Corney Grain’s RefrainsOn November 10, 2021 by Elyse
When you’re born with the name “Richard Corney Grain,” you’re destined for either greatness or ridicule. In the case of the 19th-century British entertainer, he found a bit of both.
My unfortunate name is likewise the subject of much controversy. My parents played a very bad practical joke on me when they gave me the names in my baptism of Richard Corney. The proximity of Corney to Grain does look odd, I admit; but it is so written down in the Family Bible, and the Parish Registry of Teversham, Cambs.– Corney Grain, Corney Grain, By Himself, 1888
Corney Grain, as he was known, was born in 1844 in Cambridgeshire to a family of farmers. He defied the usual order of things by practicing law before transitioning to a different kind of performance art and kicking off a career as a comedian, singer and songwriter. Over the next 25 years, he performed both onstage and in private homes, and was an entertainer and later partner in the German Reed Entertainments, a London theater company.
Corney was successful enough in his day to publish an autobiography in 1888, seven years before his death from pneumonia. While his memoir is not as snarky or salacious as Second Glance History readers have come to expect, it’s a testament to a man who, although largely forgotten today, “had not only provided amusement for idle hours, but had also given the public something worth thinking about and something by which they could not fail to profit.”
Without further ado, let’s lift the curtain on his life, shall we?
Corney had a sense of humor (obviously).
He didn’t confine his quick wit to his performances:
One of the most awkward incidents that occurred to me was when a gentleman said, “Oh! Yes! We’ll get him to sing that. Mr. Grain, do give us your sketch of ‘The Drinking Fountain.’ I think it’s quite your best.”
I said I would with pleasure but for the fact that I didn’t know it, as it was Mr. Grossmith’s sketch.
Then ensued an embarrassing silence, and the company in desperation rushed at the weather as a conversational relief.– Corney Grain, Corney Grain, By Himself, 1888
Along with getting into elevators with strangers and running into someone whose name I can’t remember, Corney has given me yet another reason to be grateful I live in a place with conversation-worthy weather.
This anecdote doesn’t appear in Corney’s autobiography, but since it was published in newspapers on at least three continents, I sure hope it’s true:
He was engaged on one occasion to entertain a large party of guests at a country house. He travelled down from town in the afternoon, as directed, by a train which landed him at his destination just as the guests were assembling for dinner.
Instead of being received in the drawing-room, however, Mr. Grain was conducted to the butler’s private room, and there, while the house party were dining upstairs, his dinner was served. When he had finished his dinner, he entertained the servants to some amusing quips and cranks.
When the flunkey summoned him to the drawing-room, he replied, “Give your master my compliments, and tell him that, as I was sent to the servants’ hall, I naturally concluded that it was the servants I was engaged to entertain. I have given my entertainment, and am going back to town by the next train.” He did it, too.– The Evening Express, March 19, 1895
Corney had a thin skin.
[E]ven praise takes a dubious form when an old gentleman says to you, “We went to hear you last night, and thought you’d rather improved.” Rather improved! No! I do not like the term. Better than ever would have flattered my vanity more.– Corney Grain, Corney Grain, By Himself, 1888
I’ve been called oversensitive on occasion—okay, all occasions—so I viscerally feel the sting of that backhanded compliment even more than a century later. However, perhaps there’s a grain of wisdom in it (I promise that’s my only pun this week):
It is an encouraging thing for a young artist to look over some old criticisms of great men in literature and art, and to find their earlier efforts, and sometimes mature efforts, abused in no measured terms. It gives him hope, and buoys him up against the depression arising from “a nasty notice.”– Corney Grain, Corney Grain, By Himself, 1888
Readers, you’ve been very kind to me thus far. However, if I ever get trolled, after I’m done sobbing and rocking back and forth in the fetal position, I’ll take some comfort in the criticism of those who came before me.
Corney was polite to a fault.
I once sang before Lord Tennyson, and began a song of mine called “The Old Gown,” which contained towards the finish a paraphrase of two well-known lines by that great poet. I suddenly recollected this fact, and how I got out of the mess I do not know, but I floundered about and never finished the song. I thought I would sooner allow the audience to think that my memory had failed me, than face the stern glances of the Poet Laureate.– Corney Grain, Corney Grain, By Himself, 1888
He wasn’t the only Victorian celebrity who had a run-in with Alfred Tennyson. Considering Corney’s aversion to criticism, he should count himself lucky the poet didn’t compare his performance to an old boot.
Corney wasn’t overly fond of Americans.
I met a very old and very quaint American lady in Venice once. She came up to me and said, “I know what you are and what you do. I hope you’ll give some of your funny things to-night.” I explained that I was holiday-making, and I was going to meander lazily in a gondola that night. Apparently resenting my refusal to sing, she retorted, “Well, I think you’re the least funny-looking man I ever met!”– Corney Grain, Corney Grain, By Himself, 1888
A sense of entitlement wasn’t the only unfortunate American habit Corney noted:
There was another American lady on board a British India steamer when I went to Cairo in 1884. She was piling up large heaps of jam and buttered toast on a plate. “What are you going to do with that, madam?” said an astonished old gentleman.
“Sir,” she said, “I am doing unto others as I would be done by: I am taking this to a sick friend on deck!”
If anybody, friend or otherwise, ever brings me jam and buttered toast when I’m sea-sick, I’ll fall on them and crush them!– Corney Grain, Corney Grain, By Himself, 1888
This is what happens when Americans go abroad.
The feeling was mutual.
According to a review printed in the Chicago Tribune:
I think it would be easier for Americans to laugh at him before he had opened his mouth than after. He is simply a diluted music-hall singer — a music-hall singer with all the fun and dash left out. . .
A friend told me that this Mr. Corney Grain was invited to Marlborough House to sing to the Prince and Princess of Wales last Sunday evening, and among others he sang this same [vulgar] song. The Prince of Wales went into such fits of laughter over it that he nearly fell off his chair. The only way that I can account for the English people enduring such stuff is that they are so devoid of wit themselves that they seize upon anything which is labelled funny in order to laugh.– Corney Grain, Corney Grain, By Himself, 1888
Lest you worry about Corney’s delicate self-esteem:
I can honestly say that it has not caused me pain, for the simple reason that the whole British public, even the “cultured” public, are included in its sweeping condemnation.– Corney Grain, Corney Grain, By Himself, 1888
Misery loves company.
Corney was a germophobe before it was cool.
But who can account for the vagaries of Fashion? For instance, who first introduced the present system of shaking hands in vogue among a certain set of “smart” London ladies? Why should the hands be lifted to the level of the shoulder, and then waggled to and fro horizontally? It is idiotic, but “the thing.”– Corney Grain, Corney Grain, By Himself, 1888
He’d no doubt approve of our pandemic-era elbow taps.
Say what you will about his performances—I’m looking at you, Chicago Tribune—but the man knew how to sign off:
But the time has come when I can put off one thing no longer — namely, taking Farewell of my Readers. . . On looking back at what I have said, I find that I have not had much to say, and that what I have said is not of much importance. I have put down these little Reminiscences as they occurred to me, without much idea of consecutive order, and in a somewhat hasty and desultory manner.
Should they prove of any assistance in passing the time on a railway journey or stimulating sleep on retiring to bed, I shall be thankful, but not so thankful as I am to the Press and the Public who on so many occasions and during so many years have borne with me so patiently and treated my humble efforts so leniently.– Corney Grain, Corney Grain, By Himself, 1888
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
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Welcome to Second Glance History! This blog seeks to uncover the people and the stories forgotten by history and give them another read through a modern lens. Join me every week as we examine the differences that divide and the common threads that connect the then to the now.