When I was writing my review of Lucky Jim, one of the most acclaimed comic novels of all time, I looked around to see what else was included on lists of the funniest books. I found that they were heavily dominated by male writers; this one from AbeBooks, for example, was chosen by British readers and only includes two female authors, Helen Fielding and Sue Townsend.
Now, it’s not to say that these women’s books are not hilarious, nor to denigrate the comic talents of Wodehouse, Vonnegut, Bryson, and Pratchett, all of whom I adore, but there are some other writers out there whose works really deserve our attention as well. I find it quite depressing that when New York Times editors were asked to choose the funniest novel, not a single woman made the list. I can only imagine that those editors’ reading habits are very different than mine, because when I started making a list featuring female authors who make me laugh, I found it difficult to stop. Here are ten or so of my personal favorites — sorry, I was laughing too hard to count.
Period Piece – Gwen Raverat
Written and illustrated by Charles Darwin’s granddaughter, who became a fine artist, this marvelous memoir of the Victorian age affectionately pokes fun at the habits of our ancestors.
The Brandons – Angela Thirkell
For fans of Trollope, Thirkell takes us back to Barsetshire with a social comedy full of witty phrases and sly allusions.
Friday’s Child – Georgette Heyer
One of Heyer’s funniest, sunniest Regency romances, this is about a young couple who have to grow up — and fall in love — after they get married.
Christopher and Columbus – Elizabeth von Arnim
When unsympathetic English relatives send a pair of half-German twins to America during World War I, nothing turns out quite as expected. The absurd dialogue of the Twinkler twins is the highlight here.
The Egg and I – Betty MacDonald
MacDonald turned a difficult life on a chicken farm in the Pacific Northwest into superb comedy. Her Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books for children are also both hilarious and psychologically astute, with their magical solutions to child-rearing problems.
Please Don’t Eat the Daisies – Jean Kerr
The wife of New York Times drama critic Walter Kerr was a playwright and humorist in her own right. Some of the humor in her 1957 book of essays has dated, but it remains a lively and intelligent take on family life.
Underfoot in Show Business – Helene Hanff
Hanff is mostly known for 84, Charing Cross Road (which is also a very funny book), but I wish more readers would pick up her delicious memoir of trying to make it on Broadway.
The Serial Garden – Joan Aiken
For over sixty years, starting about age sixteen and continuing right up until her death in 2004, storyteller extraordinaire Joan Aiken wrote tales about an otherwise ordinary British family who just happen to become involved in magical adventures, with wild and wacky results.
Bilgewater – Jane Gardam
Jane Gardam can take the painful realities of life and turn them into comedy like nobody else. Her early coming-of-age novel about a girl growing up in a boys’ school is by turns heartbreaking and hilarious.
Year of the Griffin – Diana Wynne Jones
Jones’s delightful send-up of the “magical school” trope is also very likely the only book ever to feature a female griffin who goes to college. Please ignore the bizarre cover art; it makes Elda look like a menacing monster, but really she’s a sweetheart.
To Say Nothing of the Dog – Connie Willis
I haven’t yet read Three Men in a Boat, a popular choice for funniest book of all time, though it’s on my list. Even so, I found Willis’s slapstick time-traveling homage to Jerome’s Victorian classic a hoot.
Thus Was Adonis Murdered – Sarah Caudwell
First in an all-too-brief mystery series, featuring a group of young British barristers and their older mentor — who, in a tantalizing twist, narrates their adventures without revealing his/her gender. As is appropriate to legal mysteries, a highly stylized, double-edged writing style is key to the humor here.
And I haven’t even mentioned Lisa Lutz, Margery Sharp, Maria Semple, Shirley Jackson, Susannah Clarke … just thinking about them makes me smile. What are your favorite funny books and writers?