meaning and origin of ‘something nasty in the woodshed’

 

stella-gibbons-the-sketch-21-september-1932

AUTHOR OF “COLD COMFORT FARM”:
MISS STELLA GIBBONS.

Miss Stella Gibbons’s novel has been most favourably reviewed. It is a well-sustained parody of the Loam-and-Love-child school of fiction.

from The Sketch (London) of 21st September 1932

 

 

The British-English phrase something nasty in the woodshed and variants are used to denote a traumatic or unpleasant experience in a person’s history, or something, especially something shocking or distasteful, that is or has been concealed or kept secret.

It originated in Cold Comfort Farm (1932), a parody of contemporary novels about rural life, by the English author Stella Gibbons (1902-89). As Robert Allen explains in Dictionary of English Phrases (Penguin Books – 2006), this novel tells the story of a cheerful young heroine, Flora Poste, who visits her cousins in a dreary Sussex farmhouse dominated by Aunt Ada Doom, who had a traumatic experience in her childhood, as she keeps reminding everyone including herself. Exactly what this experience was, or whether it occurred at all, is left to the reader’s imagination, but Aunt Ada exploits it ruthlessly to feign her madness and as a pretext for demanding constant attention from the family around her. These are extracts from Cold Comfort Farm:

I saw something nasty in the woodshed,’ said Aunt Ada Doom, fretfully moving her great head from side to side. ‘’Twas a burnin’ noonday … sixty-nine years ago. And me no bigger than a titty-wren. And I saw something na—’
‘Well, perhaps she likes it better that way,’ said Flora, soothingly. She had been observing Aunt Ada’s firm chin, clear eyes, tight little mouth and close grip upon the ‘Milk Producers’ Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeepers’ Guide’, and she came to the conclusion that if Aunt Ada was mad, then she, Flora, was one of the Marx Brothers.
‘Saw something nasty in the woodshed!!!’ suddenly shrilled Aunt Ada, smiting at Judith with the ‘Milk Producers’ Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeepers’ Guide’, something nasty! Take it away. You’re all wicked and cruel. You want to go away and leave me alone in the woodshed. But you never shall. None of you. Never! There have always been Starkadders at Cold Comfort. You must all stay here with me, all of you: Judith, Amos, Micah, Urk, Luke, Mark, Elfine, Caraway, Harkaway, Reuben and Seth.’
[…]
You told them you were mad. You had been mad since you saw something nasty in the woodshed, years and years and years ago. If any of them went away, to any other part of the country, you would go much madder. Any attempt by any of them to get away from the farm made one of your attacks of madness come on. It was unfortunate in some ways but useful in others … The woodshed incident had twisted something in your child-brain, seventy years ago.
And seeing that it was because of that incident that you sat here ruling the roost and having five meals a day brought up to you as regularly as clockwork, it hadn’t been such a bad break for you, that day you saw something nasty in the woodshed.

The earliest instance of the phrase that I have found is from A London Newsletter, by ‘the Old Stager’, published in The Sphere (London) on Saturday 20th January 1934:

ROGNON DE LA FLÈCHE.
England hath need of more Rognons. I need not perhaps remind many readers who this modern painter is, but perhaps there are one or two who missed this stimulating revelation in their daily paper. Lady Harris, visiting Paris, saw an art show in the modern manner; crude and hideous (so-called) realism, cubes and curves and triangles, purple skin, and so forth; quite the last word in frightfulness and cleverness. In an idle hour, for the fun of the thing, she caricatured these travesties and painted quite a number of joke pictures not intended to hoodwink a baby. A friend persuaded her to allow them to be shown, and in came the clever young art critics who direct our taste and gobbled up the bait. Here they said (with the mot juste and a critically wagged forefinger) was the last word in impressionism; here was ugliness, crudeness, and inexplicability personified. Omne ignotum pro magnifico¹, therefore Rognon de la Flèche was the great painter of our day, a man to be watched. This show-up is indeed art’s Captain of Koepenick², and brings the whole structure of modern art criticism crashing to the ground. The Chelsea figurette lies shattered, shaken to the ground by ridicule. In every art, in literature, sculpture, painting, music, the be-all and end-all of success, for artist and critic, is to “see something nasty in the woodshed”; those artists who can see the nastiest evoke the loudest applause from the critics, and nothing can end the indignity and absurdity of our modern criterions of taste and merit but the earth-shaking laughter of Olympus drawn forth by a wholesome practical joke. It would not deceive a baby, but it may hope to hoodwink the clever critics every time. We need more and more Cold Comfort Farms, more such jokers as Rognon de la Flèche, and then one day we may look forward to regaining our sanity, our dignity, and our souls.

¹ Latin omne ignotum pro magnifico est means everything unknown is taken as grand; it is from Agricola, by the Roman historian Tacitus (circa 56-circa 120 AD).
² The Captain of Köpenick (1931) is a satirical play by the German dramatist Carl Zuckmayer (1896-1977), based on the true story of the German impostor Wilhelm Voigt (1849-1922), who, in 1906, impersonated a Prussian military officer, rounded up a number of soldiers under his command, and stole more than 4,000 marks from a municipal treasury.

In 1942, the English author Lucy Beatrice Malleson (1899-1973), who wrote detective stories under the pen name of Anthony Gilbert, published Something Nasty in the Woodshed, of which the Evening Chronicle (Newcastle upon Tyne, Northumberland) of Saturday 28th March 1942 said that it

is an ingenious thriller based on the type of man who lives by marrying middle-aged, lonely women by private means, getting rid of them, and trying again.

The following review is from The Sphere (London) of Saturday 14th August 1943:

COLOUR SCHEME (Crime Club. 8s. 6d.) is one of Miss Ngaio Marsh³’s Roderick Alleyn stories […]. Its chief merit lies in the fact that the author has chosen her own country, the beautiful North Island of New Zealand, for the venue.
She describes its strange contours and violent colours from close experience, and writes of the Maori people with insight and affection. Murders can happen anywhere, if one is to judge by police reports, so where more dramatically than against the background of volcanic peaks, boiling pools of sulphuric mud and vegetation of almost strident emphasis?
In her story a pleasant but incompetent Anglo-Indian couple run a small sanatorium in a remote mountain settlement, well-provided with all the gaseous amenities and singularly lacking in any other physical comforts, or near-luxuries. Their uneasy existences are complicated by a tough suspected of Fifth-Column activities, a gawky daughter, a choleric brother-in-law, a temperamental actor, and a Maori chieftain whose dignity is sometimes threatened by having seen “something nasty in the woodshed.”
There is a particularly revolting murder (connoisseurs will appreciate the finesse of the detail), and a good deal of lively speculation and suspicion. Recommended unreservedly for the knowledgeable in such fiction matters and to the unsqueamish.

³ Edith Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982) was a New Zealand crime writer and theatre director.

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