Wodehouse and Buchan

eggsbeans

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!

10 Comments

  1. Posted January 12, 2015 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    Wodehouse is a delight to read, mainly for his witty use of language that can convulse his readers into laughter, despite PGW`s thin stories. In his heyday, he was wildly popular — rightly so — until he blotted his copybook by unwisely making radio broadcasts from Radio Berlin during the Second World War.
    He had been caught in France during the Nazi occupation, and comfortably interned in Germany as a civilian enemy alien. Acting with apparently absurd naivety, Wodehouse agreed to speak a series of quasi-whimsical radio talks from Germany, directed at Britain. His chortling levity seemed to portray the Nazis as being not so bad chaps, don`tchaknow.
    The result was — understandably — collective national fury by people in the UK, at what was seen as Wodehouse`s act of betrayal and collaboration with the enemy.
    As a schoolboy in Britain at the time, I still well remember the furor that his broadcasts caused. For instance, in my home town of Southport, Lancashire, the local Library Board publicly banned Wodehouse, and removed his books from the shelves of all six library branches.
    At war`s end, the British Government seriously considered trying Wodehouse for collaboration with the enemy, but relented because of his previous popularity. Wodehouse returned to his home in New York, and for the rest of his long life, he never again visited Britain.

  2. Roger
    Posted January 12, 2015 at 8:09 pm | Permalink

    “The boy died when he was five years old, and, after an hour’s sobbing Camilla tripped again into the limelight.The boy died when he was five years old, and, after an hour’s sobbing Camilla tripped again into the limelight.”

    This sounds remarkably like a description of Brenda Last in a Handful of Dust. Had Waugh been reading Buchan too?

    • Posted January 13, 2015 at 10:54 am | Permalink

      There’s a Ph.D. thesis waiting to be written about the self-punishing hero in British fiction of the early twentieth century. As well as the examples by Banks, Buchan and Waugh, there are strong silent men in Ethel M. Dell, refusing to speak their passion for reasons of plot, and Tietjens, of course, torturing and denigrating himself for the sake of his faithless wife.

      • Roger
        Posted January 13, 2015 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

        …and George Winterbourne in Death of a Hero- victimised by wife, mistress and mother.

  3. Posted January 14, 2015 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    Self-punishing heroes go back at least to the Victorians. Think of Sidney Carton giving up his life to let the woman he loves marry her aristocrat. Harry Faversham in Mason’s ‘The Four Feathers’ is a classic example – which reminds me that Wodehouse himself produced a self-punishing hero in ‘The White Feather’. In this school story, Sheen sets himself to regain his reputation for courage by arduously training as a boxer.

    • Steve Paradis
      Posted February 3, 2015 at 1:55 am | Permalink

      Thackeray’s Henry Esmond may fit that description. The natural son of a lord, taken in charitably by his family, serving that family nobly in adulthood. He finds evidence that proves that his parents were wed and that he is the rightful Lord. He doesn’t claim his lawful due because it will disgrace the family.
      Except that Thackeray being Thackeray, there’s a critical school that suggests that Esmond may be an unreliable narrator. Rather than the simple plain man he presents to the world, Esmond is a monster of ego, always humbling himself so that others and the reader must protest his humiliation. Only his cousin Beatrix sees through his pose and rejects him.
      I thought of this during a recent discussion of Sylvia Tietjens–who may, like Beatrix, be reacting to the impossible, self-imposed nobility, near to masochism, of her husband.

      • Posted February 3, 2015 at 8:31 am | Permalink

        Another Thackeray self-punisher is Dobbin in ‘Vanity Fair’. the girl he loves chooses someone else – but he still wastes his life in devotion to her.

  4. Bill
    Posted February 3, 2015 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    I am not sure Thackeray would accept the concept of a “wasted” life as distinct from any other. His overall point seems to be that all love for a human subject is necessarily disappointed…

    “Which of us is happy in this world? Which of us has his desire? or, having it, is satisfied?”


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