Ancestral Vices by Tom Sharpe (1980)

Insanity could, with the help of modern medicine, be cured but dead dwarves were beyond any form of aid. (p.137)

This is the first Sharpe novel I’ve read which I didn’t find funny. Grotesque, yes, but it lacked the compelling (il-)logic of the previous novels.

Plot summary

Lord Petrefact is a wicked old capitalist mill owner, confined to a wheelchair, and whose main pleasure in life is abusing his personal assistant Croxley. He hates his family and (for no very compelling reason that I could see) decides to commission a priggish, unimaginative left-wing academic historian to write a warts-and-all history of the family’s long achievements of exploitation and abuse, venomously hoping it will drag in and humiliate as many of his relatives as possible.

And so we are (rather randomly) introduced to the university of Kloone, with the brand new computer Lord Petrefact has gifted to it (nicknamed ‘Doris’), and the impenetrably jargon-ridden and high-minded Marxist academic, Walden Yapp, the wholly unsuitable economic historian Lord Petrefact offers a fortune to write the scandalous family story.

Fiasco at Fawcett Hall

Petrefact invites Yapp to his country seat, Fawcett Hall, where he insists on serving an eight-course dinner to revolt the puritanical socialist. There is a lot of fuss about his request for a sucking (or suckling ie very young) pig, traditionally cooked whole and presented with an apple in its mouth. When the local butcher can only get hold of a mature boar, Croxley and the Italian chef conspire to cut away most of the body and serve the head and rear end (grotesquely) sewed together.

At the end of the meal Yapp is shown to an ancient bedroom (where the wicked colonialist King Leopold of Belgium once stayed – to provoke the left-wing academic). But when Yapp tries out the very old shower/bath it goes mad, spraying water in every direction, rocking, shaking and eventually smashing its way through the floor – causing lumps of plaster to fall onto Lord Petrefact’s electric wheelchair in the bedroom below, which promptly goes haywire, charging around the room, smashing priceless vases etc before tangling up in Lord P’s pyjama cords and dragging him out into the hall and down the stairs, screaming for help.

The petrified housekeeper calls the police and we have a familiar-feeling scene of a perplexed copper being shown round the wrecked bedroom, bathroom and bloodstained hallway, jumping to all the wrong conclusions – reminiscent of the idiotic coppers in Sharpe’s first two South African novels and the exasperated Inspector Flint who appears in the Wilt novels. There is a running gag about the sucking pig, with the Italian chef giving the dim copper the impression Lord P used it for sexual perversions, as its name rudely suggests.

This all seemed to me very laboured, without the fresh, outrageous verve and the demented logic of the earlier books.

In the midst of this mayhem Yapp signs an amazingly generous contract with Lord P to produce a full economic history of the family and is sent off to the small town of Buscott in the Midlands, there to start work researching the cotton mill where the family fortunes all began. Lord P rubs his hands with glee at the thought that Yapp will discomfort and hopefully humiliate his son, Frederick, and his spinster sister, Emmelia, who both live in Buscott.

Buscott

In Buscott Yapp finds himself advised to board with a certain Mr and Mrs Coppett. She is a simple-minded, buxom woman who has been told by an idiotic marriage guidance counsellor to get a bit of extra sex. Which explains why she crudely tries to seduce Yapp who rejects her obviously imbecile initial advances but then finds himself, when alone, or alone with her, reluctantly aroused by her. Her husband is Willy Coppett (presumably a joke name – ‘will he cop it?’ ie die), a dwarf who works in the local abattoir and carries a wicked-looking ten-inch blade everywhere with him.

Yapp has come to research the history of the Petrefact mill in the town, expecting to find it cruelly exploiting a down-trodden workforce and is disconcerted to find the town prosperous and the inhabitants all very happy. This is rather crude satire on the fatuousness of left wingers’ blinkered preconceptions. In the novel it is because Lord P’s wayward son, Frederick, has made it into a very successful manufacturer of sex toys and erotic lingerie, which makes good profits and pays everyone well.

(There is a sequence where rather sheltered spinster Miss Emmelia Petrefact, insisting on seeing her nephew, ends up blundering through the factory floor witnessing all kinds of sex aids being assembled, including the lifelike veins being painted onto plastic penises: somehow this doesn’t feel as transgressive, shocking or outrageous as the same kind of thing did in earlier novels. Maybe the reader has become blasé.)

Frederick pays Willy the dwarf to tail Yapp as Yapp tours the pubs of Buscott trying to find the alienated and radical proletariat his left-wing textbooks tell him about, but instead finding a pretty contented and well-paid workforce. Presumably this is satire on the shallow ignorance of left-wingers.

