“For the first time, I was in the presence of the greatest human vice. Nor have I ever, perhaps, entirely recovered from the enormous shock of that discovery. For though I had been aware, of course, from my studies on Holy Scripture, that such things had occurred in the Middle East, and had even deduced from contemporary newspapers their occasional survival in the British Islands, I had never dreamed it possible that here, in a public park in the Xtian London of my experience, a married man could thus openly sit with his arm round a female who was not his wife.”
I own several Prion Humour Classics, and I’d even managed to read two of them (The Papers of A.J Wentworth by H.F. Ellis and the absolutely brilliant Mrs. Caudle’s Curtain Lectures by Douglas Jerrold) , and these books were on my mind when I came across the wonderful book site www.neglectedbooks.com. Iwas a bit uncomfortable to see that Augustus Carp Esq. by Himself was mentioned as a ‘forgotten’ book. I had a vague memory of this very book sitting on my shelf…forgotten, and very possibly gathering dust. Suddenly the book was calling to me, and so it went to the very top of the TBR list.
And I’m very glad it did….
Augustus Carp Esq by Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man is one of the funniest books I’ve read in ages. It’s primarily a study in hypocrisy written as a memoir by an obnoxious, self-righteous prig named …. Augustus Carp. Written when Augustus is forty-seven, he begins the book with his birth and then over the next gloriously delightful 231 pages, describes his life with its so-called significant events.
Pompous and sanctimonious almost beyond belief, Carp relates these significant events from his warped viewpoint, and while Carp doesn’t have a clue about how horrible he is, it’s easy for the reader to see between the lines. Augustus, an only child, grows up to be just as obnoxious as his father, a “collector of outstanding accounts for the Consolidated Water Board.” Augustus’s world view is shaped by his father’s opinions, and just as his father has an inflated view of his worth, so does Augustus. Mr. Carp and his son, Augustus mingle socially with tradesman and shopkeepers, but they imagine that they are ‘better’ than this, and try to establish their superiority with everyone they meet. This is largely achieved by their presumed moral superiority which they believe gives them the right to correct, lecture and moralize at every opportunity.
The Carps live in a house called Mon Repos, but since Augustus’s father has a strong “distrust of French morality” he insists upon a“strictly English pronunciation.” Mr. Carp is a domestic tyrant who runs his home with the demands of a petty despot, and he treats his wife as an unpaid servant. While Augustus’s father is one of the novel’s main characters, Augustus’s poor mother only makes fleeting appearances when she scurries in the room summoned by the bell to serve cocoa to her husband and son or when she struggles to remove their boots. These hit-and-run appearances are hilarious, but justice is finally served at the end of the novel.
Augustus and his father are both gluttons and suffer from indigestion. Rather than correct their eating habits, they chalk it up to “sensibilities,” and spend many evenings with stomach cramps while being waited on for their every whim. Since Augustus’s father is an avid churchgoer, Augustus attends various churches with his father and moves from one to another when the vicars refuse to bend to Mr. Carp’s will, and if anyone dares cross Carp the Elder, he immediately slaps them with the threat of legal action. In one episode, Mr. Carp engages in fierce battle of rivalry with fellow parishioner, Alexander Carkeek, described by Augustus as:
“A northern Caledonian of the most offensive type, this gentleman, as he liked to consider himself, was now a sleeping partner in the firm of Carkeek and Carkeek, fishmongers and poulterers in the Kennington Road, and had long been suspected, both by my father and myself, of a secret addiction to alcohol.”
The novel follows Augustus through his childhood, his days at boarding school, and his working life. “Excused on moral grounds from the study of French,” Augustus instead learns German. Augustus imagines that he’ll rapidly become the favourite of all the masters, and he toadies up to the teachers by tattling, reprimands them for ‘bad’ language and even resorts to bribes. Consequently, Augustus is the most reviled boy at school–along with his two underlings Silas and Simeon Whey.
The real fun begins when Augustus–who’s basically unemployable–is turned loose into the working world. He’s terrified of women ”of fierce and unbridled passions,” and although Augustus is a mere shadow of his father’s domineering personality, he doesn’t hesitate to resort to blackmail to secure employment at a Christian publisher. His social life is dedicated to his membership in various anti-smoking, anti-drinking, and anti-entertainment groups, and he spends hours distributing sanctimonious pamphlets and making a nuisance of himself. The novel is packed with wonderful characters, including Ezekiel Stool: “the most persistent and unflinching opponent that the theatre and dancing saloon have ever known.” Stool’s phobia of shaving leaves him with a permanent fuzzy look which leads to disastrous results with his insane father.
The most wonderful aspect of the book, by far, is that Augustus never ‘gets’ just how ridiculous, pompous and obnoxious he is. None of his experiences ever yield one iota of enlightenment, and he sails through life forever insufferable.
In many ways, Augustus Carp, Esq. by Himself spoofs some aspects of Dickens. Here’s the heading for Chapter Five:
First experiences at Hopkinson House School. It is amongst the masters that I hope to find spiritual companionship. I do not do so. Apology of Mr. Muglington. I am struck by a football. Subsequent apology of Mr. Beerthorpe. Degraded habits of my fellow-scholars. A fearful discovery and its sequel. Amazing ineptitude on Mr. Lorton. Concerted assault upon my person. I am rescued by my father, who procures a public apology.
This style reminds me of the novels by Charles Dickens with the chapter headings that outline the misadventures of various heroes. Whereas the characters in Dickens often come to conclusions about themselves and others, Augustus never has a clue about life, other people or himself. Terrible things happen to the characters in Dickens as they suffer through deprivations and poor treatment from their fellow humans. In contrast, Augustus writes about his stomach cramps or his skin rash as the momentous events in his life. Augustus’s cluelessness and inability to change and mature make this novel an anti-Bildungsroman.
Perhaps the most curious thing about this gem of a novel is its author. Henry Howarth Bashford, a medical officer in the Post Office who later became Honorary Physician to George VI, wrote the novel anonymously. The novel was published in 1924 but had faded from view when it was championed into revival by Anthony Burgess. After concluding Augustus Carp Esq. By Himself, I wonder just what manner of man was its author?
For those interested, I have the Prion edition with its marvelous introduction by Robert Robinson and with sketches by Robin (Miss Marjorie Blood)