Aaaahhhh, ye olde English literature. I believe I speak for us all (all eight of us that read this newsletter, that is) when I say that most Canadians love books from Great Britain. From Harry Potter to Jane Eyre to Tom Jones and back, there is always some story from our overseas neighbors that tickles our fancy and reinvigorates our whimsy (whimsy being surprisingly easy to lose, as I show in this article).
While there are many types of fabulous British literature, I seem to really gravitate to the stories in which there seems to be nothing happening. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the novel lacks a plot. What it means is that nothing—neither the characters nor the setting—goes through a significant change. No one becomes a hero/heroine, there is no war or environmental disaster to triumph over, no one finds their inner strength and beauty, and each character is firmly and (somewhat) happily ensconced on the plateau of their lives without a glimmer of future personal greatness even peeping over the flat horizon in front of them.
Maybe it’s because Britain is not the direct neighbor of a gigantic “American Dream” factory known to some as Hollywood. Maybe it’s because Britain’s class system is that much more defined than the American class system. Regardless of the reasons, I am here to declare that reading British novels about the plateau lives of others is surprisingly interesting.
One of the reasons that plateau lives are so charming to read might be that annoyingly constant societal pressure for all of us to improve our lives in some great big way before we die. We HAVE to get more education, get the nicest house, have a newish car, read the hippest books, know the most about politics, be the most funny and popular person in a group, have the best informed opinions, be the number one employee, struggle endlessly for promotion, have the perfectest family, and write a nice little novel all in the short span of eighty or ninety some years. Phew! Seems like a lot, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be nice, for once, just to be happy with what you’ve got? In fact, wouldn’t it be nice to actually struggle against personal/career/social perfection?
Well, if you’re thinking that this backwards struggle would indeed be nice….if someone else, that is, were to do it in their own lives… then look no further than Horace Rumpole. As an old-school, middle aged, English barrister at law, Horace Rumpole is a witty character who adamantly refuses to submit to She Who Must Be Obeyed’s commands (“She” being Rumpole’s wife) to move up the career/social ladder by putting in for a position as circuit judge. Not only that, but Rumpole doggedly refuses to actually use the law to win his usual crime cases and, instead, relies upon common sense, back handed tricks against the prosecution, and witty batter with the judges to save the day for his criminal clients.
Written as a series of short stories (each one based upon an individual case) in three separate novels, Rumpole’s complete adventures can be read in The First Rumpole Omnibus by John Mortimer. At first, the Omnibus seems too large to be truly interesting and the plot seems too immobile to peak the fancy. Yet, further perusal shows that the witty dialogue, the dry British humour, and Rumpole’s ability to sometimes triumph in the most unexpected ways can help to give this book a special place in all of our hearts. And with that, as Rumpole might say, defense rests her case in your very capable hands. Only you can judge if Rumpole's adventures are innocent and free of boredom or are guilty of being an intolerable snooze festival.
What’s that? You don’t agree? Feel free to leave a comment in the boxes below, and we can exchange witty banter about Horace Rumpole and his extraordinarily ordinary life.