1921. Gucci is founded, the Bloody Mary is invented, and White Castle restaurants open in Wichita Kansas – the world’s first fast food restaurants. We are now in the Roaring Twenties, a period of economic prosperity in the United States and Western Europe, in which people have plenty of money to spend and invest (thank you reparations from Germany), and that’s exactly what they’re doing. Former luxury items like cars, electric refrigerators, phones, and radios are now basic necessities. Going to the movie theater and dance clubs on a weekly basis is the new norm, and sports players and Hollywood stars now have much more celebrity power which they are free to capitalize on.
The roaring twenties is also a period in which arts and artists are flourishing. Jazz is popular, Art Deco is at its peak, and fashion is dictated from Paris – allowing men and women to finally wear comfortable clothing. Many great books are being written (The Great Gatsby, Ulysses, and Mrs. Dalloway), and amongst them are many hidden gems. One of these gems is probably Going Home: Being the Fantastical Romance of the Girl with Angel Eyes and the Man Who Had Wings by Barry Pain.
Barry Pain’s biography (1864-1928) is mostly hidden from the internet, and my digging revealed very little about him. The short bios that could be found revealed that he was an English journalist, poet and writer, known for his parodies and lightly humorous stories. Pain was a regular contributor to Granta, a literary journal, and Punch, a British weekly magazine of humor and satire. He worked for the Daily Chronicle and Black and White, a British literary magazine. Many considered him to be a genius, but his books, commercial successes sold in railway book stalls, were generally disdained by the literary establishment.
Pain is best known for his five Eliza novels, which were collected posthumously as into a single volume called The Eliza Books. These are stories of the long-suffering and intelligent Eliza and her husband, a pompous prig and a self-regarding idiot. The books were a huge success in the years before the Great War, but afterwards faded into obscurity. The book was reissued in 1984, with a new introduction written by Monty Python’s Terry Jones, in which he claimed that these were “some of the funniest books in the English Language.”
The Eliza novels may be Pain’s funniest novels, but they are not his best work. Pain considered his best book to be Going Home, a book that tells the story of Dora Muse with the mysterious eyes and her love for Eagle, a man with wings.
Dora is a young English socialite living in a London flat who enjoys collecting experiences, such as “Pommes Soufflees,” a French fried potato that was apparently very fashionable back then. She feels very out of place in the world, like she is supposed to be somewhere else, but has no idea how to get there. Dora’s eyes have a talent of bringing out the best in people, and this in turn causes everyone she encounters to see the hidden good that lies inside others.
The story begins with Dora catching the attention of George Overman, the owner of every fashionable restaurant in London. Overman was on trial for conduct likely to produce a social revolution; his restaurants were infuriatingly expensive, and those who couldn’t afford them were morally outraged. Dora’s eyes cause Overman to have a change of heart, and he offers to do for her anything she wants (while adamantly maintaining that he is not in love). From him she learns, of Eagle, a man he is fostering who was born with wings. Dora then goes with Overman to visit Eagle, and you can pretty much guess the rest.
I’ll be honest. The reason I picked this book for the series was the title. The story of the “Fantastical Romance of the Girl with Angel Eyes and the Man Who Had Wings”, sounded fascinating to me. Also, the book is 78 pages long so it wasn’t like I needed to invest a lot for this one. Unfortunately, the book, while decent, did not fully live up to my expectations. Going Home was a light, fun read full of British humor that makes a lot of fun of 1920s London, and I found myself smiling a lot, and occasionally laughing out loud. However, that’s as far as the book goes. The “Fantastical” part of the “Fantastical Romance” ended up being pretty bland, in my opinion. Eagle is only introduced half-way through the already short book, and even after he is introduced, not much space is devoted to the blossoming love between the couple. Apparently, the love story part is supposed to go without saying, which is probably why Pain decided to do just that – much to my disappointment. The humor, while lots of fun, in this instance served as a distraction from the romance, and that weakened the overall story for me. It was still a fun read, and since it’s not a long book, I definitely recommend giving it a try. Maybe you’ll end up disagreeing with me, and at the very least you’ll learn about Pommes Soufflees (which I now need to try).
The Omer today is kingship in splendor, and I think the book and the roaring twenties do an interesting job of capturing these attributes. I kind of view splendor as being more about externalities and materialism (unlike grandeur which goes a bit deeper), and this for me perfectly captures the feel of the 1920s, a period when people could finally afford to live like kings and queens, and owned luxury items that the rulers of previous generations would go to war to possess. Fashionable clothes were both fun and affordable, entertainment was cheap and plentiful, and everyone owned a car, making the roaring twenties a very splendid time to live indeed. And while these years didn’t last, they did give the nations of the West, a period in which they could finally relax and enjoy life for a bit, something we should all be doing more of whenever we get the chance.