Just over a week ago I asked an expert why P G Wodehouse seemed so out of sympathy with the romantic novelist. Did he know one?
This is where I should probably admit that I have a sneaky image of a young Barbara Cartland pursuing him. Well, PGW was a big name when he visited London in the 20s and she was a newbie author and playwright.
If they did meet, I would put good money on him evaporating sharpish. He had perfected the technique. His family called it the Wodehouse Glide. But nobody I’ve come across has offered any evidence of Wodehouse encountering a romantic novelist in real life.
The expert said, quite rightly, that PGW was pretty brisk on the subject of all sorts of pretentiousness. And, anyway, PGW handed out as many knocks to male poets as he did to female novelists.
PGW, The Expert and The British Library
The expert was Tony Ring, enthusiast, indefatigable researcher, co-founder of the Wodehouse Society and authority on all things Wodehouse.
Indeed, my opportunity to question him arose at a very jolly talk he gave to accompany the British Library’s current exhibition, to which he acted as adviser.
P G Wodehouse, the Man and his Work ends on 24 February, by the way. So if you fancy going, you’d better get a shimmy on.
As I must, myself, as a matter of fact. It has pages of ms with his own edits. Written or typed by PGW in person.
More Than One Romantic Novelist
There was a blooming of English romantic novelists in Wodehouse short stories in the 20s. Indeed, one became a serial offender. But more of her later.
First of the stand-alone authoresses was the seriously schmalzy Leila J Pinckney. She made herself felt from the grave in Honeysuckle Cottage. The Saturday Evening Post published it in the US in January, the Strand magazine in February 1925. It appears in Meet Mr Mulliner.
A blameless young writer of gumshoe crime inherits his romantic novelist aunt’s cosy nook and find that his plots, and even his prose, lurch into the saccharine under her incorporeal influence. Worse, real life follows suit.
“The damned funniest idea I’ve ever had,” PGW wrote. Many people, including the philosopher Wittgenstein, seem to agree.
The second is Lady Wickham, the forceful mother of noted hell raiser, Bobbie Wickham. Lady W endeavours to woo an American publisher with a restful stay at her idyllic country seat. Mr Potter Takes a Rest Cure is one of PGW’s rare ironic titles.
Bobbie plots. The gods of farce preside. Poor Mr Potter leaves, a broken man. And Lady Wickham doesn’t get her publishing deal. Strand magazine took this one, too (February 1926), preceded by the US magazine Liberty in January. It is in the Blandings Castle and Elsewhere collection.
I remember weeping with laughter over it, as disaster piles upon disaster. The reader can even see the next one coming, as none of the characters can, not even the impressively evil Bobbie. My ribs ached for hours afterwards.
ROMANTIC NOVELIST AT WORK
But it was in another story from the Mulliner stable that PGW plumbed the dark depths he imagined with dreadful precision — those of writing and of publishing and even of inspiring romantic fiction.
First published in Cosmopolitan in 1930, Best Seller is a terrible warning on many fronts: the hollowness of fame, the crippling price of success, cultural delusions, writer’s block, deadlines… It’s all there.
Evangeline Pembury’s first novel, Parted Ways, against all expectations, knocks the in-house opposition at her publisher’s into a cocked hat. Thereafter, neither publisher, nor her agent, nor the public can get enough of her. She has contracts and cash coming at her from all sides. And she sobs “like a lost soul.”
“But I can’t. I’ve been trying for weeks, and I can’t write anything. And I shall never be able to write anything. I don’t want to write anything. I don’t know what to write about. I wish I were dead.”
Phew! From the heart, or what? I tell you, it sends chills up my spine just typing that.
And PGW doesn’t just focus on the writer’s horrors. He has no pity for their husbands or partners either.
For the romantic novelist in question is the newly affianced wife of our hero, Egbert Mulliner. Inspired by his love — she quotes his proposal verbatim in her story — she has penned her first novel. And reads the whole thing aloud to him. AAARGH!
