When you are shut up all the year round in a place like Maiden Eggesford, with nothing to do but wash underclothing and attend Divine Service, you naturally incline to let yourself go a bit at times of festival and holidays.
‘Tried in the Furnace’ (Young Men in Spats)
What Ho! What Ho!
I’m in an effervescent sort of mood today as I’m about to motor to the seaside for a short, much-needed holiday. My journey will take in the Dorset towns of Maiden Newton and Bridport, which the scholars at Madam Eulalie suggest as likely locations for P.G. Wodehouse’s Maiden Eggesford and Bridmouth-on-Sea.
Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps and Pongo Twistleton-Twistleton visit Maiden Eggesford in one of my favourite Wodehouse stories, ‘Tried in the Furnace’, where they both fall in love with the Reverend P.P. Briscoe’s daughter, Angelica. In accordance with her wishes, Barmy reluctantly agrees to take the Village Mothers on their Annual Outing.
The proceedings would appear to have opened in a quiet and orderly manner. Sixteen females of advanced years assembled in a motor coach, and the expedition was seen off from the Vicarage door by the Rev P.P. Briscoe in person. Under his eye, Barmy tells me, the Beauty Chorus was demure and docile. It was a treat to listen to their murmured responses. As nice and respectable a bunch of mothers, Barmy says, as he had ever struck. His only apprehension at this point, he tells me, was lest the afternoon’s proceedings might possibly be a trifle stodgy. He feared a touch of ennui.
He needn’t have worried. There was no ennui.
The human cargo, as I say, had started out in a spirit of demureness and docility. But it was amazing what a difference a mere fifty yards of the high road made to these Mothers. No sooner were they out of sight of the Vicarage than they began to effervesce to an almost unbelievable extent. The first intimation Barmy had that the binge was going to be run on lines other than those which he had anticipated was when a very stout mother in a pink bonnet and a dress covered with bugles suddenly picked off a passing cyclist with a well directed tomato, causing him to skid into a ditch. Upon which, all sixteen Mothers laughed like fiends in hell, and it was plain that they considered that the proceedings had now been formally opened.
Life is short. Holidays are even shorter. I shall be taking the commendable spirit of the mothers of Maiden Eggesford on mine.
This delightful four-part series from the Inimitable Ashokbhatia explores the ups and downs of married life for Bingo Little and Rosie M Banks — one of my favourite Wodehouse couples. It’s always a pleasure to read Mr Bhatia’s stuff, but he’s really excelled himself this time. Enjoy!
Present tense, future perfect
Many of us, the residents of Plumsville, are familiar with eligible bachelors and spinsters who dot its magnificent landscape. Their attempts at attracting each other, as well as their romantic rifts, keep us glued to many a narrative. Incurable optimists that we are, we believe that once they have tied the knot, they would live happily ever after. Their present may be tense, but their future would surely be perfect.
But life has this innate tendency to keep them baffled. The harsh slings and arrows of Fate continue to torment them with equal ferocity even after they have sauntered down the aisle with their soul mates and we, the gullible readers, have mistakenly decided to breathe easy.
To PG Wodehouse’s credit, he etches out the struggles of married couples with as much aplomb as he does those of bachelors and spinsters in his narratives.
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‘…he [Barmy] would have been the first to agree that he had never been one of those brainy birds whose heads bulge out at the back. Some birds bulged and some birds didn’t, you had to face it, he would have said, and he was one of the birds who didn’t. At Eton everyone had called him Barmy. At Oxford everyone had called him Barmy. And even in the Drones Club, a place where the level of intellect is not high, it was as Barmy that he was habitually addressed.’
Barmy in Wonderland (1952)
Cyril “Barmy” Fotheringay-Phipps (pronounced Fungy), a member of Wodehouse’s famed Drones Club, stars in two stories of his own.
‘Tried in the Furnace’ is a short story from Young Men in Spats (1936 UK edition), and a great favourite of mine. Barmy and fellow Drone Pongo Twistleton-Twistleton retire to the country to rehearse their act for a Drones smoking-concert. When they both fall under the spell of Angelica Briscoe, it tests the bonds of friendship as well as the lengths to which a chap will go to prove his love. Angelica, daughter of the Rev P.P. Brisco, enlists Pongo’s help with the local School Treat, while Barmy is conscripted to oversee the annual village Mother’s outing:
“No sooner were they out of sight of the vicarage than they began to effervesce to an almost unbelievable extent . . . a very stout Mother in a pink bonnet picked off a passing cyclist with a well directed tomato, causing him to skid into a ditch. Upon which all sixteen Mothers laughed like fiends in hell . . .”
