With great aunts come great responsibility

Or, the common enemy

“If Death were truly conquered, there would be / Too many great-great-great-great aunts to see.” L.E. Jones

What is it about great aunts?

Start with Oscar Wilde, and Lady Augusta Bracknell. “Only relatives, or creditors, ever ring in that Wagnerian manner,” notes Algernon when his overbearing aunt comes to call in The Importance of Being Earnest. As she haughtily advises Jack, “To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

Then there’s Saki (“Not to be confused with sake”— Wikipedia), the pen name of Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), who satirized Edwardian society until a German sniper killed him in the First World War (last words: “Put that bloody cigarette out!”). After his mother was killed by a rampaging cow, Munro was raised by his strict aunts. The best of his short stories snap like mousetraps, and the most dastardly of his villains are aunts. 

In “The Lumber Room,” a boy’s happiness is threatened by “his cousins’ aunt, who insisted, by an unwarranted stretch of imagination, in styling herself his aunt.” This aunt keeps her real and imagined nephews in line via psychological torture:

 It was her habit, whenever one of the children fell from grace, to improvise something of a festival nature from which the offender would be rigorously debarred; if all the children sinned collectively they were suddenly informed of a circus in a neighbouring town, a circus of unrivalled merit and uncounted elephants, to which, but for their depravity, they would have been taken that very day.

And of course there’s P.G. Wodehouse, whose characters would live in a distant paradise of highballs and croquet if it weren’t for all those aunts. “It is no use telling me there are bad aunts and good aunts,” Bertie Wooster observes. “At the core, they are all alike. Sooner or later, out pops the cloven hoof.

Christopher Hitchens had a theory that Wodehouse’s oeuvre was drawing from The Importance of Being Earnest: Fearsome aunts unleashing convoluted plots that are neatly resolved in country houses. But even if you take Saki’s personal history and credit P.G. to Oscar, we still haven’t found the ur-aunt who struck so much fear in so many hearts.

I posit that it was Queen Victoria. As disapproving great aunt to those she ruled, Her Majesty loomed large in the popular imagination. “We are not amused,” was her catchphrase, though like most catchphrases she probably never said it. 

Oscar Wilde was once put on the spot at a dinner party when another guest said he could come up with a witticism about any subject imaginable. 

“Queen Victoria!” another diner shouted. To which Wilde allegedly responded:

“Queen Victoria is not a subject.”

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Quick quips; lightning

“Queen Victoria was like a great paperweight that for half a century sat upon men’s minds, and when she was removed their ideas began to blow all over the place haphazardly.”— H.G. Wells (1866-1946)

“Nowadays, a parlour maid as ignorant as Queen Victoria was when she came to the throne would be classified as mentally defective.” — George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

“To try and find out the reason for everything is very dangerous and leads to nothing but disappointment and dissatisfaction, unsettling your mind and in the end making you miserable.” — Queen Victoria (1819–1901)


That concludes the 30th issue of Get Wit Quick, a weekly newsletter of unrivalled merit and uncounted elephants. My book Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting was born in a handbag. We believe the royal family peaked with Her Majesty’s 1988 appearance in The Naked Gun, and we are perennially amused when readers tap the ❤️ below.