11th July 2023. Handheld Comic Classics 5
Topsy was the Bridget Jones of the 1920s, as if she’d been written by Nancy Mitford.
The Voluble Topsy collects A P Herbert’s The Trials of Topsy (1928), Topsy MP (1929) and Topsy Turvy (1947) in one volume for the pleasure and admiration of a new generation. For lovers of Nancy Mitford and the Provincial Lady Topsy will be a fresh delight.
‘Well Trix dear, what do you think, I’ve become a professional girl, well really, my dear, Mum’s got so tiresome about this boring marriage business and even Dad’s beginning to wear a martyrish look, and really I believe if I’m not blighted in matrimony in another fortnight they’ll lock the front door on me one night, and anyway as Mr Haddock said in these days economic thingummy is the sole criterion or something for a girl of spirit, don’t you agree, so I made up my mind to be Nature’s economic girl and earn some degrading lucre somehow, well, I thought it wouldn’t be too prohibitive because as Mr Haddock said England may be going to the dogs and democracy and everything but thank Heaven we’re all snobs still and if Lady Topsy Trout can’t find a niche in the façade of industry who can darling?’
It is the late 1920s. Topsy is a girl about town, a society deb, a dashing flapper. She writes breathless, exuberant letters to her best friend Trix about her life, her parties, her intrigues, and the men in her life. She deploys her native acumen and remarkable talent for kindness as well as being a doughty fighter for what she thinks is right (she hides a fox from the Hunt in her car). Then Topsy is unexpectedly drawn into politics, and to her amazement, she is elected as a member of Parliament.
Topsy’s extensive social life, her adventures in and out of the House of Commons (and her audacious attempts to legislate for the Enjoyment of the People), and her wartime activity as the mother of twins were recorded faithfully by the great comic writer A P Herbert as a series of satires in Punch.
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Author of The Voluble Topsy, A P Herbert (1890-1971) was one of Britain’s greatest comic writers, who specialised in writing for Punch, where the Topsy letters first appeared. Trained as a lawyer, he had a long career as an Independent member of Member of Parliament, during which he was a savage critic of obsolete British laws. His particular preoccupations were the reform of the divorce laws (he was happily married) and the laws that prevented people from marrying or buying a drink when they wanted.
‘No Trix no he never kissed me or anything, well not really, my dear I’m too deflated about your wounded letter because honestly my dear there was merely nothing between Harry and me and of course I’ll tell you all about it only of course it’s too esotteric to express in words, and of course my dear I can’t make out whether you’re engaged to the man or not, because if not it all seems rather superfluous don’t you think darling, and if you are, well I never believe in all this attitudinous pre-marriage confession-business, my dear in these days nobody wants to marry anybody who’s spent the spring-time of their youth in a glass case do they darling, because as Mr Haddock says my dear you don’t go to a plumber and say look here I want you to do the most complicated plumbing job only you must promise you’ve never done any plumbing before, you say the more experience the man has had the better, and my dear there’s no doubt that a love affair is the most difficult of all human affairs so that it’s rather infantile to go on as if a man who’s never had one must be the most convincing lover isn’t it, and as a matter of fact as Mr Haddock said nearly all soul-mates find each other in the end by trial and error and the more trial the less error, you do see what I mean darling, well you might say that I was one of Harry Barter’s errors perhaps, without which he’d never have realised that you were the only darling, only don’t jump to aromatic conclusions darling just because it is so prohibitive to suggest in black ink my dear the absolute snowiness of a girl’s conscience and everything.’
(Topsy was also not always the best of spellers.)
‘Three cheers for Topsy!’ – The Oldie
‘An absolute hoot … my favourite section of the book was the first, the letters that make up the collection The Trials of Topsy. Preaching the virtues of ‘the simple life’, Topsy deprecates the current fixation with exciting deeds, announcing her intention to shun anyone who’s flown the Atlantic or ‘needlessly swum something’. As she says, ‘all this rapidity is too volatile and bilious’. Instead she gives the example of her friend Albert Haddock who has ‘the most seductive mussel in a glass tank which only moves once in four days, my dear it’s too refreshing’. – What Cathy Read Next
‘Very much of its time (and the period slang and idioms may take some getting used to, not to mention Topsy’s idiosyncratic writing style!), this book is often very funny and makes a great choice for fans of P. G. Wodehouse and epistolary novels. I’m currently halfway through, and it’s been perfect light reading for the long summer evenings.’ – Miranda’s Notebook
‘Topsy comments on poverty, politics, motherhood, superstitions, foolish laws, architecture – you name it, she has a view on it, and the book builds up a marvellous picture of Britain in the 1920s and then the 1940s and changes taking place. There are wonderfuly satirical pokes at pointless regulations, and the narrative highlights just how daft British politics and laws were … Her style of writing, full of malapropisms and italics, is hilarious and I actually found myself thinking in her long-form sentences for quite a while afterwards. Topsy’s commentary on life in 20th century Britain is entertaining and unforgettable and I’m at a loss as to why these books were allowed to slip into obscurity – thank goodness Handheld have revived them.’ – Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings
‘The style and format of the letters are really natural, and you really do feel like you are eavesdropping on the correspondence between two very close friends. As Topsy makes her way in the world, she progresses from socialite about town to Member of Parliament to wife and mother of twins, and you are there for all of it. Topsy is completely vocal about what she feels at all times, and you do feel that you read some of the novel through your fingers as she makes it very clear that she has opinions and she is going to express them! … a veritable whirlwind of a novel, as Topsy’s completely unfiltered narration and stream of consciousness left this reader’s head in a total whirl! ‘ – Years of Reading Selfishly
”Funny, warm, charming, with a political twist. I highly recommend The Voluble Topsy.’ – Lil’s Vintage World
‘A society girl who seems at first as delightfully empty-headed as the term implies. Her writing style is hilarious, with endless run-on sentences peppered with malapropisms and numerous italicised words … But she has a sharp, inquisitive mind and is fascinated by all the new experiences that come her way as the years go by … She briefly becomes a society columnist and a theatre critic (her critique of Othello, of which she’s never heard, is possibly the funniest thing in a very funny book) … sheer entertainment value, of course, but also a brilliant perspective not only on the world of early 20th-century society but also on the foolishnesses and inequities of the British parliamentary and legal system.’ – Shiny New Books
‘AP Herbert was actually a man but he’s got the flapper girl, high society mannerisms and speech down pat … Handheld Classics delivers another delight.’ – Dear Author
‘The Voluble Topsy reads from cover to cover as an effective manifesto for ‘Topsy’s Own Society for the Propagation of the Sense of Humour and Joy among the People’ … and why you should always keep a piece of holly in the hall.’ – The Unhurried Reader