He marvelled, as many a man has done before and will again, how women can do these things. Listening to “Parted Ways” made him, personally, feel as if he had suddenly lost his trousers while strolling along Piccadilly.
A HERO’S JOURNEY
Egbert Mulliner is a classic hero, no question. For he treads a dark path. And he starts off with an ingrained character flaw that clearly signals whence his Trials will come.
Everyone has his pet aversion. Some dislike slugs, others cockroaches. Egbert Mulliner disliked female novelists.
Not serious, you may think. Not fatal.
Nor is it really blameworthy, either. Before our story opens he has avoided a nervous breakdown by a whisker. His employer sent him off to a specialist after Egbert was found at his desk “with little flecks of foam about his mouth and muttering over and over again in a dull, toneless voice the words, ‘Aurelia McGoggin, she draws her inspiration from the scent of white lilies !'”
We certainly know the flaw which will trip him up, right from the start. And the story does not disappoint. Egbert falls for a cheerful girl who plays golf. He sees her squashing a wasp with a spoon. Egbert even asks her if she writes — novels? short stories? poems? No, none of them. All will be well. He proposes
But, like every hero of myth, Egbert Mulliner forgets the catch. He didn’t tell her about his flaw. And he didn’t ask about the future.
For that reason, as you have already seen, the worst comes to pass. Egbert faces his horrors. But just when he thinks that things can’t get worse, they do. Twice. He descends into the abyss and emerges a changed man, not for the better. Bitter and twisted with his ruined soul in chains about covers it.
No, I won’t go on. One of the few virtues of the romantic novelist is not giving away other people’s surprise endings.
ROMANTIC NOVELIST SUPREME – ROSIE M. BANKS
Rosie M first appears in a 1922 short story, Bingo and the Little Woman. PGW then integrates that prolonged anecdote into the episodic novel The Inimitable Jeeves. Thereafter, she drifts through 20 stories and more. Often she is somebody’s favourite author.
Many of her titles get a name check. Madeleine Bassett describes the plot of Mervyn Keene, Clubman to Bertie in, to him, excruciating detail. “I had always known in a sort of vague, general way that Mrs Bingo wrote the world’s worst tripe — Bingo generally changes the subject nervously if anyone mentions the little woman’s output — but I had never supposed her capable of bilge like this,” he tells us.
Interestingly, her work makes an appearance before Ms Banks in person. Jeeves explains that her romantic novels make “light, attractive reading”. So he recommends the eponymous Bingo Little to read them to his tough egg of an uncle, to soften the latter’s heart. Bingo and the Little Woman is a joy.
The wondrous Fry and Laurie’s Jeeves and Wooster pretty much does it justice.
ROSIE M. BANKS AND REAL BOOKS
As is the wont of those minor characters who get too big for their boots, Rosie M Banks has got her foot over the threshold of the real world on at least two occasions so far.
The first was when a series of nurse romances, by Rosie M. Banks, including Navy Nurse, came out in 1959-1962. PGW had not written it. Nor had he imagined either the title or the story.
Dedicated PGW researchers (*scroll to page 13 on the linked article) discovered the author was one Alan Jackson. He, or his publisher, had written for his permission to PGW. Much amused, the Master agreed.
The second occurred when Random House invited readers to propose the best 100 novels ever. As one of the perpetrators has since confessed, inspired PGW fans succeeded in placing Rosie M. Banks’s Only A Factory Girl on that list. (Incidentally, that link is to a lovely article about remembering how to read for fun.) Eventually some joyless bureaucrat sussed out the conspiracy and disqualified her entry. But for a while she was here in our universe. And so…
ROSIE M. BANKS SPEAKS … to be continued next week
Adore PGW, especially Jeeves and Bertie. Missed the Mulliner story which sounds hilarious, must find that. Loved Rosie, and recall more romantic novelists wafting through the pages in the days of Milady’s Boudoir. Daphne Dolores Moorehead, who fascinates D’arcy Cheesewright, thus saving Bertie’s neck yet again.
Look forward to the next instalment.