I have reread this episode half a dozen times and it never fails to bring on a case of hysterics.
Barmy eventually finds love in America, in the 1952 novel Barmy in Wonderland (based on George S. Kaufman’s play ‘The Butter and Egg Man’). As the story opens, we learn the astonishing news that Barmy is gainfully employed as a hotel clerk, although his intellectual capabilities do not seem to have been improved by the experience.
‘Cyril Phipps was tall and willowy, a young Englishman of the type so common in the Drones Club, Dover Street London, an institution of which… he remained a member in good standing. His disposition was intensely amiable, his hair the colour of creamery butter and his face one of those open, engaging faces which arose the maternal instinct in women…’Barmy in Wonderland . But in the opinion of Barmy’s employer, J.G. Anderson, Barmy has ‘…an I.Q. somewhat lower than that of a backward clam – a clam, let us say, which had been dropped on its head when a baby…’
Barmy in Wonderland
Happily, Barmy manages to win the love of Eileen ‘Dinty’ Moore, a street-wise Irish-American dame who promises to add a much needed dash of common sense to the blood of the Fotheringay-Phipps. For more snippets from ‘Barmy in Wonderland’, have a look at my piece ‘Moments when one needs a drink’.
‘The only one of the family I really know is the girl.’ I had hardly spoken these words when the most extraordinary change came over young Bingo’s face. His eyes bulged, his cheeks flushed, and his Adam’s apple hopped about like one of those india-rubber balls on the top of the fountain in a shooting gallery.
‘Oh, Bertie!’ he said, in a strangled sort of voice.
I looked at the poor fish anxiously. I knew that he was always falling in love with someone, but it didn’t seem possible that even he could have fallen in love with Honoria Glossop.
This is our introduction to Honoria Glossop, in Chapter Five of The Inimitable Jeeves, and our second encounter with young Bingo, who in Chapter Two was in love with a waitress named Mabel.
Bertie Wooster is astonished that Bingo could love Honoria (daughter of noted ‘nerve specialist’ Sir Roderick Glossop), whom he describes as:
One of those dashed large, brainy, strenuous, dynamic girls you see so many of these days. She had been at Girton, where, in addition to enlarging her brain to the most frightful extent, she had gone in for every kind of sport and developed the physique of a middle-weight catch-as-can wrestler. I’m not sure she didn’t box for the ‘Varsity while she was up. The effect she had on me whenever she appeared was to make me want to slide into a cellar and lie low till they blew the All-Clear.
Honoria Glossop is no model of delicate femininity. She excels in sports and has a serious, educated sort of mind that she’s not afraid to use. Poor Bertie quivers in her presence, no doubt scarred from his former engagement to Lady Florence Cray, who made him read Types of Ethical Theory and was about to start him on Nietzsche.
Whatever his faults, Bingo Little does not share Bertie’s prejudices. He has the endearing capacity to appreciate the merits in any woman. Bertie shrinks from Honoria’s Amazonian qualities, Bingo admires them.
‘Have you told her?’
‘No. I haven’t the nerve. But we walk together in the garden most evenings, and it sometimes seems to me that there is a look in her eyes.’
‘I know that look. Like a sergeant-major.’
‘Nothing of the kind! Like a tender goddess.’
‘Half a second, old thing,’ I said. ‘Are you sure we’re talking about the same girl? The one I mean is Honoria. Perhaps there is a younger sister or something I’ve not heard of?’
‘Her name is Honoria,’ bawled Bingo reverently.
‘And she strikes you as a tender goddess?
‘God bless you!’ I said.
‘She walks in beauty like the night of cloudless climes and starry skies; and all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes. Another bit of bread and cheese,’ he said to the lad behind the bar.
