The Voluble Topsy by A.P. Herbert

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Reviewed by Harriet

First published in 1927, nearly a hundred years ago, in the satirical British magazine Punch, the letters of  fictional girl-about-town Topsy to her best friend Trix actually preceded the now much more famous Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield, which first came out three years later. In one sense Topsy is very much a girl of her period – 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.  Here’s how her very first letter begins:

Well Trix darling this blistering season is nearly over and I’m still unblighted in matrimony, isn’t it too merciful, but you should see poor Mum’s face, my dear she’s saturated with the very sight of me poor darling, not that I don’t try — last night I went to a perfectly fallacious  party with the Antons, my dear all Russians and High Art and beards and everything, wasn’t it too degrading, what I say is why all these sculptors and things can’t be kept in their own holes I’ll never know….

and so on for almost six pages with about the same number of full stops. Great fun, of course, and you’d be forgiven for thinking Topsy is little more than a silly husband-hunting flapper. But as you read on, it becomes clear that she has a sharp, inquisitive mind and is fascinated by all the new experiences that come her way as the years go by. And how many and varied these are! She goes to greyhound racing, she helps escort a large group of very unruly school children across London on the underground, she sits on a jury (illegally substituting for a friend who is too caught up in arranging her wedding), she goes carol singing, 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), she goes to a Turkish bath, and she makes a speech at ‘the largest meeting to introduce Mr Haddock to the toxic electors of Burbleton, South I think it is but it may be West’. And all that is just in the first part, ‘The Trials of Topsy’.

Mr Haddock needs some introduction here. Albert Penrose Haddock has the same initials as his creator, who was always known as APH, and had already featured in numerous of Herbert’s contributions to Punch, which started as early as 1910. A litigious MP like his creator, Haddock had served to highlight many of the absurdities in the British legal system in a series later known as Misleading Cases. So APH’s Punch followers would have already been familiar with him when he appeared in Topsy’s contributions. Although he apparently attempts to find a husband for Topsy, few people will be surprised when the first part of this three-part collection ends with their engagement. And when Topsy, now married, reappeared in Punch  a year or so later, the new series acquired the title Topsy M.P (‘I’m afraid my virgin speech was a classic fiasco, my dear too chastening’). This offered APH a further opportunity to satirise the British legal system, which he took advantage of to the full, as Topsy ‘Takes Her Seat’ ‘Has Words with the Whips’, ‘Solves Everything’, ‘Asks Questions’, and finally ‘Loses the Whip’. 

Nearly twenty years went by before APH revived Topsy, now, in 1946, a frazzled housewife trying to deal with post-war challenges like food shortages, longing for a return to normal life, and, of course, still engaging with the outdated and ridiculous laws in Britain, which here are preventing her friend Iodine from obtaining a divorce. She finally signs off on Boat Race Day 1946, having arranged a huge party to watch the race from her house on the Thames: Iodine has got her divorce and Trix is moving to London so there’s no need for any more letters. She’s lost none of her verve and ends with ‘a few brief detonating words, fare well and bless you till we meet, your tough but tender TOPSY’. 

APH, as well as being an independent MP for Oxford University between 1935 and 1950,  was also a celebrated writer, publishing eight novels and fifteen plays during his lifetime in addition to his lifelong contributions to Punch. His final publication was an autobiography, APH: His Life and Times, which came out in 1970, the year before his death at the age of 81. Many of his satirical pieces were collected and published posthumously, but the ones featuring Topsy, for some strange reason, were not among them. So we must be very grateful to the wonderful Handheld Press, which has collected and republished them for the first time, with a useful and informative introduction by Kate MacDonald and many valuable notes. 

There are many reasons for reading this 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, which is sadly sometimes no less foolish and unequal today than it was a nearly a century ago.

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Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny, and had the great pleasure as a child of meeting APH himself.

A.P. Herbert, The Voluble Topsy (Handheld Press, 2023). 978-1912766468, 280pp., paperback original.

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1 comment

  1. Isn’t the book a treat Harriet? I loved it too! Very impressed that you met APH!

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