A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk about romantic novelists in fiction and how they compared with the real thing. To be more precise, it was PG Wodehouse’s romantic novelists. Regular readers of this blog will remember that I have blogged about them before. (I am a huge fan of Rosie M Banks, before you ask.)
Two interesting things emerged from my researches. First, while PGW exaggerated some aspects for comic effect, in general he was pretty respectful of their work ethic – and success!
The second was – those exaggerations. I assumed they had sprung, new-minted, from the Master’s imagination. But just a bit of digging found that PGW had sources on which he might well have modelled even the most egregious. Glug.
So have other authors also written about romantic novelists modelled on a contemporary? I started with Agatha Christie, mainly because I learned on my Wodehouse weekend that she and PGW were mutual admirers.
Wodehouse’s Aurelia McGoggin
You probably won’t remember Aurelia. She merely flits across the stage of one of the Mulliner short stories, Parted Ways. Egbert Mulliner, a chap who writes literary pieces for a magazine, hates female novelists. He suffered a sort of breakdown after interviewing one of them and had to take leave of absence to recover.
He sat 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 !'”
Of course, I thought the McGoggin story was hyped up for a laugh. Only then I remembered Ouida, the successful Victorian romantic novelist with a salon.
She was born Marie Louise Ramé in Bury Saint Edmunds, daughter of a wine merchant’s daughter and a French émigré who may have been a Republican refugee. Her first novel was published when she was 24 and she went on to write 40 more. The best known is Under Two Flags, the original Foreign Legion romance, subsequently much imitated. It was also adapted for the theatre and filmed 5 times.
At 27 Ouida set up home in a suite at the Langham hotel, where she held a salon for Artists. Robert Browning was a guest. Years later, Mascagni and Puccini went to court over the opera rights to her story Two Little Shoes, which a Punch cartoon had mocked.
She fell on hard times (the florists’ bills!) and left for Italy. Eventually her friends, including the Poet Laureate Alfred Austin, organised a civil list pension for her in 1906. She died in 1908 and her friend and fellow writer “Rita” circulated an appreciation of her life and work to various periodicals.
But it is her writing routine which fascinated me. She would draw the curtains and write by candlelight, surrounded by purple flowers.
OK, Aurelia’s flowers are white lilies. But I can’t help wondering if PGW had heard about Ouida’s peculiarities from someone. Or maybe he had read Rita’s obituary. At any rate, McGoggin had a precedent of sorts.
Rosie M Banks
Ms Banks, of course, is the most fully recorded of PGW’s romantic novelists. In The Mating Season, Madeleine Bassett describes the plot of Mervyn Keene, Clubman to Bertie Wooster. It causes him acute embarrassment. Scholars suggest both Ethel M Dell and Ruby M Ayres as models for Ms Banks. And the Mervyn plot has more than smidgeon of Dell’s trademark empire melodrama. So I was quite prepared to buy into that.
But I drew the line at another of Ms Banks’s effusions. This was a proposed article for Milady’s Boudoir entitled How I Keep the Love of my Husband-Baby. Much as I love the man, I thought PGW had gone too far with this. None of the romantic novelists I’ve known would have laid a finger to keyboard on a brief with that title.
But that was before I had looked a little more closely at Elinor Glyn.
Not only was she a novel-a-year writer, she turned out articles for the Hearst press on subjects that were mostly sexual in nature. A list of her contributions includes Living with a Difficult Husband, Losing Your Sweetheart and A Happy Marriage Recipe.
So I had to give PGW that one, too. Real romantic novelists do sometimes write the wince-making.
Of course, Agatha Christie’s mystery novelist, Ariadne Oliver, appears in five novels, generally as a foil to Poirot. He uses observation and precise analysis of time and place to reach his conclusions. Mrs Oliver relies more on feminine intuition and always gets the murderer wrong. Christie told John Bull magazine in 1952 that, exceptionally, the character did have “a strong dash of myself”.
Mrs Oliver’s detective is a vegetarian Swede, Sven Hjerson, and she often complains about him. I can’t help sympathising with both authors on that.
But Christie’s romantic novelist only appears once: in Death on the Nile (1937). Salome Otterbourne is bumped off in the middle of a self-dramatising monologue about how she saw the murderer. She has been an irritating, unsympathetic presence, sex-obsessed and egotistical. She has dominated her unfortunate daughter, Rosalie, while embarrassing her horribly at the same time.