I include Bingo’s poetic testimony here because Bertie’s assessment of Honoria is so often accepted as the only plausible one. Considered objectively, Honoria has her good points; she is bright, capable and jolly. Her characteristic laugh — ‘like a train going into a tunnel’ or ‘the Scotch express going under a bridge’ — may delight her pals and admirers. Fond as I am of Bertie, we should remember that he is an unreliable narrator whose view is prejudiced by his own character and tastes, just as Bingo’s assessment is blinded, if briefly, by love.
And I mean briefly — Bingo’s love for Honoria lasts exactly ten pages in my old Penguin edition. The spell is broken not by any action on her part, but by the appearance of another eligible female on the premises:
Walking across the lawn I saw the most radiant, the most beautiful girl in the world. There is none like her, none. Bertie, do you believe in love at first sight? You do believe in love at first sight, don’t you Bertie, old man? Directly I saw her, she seemed to draw me like a magnet. I seemed to forget everything. We two were alone in a world of music and sunshine. I joined her. I got into conversation. She is a Miss Braythwayt, Bertie—Daphne Braythwayt. Directly our eyes met, I realized that what I had imagined to be my love for Honoria Glossop had been a mere passing whim. Bertie, you do believe in love at first sight, don’t you? She is so wonderful, so sympathetic. Like a tender goddess——”
If Bingo’s endearing capacity to fall in love with any woman has a down-side, it’s his lack of constancy. We hear nothing further of Miss Braythwayt, and when we meet ‘Comrade Bingo’ again in Chapter 11 he in love with someone new (I look forward to discussing that particular romance another day).
Meanwhile, Bingo thinks nothing of leaving Bertie with the unpleasant task of disengaging himself from Honoria Glossop, a feat he has to perform again in ‘Jeeves and the Greasy Bird’ (Plum Pie). Bertie also saves old pal ‘Biffy’ Biffen from marrying Honoria in ‘The Rummy Affair Of Old Biffy’ (in Carry On, Jeeves):
Of course, there are probably fellows in the world — tough, hardy blokes with strong chins and glittering eyes — who could get engaged to this Glossop menace and like it; but I knew perfectly well that Biffy was not one of them.
Honoria, you see, is one of those robust, dynamic girls with the muscles of a welter-weight and a laugh like a squadron of cavalry charging over a tin bridge. A beastly thing to have to face over the breakfast table. Brainy, moreover. The sort of girl who reduces you to pulp with sixteen sets of tennis and a few rounds of golf, and then comes down to dinner as fresh as a daisy, expecting you to take an intelligent interest in Freud.
After some rough treatment from these flitting and sipping Drones, Honoria Glossop’s friends and well-wishers will be pleased to hear that she seems set to marry the ‘angry young novelist’ Blair Eggleston at the conclusion of ‘Jeeves and the Greasy Bird’. The news was certainly a great relief to Bertie Wooster.
‘There are moments when one needs a drink. Are there moments, indeed, when one doesn’t?’
So says Mervyn Potter, Hollywood heart-throb, who leads poor Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps astray in Barmy in Wonderland (1952). But before you start quoting these sentiments as the views of the author himself, have look at what happens to the frequently pie-eyed Mervyn. In Chapter One, he gets blotto, burns down a hotel bungalow, and induces Barmy Fotheringay-Phipps (a hotel employee) to slip a frog into his employer’s bedroom. In Chapter Five, Mervyn is already soaked when Barmy arrives at his house (for a dinner he never gets).
It was plain to him that the other, fatigued no doubt after a long day’s rehearsal, had yielded to the dictates of his lower self and for some considerable time must have been mopping up the stuff like a vacuum cleaner. If not actually ossified, he was indubitably plastered, and Barmy could only hope that he would not eventually reach the truculent stage.
Mervyn Potter does indeed reach the truculent stage. First, he creates a disturbance during the cabaret performance in the Champagne Room at the Piazza Hotel. Next he takes a late taxi to the Long Island home of his fiancé, where the occupants of the house are sleeping. Mervyn insists that Barmy ‘shin up the waterpipe’ and start breaking windows. The episode ends badly for Mervyn, who is discovered by Bulstrode the butler, sitting at the foot of the drainpipe reciting Longfellow’s Excelsior. At this point his fiancé, Hermione Brimble, very sensibly insists that he give up drinking.
