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John Lagrue’s timely review of P.G. Wodehouse’s Money in the Bank (1942) touches on another great Wodehouse romance –that of Anne Benedick and Jeff Miller.
John also proposes Anne Benedick as Wodehouse’s finest heroine. It’s a proposal worth taking seriously from a Wodehouse lover of John’s calibre. I certainly recall Anne being a good egg, but I’ve never ranked her among my own favourites. Have I missed something? It has been a while since I’ve read Money in the Bank, but it’s one of Wodehouse’s hidden gem and I look forward to re-reading and pondering John’s suggestion.
As I said in my post last year announcing this project of reading a book a week for a year, some of the books involved would be ones I’d read before. Money In the Bank by PG Wodehouse is such a volume. Wodehouse is probably best known for the Jeeves and Wooster stories and the […]
I do hope you enjoy this review of Money in the Bank (1942).
You might read this book under the 2016 Reading Challenge category of ‘a book guaranteed to bring you joy’.
2016 MINI READING CHALLENGE
There are many different reading challenges you can try, the idea being to read a book in each category listed. Popular examples include:
- POPSUGAR 2016 Ultimate Reading Challenge
- Around the Year in 52 Books (Goodreads)
- Modern Mrs Darcy’s 2016 Reading Challenge
My mini Wodehouse challenge is to fit a book by P.G. Wodehouse into one of these challenge categories. There is even a modest prize up for grabs, if you care to post a comment to the original challenge page below, telling us which book you read and the reading challenge category.
You don’t have to be actively participating in any other challenge to enter. For details and to enter, visit: The 2016 Mini Reading Challenge: include a book by P.G. Wodehouse .
Oh Wodehouse, how I love thee!
Even when I think I’m not in the mood for a Wodehouse, it turns out that I’m in the mood for a Wodehouse. Money in the Bank was next in the TBR stack, so even though I wasn’t 100% feeling it, I decided to pick it up anyway, and I was hooked by the bottom of page one, when I read –
You would have said [Mr. Shoesmith] was not in sympathy with Jeff, and you would have been right. Jeff had his little circle of admirers, but Mr. Shoesmith was not a member of it. About the nastiest jolt of the well-known solicitor’s experience had been the one he had received on the occasion, some weeks previously, when his only daughter had brought this young man home and laid him on the mat, announcing in her authoritative way that they…
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Having taken the obligatory swigs of orange juice, it gives me great pleasure to announce the prize winner of the ‘Fatty O’Leary’s Dinner Party’ competition. Judging was more difficult than expected. I’m only sorry there aren’t enough prizes to go around.
The entries deserves some discussion, beginning with Sally — what a wonderful name for a Wodehouse lover. Sally was quick off the mark in suggesting Cakebread, butler of Shipley Hall in Money in the Bank. A fine answer. Even the name Cakebread implies calories. Those of you who’ve read Money in the Bank will also know it’s an alias. Cakebread isn’t Cakebread. He’s not a real butler either. But he is large.
‘The newcomer, as the sound of his footsteps had suggested, was built on generous lines. In shape, he resembled a pear, reasonably narrow at the top but getting wider and wider all the way down and culminating in a pair of boots of the outsize or violin-case type. Above these great spreading steppes of body there was poised a large and egglike head, the bald dome of which rose like some proud mountain peak from a foothill fringe of straggling hair.”
Money in the Bank
Corky Pirbright supported her nomination of Aunt Dahlia with well chosen quotations that remind us of her stout proportions. Aunt Dahlia is always a favourite among Wodehouse readers, and she looms large as a character in every sense.
“Aunt Dahlia is one of those big, hearty women. She used to go in a lot for hunting, and she generally speaks as if she had just sighted a fox on a hillside half a mile away.”
‘Jeeves and the Song of Songs’ (Very Good Jeeves)
As big personalities go, Aunt Dahlia is a winner, but she is far from being the fattest entrant. Bertie tells us she is a shorter, stockier specimen than Aunt Agatha. Comparisons with Mae West are made. These descriptions paint Dahlia as a large woman of full-figure. I’m not sure that her figure runneth over.
For that, we must turn to Noel Bushnell’s nomination of Lord Bittlesham, uncle of Bingo Little. He was one of the first candidates to spring to my mind when I posed this little contest. Bertie Wooster describes Bittlesham (before his elevation to the peerage, when he is still plain old Mortimer Little), as ‘the fattest man I have ever seen in my life.”
The motto of the Little family was evidently “variety”. Young Bingo is long and thin and hasn’t had a superflous ounce on him since we first met; but the uncle restored the average and a bit over. The hand which grasped mine wrapped it round and enfolded it till I began to wonder if I’d ever get it out without excavating machinery.
