Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 November 2016
The comic short story might too easily be dismissed as an appendix to a sub-genre: a lightweight variation on the novel's junior partner. In some instances this classification is well deserved, with authors making use of brevity as the opportunity to dress in respectable literary garb an extended joke or an exercise in parody. At the same time, it is possible to locate those who regard as a challenge the combining of humour that is more than trivial with the demands of a compact, pressurized narrative.
At the close of the nineteenth century short fiction was becoming established as a popular alternative to the full-length novel, and one of the first, and certainly one of the most popular, practitioners of the comic form was Barry Pain. Pain was a journalist who found that the rise of the weekly magazine, aimed mostly at the lower middle-class suburban reader, created the opportunity for literary writing that guaranteed payment by submission. This in itself was partly responsible for the consolidation of short fiction in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Such pieces could be read in a single journey by individuals commuting in and out of the city on the ever-expanding rail network, and magazines such as Cornhill, Punch and the Daily Chronicle regularly made room for stories of one to two thousand words alongside their mixture of current affairs, gossip and reviews.
Pain's most famous stories (1900–13) involve the eponymous ‘Eliza’. Their popularity has endured to the extent that in 1992 BBC 2 adapted them as ten-minute screen performances and in 2006 BBC Radio 4 followed suit with a week-long serialization. The narrator is Eliza's husband but we never learn of his first name, nor indeed of the married name he shares with Eliza, because she never uses his name in the conversations between them that make up most of the dialogue. This might seem a curious gesture on Pain's part, but we gradually discern a connection between the partial anonymity of the first-person narrator, through no fault of his own, and the general temper of the pieces. For readers with a taste for magazine fiction Eliza's husband would have been faintly familiar. In 1888–9, in Punch, George and Weedon Grossmith magnetized a considerable readership with the dull pomposity of Charles and Caroline (‘Carrie’) Pooter.