I’d forgotten Daphne Dolores, Liz. Adding another name to my list right now. She arouses Florence Cray’s envy, doesn’t she?
She does indeed. Cheesewright ditches Florence for Daphne, thus landing Bertie back in the soup and engaged to her again – albeit briefly as she finds her soulmate in the fellow writer whose name I’ve forgotten.
Percy Gorringe, the side-whiskered poet? He has a double life, literarily speaking, as Rex West purveyor of popular crime novels.
Shades of Cecil Day Lewis, who wrote mysteries as Nicholas Blake, I always thought. But apparently he was not alone. There seem to have been loads of the blighters, see https://crimereads.com/26-crime-writing-poets/.
Imagining a meeting between PGW and B Cartland makes the mind boggle, doesn’t it? I wish someone would write it. Sophie??
Whenever I read/hear about PGW’s views on romantic novelists, I’m reminded of The List Song from the Mikado. Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner, has “a little list of society offenders” he could execute because “they never would be missed”. It includes these lines:
Singular anomaly? Guilty as charged, m’lud.
I’d forgotten that, too, Joanna. And I used to quote it regularly when deflecting people who asked me what I did.
There does seem to be a strong vein of Egbert Mulliner’s fabulatoraphobia in the English writing male population, from at least W S Gilbert to George Orwell.
Fabulatoraphobia? Wonderful. Shall try to remember that one.
Um – Health Warning, Joanna. I just made it up and it’s a mixture of Latin and Greek, so the purists will HATE it.
Oh, what a delight! Even managed to get in my beloved G&S, too… The trouble is, how many people understood you if you replied, when asked, “I’m a singular anomaly”? And as for Egbert’s feelings on hearing Parted Ways – still makes me laugh out loud. Most welcome over my Sunday morning tea. Surprised the cats.
Only the cognoscenti knew about the Singular Anomaly, so they also recognised the context and therefore knew to Shut Up About It. Everyone else smiled uneasily and backed off. Which was also the desired effect. I suppose there still may be a few people running around London who think that I believed I was a genius back then, of course.
Egbert repays study. There’s a whole book in that short story! He may well be the Missing Clue to the English loathing of romantic novelists.
I love it when someone writes a piece that I was intending to write one day myself. It gives me all the pleasure of ticking it off my ‘to do’ list, without any of the trouble of doing the work.
Thank you — this is fantastic.
Tony Ring is right to point out that Wodehouse didn’t just make fun of female romantic novelists in his works. He also created male writers for us to laugh at, and frequently has sharp things to say about ‘serious’ literature. A great example of this can be found in the short golfing story, the Clicking of Cuthbert. And Wodehouse had so much fun at the expense of romantic poet Rodney Spelvin (in ‘Rodney Fails to Qualify’) that he revived the character again.
Wodehouse’s female writers aren’t all unsympathetic characters either — one of his s most beloved heroines (Joan Valentine in Something Fresh) starts out as a writer for a women’s magazine.
The final point I’d make on the subject is that Wodehouse was a writer of romance himself. Aside from the Jeeves series, his stories is almost exclusively comedy romances. Or as we would call them today, romantic comedies. They are not romances of the ‘slushy’ sensational kind that Wodehouse makes occasional fun of, but they are romances just the same. There is a certain type of Wodehouse fan who strongly objects to this description of Wodehouse’s work, but it’s accurate (and I don’t think PGW would have objected to it).
Lovely to see you here, Honoria. I am a huge fan of your blog. Welcome.
I am a huge fan, too, of that mighty Russian novelist, Vladimir Brusiloff*, and his memorable self- evaluation. As far as I remember it goes something like, “I spit me of Nastikoff. Nastikoff no good. Nobody any good but me. PG Wodehouse not good, not bad.”
Rodney Spelvin, however, is unknown to me. I shall hunt him down.
I agree that, once he abandoned school stories, most of PGW’s work is structurally a romantic comedy, in that the primary engine of the plot is the mating game and its attendant disasters. But – speaking as a romantic novelist, you understand – I don’t think many of them would hit the spot with a reader who was looking forward to a romantic escape on the morning commute.
