Really, Miss Henderson!
Published by Collins Clear-Type Press, 1946
Found in Boswell’s Books in Shellburne Falls, MA
Categorizing Really, Miss Henderson! as a book might be generous. It is indeed a book in the sense that it tells a story, has numbered pages and is bound, but the comparisons end about there.
Really, Miss Henderson! is a collection of one-panel cartoons with a single line of dialogue (think New Yorker cartoons) strung together by a forced, paper-thin narrative. All the cartoons take place across the made-up “Pongawabu” archipelago and feature passengers of a sunken “pleasure cruise” ship that had slammed into a rock before sinking. The passengers, including Miss Henderson herself, bailed as the ship sank and swam to safety on these tiny islands with one palm tree each. The passengers also, conveniently, end up splitting into male-female pairs on these islands, and most scenes involve a male character trying in vain to sleep with his female counterpart, who generally replies to the male’s advances with quips like, “Will I be your first mate? I thought you were already married?” and, “I’ve told you before, Colonel Farquhar, I’m not ticklish!”
And so Really, Miss Henderson! feels less like a book than it does one of those cartoon-a-day calendars people put on their desks at work. You know the ones: one panel, line-drawings of fat white people saying something cheesy, sarcastic or misogynistic.
There are some weird variables that make Really, Miss Henderson! interesting. For one, the author’s name is Jiz. That’s it. His name is Jiz. This book is by Jiz. It came out in 1946 from a publisher called Collins Clear-Type Press that had offices in London and Glasgow. A cursory search for other Collins books shows that they published an eclectic array of titles, including How to be Happy Through Married (sic), Modern Views on Education, The Case Against Railway Nationalisation and their own edition of the New Testament. Little else can be found about the press.
And I guess that’s what is so fascinating: that this book, printed by a fairly unknown publisher 67 years ago, written and drawn by a person named Jiz, somehow made it to a tiny bookstore in a tiny town in Western Massachusetts. I’m sure the actual explanation is simple and unexciting, something like: A dude was cleaning out his grandfather’s attic, found a box of old books and sold them to the nearest used bookseller. But still, I find myself attempting to understand why anyone would buy this book in the first place (aside from me, a weird book fetishist). But, I digress. Let’s talk about the actual narrative of Really, Miss Henderson!
The ship sinks, and the passengers scatter. This is all explained on the first page, the only extended piece of text in the book. Each section thereafter is set up by some contextualizing words, and a series of cartoons follow. The first section deals mostly with how the passengers are handling their newfound remote island lifestyles, and every single cartoon is sexually charged. None of the cartoons deal with survival. There’s little to no talk about how food and water will be procured, no talk of potential escape plans, and no real signs of despair. It’s just a bunch of men and women filling stereotyped roles: The women are cold, distant and unwilling to submit sexually, and the men are slovenly, sex-crazed buffoons.
The next few sections set the reader up with a quick paragraph of text summarizing how island life is developing among the stranded passengers. Sporting events, like wheelbarrow racing, turtle-riding (exactly what you think) and rock climbing, materialize. Yes, suddenly there are cliffs among these previously isolated islands, and the islands somehow become bigger. In section one, all the islands are barely big enough for two people. But in sections two through four, the islands seem to expand and contain almost all the passengers, who now have stylish clothes. (Previously, they were all mostly naked because the shipwreck occurred while most passengers were showering or just in their skivvies.) The men also begin to form clubs because they miss their homeland social circles. The women also band together, and Jiz tells us, “when [the women] did so, a male was generally the subject of their conversation” — and not, oh, I don’t know: “HOW THE FUCK WILL WE GET OFF THESE ISLANDS?”
The narrative really hurries along around page 38, a little over halfway through the book. Here’s the setup text:
“As the situation eased still further the castaways fell in love and out of it again, they had rows and patched them up. They gossiped, pulled each other’s leg and tried to relieve ennui and boredom (not that there was much!) with wisecrack and idle jest.
Generally speaking youth and age were a match for each other.”
Men and women start sleeping with each other, and they try to get along. At this point, it’s also important to note that Miss Henderson has more or less vanished from the narrative. She’s mentioned once or twice in passing, but most remarks about her focus on her prudishness. But, as we are told in the book’s opening remarks, “Miss Henderson does not, however, monopolize this book.” Then why isn’t the book just called People Trying to Bone on Small Islands?
But that doesn’t matter because before the book is through, two bizarre things happen: It’s revealed that the islands are actually inhabited by cannibals, and that this whole story took place over just three days. Three days! The way a society begins to form on these islands amongst the shipwrecked makes the reader believe that they’ve been abandoned for months. My best guess as to what happened here is that Collins Clear-Type Press liked the cartoons, which were previously published in The Tatler and Bystander, a British literary journal, and asked Jiz to jam a narrative into a series of cartoons, then slap together a book from it. It still doesn’t make the thing any less ridiculous, though.
But, back to the cannibals: It’s strange that it takes until page 57 (out of 72) to mention that, “Oh, by the way, people do live on these islands, and they also like to eat other people, FYI.” The natives of the island are drawn to resemble the stereotypical idea of tribal Africans: very dark-skinned, bone necklaces and piercings, little clothing, even less civilization and a penchant for human flesh. It’s extremely racist, stupid and mind-boggling. Though the text mentions people getting eaten, none of that takes place in the actual cartoons. Mostly, it is just the white passengers standing and acting scared around the black natives who hold spears and wear menacing grins.
But then, suddenly, all the passengers are rescued. There’s no mention of radio contact or flares or anything like that, but a rescue boat just materializes out of nowhere and saves everyone before they’re eaten. Whew. Jiz, in this sense, is rescued himself (or herself?) from writing any sort of dramatic turns or actual conflict. It was as if a representative from Collins Clear-Type was standing behind Jiz demanding a finished product.
While this book really has no purpose, it’s still fun to think about what was behind it and how the hell it ever got made. Of course, I have no answers to those questions and probably never will. Jiz’s work will just fade into the void. Poor Jiz.