‘I wonder, Phipps,’ he said, ‘if you have the slightest conception what it means to be on the wagon. I shall go through the world a haunted man. There will be joy and mirth in that world, but not in the heart of Mervyn Potter. Everywhere around me I shall hear the happy laughter of children as they dig into their Scotch highballs, but I shall not be able to join them. I shall feel like a thirsty leper.’
This is moving stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. I am reminded of Plug Basham’s efforts to give up drinking, as told by Galahad Threepwood in Heavy Weather:
…about two weeks later I came on him in the Strand, and he was bubbling over with quiet happiness. “It’s all right, Gally,” he said, “it’s all right, old lad. I’ve done it. I’ve won the battle.”
“Amazing, Plug,” I said. “Brave chap! Splendid fellow! Was it a terrific strain?”
His eyes lit up. “It was at first,” he said. “In fact, it was so tough that I didn’t think I should be able to stick it out. And then I discovered a teetotal drink that is not only palatable but positively appealing. Absinthe, they call it, and now I’ve got that I don’t care if I never touch wine, spirits, or any other intoxicants again.”
Unfortunately Mervyn Potter is unable to sustain this binge-free lifestyle and Hermione cancels the fixture. He gets drunk on the opening night of his latest play (in which Phipps has invested his fortune) and refuses to perform. When ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ closes, Potter is the happy star of a hit play, but his long-term future is uncertain. Whereas Barmy, who hardly touches a drop after his initial night out with Potter, is rewarded with both riches and romance.
I’m not suggesting ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ is a moral tale about the evils of drink – far from it. But it’s not quite the ringing endorsement of drinking that the original quotation (if taken as the author’s view on the subject) might suggest. Which brings me back to my original point. Wodehouse’s characters espoused a great variety of views and opinions, often ludicrous or extreme, which makes for great comedy. We can do nothing to stop a vexatious critic from presenting these opinions as the author’s own, but we should take care not to do so ourselves.
But that’s enough from me for one day. This blogging is thirsty business and it’s almost noon – or will be once I’ve dressed and prepared my liver for the day’s potations. I leave you with these fine sentiments from the attractive Peggy Marlowe (‘not unknown to the choruses of Broadway’) who has difficulty procuring a glass of champagne after the opening-night flop in ‘Barmy in Wonderland’ .
‘What I vote,’ said Miss Marlowe, ‘is that somebody slips me a tankard of that juice. I’m surprised you haven’t offered me any before, dreamboat,’ she went on, addressing Barmy reproachfully: ‘Who do you think I am? Volstead or someone?’
I’ve written a chapter for a forthcoming collection of critical essays on P. G. Wodehouse. (I’ll be sure to relay full information here when there is firm news about publication date and details.)
My piece is on Wodehouse and the Great War – which might sound to some people like one of those thesis subjects imagined by parodists of academia, like ‘Jane Austen and the French Revolution’ , but looking at Wodehouse in relation to the War really does reveal some quite interesting things about his early work, and his attitude to his writing . I think so, anyway.
The publisher’s reader seems fairly happy with my chapter, too, but sent one little note. Did I know ‘Goodbye to All Cats?’
I didn’t, but the echo of Graves in the title had me interested. A bit of quick research revealed that this was a story in the 1936 collection Young…
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This Lord Worplesdon was Florence’s father. He was the old buster who, a few years later, came down to breakfast one morning, lifted the first cover he saw, said ‘Eggs! Eggs! Damn all eggs!’ in an overwrought sort of voice, and instantly legged it for France, never to return to the bosom of the family. This, mind you, being a bit of luck for the bosom of the family, for old Worplesdon had the worst temper in the county.From ‘Jeeves Takes Charge’ (Carry On, Jeeves)
Once again, Wodehouse gets to the nub of human nature. Many is the time that I have felt precisely as old Worplesdon did on this occasion, and I were as oofy a specimen as he, I’d have legged it to France myself long before now. Generally I have to be content with taking my passport with me on the bus-ride to work.
But shortly, I shall be emulating Worplesdon as I have a ticket to France. I speak little French, so I expect to experience the same ‘furtive shame’ and ‘shifty, hangdog look’ as Monty Bodkin, practising his French at the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes in The Luck of the Bodkins. With Monty’s assistance, I feel I have mastered Garçon‘ and l’addition, and I shall do my best with:
”Er, garçon, esker-vous avez un spot de l’encre et une piece de papier – note-papier, vouz savez – et une enveloppe et une plume?’
