J. Storer Clouston – Victorian anarchic novel about the newest resident of Clankwood, home of the best-bred lunatics in England

J. Storer Clouston, The Lunatic at Large, McSweeney's, 2007. [1899.]

"McSweeney's is pleased to announce the return of a much-loved Victorian comic masterpiece – the anarchic novel that ushered in the age of Wodehouse and Waugh.
Meet Francis Beveridge, the newest resident of Clankwood, home of "the best-bred lunatics in England." At least, Beveridge seems to be his name, as it's the one sewn into all his clothes. But rather than attending his asylum's Saturday dances, Beveridge prefers to go on the lam in London, attendants in red-faced pursuit. So when the travelling German noble Baron Rudolf von Blitzenberg finds himself at the luxurious Hotel Mayonnaise without a guide to this strange land's customs, who better than the amnesiac Englishman who materializes by his side—a splendid tutor in bringing rail stations to a standstill, the best way to fake a rabies attack, and how to crash London's most exclusive clubs - quite literally.
But... just who is this strange man?"

"It's wonderfully hilarious and the originator, I believe, of the word bonkers. I had someone write to the OED advancing my theory, but I'm not sure what's come of it." - Jonathan Ames

"This book is from 1899 and was reissued by McSweeney’s in 2007. I bought this book without knowing… anything about it. I’d certainly never heard of it before. I had put it aside with low expectations.
The introduction indicated that this book is a missing link between the humor of Oscar Wilde and P.G. Wodehouse. That was a promising idea, and I’m delighted to say that it is quite true.
And even better, the story was a lot of fun! It is a comedy or manners, a farce at the expense of many, and ultimately a bit of a detective story as well.
The story begins at an insane asylum. The protagonist, “Francis Beveridge” is committed to the asylum by a doctor and Francis’ cousin. Little is known about Francis even by Francis himself–in fact he’s not even sure that that is his real name. Plus, the doctor immediately had other business to attend and left without giving any details about his “patient.” We immediately learn that the Clankwood Asylum is, in fact, a home to some of the upperest of upper class loonies. It is beautiful and posh and a rather welcoming environment. As such, when they have their regular dances, all manner of people attend, some to rub elbows with the aristocracy, and some just to see the loonies.
Beveridge proves to be a popular inmate, and he quickly uses his verbal dexterity and unmistakable charm to win over virtually everyone he meets, including Lady Alicia, who is rather moved by his story. He explains that he suffered greatly as a child because (in perhaps my favorite line) “up to the age of fourteen years I could only walk sideways, and my hair parted in the middle.” The young Lady is very saddened by this unusual but surely upsetting deformity.
Without giving much away (since this is on the back of the book) Beveridge escapes from the asylum and makes the acquaintance of a German nobleman, Baron Rudolph von Blitzenberg. The Baron is in London to visit some other noble persons for a tour of the fair city. However, due to bad timing, they are all on holiday, so he has no one to show him around. Beveridge, under the new name Bunker, happens upon him and agrees to show him a good time around London. And does he ever. It is understood of course, that Bunker is also a nobleman (from the way he dresses and carries himself) so even though he has no money at all, he will surely pay the Baron back once Bunker gets in touch with his relatives. A fast friendship is formed and the two become inseparable.
Side note: The introduction also says that the Baron’s pronunciation of Bunker as “Bonker” is where we get the term “bonkers” for crazy people. I assume it’s true, and if so, that’s pretty funny.
The story proceeds apace, with Bunker and the Baron traveling further afield into the countryside and getting involved with a young lady and her mother. Hijinks ensue, and hilarity is assured. In the end we learn why Beveridge/Bunker was unaware of who he is. The story ends somewhat abruptly, with all the loose ends tied up faster than a Star Trek epsiode. But since it’s a light farcical tale, there’s nothing really wrong with that.
I enjoyed the story very much and was surprised at how often I found myself laughing out loud. What keeps the book–which doesn’t have much of a plot per se–moving along briskly is the fear that Beveridge will be found out by someone… either the noblemen he is scrounging off of, or the men from the asylum who are trying to track him down. These men spot him from time to time around London, and there is an exciting chase scene in the book. (It’s not exactly The Fast and the Furious, but as exciting as London carriage chases can be)
One of the things that I loved about the book, was the conceit that an upperclassman in turn of the century London was easily recognizable by his dress and demeanor, and that he really didn’t need any proof of who he was or any actual cash. And so Bunker is able to get into the most expensive places through charm and good dress sense.
Aside from all of the physical trappings of turn of the century London (carriages, no phone, etc.) the book doesn’t read like it’s over 100 years old. Clouston’s language is very casual. It’s really a great, brisk read. It will probably never be deemed a “classic” but even 100 years ago they read books just for fun, right?" - Paul Debraski

Read it at Google Books

or download it at Project Gutenberg

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