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
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
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.
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
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
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