This set out to be a book post in celebration of World Book Day, in which I talked about the unexpected pleasures of A. P. Herbert's The Water Gypsies
(1930). In the process of writing it, though, I realised that I had complately misjudged what kind of book it is. Not for the first time, I had been derailed by my blind spot for comedy.
That isn't as bad as it sounds. At least, I hope it isn't, but I am not impartial in this matter. I'm not claiming to have no sense of humour, but I can see that others might disagree. I enjoy humour, but I want it to make sense. It's not unknown for me to be left going "Yes, but - ", while others protest "It was a joke!", as if this explained everything. Apparently the opposite is also true, and I can read a novel for the narrative, without spotting that there is humour not only in the author's voice and the big set-piece descriptions, but also in the logic of the narrative itself.
That's what happened with The Water Gypsies
, and there's really no excuse for it. I was so busy enjoying a reading that was completely unspoilered, where I knew nothing about the plot, that I told myself I knew nothing about what kind of book it was: which is to say, I decided to overlook everything I knew about A. P. Herbert
. I knew Herbert mainly from his Misleading Cases
, rather than as a novelist, but I knew perfectly well, if I'd only stopped to think about it, that what he does is tell you a story which is funny because it is almost - almost - believable. In the Misleading Cases
he does this to make points about the law; likewise in Holy Deadlock
, which I'm pretty sure I've read but don't remember, he is campaigning to reform the law on divorce. The Water Gypsies
, despite the odd passing swipe at the licensing laws, seems more interested in the characters and their lives for their own sakes, and this fooled me into missing that it is, as Wikipedia points out, "a romantic comedy novel" (sufficiently so that it was filmed as a quota quickie, and also made into a stage musical).
Jane and Lily live with their widowed father on an old sailing barge on the Thames. Jane works as a maid in one of the houses overlooking the river; Lily is, at the start of the novel, about to start work as a milliner; father is employed as a musicial at the cinema. Jane has two gentleman friends, Fred, who works with his parents on a barge, up and down the canals, and Ernest, who is a Socialist and works at Down Street Station (a small coincidence
which pleased me immensely). Fred and Ernest do not know about each other, or about Jane's interest in Mr Bryan, who is an artist and has been staying with his friends and her employers. When I summarise this information, I don't know why it wasn't obvious to me that the whole thing is a joke, not to be taken seriously, and that the author's refusal to judge his characters is based to a large extent on the fact that it doesn't matter, that this is a book in which these things will not be taken seriously.
To be fair - whether to A.P. Herbert or to myself - the humour is not unkind. It is possible to sympathise with the characters even as we laugh at them. Even Ernest, who is the least attractive person in the story, and whose socialism makes him very tedious company, is at his best when he is addressing a meeting, which he does with genuine passion and eloquence. His socialism is no more absurd than the artistic credo of Mr Bryan. One of the definitions of comedy is that it is tragedy that happens to other people, and that's probably true of The Water Gypsies
: most characters end up more happily than not, but you could come away from the book feeling that its overall mode was melancholy.
Or rather, I could. And did. Which is embarrassing, but I'm unrepentant, because I did enjoy it so very much.