Porterhouse Blue Series 1).
8. Douglas Adams.
Douglas Adams (1952-2001) did for science fiction what Terry Pratchett (below) did for fantasy: he poked fun at the genre, but in doing so, poked fun at us, too. His ‘trilogy in four parts’ (later it became five), The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, began life as a radio series for the BBC (his initial collaborator on the show was none other than John Lloyd, who went on to produce Blackadder and Spitting Image, and to create QI), but the novels which followed have become part of the canon of comic literature. The novels follow the Englishman Arthur Dent on his adventures after the Earth is destroyed by the Vogons, purveyors of awful poetry, to make way for a new bypass. Dent is rescued from the doomed Earth by the alien, Ford Prefect, who is busy researching the guidebook which gives the first novel – and the series as a whole – its title.
9. Sue Townsend.
Townsend comes between E. M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, but unlike them, she writes brilliantly in the ‘voice’ of a teenage (and, in time, adult) male rather than a woman. A poverty-stricken single parent in Leicester in her twenties and thirties, she came up with ‘Nigel Mole’ – whose first name was eventually changed to Adrian because the original name was deemed too close to another fictional character, Ronald Searle’s Nigel Molesworth – and her greatest comic creation was born. In The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾ (1982), she introduces us to her adolescent wannabe poet living in the English midlands, and in doing so, a new classic fictional diarist was born.
Recommended book: The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ (The Originals)
10. Terry Pratchett.
The master of comic fantasy, Pratchett (1948-2015) began a long and prolific career as a fantasy author with The Carpet People (1971), which first appeared when he was still in his early twenties. It was, as the title suggests, about a race of tiny people who leave deep within the carpet. However, it was his Discworld series, beginning with The Colour of Magic in 1983, that really made him popular. Perhaps nobody since Jonathan Swift had used fantasy so brilliantly for satirical and humorous purposes. In Discworld we encounter cowardly wizards, small and deluded barbarians in bad sandals, badly behaved witches, and – perhaps Pratchett’s greatest character – Death, who only speaks in capitals.
Recommended book: Wyrd Sisters: (Discworld Novel 6) (Discworld Novels)