Ben Jonson’s ‘Every Man In His Humor’ A Meaningful Model for Strike Stories?

Two notes from informed readers on yesterday’s post that mentioned the placement of the cover of Ben Jonson’s Every Man In His Humour on the home page:

Trinity College, Oxford University, Research Fellow and Lecturer in Renaissance Literature Beatrice Groves texts from her vacation spot —

“I am excited by the hint that Jonson’s Every Man in his Humour might be the source of the chapter epigraphs/be relevant to the plot for Lethal White. It’s one of my favourite Jonson plays (after the big three – The Alchemist, Volpone and Bartholomew Fair) and it made Jonson’s name in the 1590s as the author of ‘humours’ comedy – i.e. comedy where each person is strongly identified with a particular humour – the physiological make-up that they believed strongly influenced your personality (and which still exists in modern English with ‘sanguine’ for example – someone with a predominance of blood, has a happy/hopeful outlook). “

My son Zossima, 17 today, notes, though, that dad was probably mistaken in assuming that the book cover, like the notebook drawing, was about Lethal White.  He thinks that the book cover may have been been placed on the website years ago, not as a pointer to things to come but to things in a previous book. He’s right; Every Man In His Humour is quoted as a chapter epigraph no less than five times in The Silkworm: chapters 7 (p 35), 14 (101), 18 (137), 28 (237), and 42 (375). Jonson’s Epicene is quoted before chapters 22 (p 164) and 25 (198).

So, either it’s arbitrary, i.e., Every Man’s cover could have been the cover of Thomas Dekker’s The Noble Spanish Soldier (quoted as The Silkworm‘s frontispiece epigraph) but they didn’t have a copy at hand, or it’s not a pointer to Lethal White but to Silkworm, or it’s a strong suggestion to the discerning reader that we’re missing the “humoural comedy” embedded in the work of which Silkworm is only a part, and that’s why Rowling quotes from Every Man so freely in Silkworm, though that second mystery is all about Jacobean Revenge Dramas — and Every Man In His Humour is not one of those.

This last possibility, the one of “humoural comedy” raised implicitly in Prof Groves’ note, is the one that interests me.

“Humoural Comedy,” after all, is an aspect of Literary Alchemy. That’s not just John’s hobby horse. Rowling has been writing work with prominent alchemical structures, glyphs, and colors since Philosopher’s Stone. Ron and Hermione, Fleur and Molly are stark for-instances of temperaments in alchemical conflict; hence Ron’s being named ‘Bilius’ and Fleur nick-named “Phlegm.” The academic go-to resource on the subject of Literary Alchemy, Stanton Linden’s Darke Hieroglyphicks, devotes a chapter to ‘Ben Jonson and the Drama of Alchemy.’ Shakespeare? Almost nothing in Linden’s book; Jonson’s the major player in his view.

[I’d note, too, as an aside, that if we wanted a relatively contemporary model of “humoural comedy,” one we know Rowling has read and re-read from her statements in long-ago interviews, there’s an obvious source or influence.  C. S. Lewis’ Narniad is a play of four temperaments as I’ve discussed in my talks on the subject.

The four Pevensie children as stock representations of the four temperaments, for example, is fairly straightforward and Lewis repeats the pattern in other Chronicles (see the PPoint slides from discussions of Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Silver Chair). Rowling is remarkably negative about CSL; as a one stop source, though, for her Christian content, literary alchemy to include humoural comedy, parody-pastiche, and ring writing, it’s really hard to overlook his work.]

Back to the series in hand by Robert Galbraith —

My first guess on the humoural comedy of the Cormoran Strike novels? That the loving couples we have at the story origin, Matt and Robin, Charlotte and Cormoran, are alchemical pairings of temperaments. Their break-ups reflect incompatibility as humours and suggest that the Cormoran-Robin combination is a qualitative match, either through complementarity (likely) or a shared temperament. Choleric, Phlegmatic, Bilious, and Sanguine… Though Charlotte seems the most volatile, I’ll go with her as the sanguine character, Robin, the most peaceful, as phlegmatic, Matt as Bilious, and Strike the choleric. Though the two detectives are made for each other, it’s not hard to see what Blueie sees in Charlotte and Robin in Matt.

But perhaps Rowling’s humoural artistry is not as one-to-one or mechanical as that, something more in line with the Dickensian or Menippean satire of archetypical human failings and mental attitudes. I have wondered, given the preponderance and borderline in-your-face quality of genre parody and subversion in the Hogwarts Saga, with which she had significant success (even if the parody was lost on readers…), why she gave it up in her Strike novels. She plays with the rules of detective fiction — Dolores Gordon-Smith assures me it is not okay to have the PI’s client be the murderer — but there’s nothing like Schoolboy fiction being transformed in the story.

Think Nabokov when in doubt. “Satire is a lesson, parody is a game.” If Rowling has moved from the one to the other, in a drift consistent with her Twitter sarcasm and surety, she is no longer playing games but teaching lessons.

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