A very short anthology of shorts, Nonsense Novels plays and prods the standard tropes of Victorian-Edwardian popular literature. Few genres are left untouched, be they the romances of the Scottish moors, the robust tales of seafaring sailors, spiritualist mysteries, detective whodunits and Scientific Romances.
The first story, Maddened by Mystery; or, The Defective Detective puts us on a fishy case of abduction. The Prince of Wurttemberg has been kidnapped under mysterious circumstances. With the pride of the Empire riding upon him, he has gone missing and The Great Detective has been given explicit instructions to retrieve him safely and soundly, without his markings altered or his tail clipped. What?
Leacock's style is not a highly literary one. He bludgeons, but in so doing demonstrates a regretted familiarity with the genres he is satirizing. For example, in the introduction to the second short "Q." A Psychic Pstory of the Psupernatural,
I cannot expect that any of my readers will believe the story which I am about to narrate. Looking back upon it, I scarcely believe it myself. Yet my narrative is so extraordinary and throws such light upon the nature of our communications with beings of another world, that I feel I am not entitled to withhold it from the public.
I had gone over to visit Annerly at his rooms. It was Saturday, October 31. I remember the date so precisely because it was my pay day, and I had received six sovereigns and ten shillings. I remembered the sum so exactly because I had put the money into my pocket, and I remember into which pocket I had put it because I had no money in any other pocket. My mind is perfectly clear on all these points.
Annerly and I sat smoking for some time.
Then quite suddenly—
"Do you believe in the supernatural?" he asked.
I started as if I had been struck.
At the moment when Annerly spoke of the supernatural I had been thinking of something entirely different. The fact that he should speak of it at the very instant when I was thinking of something else, struck me as at least a very singular coincidence.
For a moment I could only stare.
Annerly went on to narrate the story of his associate Q. who travelled to Australia and has not been heard from since. That is, until the previous night when his psychic manifestation manifested, indicating that he was in need of two shillings. Our narrator happily donated to this experiment of monetary communication with astral phorms. The experiments repeat night after night, even increasing in sums.
Guido the Gimlet of Ghent: A Romance of Chivalry vandalizes the errant knight's quest narrative and Gertrude the Governess: or, Simple Seventeen deconstructs the savage Gothic tale of bad manors and receding heirlines.
It was a wild and stormy night on the West Coast of
Scotland. This, however, is immaterial to the present
story, as the scene is not laid in the West of Scotland.
For the matter of that the weather was just as bad on the
East Coast of Ireland.
But the scene of this narrative is laid in the South of
England and takes place in and around Knotacentinum Towers
(pronounced as if written Nosham Taws), the seat of Lord
Knotacent (pronounced as if written Nosh).
But it is not necessary to pronounce either of these names in reading them.
Nosham Taws was a typical English home. The main part of the house was an Elizabethan structure of warm red brick, while the elder portion, of which the Earl was inordinately proud, still showed the outlines of a Norman Keep, to which had been added a Lancastrian Jail and a Plantagenet Orphan Asylum. From the house in all directions stretched magnificent woodland and park with oaks and elms of immemorial antiquity, while nearer the house stood raspberry bushes and geranium plants which had been set out by the Crusaders.
About the grand old mansion the air was loud with the chirping of thrushes, the cawing of partridges and the clear sweet note of the rook, while deer, antelope and other quadrupeds strutted about the lawn so tame as to eat off the sun-dial. In fact, the place was a regular menagerie.
From the house downwards through the park stretched a beautiful broad avenue laid out by Henry VII.
Lord Nosh stood upon the hearthrug of the library. Trained diplomat and statesman as he was, his stern aristocratic face was upside down with fury.
"Boy," he said, "you shall marry this girl or I disinherit you. You are no son of mine."
Young Lord Ronald, erect before him, flung back a glance as defiant as his own.
"I defy you," he said. "Henceforth you are no father of mine. I will get another. I will marry none but a woman I can love. This girl that we have never seen——"
"Fool," said the Earl, "would you throw aside our estate and name of a thousand years? The girl, I am told, is beautiful; her aunt is willing; they are French; pah! they understand such things in France."
"But your reason——"
"I give no reason," said the Earl. "Listen, Ronald, I give one month. For that time you remain here. If at the end of it you refuse me, I cut you off with a shilling."
Lord Ronald said nothing; he flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.
As the door of the library closed upon Ronald the Earl sank into a chair. His face changed. It was no longer that of the haughty nobleman, but of the hunted criminal. "He must marry the girl," he muttered. "Soon she will know all. Tutchemoff has escaped from Siberia. He knows and will tell. The whole of the mines pass to her, this property with it, and I—but enough." He rose, walked to the sideboard, drained a dipper full of gin and bitters, and became again a high-bred English gentleman.
A Hero in Homespun: or, The Life Struggle of Hezekiah Hayloft is a tale of a hayseed trying to make it in the big city, discovering that hard work and honesty are not nearly so well-rewarded as meanness and criminality. As might be gleaned by now, Leacock enjoys terse sentences that play strongly on the absurdity of misbegotten trust blinding one participant in an exchange to the motivations of another. That is true of friendships and financial arrangements, but especially true of the romances that occupy several stories. In Sorrows of a Super Soul: or, The Memoirs of Marie Mushenough (Translated, by Machinery, out of the Original Russian.) we recount,
Each morning I go to see Otto beside the river in the meadow.
