When Wench Pat recently asked the eternal question of “What Do We Really Want?”, one of the popular replies was a call for more humor. I can understand this. Who doesn’t want to laugh? Yet a truly funny book is truly hard to find, and historical-funny is even more rare.
And boy, is it ever hard to write!
The hero’s best friend is killed at Waterloo, and it’s terribly tragic and sad, and everyone knows to feel that way. The long-suffering couple finally weds, and readers share their joy. Those are easy. But humor is infinitely more subjective. A scene that strikes one reader as uproariously funny seems irritatingly foolish to another. Readers boards are filled with examples of this. Either you get the joke, or you don’t, or maybe the joke wasn’t really there in the first place, anyway.
Historical humor is even more challenging, because much of what was rip-snorting good fun in the past –– ridiculing the handicapped, huge fake penises, anything with priests and nuns –– doesn’t exactly fly in polite company now.
Wit and wordplay hold up better on the printed page than broad slapstick, but even then there are plenty of pitfalls amongst the pratfalls. Much humor is topical, or at least of its moment, and when the moment is past, so is the humor. Anyone who’s labored through Shakespeare’s comedies understands this, though, to be fair, an Elizabethan audience would be left scratching their heads over an episode of Seinfeld.
Writing a funny historical character was my biggest challenge in The King’s Favorite, a historical novel set
in Restoration London. By all contemporary reports, Nell Gwyn (my real-life heroine) was uproariously funny, a class-clown personality that couldn’t resist making people laugh. Born in a brothel, she had no education beyond “street smarts”, yet through the gift of quick wit, rose from selling oranges in the theatre to become a leading lady and, eventually, a royal mistress. As an actress, she was hugely popular playing “low” comedy: she was always cast as the sly servant with the best one-liners, the comedienne who knew how to get the most out of the earthy, physical humor of the time.
The King adored her, in large part because she’d dare to do and say things to him in the guise of a joke that no one else at court could risk, not without a quick trip to the Tower. Humor can be subversive that way, and Nell knew the power her wit gave her. To many men, a funny woman is a dangerous woman. She’s unpredictable, she has opinions, and she’s often quick to deflate male pride and vanities. But other men find a funny woman a sexy woman, and Nell’s house was always filled with her many male side-kicks, including the Earl of Rochester and the Duke of Buckingham, who were both always ready to participate in her elaborate pranks and skits.
To Nell’s good fortune, Charles was also secure enough himself to relish a witty mistress. (Remember, this is the first English monarch to realize that women on the stage were not a sign of moral civilization’s end, and finally permit actresses to play the roles written for women.) Though the official post of court jester was gone by 1670, Nell held it unofficially, and whenever things were grim and gloomy about the palace, the king would always turn to her to cheer him. Even after he moved on to other mistresses, Nelly remained his friend and jester until his death. Her audience from the theatre never forgot her, either. Long after she "retired" from the stage to the palace, she was still cheered wherever she went, and when she died, her mourners filled not only the church, but the streets as well.
But how to write a funny heroine? One of Nell’s most famous roles was Mirida in a play called All Mistaken, or The Mad Couple, by James Howard. The humor comes from her suitor Pinguister’s enormous girth, and his inability to do much of anything with Mirida because of his obesity. If the actor rolling around the stage
in the “fat suit” as he tries to catch Mirida wasn’t enough, there’s also the scene where Pinguister is given an enema and a laxative, then locked in a vault with other hapless suitors, and with predictable results. Oh, the hilarity! Oh, the [adolescent-boys-lavatory] wit! Oh, how am I supposed to write THAT into a scene!
Of course, not all Restoration wit is like this –- much of it was, and remains, laugh-out-loud clever word-play –– but an awful lot hasn’t aged very well. Or, as Wench Loretta noted when we were discussing this blog, “They drank a lot back then, didn’t they?” Fortunately, there are a great many other examples of Nell’s one-liners and general jesting that hold up better over time, and that I was able to incorporate into her character. Virtuous heroines, sentimental heroines, noble, true-hearted heroines –– they’re easy. But a funny heroine’s a real rarity, and I know how lucky I am to have found Nell Gwyn.
But what do you think of humor in historical fiction? Do you enjoy funny characters or situations, or do you find the risk not worth the punchlines? What’s your favorite historical with humor?
The jury’s still out on whether or not I was able to capture the fun and wit of Nell Gwyn until The King’s Favorite is released in July –– except for one of you lucky folk out there. I’ll give away an Advanced Reader’s Copy of The King’s Favorite to a reader who posts to this blog before Saturday night.