Rosie M Banks is a mysterious figure. In theory she is a writer of fiction (romantic) created by another writer of fiction (humorous). She is not even a major character in any of his novels. But she inhabits PGW’s world as solidly as Bertie or Lord Emsworth, albeit at considerably further distance from the reader.
Last week, I looked at her first appearance along with many other romantic novelists who figure in Wodehouse World. Though she stands head and shoulders above the others.
This week, as a Christmas treat – mainly for myself, I admit – I thought I would ask this towering figure of our genre to speak for herself.
Hello from Rosie M Banks
SW [you get the feeling she has been interviewed many times before. Many, many times] Our pleasure, Ms Banks. First question, if I may: did you always want to be a romantic novelist?
RMB I wrote the sort of books I liked to read.
I wasn’t very well educated you know. Girls weren’t in those days. So I grew up reading the novels on my grandparents’ shelves – Ivanhoe and Tales of Robin Hood. The Three Musketeers. Stories like that.
And Lord Peter is mysteriously alluring as Harlequin, don’t you think?
SW Where he goes to that druggy party and does a spectacular dive into the fountain? Oo yes. Very sexy.
Rosie M Banks on Sexy Movies
RMB I agree. Though, of course, hardly anyone used the word “sexy” in those days. It barely existed when we were first writing. The OUP says it was first used in 1896, though I’d always thought it was coined to describe Rudolf Valentino.
Now that man was sex on a stick, as you say these days. Ah, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse! The Son of the Sheik! The way he moved! No, prowled.
Of course, he was a trained dancer. But Elinor Glyn always said that she had to teach him how to make love in a romantic way. On the other hand, she thought she had to teach everyone to make love. They even took a publicity photograph of her doing it.
That would have been when they were filming Beyond the Rocks, a book she’d written. Not one of her best, I thought. Nor his, for that matter. He spent too much time in a dinner jacket. Valentino needed to be wild. Elemental, even. Look at all those Sheikh books he inspired.
SW Have you written a Sheikh book yourself?
RMB [sighing] I used to think that E M Hull had done it, so the subject was used up. Wrong! Maybe one day.
SW And have any of your novels been filmed?
RMB There was talk, but sadly not so far. Though I always think the end of An Officer and a Gentleman was inspired by my Only A Factory Girl. That scene where Lord Claude takes the girl in his arms. Jeeves – Bertie Wooster’s man, you know, but a very sound chap and surprisingly widely read – told me that it was his mother’s favourite.
Ah, sometimes the muse strikes pure gold. Wish I knew why – and how to make it happen every time!.
Rose M Banks on P G Wodehouse
SW May we talk about PGW? Do you resent his role in your life?
RMB I admit, there were times when I felt a bit peeved. That travesty of Mervyn Keene, Clubman, for instance. “Outwardly gay and cheerful, inwardly gnawed by a ceaseless pain.” Such drivel. When I said he was an officer in the Coldstream Guards. A man of Action. PGW made him sound completely soppy.
As indeed you pointed out yourself, in your interesting piece on genre fiction and egotistical reviewers. Where you recommended reading Hot Water, if I remember correctly. Not one of mine.
SW [writhing somewhat] Ah – um.
RMB [a hint of triumph?] I told you I read your blog regularly. I remember these things.
No. My readers like a good wallow as much as the next woman. But they would never have tolerated over-acting like that. It took me a while to forgive PGW, to be honest. But mostly, I must say, I rather liked the old buzzard.
Wodehouse and Romantic Novelists
SW So you don’t think he was specially unkind to romantic novelists?
RMB Ah, you’re talking about your piece last week? No, not at all. I agree with Mr Ring. In fact, I’d go further. I think PGW respected us. He recognised a working stiff when he saw one. And all of those you mentioned were the household breadwinner. I’m sure he sympathised with that.
He knew, too, how seriously I took my research. Why, he actually recorded that I met my husband when I was employed as a waitress in the Senior Liberal Club for research purposes. For Mervyn Keene, as it happens.
Indeed as Honoria Plum and Rhoda Baxter have each argued, on this blog and elsewhere, there was much of the romantic novelist in PGW himself. The plot of The Prince and Betty, for instance, is the stuff of at least a dozen Hallmark movies. And nearly every PGW plot is driven by hearts sundering at some point. The rest of the story is their negotiation to be reunited – generally, I have to say, by the male half of the equation pulling up his socks. [SW You have the feeling she approves.]
Rosie M Banks on Romantic Fiction and its Readers
PGW respected my readers, too. Very often, PGW says that I am someone’s favourite author. As I was Lord Bittlesham’s, of course. Bittlesham was my husband’s uncle, you will remember. He was so moved by my Woman Who Braved All, a romance across the classes, that he married his cook. I often quote that, when people say to me that romance is fluff, escapism and nothing else. Sometimes it changes lives. [She gets a bit damp-eyed here. Then pulls herself together.]
And sometimes romantic fiction can be a helpful guide to behaviour. You will remember that Joss Wetherby in PGW’s Quick Service, on declaring his love, didn’t know what he was doing. But Chibnall could have told him.