He sits and paints, and I sit with my hands clasped about my knees and talk to him. I tell him all that I think, all that I read, all that I know, all that I feel, all that I do not feel.
He listens to me with that far-away look that I have learned to love and that means that he is thinking deeply; at times he almost seems not to hear.
The intercourse of our minds is wonderful.
We stimulate one another's thought.
Otto is my master. I am his disciple!
Yesterday I asked him if Hegel or Schlegel or Whegel gives the truest view of life.
He said he didn't know! My Otto!
To-day Otto asked me for a keepsake.
I offered him one of my hatpins. But he said no. He has taken instead the diamond buckle from my belt.
I read his meaning.
He means that I am to him as a diamond is to lesser natures.
Yesterday Otto asked me for another keepsake. I took a gold rouble from my bag and said that he should break it in half and that each should keep one of the halves.
But Otto said no. I divined his thought. It would violate our love to break the coin.
He is to keep it for both of us, and it is to remain unbroken like our love.
Is it not a sweet thought?
Otto is so thoughtful. He thinks of everything.
To-day he asked me if I had another gold rouble.
The romance of Scotland and its wee faer maid'ns is pummelled in Hannah of the Highlands: or, The Laird of Loch Aucherlocherty ("A pair of bagpipes were beneath his arm, from which, as he walked, he blew those deep and plaintive sounds which have done much to imprint upon the characters of those who hear them a melancholy and resigned despair."). Soaked in Seaweed: or, Upset in the Ocean (An Old-fashioned Sea Story.) casts a conspiracy of murder, treachery and piracy on the high seas. Caroline's Christmas: or, The Inexplicable Infant gives us a heartwarming Yuletide miracle: the million-dollar mortgage is up on the family farm when a wealthy stranger shows up on their doorstep looking for shelter on Christmas Eve... and, conveniently, he sleeps with his back to the door.
The tenth and final story in the anthology is The Man in Asbestos: An Allegory of the Future, in which Leacock describes his envy of other authors:
To begin with let me admit that I did it on purpose. Perhaps it was partly from jealousy.
It seemed unfair that other writers should be able at will to drop into a sleep of four or five hundred years, and to plunge head-first into a distant future and be a witness of its marvels.
I wanted to do that too.
I always had been, I still am, a passionate student of social problems. The world of to-day with its roaring machinery, the unceasing toil of its working classes, its strife, its poverty, its war, its cruelty, appals me as I look at it. I love to think of the time that must come some day when man will have conquered nature, and the toil-worn human race enter upon an era of peace.
I loved to think of it, and I longed to see it.
So I set about the thing deliberately.
What I wanted to do was to fall asleep after the customary fashion, for two or three hundred years at least, and wake and find myself in the marvel world of the future.
I made my preparations for the sleep.
I bought all the comic papers that I could find, even the illustrated ones. I carried them up to my room in my hotel: with them I brought up a pork pie and dozens and dozens of doughnuts. I ate the pie and the doughnuts, then sat back in the bed and read the comic papers one after the other. Finally, as I felt the awful lethargy stealing upon me, I reached out my hand for the London Weekly Times, and held up the editorial page before my eye.
It was, in a way, clear, straight suicide, but I did it.
I could feel my senses leaving me. In the room across the hall there was a man singing. His voice, that had been loud, came fainter and fainter through the transom. I fell into a sleep, the deep immeasurable sleep in which the very existence of the outer world was hushed. Dimly I could feel the days go past, then the years, and then the long passage of the centuries.
The sleeper wakes sometime probably in the year 3000, but no one is quite sure because they stopped counting after death was eliminated. Machinery, chemical foods and a stabilized climate and the revolt against fashion has eliminated work ("it made the sky grey, as you see it, and the sea gum-coloured, the weather all the same"). Along with them came the elimination of change and events. People could still die by accident, which is why most forms of sport and transportation have been banned, needless as they would have been anyways. Why travel when all is sameness?
The sleeper, a social reformer (though Leacock himself was arch-conservative) is appalled at the real meaning behind his efforts towards social equality. Leacock did not allow his sleeper to point out the fatal flaw in this sort of satire or the philosophy of "toil makes life worth living" that objects to utopianism. Such romantic notions about labour only sound reasonable when one is well-fed through fairly comfortable amounts of labour. In the West, fears of a post-scarcity economy are really just a petty rejection of potential boredom. For everyone else, the prospect of not seeing your infant children starve to death sounds pretty good. The claim that work is an embiggening experience is a paternalistic artefact of a 40 hour work week with paid vacations and Employment Insurance.
Likewise, the sleeper can only be appalled that the future has extinguished war and its acts of heroism because Nonsense Novels was published in Canada in 1911. Perhaps being published in Germany in 1946, or anywhere outside of the West at any other point in history, might have yielded different results. Leacock does achieve a presumable goal with The Man in Asbestos, however, which is to get one thinking critically about utopianism at the very least, if only to defend it.