For Salome is a lush. Actually, she’s an alcoholic. She claims to be a teetotaller but drinks in secret and buys booze from dubious intermediaries. Poor Rosalie chucking her mother’s stash of bottles over the side of the boat is a well-placed red herring in the plot. Salome is also past her prime and, in her turban and batik draperies, faintly ridiculous.
The pity of it is that, as we learn much later, she started drinking when her novels stopped selling. ( I think the pity is me talking. Her author doesn’t seem to have had a scintilla of sympathy.)
Clearly Salome’s books are at the sexy end of the genre. Pretty much everyone who mentions them finds them meretricious. Even the ever-polite Poirot is snide about her.
Colonel Race, tried very high by Salome’s assertion that the murder is a crime passionnel because killing “is closely allied to the sex instinct”, wipes his brow and says, “What a poisonous woman. Whew! Why didn’t somebody murder her?”
And Christie writes, “‘It may yet happen,’ Poirot consoled him.”
I can hear him saying it. It even makes me laugh. But yet it jars.
Of course, if we were taking the events as real deaths of real people, it would be unspeakably heartless. Even in Christie’s clever chess game, it strikes a bum note. For Salome is in a downward spiral, losing sales and threatened by a libel suit from a rich fellow passenger, yet gamely going on writing. This is the stuff of tragedy. What’s more, unlike Ariadne Oliver, Salome is actually right about the murder. It is the result of overwhelming sexual attraction. And Agatha Christie wants us to laugh at her.
No. Just no.
It is pretty generally said that Salome is based on Elinor Glyn. Possibly because Elinor made her name writing the “shocker” Three Weeks in 1907. A sexually experienced Balkan princess seduces a young Englishman and they travel around Europe making love in luxurious locations and, on one occasion, on a tiger skin. Edward VII was so shocked that he banned copies from all the royal palaces. Or possibly he was just put out that he hadn’t thought of a tiger skin himself.
Thereafter Elinor Glyn went on to support an extended family with sexy novels about self-confessed adventuresses and similar. She also wrote the screenplays for her notorious books and, in the 1920s, contributed articles on how to deal with love in all its forms.
Mrs Glyn was a flamboyant character, went to Hollywood and claimed to have taught Valentino how to make love. Mind you, she didn’t mean the phrase in the sense we use it now, of course. At least, I don’t think so.
Is Salome Otterbourne a spiteful portrait of the romantic novelist? The first time I read it I thought so. And I wasn’t even a romantic novelist at the time.
Yet I can’t find that Agatha Christie had any particular reason to dislike Elinor Glyn personally, though she may not have liked her books. And anyway, she said in that John Bull article, “I never take my stories from real life.” What’s more, she knew the risks. Linnet Ridgeway was suing Salome for allegedly depicting her in one of her books.
They do seem to have shared an agent, however – James Hughes Massie. Author Eden Philpotts introduced Agatha to him. Although he took her on, Hughes Massie turned down Agatha’s first (romantic) novel, Snow Upon the Desert. It was based on her own recent experience. She set it in Cairo where, for three months in the winter of 1907-1908, she had been to debutante balls and watched polo matches. Maybe even shared in reading the scandalous Three Weeks with other curious teens?
BUT an illuminating article by Andy Stuart Mackay points out that we are told Salome Otterbourne is the author of a book called Snow on the Desert’s Face. That’s nearly the title of Agatha’s own first unpublished novel.
So maybe this is Agatha amusing herself, thirty years on, imagining the horrors that might have followed, had she continued with romantic fiction. And letting Poirot snipe at her as she sometimes did about him.
Not that she needed to fear the glutinous sentimentality that PGW recoiled from. Even as Mary Westmacott she wrote her novels with authorial detachment.
I can understand that Agatha shared the conventions of social restraint with her other characters and probably her readers. I can even see that, for her, the idea of someone writing and talking about sex all the time was only tolerable if she made them a figure of fun. But Salome is fighting a losing battle and in the end she is murdered. If this Agatha looking at her own path not taken, it is very dark indeed.
I always found PGW’s romantic novelists genuinely funny. And I love the fact that they were closer to the excesses of their contemporaries in real life than I ever imagined.
But poor Salome Otterbourne? Maybe she is a touch too real, for once. Even when I laugh with Poirot and Colonel Race, I don’t like myself for doing it. I think Agatha Christie was wise to stay mostly disengaged from her characters – and to eschew romantic fiction.