Babbit Sinclair Lewis novel cover

Contemporary Times and the 1920s

Undoubtedly, the most fascinating aspect of the 1920s for me has been how similar contemporary times and the 1920s are.

“What did this man want?” – Tagline from the cover of Babbitt

From everything I’ve been reading, it feels like the 1920s is where “American” society came from. All the extremes, the attitudes, the swings of the pendulum, the craziness… (Granted, when you look at other countries and their dictatorships and cults of personality, it isn’t really that crazy. But it’s crazy for a bunch of upstart Protestants from the wilds of England… Right?)

I really feel like most of our attitudes, the way our society thinks, feels, and reacts–they’ve all honed themselves from this one significant decade. It all seems so familiar now. Not just right now, but in everything that’s happened since the 1920s.


Detail from Judith Mackrell's Flappers Courtesy of FSG Books

Insights Into the Twenties: Book Reviews

I am cocktailly. Very cocktailly.” – Eugen Boissevain

For more insights into the Twenties, I’ve started reading research books about flappers – which focus mainly on Zelda Fitzgerald, of course. As one of the reviews below points out, Zelda defined and encompassed the decade. Her escapades may have started in 1914 or 1915 in Alabama, but she came to New York in 1921 and made an impression on everyone she met, partied through Paris and the South of France, then crashed pretty much as soon as the market did.

I don’t know if I would have liked her very much, I can’t help but realize how important she was to both defining and being defined by the decade.


Jesters and Fools in Fiction

When I get tired of reading dense, scholarly tomes about fools, I turn to my collection of books that include jesters and fools in fiction. I’ve found some excellent jesters and fools in fiction, and I’ve found some bad. I tend to really enjoy the older books, but there’s one modern series that really captures what I’d like to do.

My First Forays Into Jesters and Fools in Fiction

I heard about a book called Troubadour by Richard Burns and bought it, then realized there was a first one to the series called Khalindaine, so I made the mistake of buying that one, too. No–I shouldn’t be so cruel. But honestly. Starts with an intriguing scene, then the whole first chapter is plodding through description after description of the river and the palace and the city…

The troubadour shows up at the end of the chapter and makes me laugh, but then the second chapter goes someplace else and proceeds to describe what it looks like. Hey! I want Streetpoet back! At least he gave us some action and funnies! I think I may just have to go through and read his parts only…the rest may put me to sleep. I think the problem is the high fantasy aspect of it. It’s never been my favorite genre. I seem to recall a few other books that my brothers had that were similar. So bogged down in recreating the place and the writer doesn’t focus on character and plot. I’m striving for something different, so those books got put back on the shelf fast.

My Favorite Novels That Include Jesters and Fools in Fiction

As far as fiction goes, the Alan Gordon Medieval Mysteries series is my absolute favorite.  I bought them all. Even placed the most recent on pre-order with Amazon. He is amazingly good at portraying the scene they’ve set up as entertainers; the dialogue is fast and witty (just what you’d expect from jesters); the love story is sweet; and the mysteries themselves aren’t half bad either. They’re stretched a bit thin in places, but what mystery isn’t? I’m not reading it for critical analysis. But he really does a brilliant job.

The Fool Beloved by Jeffery Farnol book cover features jesters and fools in fiction

I’m reading a few others as well–one of my favorites is The Fool Beloved by Jeffrey Farnol. Wow. So over the top I can’t even believe it. It’s like reading a bad Shakespeare play. But I love it. I don’t know why. Really hard to read the super flowery language, so it’s taking me a bit longer than I expected, but I just love seeing it on the end table by the couch. The book was published in 1949 and smells a bit musty–the pages are all uneven along the edges, not smooth like we’re used to–the cover is the 1949 equivalent to a bodice ripper, I’m thinking. All cowering bad guy and gasping maiden and the fool (Bimbo) advancing menacingly with his marotte. Did I mention how much I love it? The murder scene at the beginning is even done like a play. Off stage left we hear the cries and grunts of pain and running footsteps, and then our hero rushes in too late to rescue his friend. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth, and then the vow of vengeance. Most intriguing, wot?


Review of Books About Jesters and Fools

My initial research for my jester novel has focused on nonfiction books about jesters and fools. When I get overwhelmed with that (or start to nod off), I head over to the vast fiction collection that I’ve amassed to cheer myself up.

The Fool by Enid Welsford

The Fool by Enid Welsford book cover a book about jesters and foolsAdmittedly, Enid Welsford and her book The Fool: His Social and Literary History lost me a bit along the way. I finished the book and will probably re-read several parts I’ve marked again simply because I found them so useful and entertaining, but especially because the last few chapters completely bewildered me. Throughout the book, she would re-tell portions of allegorical plays and stories that completely charmed me and provided plenty of historical and social significances, and then she never offered any explanation as to how they related to her thesis. Or none that I was understanding anyway (hence the re-reading).

