Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Vice Versa by F Anstey


When I picked this book up in an op shop and read the back cover, my first thought was Ah-ha, that's where they got the plot to Freaky Friday from! You know, it's the story where a parent and child have a terrible relationship until by some quirk of fate they end up switching bodies? And they both have lessons to learn about walking a mile in someone else's shoes before the happy ending?
It never struck me as being a particularly edifying plotline. If only we understood people's hardships, we would be more sympathetic to them. Discord in the world is the result of a lack of sympathy. Be sympathetic, and the world becomes a better place. In the words of Socrates, Nuh-uh.
Vice Versa is about pompous Mr Paul Bultitude, who one day wishes (in the midst of a lecture to his naughty son Dick, who doesn't wish to return to boarding-school) that he was a boy again. Mr Bultitude's surprise on finding that he now inhabits the body of his son is considerable, but his feelings when Dick seizes upon the same mode of transformation to switch himself into his father's body and then packs the unfortunate Mr Bultitude off to school can hardly be described.
Boarding-school becomes a fiery crucible for Mr Bultitude's character. Blamed for his son's previous misdoings, beset by his son's masters and child 'sweetheart', an object of punishment to bullies, and completely incompetent with his lessons, Mr Bultitude also finds himself unable to adapt himself to his surroundings. Meanwhile he is tortured by the news from home that his son, now wearing his guise, is wasting his money and causing strange stories to circulate about his name.
All this in tones of light comedy. The book is a hoot.
But then somewhere along the plotline, the book changes. It transcends itself. It crosses the line from fluffy entertainment to quality literature. Mr Bultitude is forced to grow in ways he never intended, and when he comes home—harried, hunted, and desperate—it is almost like Odysseus returning. He casts out the wicked uncle who has guessed the secret and come to make money off it; forgives his repentant son; and restores order to his home, a wiser and more grateful man.
This is less a story about the necessity of sympathy than it is the portrait of a man who is forced to grow in character during a horrible ordeal. Not that boarding-schools are portrayed as horrible; just horrible for this particular man, no longer boy enough to deal with it. For all that the book must have struck a chord with one unhappy schoolboy who later used the name Mr Bultitude for the pet bear in That Hideous Strength—CS Lewis.
Edited to add--Thanks to the commenter who provided CS Lewis's own assessment of this book:
I spoke just now of Vice Versa. Its popularity was surely due to something more than farce. It is the only truthful school story in existence. The machinery of the Garuda Stone really serves to bring out in their true colours (which would otherwise seem exaggerated) the sensations which every boy had on passing from the warmth and softness and dignity of his home life to the privations, the raw and sordid ugliness, of school. -- C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Ch 2.

4 comments:

Radagast said...

"I spoke just now of Vice Versa. Its popularity was surely due to something more than farce. It is the only truthful school story in existence. The machinery of the Garuda Stone really serves to bring out in their true colours (which would otherwise seem exaggerated) the sensations which every boy had on passing from the warmth and softness and dignity of his home life to the privations, the raw and sordid ugliness, of school." -- C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, Ch 2

Suzannah said...

Oh! Thank you so much! I have never read Surprised By Joy and came across Vice Versa entirely by accident. It's great to hear Lewis's take on it!

Anonymous said...

I came across a reference to Mr. Bultitude in "The Golden Bat," by P. G. Wodehouse, 1904. He describes a moody fellow at Wrykin public school: "Give him two or three congenial spirits to back him up, and he would lead the revels with the abandon of a Mr. Bultitude (after his return to his original form)." Delighted to make his acquaintance through this post!

ken edwards said...

Found vice versa by way of surprised by joy, as well. Also surprised by vice versa . .

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