Places: The Cream of the Jest

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1917

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Satire

Time of work: Twentieth century

Places DiscussedPoictesme

Poictesme Cream of the Jest, The (PWA-tem). Imaginary medieval French realm whose name is derived from the cities of Poictiers (modern Poitiers) and Angoulesme (modern Angoulême), although it lies in the south of France, along the Mediterranean coast, on the Gulf of Lions. It corresponds geographically to the modern district of Gard, overlapping Herault and Bouches-Du-Rhone. It is a central location in many works of James Branch Cabell’s eighteen-volume Biography of the Life of Manuel (1927-1930), the story of the pig-keeper who ruled Poictesme and of how his “life” continued on for twenty-odd generations of descendants.

Based in part on country resorts in Virginia where Cabell passed time as a young man, Poictesme is a pleasant country of fields, forests, and mountains. Among its walled cities and castles is the capital, Storisende, the home of Manuel’s heirs. They hold Poictesme in feudal bond from Horvendile, an immortal demiurge, who may be senior to the creator of the world. Horvendile is also, however, the alter ego of Felix Kennaston, the author of the fiction in which Horvendile appears at the beginning of the book. But it is not clear if Horvendile is Kennaston’s representative or Kennaston Horvendile’s, nor is it clear if Poictesme is purely a fancy of Kennaston’s or if, in his world, it is a historical place. He calls it the “one possible setting for a really satisfactory novel,” but he himself is a descendant of Manuel and returns to Poictesme at the end of the book, at least mentally, bringing the life force of Manuel full circle.


Alcluid. Kennaston’s inherited country home, presumably in Virginia, though Cabell never makes this certain. The place may be based on Cabell’s own country home, Dumbarton. Lichfield, the nearest town to the fictional Alcluid, is a stand-in for Richmond, Virginia, Cabell’s hometown. Kennaston lives with his long-time wife, Kathleen, in the ambivalent mix of dull but relished comfort and discontented longing that assails Cabell’s heroes again and again. Home is one pole of his existence, where he has found half of the sigil of Scoteia in the garden; he also received it, as Horvendile, from Ettarre in Poictesme. The real and fantastic are united in Alcluid when Kennaston realizes that his unquenchable love for Ettarre has in fact been consummated by his indivisible bond with his wife, and that the sigil is part of the seal of her cold cream jar.


Nephelococcygia (neh-feh-lah-KAH-kee-gee-ah). Land of dreams that Kennaston enters by hypnotizing himself with the sigil of Scoteia before he goes to sleep. The imaginary place takes its name from a Greek expression that may be translated as “cloud-cuckoo-land”–the name of the city built on air in Aristophanes’ The Birds (414 b.c.e.). Kennaston visits various times and places, historical and imaginary, usually as Horvendile, and usually in the company of Ettarre, whom he desires endlessly but may never touch. He observes William Shakespeare, Oliver Cromwell, Napoleon Bonaparte, Pontius Pilate and the day of Christ’s Crucifixion, the death of Tiberius Caesar, the invention of gunpowder, and many other people, events, and exotic places.

BibliographyDavis, Joe Lee. James Branch Cabell. New York: Twayne, 1962. Considers all of Cabell’s works as confessional pieces and intensely personal romantic flights of fancy. Allots a central role to The Cream of the Jest.Inge, Thomas M., and Edgar E. MacDonald, eds. James Branch Cabell: Centennial Essays. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983. A compilation of essays that were presented at Virginia Commonwealth University, 1979, in commemoration of the centennial of Cabell’s birth. Valuable biographical information and criticism.McDonald, Edgar. “James Branch Cabell.” In Supernatural Fiction Writers: Fantasy and Horror, edited by Everett F. Bleiler. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1985. A compact commentary on the author’s excursions into fantasy.Tarrant, Desmond. James Branch Cabell: The Dream and the Reality. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1967. A Jungian analysis that considers Horvendile and Ettarre as archetypal images.Wells, Arvin. Jesting Moses: A Study in Cabellian Comedy. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1962. Relates Cabell’s work to the tradition of French satirical fabulation that descends from François Rabelais to Anatole France.
Categories: Places