A. P. Herbert was born on this day in 1890. Herbert was a lawyer, a British MP and a prominent writer across many genres. His popular Misleading Cases books satirized the English legal system with such accuracy that some lawyers mistook them for actual trial proceedings. At issue in “Trott vrs. Tulip” is whether the literary critic, Mrs. Tulip, was defamatory when she accused the popular novelist, Miss Trott, of being “a bit of a highbrow,” thereby ruining her sales. Judge Wool tries to restrict the witnesses to literary topics — “Is Aldous Huxley a highbrow?” “Yes”; “Was William Shakespeare a highbrow?” “No, he made good” — but their testimony tends to range afield:
COUNSEL: Can you give us any idea of what you mean by a highbrow?
WITNESS: A highbrow is the kind of person who looks at a sausage and thinks of Picasso. She thinks life is nothing but a frame for art. You cannot talk to her about the weather. She has no soul for detective stories. She cannot swim. She reads in the bath. She—
COUNSEL: One moment, Mr. Haddock—
WITNESS: She quotes French writers at breakfast. She has just read a book which you have not. She tells you so. She cannot understand the attraction of chorus girls. She would rather her daughters were brainy than beautiful. She has no sense of humour.
COUNSEL: But. Mr. Haddock—?
WITNESS: Wit, sometimes, but no humour. She knows too much. She talks too much. She takes no exercise. She does not care if it snows. She drinks too much coffee. She does not care for the Colonies. Her soul is in Florence. She cannot cook. She would be at a loss in a conversation with a bookmaker—
COUNSEL: But is the jury to understand, Mr. Haddock, that in your opinion the highbrow is necessarily of the feminine gender?
WITNESS: Of course. It is one of the special diseases of women.
COUNSEL: But are there no highbrows among men?
WITNESS: There are, of course. There are many feminine men, Sir Etheired.
While not particularly convinced by this bit of expertise, Judge Wool awards damages to Miss Trott.
Herbert was capable of literary modes quite beyond satire as well: his 1919 WWI novel The Secret Battle explores the topic of wartime deserters; Winston Churchill wrote an introduction for a later edition, describing the book as “a soldier’s tale cut in stone to melt all hearts.”
…Then we saw him pick up
all the things that were down.
He picked up the cake,
and the rake, and the gown,
and the milk, and the strings,
and the books, and the dish,
and the fan, and the cup,
and the ship, and the fish.
And he put them away.
Then he said, “That is that.”
And then he was gone
with a tip of his hat.
—from The Cat in the Hat; Theodor Seuss Geisel died on this day in 1991
Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.