I also felt like her treatment of King Lear’s fool was a surprisingly limited. I really thought she’d get into it with him, especially since he seems like the seminal fool in literature.

And just a warning–there are no in-text translations. It was entertaining at first, but trying to read quotes in Middle English and French is hard enough for me without trying to figure out the point analytically. And then (because I’m OK with looking up the occasional French word–I admit it, my French is NOT 100%) when I looked up a word with which I wasn’t familiar, my dictionary would point out that it is a Middle French word.

Fools Are Everywhere by Beatrice Otto

Fools Are Everywhere by Beatrice Otto book cover books about jesters and fools

Initially I was frustrated by Fools Are Everywhere: The Court Jester Around the World by Beatrice Otto, but she eventually she won me over. My initial reaction to her point that no one has paid any attention to the Chinese jesters out there was annoyance because it felt like she wasn’t going to discuss any of the jesters and fools elsewhere. But then she starts comparing and contrasting and gives a fascinating description of exactly how and why these amazing fools are everywhere. Even in today’s society.

My favorite story that both Welsford’s and Otto’s books refer to is an example of “verse capping” between Will Somers and Henry VIII. The king makes some mention of his mistress in a tower, expecting Will to respond. In her book, Enid charmingly titters and blushes and points out that the response Will gives is not really appropriate for her kind of scholarly effort, and the real point is how Will eventually shuts Cardinal Wolsey down by verse capping him. (I love this verse capping thing–kind of like rap battles. I’m hoping I’m clever enough to come up with some of my own for my novel…) Beatrice, to my relief, gives us the entire exchange. (Not to give it away, but Will makes mention of the mistress farting–this is apparently what offends poor Enid so much.)

Scholarly Debate in Books About Jesters and Fools

The most interesting aspect is the drama played out between Beatrice, Enid and Karl Friedrich Flögel. Well. Maybe not so much drama, considering these are books about fools…

Flögel wrote a book back in 1789 called Geschichte der Hofnarren. My German being non-existent (and Enid, naturally, refusing to translate anything), I had to look it up to discover that it means “History of Jesters.” I can’t find a translation of the entire book anywhere, unfortunately. The thing about it that really amuses me is that it was published by “Liegnitz und Leipzig.” (I don’t know why. Makes me giggle for some reason. All I can think of is Will Farrell in The Producers.)

Ms. Welsford gets a bit snippy with Flögel. She quotes him enough and uses his book fairly frequently, but is always criticizing his opinions and can’t seem to verify any of his primary sources. This is her footnote concerning him:

This work [Geschichte der Hofnarren] is valuable but has to be used with caution. Sometimes Flögel gives his references in a very inconvenient form. He does not discriminate carefully enough between ‘fools’ and other kinds of ‘comic actors’. Much of his work is irrelevant and uncritical. (The Fool, p 343)

Burn! Wow. If she had delivered that as verse capping, I would really be impressed.

So we have Enid’s opinion of Flögel. Ms. Otto, on the other hand, gives us quite another take. She makes mention that it was only after the disappearance of jesters in European society did writers start to take a critical interest in them:

The seminal work, which has yet to be surpassed, is Karl Flögel’s Geschichte der Hofnarren (1789), the source from which many subsequent works spring. It is as readable and relevant today as it was in the eighteenth century, lacking any old-fashioned quaintness. The only work to equal Flögel is Enid Welsford’s The Fool: His Social and Literary History, published in 1935. (Fools Are Everywhere, Prologue, xxii)

Enid might take offense at that. Then again, she might not.

Other Books About Jesters and Fools

I managed to find a book called The History of Court Fools by the English author John Doran. It’s up next in the queue, so I’m not able to provide any information on it yet. I’m fascinated, however, especially since the source A First Sketch of English Literature by Henry Morley and Edward William Edmunds claims “the best part of its contents [were] borrowed, without proper acknowledgement” (p. 1050) from Flögel’s book. Maybe that will cover me with Flögel.

I also read John Southworth’s Fools and Jesters at the English Court and have started William Willeford’s The Fool and His Scepter: A Study of Clowns and Jesters and Their Audience. Southworth was interesting and used more of a personal take on most of his conclusions, which is nice. However, I found that much of what he was discussing I already knew, so I would recommend this book as a starting point if you just want a quick overview. Willeford is a bit too philosophical–and takes himself too seriously for me, so I’m not enjoying his book as much. Even Enid was able to laugh at herself at times and refer to donning the “cap and bells.”

Remember, we’re writing about fools. It’s OK to laugh.