For the Sheffield Reading 1900-1950 book group this month, I’m reading P. G. Wodehouse’s Eggs, Beans and Crumpets, a high quality 1940 collection of stories, four of which are about Bingo Little. Mrs Bingo, of course, is better known as the romantic novelist Rosie M. Banks (that middle initial irresistibly recalling Reading Group favourites such as Ethel M. Dell and Ruby M. Ayres.) She is the author of such novels as A Red, Red Summer Rose; Only a Factory Girl; ‘Twas Once in May; and A Kiss at Twilight. In The Mating Season (1949) Wodehouse gives us a summary of Banks’s Mervyn Keene, Clubman. Keene, ‘young and rich and handsome, an officer in the Coldstream Guards and the idol of all who knew him’, loves Cynthia Grey, but just as he was about to speak his love, found that she was engaged to another. Therefore:
[H]e spoke no word of his love. But he went on worshipping her, outwardly gay and cheerful, inwardly gnawed by a ceaseless pain. And then one night her brother Lionel, a wild young man who had unfortunately got into bad company, came to his room and told him that he had committed a serious crime and was going to be arrested, and he asked Mervyn to save him by taking the blame himself. And, of course, Mervyn said he would.
I was thinking to myself that this portrayal of heroic selflessness carried to the point of stupidity must be a wild exaggeration, and that no actual novelist would have written such a story, but then I remembered John Buchan’s A Prince of the Captivity (1933). This book begins with group of clubmen shaking their heads over the fate of a fellow-member, Adam Melfort, who has just been sent to prison. Adam had been a promising young officer in the Army, but he had fallen in love with Camilla Considine, despite the fact that she came from a ‘raffish set’.
She was the kind of woman with whom men like Adam have fallen in love since the beginning of time–that Rosalind-youth, which to the mystery of sex adds the mystery of spring, the germinal magic of a re-created earth. He had marvellously idealised her, and had never sought to penetrate the secret of her glancing, bewildering charm. His carefully planned scheme of life went to pieces, and for three tempestuous months he was the devout, unconsidering lover.
‘Disillusion,’ however, ‘came in the first year of marriage.’
The woman he lived with could no longer be set on a pedestal for worship; he had perforce to explore the qualities of head and heart behind the airy graces. His exploration yielded nothing. [….] Her brain was featherweight, though she had many small ingenuities in achieving her own purposes. Into his interests and pursuits she stubbornly refused to enter. At first she would turn the edge of graver topics with a laugh and a kiss, but presently she yawned in his face.
He discovered, too, that her tenderness was only skin-deep. [….] A child was born after a year of marriage, in whom she took little interest, except now and then to pose with him, as the young mother, to a fashionable photographer. The boy died when he was five years old, and, after an hour’s sobbing Camilla tripped again into the limelight. The broken-hearted Adam sat down to face the finality of his blunder. He realised that he had been a romantic fool, who had sought a goddess and found a dancing-girl.
She gets into a financial scrape and forges a cheque. To save her, Adam nobly takes the blame, and goes to prison in her place. (‘For a moment Camilla had felt a glow of gratitude towards him, but that was soon swamped in self-pity.’) He performed this noble act because he felt he had done her a disservice by marring her, but he regrets deeply that his Army career is now over, and even more so that his personal honour is besmirched:
He had lied deliberately, and never in his life had he lied before. Adam felt himself smirched and grubby, fallen suddenly out of a clean world into the mire.
The rest of the novel, of course, shows Adam gradually reclaiming his reputation and self-respect, by performing wonderful acts of courage and steadfastness, first in the War and later in the troubled post-war world. Mervyn Keene, Clubman follows the same pattern.
Had Wodehouse read Buchan? Probably, because he read widely, though the name doesn’t appear in the index of the Letters. Is Mervyn Keen, Clubman actually based on A Prince of the Captivity? Probably not, since there were doubtless plenty of other equally perfect self-sacrificing heroes knocking about in the popular fiction of the time. The problem with Buchan’s novel is that he has taken this part of the plot off the shelf, and gets through it at ridiculous speed, so that he can later concentrate on parts of the book that engage him more; the socialist trades unionist, for example, who, when asked to choose between the interests of his class and the interest of the country as a whole, chooses his country but feels he has betrayed his own people, is a much more interesting figure than Adam.
Some of the fun of the Bingo Little stories comes from the disparity between the romantic gush of Rosie M. Banks’s writing, and the actuality of the Bingo/Mrs Bingo relationship. They actually love each other very much, but she won’t trust him with a five-pound note for a minute, because she knows he’s bound to lose it at the bookies.
When she does send him ten pounds, it is to to open their child’s savings account, Bingo inevitably puts it on a hopeless horse. He is tempted to pretend that he never received it, but reflects:
Mrs Bingo was a woman who wrote novels about girls who wanted to be loved for themselves alone, but she was not lacking in astuteness.
The contrast between life and literature is most pointed in the story ‘Sonny Boy’. Rosie M. Banks has just (in June) written ‘Tint Fingers’, her special story for a magazine’s Christmas issue.
[S]he goes in pretty wholeheartedly for the fruitily sentimental. This is so even at ordinary times, and for a Christmas number, of course, she naturally makes a special effort.In ‘Tiny Fingers’ she had chucked off the wraps completely. Scooping up snow and holly and robin redbreasts and carol-singing villagers in both hands, she had let herself go and given her public the works.
In ‘Tiny Fingers’ a hard-hearted godfather has rejected his god-daughter and her child – but the sight of the baby at Christmas melts his heart, and he writes out a large cheque to the mother. Bingo decides to see whether the same stratagem will work on Oofy Prosser, the Drones Club millionaire, who is his own child’s godfather. The gap between fiction and reality, though, is made very clear when he looks objectively at his own baby and is struck by the child’s ugliness. Young Algernon Aubrey’s appearance is variously compared with ‘some mass-assassin who has been blackballed by the Devil’s Island Social and Outing Club as unfit to associate with its members’, and with ‘a homicidal fried egg’. Oh I do enjoy Wodehouse!