(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

These four novels are the principal deployments of a formula discovered by F. Anstey that subsequently was much imitated by other writers, most successfully by W. D. Darlington and the American Thorne Smith. In each story, the ultraconventional and morally rigid world of the Victorian middle classes is subject to severe disturbance by a magical intrusion. The subsequent chaos permitted contemporary readers temporary relief from the stern pressure of Victorian customs, allowing them to laugh at themselves (or, rather, at others not unlike themselves) without ever really undermining the values they held dear. In his introduction to the omnibus, Anstey observes apologetically that fashions in humor had changed and that the stories could not be expected to appeal to readers in a world that had discarded the smug censoriousness of the Victorians, but he was too cautious: The book sold well to a generation ready and willing to laugh at the absurdities of their parents hang-ups.

The underlying assumption of all four novels is that however artificial and constricting the order of things may be, it is an order well worth preserving. Although it was the least successful when first published, the strongest of the four novels is A Fallen Idol, in which the embarrassments suffered by the hero as a result of the idols mischievous influence occasionally tip over the edge of comedy into horror. Campion sees his whole life falling apart as a result of wrenches to its pattern that are so...

(The entire section is 610 words.)