After giving Mrs Coppett a lift home one evening and receiving a thank you kiss, Yapp has to go out for another spin because he has had a spontaneous ’emission’ brought about by her proximity. He parks on the hard shoulder of a main road and slips through bushes into a nearby wood to take his semen-stained pants off. Meanwhile, Willy the dwarf has got drunk tailing Yapp round the town’s pubs and, on the way home, slips and drops his precious knife into the road. Clambering into the road to reclaim it he is promptly squashed flat by a tractor being driven without lights by a drunken farmer. Oops.

Terrified at killing the town’s favourite dwarf, the farmer picks up the mangled corpse, tiptoes back to an abandoned car he saw parked a bit further up the road, and slips the corpse, wrapped in farm cloth, into the boot. It is Yapp’s car.

The trial of Walden Yapp

The truth about the dead dwarf; the truth about the porn factory; Mrs Coppett’s lust, Yapp’s shame, the dim police, Lord Petrefact’s revenge – the scene is set for another hundred pages of farcical revelations and tangled imbroglios and it should all have been very funny – I certainly found loads of passages in Sharpe’s previous novels howlingly funny. But not this one.

Instead I was surprised that the comic potential of the porn factory and opportunities to satirise Yapp’s trendy lefty views were all pushed to one side as the narrative (in an eerie copy of Wilt) instead turns to focus on the arrest and lengthy interrogation of Yapp for the murder of Coppett. We know it was not murder and that Yapp didn’t commit it, but all the circumstances conspire to make him look guilty of (just as circumstances conspire to convince the police of Wilt’s guilt) and the novel now sets itself to submit him to the full indignities and absurdities of the British legal system.

Even Lord Petrefact’s plan for a candid history about the family – the starter motor for the whole novel – is more or less forgotten as the narrative zeroes in on Yapp’s trial, overseen by a crusty old judge who is a relative of the Petrefacts’ so that the whole thing becomes a predictably farcical fiasco.

And then the book develops in a wholly unexpected way as the hitherto fairly minor character of the elderly Emmelia Petrefact has a supposedly life-changing realisation. Attending a family gathering where they all agree the best thing is for Yapp to be locked away before he can write anything incriminating, and then watching Yapp being railroaded at his trial, Miss Emmelia comes to realise that she is a smug, rich, protected old lady, that Yapp is innocent, and that she ought to do something about it.

For the first time she glimpsed a world beyond the pale of wealth and privilege where people were poor and innocent for no good reason and others rich and evil for even worse… (p.198)

Simultaneously Yapp in prison, buggered and abused by his tough cell-mates for being a dwarf-molester, realises his whole life has been an intellectual lie: if there is no Historical Inevitability about the coming Communist Revolution, if Capitalist Society isn’t one great Conspiracy run by the Ruling Classes with the Police and others as their Parasites – then maybe the world just is meaninglessly chaotic and unpredictable.

Without a conspiracy to sustain him there was no rhyme or reason for his predicament, no certain social progress or historical force in whose service he was now suffering. Instead he was the victim of a random and chaotic set of circumstances beyond his powers of explanation. For the first time in his life Yapp felt himself to be alone in a menacing universe. (p.195)

This universal theme and the development of these two characters are almost serious; Sharpe is in danger of almost treating them as proper human beings – a significant and odd break from Sharpe’s glorious universe of freaks, grotesques and wild improbabilities…

True, Emmelia’s solution to Yapp’s dilemma is to put on a disguise and kidnap other dwarves in a bid to show that the dwarf-killer who topped Coppett is still at large and therefore can’t be Yapp – a strategy which results in a further concatenation of farcical consequences… But it feels forced: the real power comes from this odd eruption of real feeling into the narrative and lingers after you’ve finished the book.

In the end Yapp is released, a much changed man, widowed Mrs Coppett goes to live contentedly with Emmelia, and the narrative winds up in a happy, if rather disconcerting, ending.

Related links

Pan paperback edition of Ancestral Vices showing the cover illustration by Paul Sample

Pan paperback edition of Ancestral Vices showing the cover illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story.

The cover above shows the priggish figure of Walden Yapp, with the vengeful wheelchair-bound Lord Petrefact receiving the sewn-together sucking pig on the left, a cameo of Yapp struggling with the shower at Fawcett Hall in the top left window, the Buscott Mill producing its sex shop accessories in centre top, the alluring figure of the retarded Mrs Coppett and, by Yapp’s right foot, the tiny figure of the dwarf, Willy Coppett, red with blood from the abattoir and carrying his little dagger.

You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

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