On the first day of Turnip, my author gave to me… A Brief History of the Turnip.
Lest anyone doubt my debt to Black Adder, here’s a little piece I wrote for the paperback edition of The Mischief of the Mistletoe, “A Brief History of the Turnip”, in which we discuss Mr. Bingley, Bertie Wooster, and, of course, Lord Percy Percy.
A Brief History of the Turnip
You knew I didn’t mean the root vegetable, right? I’m talking about Mr. Reginald Fitzhugh, more commonly known to his friends and associates as “Turnip”. Turnip first blundered into my books as a disposable side character in 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 with 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 Cripsin, 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 Black Adder. For those of you who haven’t seen Black Adder, 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 two in the Black Adder series: Sir Percy Percy of the first and second series and the Thicky Prince, aka the Prince Regent, in the third.) There are certain truths one learns from Black Adder: 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?
Who is your favorite proto-Turnip?