Mrs Weber’s Omnibus

Mrs Weber's Omnibus

I’m a huge fan of Posy Simmonds’ work, at least those bits — Tamara Drewe, Gemma Bovery — that have made it over the pond. I was very curious about Mrs Weber’s Omnibus, given that it collects six of her previous books, published between 1979 and 1993:

  • Mrs Weber’s Diary
  • True Love
  • Pick of Posy
  • Very Posy
  • Pure Posy
  • Mustn’t Grumble

With what I’ve mentioned and the short cartoon collection Literary Life, that’s everything she’s done that aren’t children’s books.

I’d heard about these strips before, knowing that she drew a weekly comic strip for the Guardian for years and years, but it hadn’t struck me just how long she’d been doing it. Then I started reading, and I realized how long ago some of these concerns and attitudes (and hairstyles!) seemed.

Mrs Weber's Omnibus

The comics, two pages each in the first volume, combine scribbled diary notes and strip format to show the daily lives of three women friends and their families. Wendy used to be a nurse but now is a mother of six; her husband George lectures at university. They’re the two most obviously ex-hippies, and their attempts to stay true to their 1960s politics in the light of 1980s concerns feels like a time capsule (particularly since we’re as far away again from this time period now as they were from their younger attitudes). Their oldest daughter Belinda struggles most (in a way reminiscent of Family Ties, to cite another 80s artifact) with their lifestyle as she aims to be a modern woman.

Then there’s Trish, whose husband Stanhope works in advertising and sleeps around and whose stepdaughter Jocasta is carrying on the activist attitude while studying art. And Jo, whose husband Edmund is a “hail, fellow, well met” drinker and salesman. Frankly, between the couples and kids, there are a LOT of cast members to keep track of, but most of the time, the situation is the point, and the character types make themselves clear. Taken together, they make up a wonderful portrait of a particular style of English middle-class life during a certain time period.

Although some of the material is dated, a surprising number of the comics capture behavior that’s universal, even if the trappings are of a particular period. Subjects include the generation gap, gossip and hypocrisy, sexism (surprisingly and disturbingly still relevant), art and culture, gender role expectations, and of course, relationships. There are divorces and working mothers struggling to balance work and family, as well as concerns about affording the bills and worries about finding the right job when unemployment’s high.

The most timeless chapter is the second volume, True Love, about a deluded secretary who’s read too many romances dreaming about her boss Stanhope. The conventions of the love comic, including exaggerated glamour drawings, contrast nicely with the real-life bobbles and idiocies of sneaking around.

The third and later volumes drop the diary concept to focus on single-page cartoons that are more subject-focused. That approach makes sense, with a strip that readers may or may not recall week to week. I was reminded, with the sprawling cast, politically tinged relationships, and literary and academic concerns, of Dykes to Watch Out For. One surprising subject that occasionally recurred and struck me as just as relevant today were mothers concerned over their small children imitating the “pop tarts” they saw on tv, singing and gyrating suggestively.

As I expected, the cartooning is highly appealing. The characters are simply designed but full of personality and movement. An awful lot is immediately conveyed through just the right choices of setting and clothing. With such a huge book, it’s a smorgasbord of Simmonds. I loved the chance to read them all, and to recall what’s changed — and what hasn’t — since then. (The publisher provided a review copy.)


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