A Schoolboy Comic Fantasy: On F. Anstey’s Vice Versa
F. Anstey, Vice Versa or A Lesson to Fathers (London: John Murray, 1962)
‘Boys hate long words as much as even a Saturday Reviewer.’
Thomas Anstey Guthrie, who wrote under the pseudonym F. Anstey, rose to acclaim with his first novel, Vice Versa or A Lesson to Fathers, which first came out in 1882. The novel, a popular comic fantasy with a slight moralistic bent, was destined neither to glory in the adulations of future generations of academic critics nor to sustain the interest of the fickle public. But it still had an unexpectedly good run. When my copy of the novel was printed in 1962 for the twenty-seventh time (and by the smell of it, it has been sitting in a box since then), it had managed to stay in print for eighty years—though I doubt many more printings were forthcoming. The novel also managed to appear in film six times. That total does not count Mary Rodgers’s derivative Freaky Friday and the films that book inspired. By any standards, Vice Versa was an extraordinary successful piece of Victorian light humour, but what is now more surprising, is that it can still entertain.
The novel is set in the late Victorian period, contemporaneous with its publication. When it begins, we meet the middle class business man Paul Bultitude, father, and Dick Bultitude, son. The pair comes into possession of the Garuda stone, a magical talisman retrieved from India by an unsavoury uncle. The first effect of the stone is to transform Mr. Bultitude into his son in the midst of an argument over Dick’s return to boarding school. Dick then quickly uses the stone to turn into his father. Since the talisman gives each person only a single wish, the two are stuck in their reversed positions. The humour is light, sometimes unsophisticated, but never vulgar or bombastic. The novel can still offer a pleasant reading, however, both as a comic fantasy and a morality tale.
The morality tale is driven by Mr. Bultitude’s transformation into an understanding and caring father. Of him we learn, ‘He was one of those nervous fidgety who cannot understand their own children, looking on them as objectionable monsters whose next movements are uncertain—much as Frankenstein must have felt towards his monster. He hated to have a boy about the house [...]’. This alone could describe a host of adult characters from children’s fiction, or fiction about children. The offish, sometimes nasty, adult who is eventually won over by first abrasive and then endearing children. But here, the ogre-like Mr. Bultitude is not to be won over by a rag-tag band of imaginative and affectionate youths, rather he must do the winning over, trapped as he is in a child’s body. Mr. Bultitude own hostility towards his son also, somewhat justly, deprives Dick of any sympathy with his father when their bodies are switched. Dick becomes the unsympathetic adult, acting ironically like a spoiled child with his father’s wealth and status.
Most of the story focuses on Mr. Bultitude, rather than his son. Mr. Bultitude’s reluctant arrival at his son’s boarding-school, Crichton House, and subsequent attempts to escape drive the plot. Most of the situational comedy derives from Mr. Bulstrode’s interactions, with other schoolboys, teachers, the authoritarian headmaster and aptly named Mr. Grimstone and Grimstone’s daughter, who is in love with Dick. Many of Mr. Bulstrode’s travails are ironically presented as the consequence of his own stinginess and harshness towards his own son; his refusal to provide his son an adequate allowance, for example, leaves him in a host of difficulties which a mere few shillings could alleviate. As Mr. Bulstrode experiences humiliations, torment and a host of beatings, a sense of humour is permitted through the sense of justice, in that he is himself unsympathetic towards other characters, especially his son Dick, and that he largely creates his own difficulties by himself through his contempt for the other schoolboys. But the cruelty is never slapstick or exaggerated, rather it maintains a sense of realism, conveying the sort of travails and suffering that a schoolboy could experience at a Victorian boarding school. This of course creates a tension and works to expose potentially hostile nature of the child’s world. This in turn works against the idealised view of childhood as a golden age of bliss and freedom. At the end of the tale, Mr. Bulstrode’s learns to sympathise with his son. The reader is left with the lesson, still apt, is that although childhood has its perks; it can be wrought with a sense of powerlessness, bullying and other trials.
The realism of Anstey’s portrait of life at a late Victorian boarding school, however, now elicits another means of enjoyment in that provides the reader with a spark of life from the 1880s. We can laugh that Mr. Bulstrode ‘found himself expected, as a matter of course, to have a certain familiarity with Greek paradigms and German conversation scraps, propositions in Euclid and Latin gerunds, of all of which, having strict commercial education in his young days, he had not so much as heard before his metamorphosis.’; but some might lament the loss of a world where the mastery of several languages was not an extraordinary accomplishment for a lad. Perhaps other things, like marrow oil pomade and canings, are better abandoned.