Some do, of course. – I’m a great fan of Piccadilly Jim, which does actually seem to be primarily about the romantic relationship.
And I haven’t read The Prince and Betty, alas. Never caught even a smell of a copy. Mills & Boon’s former Editorial Director told me they had actually published it themselves, though they didn’t still have a copy. But it must be in the British Library. One day…
* sorry, not sure of the spelling and not sure where my copy is.
What Ho, Sophie.
Yes, I think you’ve summed up the difference nicely. His stuff wouldn’t fit a romance reader’s expectations of the genre.
Do you think calling PGW a writer of comedy romance (rather than romantic comedy) is reasonable? Humour and plot always come first with Wodehouse, and there’s not a lot of characterisation, but romance is almost always there.
I often make the point that PGW was a writer of comedy romance, because some people hold strange views about Wodehouse being a misogynist, who excluded women from his fiction and/or only included them to be ridiculed.
It’s true that he makes fun of some females (romance novelists in this case), but I find he is fairly even handed with the sexes overall — both getting their share of ridicule. His heroines are almost always more appealing than the men — Joan Valentine in Something Fresh, Eve Halliday in Leave it to Psmith, and Ann Chester in Piccadilly Jim are some of my favourite examples.
Sorry to have strayed off topic…. I enjoyed your piece a great deal.
I think comedy romance is a very elegant solution. The comedy, after all, is world class – with a decent chance of being perfect.
The romance is just a little understated compared with what your average reader of romantic novels would expect. A lot happens between the words, as it were. How romantic it is depends on how much the reader is prepared to work with the material, I suspect
Oddly enough, I was saying that on the Facebook Georgette Heyer group only a couple of days ago about one of her quieter books, April Lady. My view is that there’s a powerful love story there if you want to see it – and you can ignore it, if you only want the farce, comedy of Regency manners, and a plot that ends happily.
Not off topic at all. Very interesting. Thank you.
Loved this article, Sophie. I love PGW and adored the episode of the Fry & Laurie Jeeves & Wooster that starred Rosie M Bankes’s novels. There was another one where Jeeves goes into drag to impersonate an American lady novelist, who I think wrote romance. Must have a reread of PGW and a rewatch of the Fry&Laurie Jeeves and Wooster.
Looking forward to reading part 2.
I didn’t see that one, Anne. I saw very few, unless I was visiting a like minded friend, as I didn’t have a television. I’m sure Jeeves carried off female impersonation with the quiet dignity and elegance with which he performed his more usual duties.
PGW’s romantic denouements are brilliant. “She dashed at him. He dashed at her.” That sort of thing. There’s another one that escapes me in toto, to the effect that he went to gather her in his arms and she in a moment “had been gathered”. Wonderful stuff.
Oh that’s very nice, Liz. I think any respectable romance reader would have a happy sigh over that last one.
Great piece, if piece is indeed the word I want. Ashe Marson from Something Fresh is not a bad example of those churning out mystery whodunits. He even gets portrayed as having a writer’s block, whereupon he needs to be prompted by Joan Valentine as to what The Wand of Death might stand for!
Honoria Plum mentioned Something Fresh as well, Ashok. I can see I shall have to read it again. It’s not on my bookshelf, alas. A trip to the bookshop then. Bliss!
One does not wish to deprive you of the supreme bliss you are headed for, but here is a quick recap, if you like:
That’s fascinating, Ashok. And certainly settles it. I have never read that. Must get it at once. The symptoms of writer’s block are all too horribly familiar!
Does no one remember Ukridge’s Aunt Julia, so outstanding at her craft that she president of the Pen and Ink Club? I mean to say, in her PGW exposes the kind of steel that he knows from deep personal experience rests behind the eyes of every romantic novelist.
Good Heavens, Noel, you are absolutely right. Small lady, Pekingnese, lives in Wimbledon and travels a lot – right? I’d forgotten her entirely. Not a huge fan of Ukridge, I fear, and haven’t read the stories for yonks. Another one to follow up.