A Curate’s Egg

Picture 24



I’ve always been a bit mystified by the term “A Curate’s Egg”, who was the curate ? what was he doing with an egg ? was it good or bad ? Why is that phrase sometimes used to describe things, usually art, literature or film ? For example “It was a curate’s egg of book/show/film etc”.  I’m pretty sure that I’ve heard the phrase more than once at boysbookclub and indeed am potentially guilty of using it myself to describe a book or film.  I have the feeling though that if I have ever used it I may well have used it incorrectly.  I have always thought it meant that the film/book was a bit of a mixed bag in that it had good bits and bad bits in it but on doing a bit of digging I think that’s wrong.

The phrase was originally coined in the cartoon above by George du Maurier that appeared in Punch magazine in 1895, and outlines a joke on Victorian values and social standing of the day.  The scene depicts a breakfast being given by the The Reverend, who is of a much higher social standing than his guest the lowly Curate.  The Reverend tells that Curate that his egg is off but the Curate, not wanting to offend his host and social better in anyway, replies that no some of it is excellent.  The Curate is trying to find something good in something that is bad so as not to offend his host who has already pointed out that the egg is bad, the egg cannot be both good and bad as once the egg is bad it is irredeemable.

This for me then is the nub, when a book or film is described as a Curate’s Egg of a book I think that people often mean that it is not good but it has got some redeeming features.  However in looking at the original cartoon I don’t think that’s the case a Curate’s Egg of a book is a book that is irredeemable, it cannot have any good features as it is like the egg served by the Reverend off and therefore cannot be salvaged.  I can think of many more books and films I should have described as a Curate’s Egg !