The always hilarious and brilliant Leah McFall, who releases her new book of selected columns this week, pays her respects to five of the most hilarious and brilliant women writers of all time – Jane Austen, Nancy Mitford, Sue Townsend, Erma Bombeck, and Nora Ephron.
If humour writing is a craft, then I’m apprenticed to five dead women. Between them they had millions of readers, and still do. Novels, columns, articles and plays – every detail of their lives went in, nothing too small to overlook. Everyone needs a path to follow – a glimmering line of tea-lights, zig-zagging toward the future. Each of these writers is a friendly candle.
1 Jane Austen
She wrote the greatest rom-com of all time, and I’m not even that into Colin Firth. There’s no finer balance of character and plot in the English novel than Pride and Prejudice. All loose ends are tied up; there are dozens of lines you could stitch on a cushion.
Respect her art, but don’t overlook what a hustler Austen was. She had to be. She wasn’t married and lived in a borrowed house. It’s such a crock when critics dismiss her confined point of view and obsession with money, matchmaking and the price of love: she’d have written brilliantly about public life if she’d been allowed to have one.
Her best-loved heroine Elizabeth Bennet is romantic but knows the price of everything. It’s why Wickham (hot, but broke) is never a real option. It’s why the hero is rolling in notes, with an enormous country estate. Darcy’s assets are lovingly picked over in the novel – Austen includes a detailed shopping list of his art and furniture, down to the trout in his stream.
This materialism gleams in my favourite line. When Elizabeth is asked when she fell for Darcy, she says: “It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.”
It’s implied she’s joking, but I like to think she isn’t. Despite the skipping tone in her books, there’s a crackle of injustice underneath: get a load of these fucking people.
2 Nancy Mitford
Take your pick of the Mitford sisters – the Nazi, the Commie, the Duchess – but for my money, Nancy takes the tea-cake. Long-necked, pinched at the waist in her Dior gowns, she represented a faded aristocratic society which was gone by peacetime. She and her young sisters had every refinement – vast country homes, debutante balls and powerful friends – but her parents were basically nuts. Benign neglect and boredom drove the girls all over the dial – notoriously, towards fascism.
None of that nonsense for Nancy. She had a gift for writing about her ridiculous life in dancing, quite odd English, and the hit comic novels began to pile up. She wrote how she spoke, and her speech was off-the-hook.
You can hear her arch, thin-sounding drawl in online recordings – a 1930s vocal fry more preposterous than any Kardashian. This way of speaking may have emerged among high-born girls, so they could be heard at noisy parties. “Ayab-solutely,” Nancy would say. The style of it was startling, even in her own lifetime. People thought her a terrible snob. “But I gave them cause to, I suppose.”
Her comedy hallmark was persistent understatement. Nothing seemed to ruffle her – not bombs falling on London, nor her sister marrying the British fascist Oswald Mosley. Nancy felt the pair were a danger to national security, so she coolly reported them to the authorities and they were locked up. It didn’t stop her jokes – she published the pocket masterpiece The Pursuit of Love in 1945, the year they were released.
3 Sue Townsend
In Thatcher’s Britain – bleak, post-industrial, threadbare of hope – there was one person everyone could agree on, and that was Adrian Mole. I remember his Secret Diary being passed around my primary school half a world away, in the bright sunlight of 1980s Taranaki. Why was Adrian’s talk of spots and measuring his thing so exhilarating to read? Why was it all so funny, his yearning to be middle-class and his angry mother’s neglect of the housework? As kids we didn’t quite get it, but we loved it.
Sue Townsend was a national treasure well before her death. But she was angry, too – simmering with working-class rage. That energy aerates her writing and made me sit up: this is what can happen when a woman kicks her assigned social place in the nuts.
She proved that an apparently unskilled mother-of-three – surviving on tinned peas and small change after divorce – could do it as well as Wodehouse, Waugh or the bloody Pythons. The Mole series is an enduring, brilliant satire, written at a kitchen table in a dull town in the dark, once the kids were in bed.
Thanks to Sue, it no longer mattered that you never went to Oxford or Cambridge or ran with a smart set in London. However colourless or small your daily life, you could still bend it into light and make a country laugh.
4 Erma Bombeck
The 1950s was the age of a Frigidaire in every home, Mom in an apron and dinner on the table at six. And along came Erma, a midwestern housewife turned comic sensation whose newspaper columns were loved by millions.
Today, her writing seems dated. Meat-lockers and ice-machines are things of the past, and her droll gags about husbands or housework feel out of step with our times.
But to dismiss her as a happy housewife who fell into writing overlooks her gritty ambition. She hustled for her first column, aged 37. “I wanted success,” Erma said. “I wanted to be one of those people who appeared on the Carson Show in blue jeans and left early.”
Her one-liners came thick, fast and relentlessly for 30 years, but it’s not the gags that make her writing special. Anyone can riff about lost socks and empty toilet rolls. It’s her warm recognition that an ordinary life inside a family can be as redemptive as any larger, public one. When she writes, “There’s nothing sadder in this world than to awaken on Christmas morning and not be a child,” Erma reminds us we don’t need to leave the house to experience the full sweep of our humanity. It’s all there, under the roof.
5 Nora Ephron
After years of telling us “everything is copy” and to take notes, it turns out that America’s funniest woman disregarded her own advice.
We all believed that Nora Ephron put herself into everything she wrote. She was Sally in When Harry Met Sally: the way Meg Ryan neurotically orders salad is how Nora always ordered salad.
Her first hit magazine story – ‘A Few Words About Breasts’ – is unbelievably frank. “If I had had them,” she wrote, “I would have been a completely different person.” This was 1972 – wanting bigger boobs was not what woke women wrote about. Too bad, decided Nora. If you want the truth, here it is.
Her novel Heartburn was so true to life that her ex-husband slapped restrictions on the screenplay. Jack Nicholson played him in the movie, but even he couldn’t make us like him. Nora hung everybody out to dry, but she always pegged herself out first. Right?
Well, no. When she died in 2012, it was a shock – but she’d been seriously ill for a long time. She kept this to herself, except to leave the lightest of clues in her final collection, I Remember Nothing. Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks and all the other stars at her memorial were disbelieving. We didn’t know, they said. She always told us everything. Why not this?
Nora is a masterclass in humour writing. There are dozens of lessons in her work. But her final, and most startling one? Know when to put down the pen. Hold it back.
Karori Confidential by Leah McFall (Luncheon Sausage Books, $25) is available at Unity Books.