Elspeth Huxley's festival of English eccentrics; The Prince Buys the Manor, by Elspeth Huxley. London: Chatto & Windus. 15 pp.

It sometimes seems as if, to compensate for the loss of Empire, the British have turned to satire of themselves, their institutions, and any other contemporary notion that piques them. The tone may be affectionae, in the manner of P. G. Wodehouse, or bitter, even nihilistic, in the style of Monty Python, but the intention is rather to highlight the absurd than to dazzle with wit.

Elspeth Huxley, known for her books on Africa, has written in "The Prince Buys the Manor" a novel that chronicles the absurdities of comtemporary English country life.

Humor, rather than shocked outrage, characterizes Huxley's descriptions of local folly, posturing, and pretension. The tone is light, but the observations are as shrewd and pertinent as any sociological survey. Like that of a farce, the plot is generously endowed with twists, turns, surprises, and the obligatory happy ending. But the plot is secondary to the characters -- all caricatures -- and their current preoccupations. The characters may well be foolish or ill-informed, but they are inhibited by that civility which is the hallmark of a mature society; even Huxley's villains are more mountebank than menace.

When the heir to the throne, a still unmarried Prince of Wales, buys Cantilevre Manor as a country retreat where he may entertain friends (discreetly referred to as "You Know Who"), the inhabitants of Shipton Wick are understandably excited. The town is suitably ancient (the town emblem having been bestowed on the place in Saxon times by Ethelbald the Elder), and it has the usual varied and eccentric inhabitants.

Mothers of eligible daughters dream of a royal alliance. City councillors quarrel over the appropriate forms of welcome. Local animal lovers plan demonstrations against the Opening Meet of the hunt (which has been meeting at Cantilevre Manor since the first lord of the manor returned from the First Crusade). A group of international terrorists sends a member down to prepare a spectacular kidnapping. And a local magnate creates the first microchip toothbrush; naturally he names it the White Prince and invites His Highness to the gala launching of the new product at his local factory.

Other characters include Astrid, the ecology-minded hairdresser; gallant and energetic General Mkubwa, appointed as special aide to the Prince in a gesture of friendship to the coupridden country of Hapana, a nonaligned member of the Commonwealth; and the usual dotty members of the aristocracy, who never feel any obligation to apologize for their behavior, however peculiar.

Huxley's satire is gentle and affectionate, but there is the occasional underlying asperity. She writes with a certain malicious glee of the excesses of some admirers of royalty, environmentalists, local followers of a rather wordly guru, timid civil servants, and city councils eager to be trendy at any cost.

The temptation is to speculate that a nation's age may be guaged by its prevailing humor: a young confident Elizabethan England punned and parried with words and witticisms, mature Victorians preferred comic characters in sitcom settings, and an aging, seen-it-all Britain, concluding that nothing is sacred or sensible, sees absurdities everywhere. "The Prince Buys the Manor" is an enjoyable romp over familiar terrain: Blandings Castle is somewhere close by, and Bertie Wooster, brought suitably up to date, is driving insouciantly along a country lane, heading for a weekend in the country. Absurdities abound, and Huxley notes them all for our pleasure and amused instruction.

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