Old Jokes Never Die | Newberry

Old Jokes Never Die

“Better be killed than frightened to death.”

I’m not sure whether that’s a suitable quotation for this week in history, but it sounded cheering, somehow. I was looking for something humorous by this author, though, not wisdom.

“There may be said to be three sorts of lawyers: able, unable, and lamentable.”

See, I’ve been getting more books by this author than I usually do, and it’s something of a struggle to get them into the Humor category. I had a discussion of a similar nature once with a theatre scholar who had studied comedies, and felt they essentially came in three sorts, too: Under a Century Old, Shakespeare, and Not Funny.

“It is best to let the horse go his way, and pretend it is yours.”

See, Robert Smith Surtees, generally known as R.S. Surtees, died over a hundred and fifty years ago. In his day, he enjoyed fame as a wildly popular humorist. He was not to everyone’s tastes: his wit was hardly elegant, and as a writer he lacked ability in a few side issues like plot. But he was considered a good observer of nature, both in the wild and in town. All the young up and comers studied him to get the hang of what he did well, and his stories were popular enough that a publisher competing with his tried to copy his success. First hiring an illustrator to draw funny pictures, the publisher then picked an author to write something like Surtees’s stories. And so Charles Dickens wound up writing The Pickwick Papers, which annually sells more copies than Jorrocks’s Jaunts and Jollities.

“Life would be very pleasant if it were not for its enjoyments.”

Mr. Jorrocks, Surtees’s most famous character and hero of much of his work, is a part of the problem, really, of selling the books in this country. Jorrocks was a jovial chap who had made his money running a grocery and now had enough money to make a fool of himself indulging his favorite hobby. This is a situation which will stand the test of time. Especially when the hobby involves the arts or sports, or anything else which requires skill, we can all laugh at the rich man who tries to do it. We may have made fools of ourselves over something similar, but the fact that the hero is also very rich makes it that much more fun to see him trip over himself while doing it.

”The horse loves the hound, and I loves both.”

The problem is that the passion of Mr. Jorrocks’s life (as well as that of Mr. Surtees) was fox hunting. Fox hunting has come to lack the mass appeal that it had in the 1830s. The incongruity of seeing a grocer mixing with the horse set is lost on those of us who have never ridden to hounds.

“The image of war without its guilt, and only five-and-twenty per cent of its danger.”

Jorrocks, I am told, lost some of his popularity when he became a Master of Hounds: readers seemed willing to accept him as a hunter but not as a Master of any kind. Then, getting older, Jorrocks gave up the hunt for politics, and either lost his unique perspective or his sharp edge. You’d think making fun of politicians would be easy enough for any writer, but Surtees was more at home with the characters of a country village than with those of big city politics. (And, it seems, he just wasn’t as interested in politics as he was in fox hunting.)

“Champagne to our real friends, and real pain to our sham friends!”

Well, anyhow, for reasons not known to me, people have been donating the works of Mr. Surtees, including a couple of copies of his first and, they tell me, best book, Jorrocks’s Jaunts and Jollities (also his worst title), and they will be in Humor if I have much to say about it. Buy a copy and if you laugh, well and good. If not, well, we have a lot of younger humorists who are even less funny.

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