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27 April 2011

In Praise of Turnips

I recently wrote a brief essay on the history of the Turnip. Not the root vegetable, but the unlikely hero of my seventh book, The Mischief of the Mistletoe. Turnip was my experiment with a different brand of hero, a hero so far from alpha one might even call him gamma.

Turnip, aka Mr. Reginald Fitzhugh (although almost no-one calls him that) first blundered into my books as a disposable side character in my second book, The Masque of the Black Tulip. I had intended him purely for comic relief, but before he had uttered his second “deuced havey-cavey!” I knew he was there to stay.

Turnip emerges from a long literary tradition. Chaucer’s naïve narrator has a bit of Turnip in him (when the literary critics refer to a man as a good-natured bumbler, you know he’s of the lineage of Turnip), as does Jane Austen’s beloved Bingley, over whom Mr. Bennett shakes his head for “being so easy, that every servant will cheat you; and so generous, that you will always exceed your income”. Fortunately, Turnip’s income is quite large. On the distaff side of the bookshelf, you can find Turnip’s near relations scattered as comic side characters through the works of Georgette Heyer and her modern imitators. One of my favorite proto-Turnips is the endearing but awkward Nigel from Jill Barnett’s Bewitching, for whose sake there wasn’t a chapter thirteen (bad luck, don’t you know!).

For the most part, these lovable bunglers tend to be side characters. People like their heroes to be heroic, and we ascribe to heroism certain qualities of command. It’s hard to imagine Henry V at Agincourt stirring up his men with, “Today is called the day of Crispin, don’cha know. Er… least, I thought it was the day of St. Crispin. More like the afternoon of Crispin, really. Not that there’s anything wrong with afternoon and all that—it’s a scrumbly good time for a battle!” But there are other forms of heroism, and, as Georgette Heyer shows us with her unknown Ajax, sometimes an unimposing exterior can hide unexpected qualities of leadership and resolve. Despite the usual biases towards the alpha hero, one can find the odd leading man among the Turnip brigade. I had already written Turnip into being by the time I read Loretta Chase’s Mr. Impossible, but the minute I met Rupert Carsington, I knew him to be a kinsman of Turnip.

All of these are in Turnip’s DNA, but his real progenitor, the one to whom I doff my chapeau (or my carnation-embroidered waistcoat) is P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster. Like Bertie Wooster, Turnip is entirely at home in his own world and his own waistcoats. It takes so little to make them happy: a new waistcoat, a well-mixed drink, a weekend in the country. The Turnip/Woosters of the world are generous companions. They may be thoughtless, but they’re never malicious. What they might lack in erudition, they make up in kindness. As Wooster blunders into scrapes in the attempt to help out one benighted friend after another, just so Turnip can never refuse a friend in distress, even if his cunning plans sometimes turn out to be less cunning than expected. But that’s all right, too. Wooster has Jeeves to set him straight; my Turnip has his Arabella. In the end, the Woosters and Turnips of the world can always find someone to set the world to rights for them.

A final note on Turnip. Turnip may owe his basic nature to P.G. Wodehouse, but his name comes straight out of the British comedy Blackadder. For those of you who haven’t seen Blackadder, it deals with a rascally Englishman, Edmund Blackadder, scheming his way across various eras of British history with more or less success. (If one is looking for proto-Turnips, there are at least three in the Blackadder series: Sir Percy Percy of the first and second series, the Thicky Prince, aka the Prince Regent, in the third, and "George" in the fourth.) There are certain truths one learns from Blackadder: plans must be cunning; sheep are inherently amusing animals; and if one must have a vegetable, there’s no better vegetable to have than a turnip. I hear Baldrick is still saving up for his little turnip in the country. I had already used up my share of sheep jokes in the first book of the Pink series, so, when I needed an amusing name for a side character, what better than a Turnip?

Have you encountered any other heroes of the lineage of Turnip?

6 Comments:

Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Such a great post, Lauren! I love characters of this type and I'm not particularly fond of alpha heroes, but I confess I was surprised at what a wonderful romantic hero Turnip made. I tend to like my romantic heroes brainy and yet Turnip made a wonderful hero and the love story was so touching and romantic. I absolutely relieved they'd be happy at the end.

I think Jack is Heyer's "Cotillion" is another proto-Turnip as perhaps is Sherry in "Friday's Child" (to a lesser degree; his friend Ferdy is definitely a Turnip type). And Percy Blakeney is a faux Turnip, which is an interesting concept in and of itself. I was going to say I didn't think Turnip-type characters worked in modern settings, but I think Fiona's brother (whose name I can't remember) in "Four Weddings and a Funeral" would qualify.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

I loved Turnip! He is different from so many of the "heroes" in other books... please say we'll see Turnip (and Arabella) again in a future Pink book! Thanks!

6:54 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Interesting point about modern settings! The same guy who played Charles in "Four Weddings" played a similar character on "Vicar of Dibley"-- entirely endearing. In that one, though, he's matched with someone equally not all there.

7:05 PM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Hi, Amy! One of these days, I want to write a book about Sally-- in which case we'll see plenty of Turnip and Arabella!

7:06 PM  
Blogger Shelli said...

I love LOVE LOVE Turnip. (Have I said that before? I'm certain I have on every venue possible.) And I'm so happy to hear that Sally may get her own book!?

10:40 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I see Tracy beat me to Sherry. I’m laughing hysterically, because as I began making a mental list of my favorite “Turnips” they all turned out to be on your list too (Blackadders’s Prinny and Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster are sort of the pattern cards).

Have you all seen “Death at a Funeral”? The British one, not the American remake!!! The poor drugged boyfriend is clearly from the lineage of Turnip.

And “Charles” from “Four Weddings” just showed up on Being Human as George’s dad. Somehow he’s become much more attractive as he ages . . .

9:59 AM  

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