And if, like Monty, I meet a Frenchman wanting to practice his English, who replies with a ‘‘Right ho, m’sieur’ (or, unless I’ve omitted to wax my moustache, ‘madam‘) , I shall hug him like a brother. But after I have acclimatised and relaxed into the French way of life, I shall be speaking French like a pro, and will be muttering ‘Oeufs! Oeufs! Merde tous les oeufs!’ with the best of them
But I can’t sit here chatting to you all day. I have essential pre holiday research to do.
I confess I have a soft spot for the romantic Bingo Little. When we first meet him in The Inimitable Jeeves, Bertie warns us about his habit of falling in love.
Ever since I have known him – and we were at school together – he has been perpetually falling in love with someone, generally in the spring, which seems to act on him like magic. At school he had the finest collection of actresses’ photographs of anyone of his time; and at Oxford his romantic nature was a byword.
The first of Bingo’s romances to be chronicled by Bertram Wooster involves a Mabel, a waitress in a tea-and-bun shop. Described by Bertie as ‘rather a pretty girl’, Mabel attracts the attention of both Bingo and Jeeves. At the end of the proceedings, she and Jeeves have ‘an understanding’.
We know very little about Mabel, except that she has dubious taste in gents neck wear, having given Bingo a crimson satin tie covered in horseshoes. This may explain why we hear no more about her as the potential Mrs Jeeves. But Mabel must have been more than a pretty face to have attracted Jeeves to the point of ‘an understanding’. What is her story, I wonder?
If you’ll permit me to speculate, I imagine Mabel as a country girl in former service at a large house, who has come to London in search of something better – work, romance, adventure? The dashing young Bingo appears to have impressed her, but Jeeves orchestrates an end to his rival’s hopes. How did her affair with Jeeves end? Did Jeeves later revise his opinion of Mabel as an suitable partner (as he seems to have done with her predecessor)? It is difficult to imagine him wedded to a woman with dubious taste in menswear. Jeeves could certainly have contrived circumstances so that Mabel would cancel the fixture, but it would hardly be to his credit to do so twice. Let us give him the benefit of the doubt and assume it is Mabel who ends the affair.
Why does Mabel cast Jeeves aside, then? Perhaps she is keen to travel – to establish herself on the New York stage, or ingratiate herself with a rich Australian Uncle? Or does the pretty waitress become embroiled in a new love triangle, in which Jeeves loses out to someone more dashing, less stuffy, or socially well-connected? It’s all very well for Bingo’s uncle and Rosie M. Banks, who are both rolling in the stuff, to cast aside outdated class snobbery in favour of marrying for love – but neither of them have had to support themselves in London on a waitress’s salary.
I’d like to think of Mabel as having intellectual qualities we didn’t see in her brief appearance in The Inimitable Jeeves, but there is little evidence to suggest this from our brief encounter with her:
‘Hallo, Mabel!’ he said, with a sort of gulp.
‘Hallo!’ said the girl.
‘Mabel,’ said Bingo, ‘this is Bertie Wooster, a pal of mine.’
‘Pleased to meet you,’ she said. ‘Nice morning.’
‘Fine,’ I said.
‘You see I’m wearing the tie,’ said Bingo.
‘It suits you beautiful,’ said the girl.
And this is it. Our brief encounter with Mabel, the waitress, is at an end.
We wish her well.
When Bertie Wooster is brimming with joy on a fine spring morning in The Inimitable Jeeves, he says:
‘In the spring, Jeeves, a livelier iris gleams upon the burnished dove.’
It is one of many Wodehouse references to the works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (from the poem Locksley Hall). In Right Ho, Jeeves, Aunt Dahlia finds a bound volume of Tennyson just the thing for flinging at nephews, and although Bertie claims not to read Tennyson by choice, he is familiar enough with Tennyson’s stuff to quote him often. The following lines from Tennyson’s In memoriam, for example, will be familiar to all who have followed Bertie’s adventures:
That men may rise on stepping-stones
Of their dead selves to higher things.
