Swap the library for some laughs this exam seasonEmily Lawson-Todd for Varsity

“I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading! – so proclaims the vacuous Miss Bingley in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. However sarcastically Austen meant the line, there’s no doubt that finding the time to read a good, funny book (and not whichever godforsaken epic has won over the bores on this year’s Booker panel) is the best escape from the horrors of exams at this time of year.

We’re positively spoilt for choice in this country – indeed, I’ve often thought that nobody writes comedy quite like the British. Here are just a few of my favourite classic comedies:

Northanger Abbey (1817), Jane Austen

Dewy-eyed romantics may feel at home in the first half of Northanger Abbey, where a young Catherine Morland is swept off her feet by the dashing Henry Tilney during a visit to Bath. Leave the rose-tinted specs at the door, however, and you will soon discover a gloriously witty send-up of the Gothic novels that were so popular in Austen’s time.

The self-proclaimed ‘heroine-in-training’ soon visits the Tilneys’ eponymous medieval pile and her love for Gothic horror (a passion shared and encouraged by her flighty friend, Isabella Thorpe) leads her to imagine secrets hidden in every cabinet, and bodies in every locked room. Very soon, Catherine learns more about the family’s history and begins to suspect Henry’s eccentric father of a litany of ever more terrible crimes. However dark Catherine’s suspicions, her gauche ‘investigations’ and entertainingly naïve ideas arguably make this Austen’s funniest, cleverest work.

“We’re positively spoilt for choice in this country – indeed, I’ve often thought that nobody writes comedy quite like the British”

Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) (1889), Jerome K. Jerome

I recently asked an exceptionally well-read friend for suggestions on which books to include on this list. Her response was instant: Three Men in a Boat. It may seem amazing that a book originally intended as a vade mecum for boaters on the Thames has become such a beloved classic. Yet from the first page, when the hypochondriac narrator, J., flicks through a medical dictionary to try and ascertain what he is ‘suffering’ from (everything, apparently, except ‘housemaid’s knee’), the novel’s comic brilliance becomes blindingly obvious.

J. soon decides to embark on a bucolic tour of the sleepy suburbs around London and the Home Counties with his eccentric friends, Harris and George, and tenacious fox terrier Montmorency. His narration of their voyage downriver is peppered from start to finish with hilarious anecdotes detailing, among others, the protagonists’ (losing) battles with a pineapple tin and the maze at Hampton Court. But Jerome wisely saves his coup de grace for the end, when the three friends come across a stuffed trout on the wall of a pub and hilarity ensues…

“There’s no doubt that finding the time to read a good, funny book is the best escape from the horrors of exams at this time of year”

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934) by Agatha Christie

Something of a left-field choice on a list like this, it’s often forgotten that the ‘Queen of Crime’ was both a fan and contemporary of great comedy authors such as P.G. Wodehouse, whose prose style she channelled in several novels, including The Secret of Chimneys (1925) and The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), both of which feature eccentric casts of doddering aristocrats, formidable matriarchs and bored socialites. This book, however, recently adapted for television by Cambridge alumnus Hugh Laurie, might just be her most famous comic work.

In the sleepy town of Marchbolt (one of those rare chocolate-box deathtraps that neither Poirot nor Miss Marple ever managed to infiltrate), the vicar’s son Bobby Jones is playing golf when he stumbles across an injured man at the bottom of a cliff. In his dying breaths, the man utters the cryptic phrase: “Why didn’t they ask Evans?”. Bobby’s childhood friend, glamorous ‘it girl’ Lady Frances Derwent, is convinced that they are dealing with murder, and the pair soon end up sleuthing their way through the pages of Debrett’s to try and catch the killer. Yet, even though dark forces are at work, this is no hard-boiled thriller, with the duo’s sparkling romantic banter and daredevil capers helping to keep the tone feather-light from start to finish.

“How could anyone not warm to a book with exchanges like that?”

The Code of the Woosters (1938) by P.G. Wodehouse

“There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, ‘Do trousers matter? ’”

“The mood will pass, sir.”

How could anyone not warm to a book with exchanges like that? The Code of the Woosters is arguably the finest work by the English language’s greatest master. Set in the ever-sunny world of half-witted toff, Bertie Wooster, it contains all the familiar Wodehousian tropes – tyrannical aunts, repulsive love interests and Bertie’s newt-fancying friend, the wonderfully-named Gussie Fink-Nottle. When Bertie is ordered by said aunt to pinch a silver cow creamer from the country house of his old flame, the irredeemably soppy Madeline Bassett, things quickly go pear-shaped. Our hero is soon threatened by both the human gorilla (and wannabe dictator) Roderick Spode and, worse still, the prospect of imminent matrimony. It will take all the fish-enhanced brains of Bertie’s trusty valet, Jeeves, to extricate his employer from an ever-multiplying array of plot twists…

Alternatively, if you prefer rural idylls and a slower pace of life, try Wodehouse’s Blandings Castle stories, which chronicle the equally wacky escapades of the scatterbrained Lord Emsworth and his prize pig, the Empress of Blandings.

My Family and Other Animals (1956) by Gerald Durrell

For someone who never enjoyed writing, Gerald Durrell was extraordinarily good at it. His most famous work, the autobiographical My Family and Other Animals, chronicles his idyllic childhood in the sun-drenched paradise of Corfu, where Durrell indulged his passion for natural history by turning the family villa into a miniature menagerie – much to his long-suffering mother’s despair! The (human) characters are larger than life too, from Durrell’s eccentric siblings (melodramatic fashionista Margo, gun-toting hooligan Leslie and armchair intellectual Larry) to Spiro Halikiopoulos, a bombastic taxi driver who takes the family under his wing.


Mountain View

The Reading List: it’s Pulitzer season

Durrell’s passion for the natural world was a constant theme throughout his life, and the profits from his novels allowed him to set up his pioneering zoo in Jersey, which focused on collecting and breeding little-known endangered species – something we lesser mortals can only dream of! All of his books are worth reading, but My Family and Other Animals is where his career – in my eyes, the greatest in history – started, and is unquestionably the finest, funniest love letter to the natural world ever written.