Perhaps the New York Times Book Review of October 18, 1925 comes closest to hitting the nail on the head when it describes Ronald Firbank’s The Flower Beneath the Foot (1923) as ‘intricate, amiably grotesque buffoonery’. Set at the fantastical court of King Willie and Her Dreaminess the Queen of Pisuerga, this is an absurd and yet poignant tale of love, disillusionment, and debauch on the eve of a royal wedding told in the tittering tones of high camp humour, ‘a blinding melody of chattering eccentrics and postures not always free from vulgarity’.
Like most of Firbank’s witty nonsense, this svelte novel is fast-moving and airy; it evaporates before your eyes. On first reading it, you may make out only vague murmurs about a young woman’s hopes for marriage being dashed. What will capture your attention, though, is Firbank’s pithy descriptions of his characters, cast in pale purple prose that absolutely sashays across the page: ‘With a slight sigh Mademoiselle Laura de Nazianzi took up the posture of a Dying Intellectual’. At night she prays, ‘Oh! help me, heaven to be decorative and to do right!’ Ann-Jules, the Heir Presumptive, ‘has such strength! One could niche an idol in his dear, dinted chin’. King Willie has ‘the air of a tired pastry-cook’. And as for Sister Irene from the Order of the Flaming-Hood: ‘Keen, meagre, and perhaps slightly malicious, hers was a curiously pinched face – like a cold violet’.
This foppish book is heavily laced with bizarre descriptions of dress and interior decoration – ‘saccharine bits of wispy fluff?’, as Michael Dirda, reviewer for the Washington Post, puts it – but its dialogue, pared down to bare essentials, is an abrupt, almost lyrical tour de force of compression, silliness, and double entendre. In the end, it is all quite frivolous and almost too swish; but it makes a delicious sweet to nibble on between more earnest reads.