SW [aside] CHIBNALL! Oh, not that Chibnall.
RMB [ignoring irrelevance] The butler, Chibnall.
A great reader of romantic fiction (unlike his barmaid fiancée who preferred detective stories), Chibnall recognised what Joss was about. “He was clasping her to his manly bosom and pressing burning kisses on her upturned face.” Good stuff, I thought.
Rosie M Banks on String-Pulling
SW [greatly daring] Maybe not for you. But what about your husband working as Editor of Wee Tots? You must have had to pull strings to get him that job.
RMB I did and I’m not ashamed of it. And I paid my dues. I wrote them a Christmas short story, Tiny Fingers, for a derisory fee, I may say. Five thousand of my best words, too. For a chap like PGW, who kept his finger on the fees he earned, that would have fully justified the favour.
Dear Richard is a good deal better fitted to a role in publishing than terrible old David Mitford with his stupid rages and all those prejudices. Yet he managed that fine old magazine, The Lady. Family connections, of course. Quite ridiculous.
Did you know Mitford said he’d only ever read one book in his life? After Jack London’s White Fang, literature could hold no more, apparently. And someone still married him! While her father put him in charge of a decent magazine.
Rosie M Banks on Heroes
SW So you don’t see Lord Redesdale as romantic hero material? In spite of his title? Not to mention his undoubtedly passionate approach to life?
A good writer might do something with those characteristics, I suppose. But there would have to be more to the man than bad temper and selfishness. And he would need to look the part.
Redesdale wasn’t. Borderline barmy, too, arguably.
SW Wow. So would you call Mervyn Keene’s behaviour entirely rational? Not telling the girl he loves her? Confessing to another man’s crime? Doing the jail time for it? Then breaking into an Embassy to steal a keepsake? [Considers explaining the contemporary concept of TSTL in characters of romantic fiction and decides against it.]
Sometimes, when you act from the heart, it does not look rational to an observer. Especially if he – or she – is not in sympathy with your ideas.
But, as Pascal says, the heart has its reasons.
SW [thinks OUCH!] I see. Mervyn is a sort of modern Count of Monte Cristo?
RMB Neither so rich nor so vengeful. More like Sir Percy Blakeney whose wife despises him for half the book. Orczy is very good on what she calls “the madness of his love”.
And Romantic Novelists’ Reputation over Time
PGW told Richard Usborne that he’d named me after Ruby M. Ayres. She had a huge hit with Richard Chatterton VC during World War 1 and was Queen of Romance for a while.
I didn’t care for it. Neither hero nor heroine had sound principles. By the end, of course, he’d proved himself in the field of war. But the heroine was a selfish hysteric. If I’d written it, he would have married his nice nurse instead.
I felt my work was much closer to Ethel M. Dell’s. The passion of her characters, if not always rational, was entirely believable. Her books had lots of adventure and excitement, as well as the love story.
Her Nemesis was George Orwell who wrote in Bookshop Memories : “Dell’s novels, of course, are read solely by women, but by women of all kinds and ages and not, as one might expect, merely by wistful spinsters and the fat wives of tobacconists.”
He was a beautiful stylist and an interesting man, but that was pure spite. She sold better than he ever did. And the poor sap couldn’t write believable women to save his life.
Even Dorothy L. Sayers, describing readers’ choices in The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, said “…passionate spinsters read Ethel M. Dell”. This was in 1928, ten years after the end of the War. Whole swathes of women had lost their husbands and lovers. Some women had never had either, and were never going to, after the fields of Flanders. Her own lovely Miss Climpson was one of them. And yet she could write that!
Wonderful writer, she undoubtedly was. I think the Harriet Vane quartet are among the best romantic fiction ever written. And her statue includes a companion cat. But she could be hard, Dorothy.
The genre’s? It seems to me that has changed, mostly for the better, and its reputation is slowly catching up with that. Mind you, its traducers like Orwell and JRR Tolkien – who hated Gaudy Night, did you know? – on the whole couldn’t write a believable woman to save their lives. And were running scared from passion.
SW Only mostly better? What do you dislike in today’s romance?
I feel that a big part of romance is about internal dialogue. These days heroines ask “Does my bum look big in this?” My heroines had rather bigger questions. “What does this mean?” “What is right?”
Men and women had very different roles in those days. And the way you made that work was by chivalry between the sexes. My heroines were always testing themselves against their own standards. So were the heroes. We wanted love to ennoble us. I admit, I miss that.
SW So what do you think is better?
I like the sexual frankness of today’s writing. Manners and expectations may be different but love is still as difficult to be honest about. I find that interesting.
What I like most of all, though, is the relationship of equals between lovers. That terrible gender apartheid has gone. Incidentally, I really like today’s stories of men in love with men, women with women etc.
Above all, I love the fact that friendship seems to be part of falling in love for all of them. In which, of course, they follow P G Wodehouse.
SW What a lovely thought to end on. Thank you, very much Ms Banks. [thinks Phew!]
So please allow me to raise a toast to our readers and wish them all a very happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year.
[waves brandy glass graciously]
Happy Christmas One And All