Being of a non-poetic sort of disposition, I’m not qualified to speak at length on the merits of Tennyson or make comparisons between the writers. I must leave the heavy spade work to others, such as Inge Leimberg, who has written a detailed comparison of Plum’s A Damsel in Distress and Tennyson’s Maud in an excellent piece entitled: Across the pale parabola of Joy: Wodehouse Parodist.
My own favourite Wodehouse ‘tribute’ to Tennyson is ‘Trouble Down at Tudsleigh’ (in Young Men In Spats), in which Freddie Widgeon attempts to impress the beautiful April Carroway by brushing up on his Tennyson. The story is littered with Tennyson references, which have been helpfully documented in the ever-brilliant Madam Eulalie annotations. The story was delightfully adapted for television as part of the Wodehouse Playhouse series (further evidence that Wodehouse can be successfully adapted for screen) with John Alderton giving a memorable performance of Freddie Widgeon quoting Tennyson: ‘de-da de-da, de-da de-da, the Lady of Shallott’ .
Returning to our original quotation, a closer look at Tennyson’s Locksley Hall rings a few more bells for Wodehouse readers. The poem opens as follows:
Comrades, leave me here a little, while as yet ‘t is early morn:
Leave me here, and when you want me, sound upon the bugle-horn.
The first line is reminiscent of both Psmith (who addresses everyone ‘comrade’) and Aunt Charlotte’s rousing ‘A-hunting-we-will-go’ in The Mating Season.
But tempted though I am to wade deeper into Tennyson’s work in search of Wodehouse, I find my eyes glaze over and my pulse grows weak. Upon discovering a ‘jaundiced eye’, in about the two-hundred and thirty eighth stanza of Locksley Hall, I am a mere shadow of my former self, incapable of even a whispered ‘Ho!’ Now, more than ever, I feel the pathos of Freddie Widgeon’s ordeal in ‘Trouble Down at Tudsleigh’, traversing that fine line between comedy and tragedy.
A Bean and a Crumpet were in the smoking room of the Drones Club having a quick one before lunch, when an Egg who had been seated at the writing table in the corner rose and approached them.
‘How many “r’s” in “intolerable”? he asked.
‘Two,’ said the Crumpet. ‘Why?’
‘I am writing a strong letter to the Committee,’ explained the Egg, ‘drawing their attention to the intolerable … Great Scott!’ he cried, breaking off. ‘There he goes again!’
‘All’s Well with Bingo’
When I started this Weekly Wodehouse wheeze, I had a vague idea of quoting a little bit of ‘his master’s voice’, to share with Plum lovers and newcomers alike, followed by a few short words of my own, expanding on the theme – a chance to develop my own writing.
Re-reading Wodehouse for suitable quotes, I’m struggling to contain myself to quoting just a paragraph… or two. Wodehouse may be quotable, but it’s infernally difficult to draw a firm line and stop quoting. Today for example, I have been reading ‘All’s Well with Bingo’ from Eggs, Beans and Crumpets, which opens as quoted above. It continues as follows:
A spasm contorted his face. Outside in the passage a fresh young voice had burst into a gay song with a good deal of vo-de-o-de-o about it. The Bean cocked an attentive ear as it died away in the direction of the dining room.
‘Who is this linnet?’ he inquired.
‘Bingo Little, blast him. He’s always singing nowadays. That’s what I’m writing my strong letter to the Committee about – the intolerable nuisance of this incessant heartiness of his. Because it isn’t only his singing. He slaps backs. Only yesterday he came sneaking up behind me in the bar and sloshed me between the shoulder blades, saying “Aha!” as he did so. Might have choked me. How many “s’s ” in “incessant”?’
‘Three,’ said the Crumpet.
‘Thanks,’ said the Egg.
He returned to the writing table. The Bean seemed perplexed.
“Odd,’ he said. ‘Very odd. How do you account for young Bingo carrying on like this?’
‘Just joie de vivre.”
‘But he’s married. Didn’t he marry some female novelist or other?’
‘That’s right. Rosie M. Banks, authoress of Only a Factory Girl, Merveyne Keene, Clubman, ‘Twas Once in May, and other works. You see her name everywhere. I understand she makes a packet with the pen.
‘I didn’t know married men had any joie de vivre.’
And this is just the beginning.What can I add to the conversation, once Wodehouse has woven his magic? Better to sit back and enjoy.