ANYONE CURIOUS about what Gilbert is like without Sullivan will delight in this collection of enchanting, sometimes brutal short stories, the first collection of W.S. Gilbert's fiction since 1890. Taken from sources like The Cornhill Magazine, The Stage Door, and Fun, these 20 stories, which appeared between 1863 and 1908, vividly demonstrate why Gilbert regarded his fiction as his highest achievement. Editor Peter Haining has supplied a breezy but informative introduction and the book is further enhanced by Gilbert's puckish illustrations.
The stories demonstrate a wide range of tones and techniques. At one extreme are the pure Fairyland pieces. As defined in "The Wicked World," one of the most elegant of these supernatural tales, Gilbert's Fairyland is a dreamlike place "with no bright colours in it -- a land where it is always bright moonlight," where "there is nothing whatever to do but to sit and chat with good pleasant-looking people who like a joke and can make one too." Good looks are important to Gilbert, who denounces the conventional Fairyland of Victorian theater managers for its "creaky phenomena and inhabitants who take pride in their baggy, bony knees."
At another extreme are stories like "Diamonds" and "Angela," harsh, surprisingly realistic melodrama in which the hated "indelicate inhabitants" of a coarser world are allowed to hold momentary sway. The Gilbertian moonlight goes out altogether in these rare stories, leaving us in a dark Victorian jungle of poverty, illness, petty scoundrels and naive victims.
The most imaginative stories come somewhere in the middle, in a Gilbertian version of magical realism where the ordinary can skip to the extraordinary in a sentence. These are often spoofs of the 19th-century tale of supernatural persecution: in "Creatures of Impulse," the owners of the Three Pigeons boarding house are victimized by a kind of Victorian bag lady who moves in, refuses to pay rent, and hexes whoever tries to evict her; in "The Finger of Fate," the Gilbertian narrator -- an irritable, conservative, middle-aged bachelor who hates "bright colors," "unnecessary conversation," and "female intrusion" -- finds himself accosted by a gaudily dressed, endlessly babbling mulatto lady, who persecutes him everywhere he goes, on land and sea, until she gets his money.
Gibert's underlying conservatism emerges everywhere in these stories, especially those with lines that turn up later in the collaborations with Sullivan. Like The Sorcerer, for example (the first Gilbert and Sullivan opera), "An Elixir of Love" characterizes the working man as "a noble creature when he is quite sober." In fact, several unsettling attributes noted by Gilbert's shrewder critics -- the Victorian sentimentality oozing under the cynical surface, for example, or the worship of all things British underlying the jibes at the empire -- project themselves in the stories with dismaying clarity.
The reader should be warned that this is especially true in regard to Gilbert's celebrated nastiness. In the collaborations and plays, the unpleasant side of Gilbert is mediated by the charm of Sullivan's music or dispersed by the diversity of characters speaking and singing the lines. If Gilbert's lyrics gave Sullivan's music a needed pungency and dissonance, the music gave Gilbert's cynicism a deceptively comforting, humanizing consonance. For Gilbert's wit, in Chesterton's words, was "an airy, artistic, detached and almost dehumanized thing . . . not unlike a certain almost empty radiance in some of the late lyrics of the Renaissance."
But the stories confront us with a first-person Gilbertian narrator speaking directly, often gloatingly, in hard, diamond-like prose, such as "the remarkably good-looking middle-aged bachelor" of "Wide Awake," who decides to run out on his fianc,e. "I suppose I must have loved her more or less," he tells us, but "before I had been engaged to her for a week, I found myself wondering what on earth I had ever seen in her to admire. She was bony, angular, acid, and forty . . . My natural amiability is such that I must love someone -- and as it was out of the question to go on loving Georgina, it became necessary to love somebody else." There is a moment when it apears that poetic justic will prevail -- our hero is caught "sleep-walking" to his new "object of homage" -- but in the end, after a series of typically topsy-turvey machinations, he dumps Georgina and gets exactly what he wants. Spoofy and engaging as the story is, it nevertheless turns on what Arthur Quiller-Couch once called Gilbert's ugly "insistence on the physical odiousness of any woman growing old."
The best crafted tales are precisely those that are most cold-blooded, just as the most memorable are the most profoundly trivial and amoral. Gilbert's plots are so gloriously twisted and ridiculous that even his characters have a hard time remembering them. This is the ultimate Gilbertian paradox, one continually enunciated by his narrators as they jeer at their own stories and ridicule what would appear to be the point of their allegories. "A Burglar's Story," accurately described by editor Haining as "an example of Gilbert's Topsy-turveydom at its very best," is narrated by a professional thief who is caught and humiliated by a householder who, after shooting off both his ear lobes, steals his clothes and locks him out in the nude, where to avoid social embarrassment he surrenders to the police. Does he learn anything from serving 10 years in prison? Does he repent his crimes? For a while, he does shudder whenever he passes the house, but gradually "one detail after another slipped from memory, and one lovely evening last May I found, to my intense delight, that I had absolutely forgotten all about it."