Jeeves in the Springtime (The Inimitable Jeeves)
A clear winner you might think, but Susan Jones’ nomination of the Empress of Blandings provided some restless hours of contemplation by the committee (self and cat). The rules do not state that the prize winning fat character must be human, and The Empress has form; she is a triple silver medalist in the fat pigs class at the Shropshire Agricultural show. Being fat is her raison d’être!
Being a pig of substance hasn’t stopped the Empress of Blandings from winning the hearts of Wodehouse readers around the world (she even has a pub named after her). The Empress is a queen among her sex and her species — and what a fine species it is! You wouldn’t catch a pig making uncomplimentary remarks about another pig’s weight, or writing a mildly amusing book that repeatedly humiliates the central fat pig on account of his bulk. Her life is free from such unbecoming censure. Indeed The Empress might arguably be considered a model to us all, living mindfully in the moment, content to simply wallow, to eat, and to expand.
The Empress lived in a bijou residence nor far from the kitchen garden, and when Lord Emsworth arrived at her boudoir she was engaged, as pretty nearly always when you dropped in on her, in hoisting into her vast interior those fifty-seven thousand and eight hundred calories on which Whiffle insists. Monica Simmons, the pig girl, had done her well in the way of barley meal, maize meal, linseed meal, potatoes, and separated buttermilk, and she was digging in and getting hers in a manner calculated to inspire the brightest confidence in the bosoms of her friends and admirers.
Pigs Have Wings
If we all viewed our expanding waistlines — and those of our fellow citizens — with the same ambivalence as the Empress, the world would be a kinder, happier place.
I am compelled to hand the prize to Susan Jones.
Thanks to everyone who contributed. I’m sorry not to have prizes for you all, but if you’re ever passing through Somerset, I should be proud to stand you a pint in a local hostelry.
“I am no stranger to butterfly belly. A man who has had to pass himself off as Gussie Fink-Nottle to four aunts in a chilly Hampshire dining room with only orange juice in the carburettor knows the meaning of fear.”
Jeeves and the Wedding Bells
Sebastian Faulks presumably knows the feeling pretty well too. As the author of Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Faulks has risked the ire of Wodehouse fans (already disgrunted after the BBC Blandings fiasco) and potentially his own reputation as a writer. For one of the problems with imitating Wodehouse in the 21st Century is that his style runs somewhat contrary to prevailing ideas about ‘good writing’. For an idea of the depths to which modern writing has sunk, consider these Ten rules for writing fiction:
If Wodehouse were starting out today, he could expect to have a fair portion of his work flung back at him on these grounds alone. The busy modern publisher would read no further than: “The sunshine of a fair Spring morning fell graciously upon London town” (Something Fresh). Or “Sunshine pierced the haze that enveloped London” (Heavy Weather). I can hear the clicking tongues already. Today, entire novels are rejected due to opening lines like these. We have to be instantly gripped.
2 “Avoid prologue.”
Specifically, writers are advised to avoid beginning with too much backstory. This must be lobbed in later, and in small doses. The rationale for this is unclear, but it is widely accepted to be good writing. We writers must strive to keep our readers in the dark, only revealing snippets of information as required. Apparently this keeps them interested. We must show, not tell. And we would never dream of writing, as Wodehouse does on page one of The Mating Season:
“But half a jiffy. I’m forgetting that you haven’t the foggiest what all this is about. It so often pans out that way when you begin a story. you whizz off the mark all pep and ginger, like a mettlesome charger going into its routine, and the next thing you know, the customers are up on their hind legs, yelling for footnotes.
Let me get into reverse and put you abreast.”
According to the rules of modern writing, telling a backstory ‘takes the story backwards’. It is apparently a ‘blunder’ typical of new writers and one that must be corrected. A 21st Century Wodehouse would almost certainly have his manuscript returned for rework. He would be advised to get rid of the backstory and start with some action as a ‘hook’ to get the reader interested. Any explanation of what’s actually going on is, at this point, considered undesirable. I don’t know what Wodehouse would make of this advice, but I am reminded of Psmith’s comments in Psmith Journalist:
“Your narratives, Comrade Maloney, always seem to me to suffer from a certain lack of construction. You start at the end, and then you go back to any portion of the story which happens to appeal to you at the moment, eventually winding up at the beginning.”
3 “Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.”
Wodehouse fares very well on this score. Indeed, his dialogue is so snappy that he writes long passages without so much as a ‘said’ in sight, perhaps a legacy of his time in the theatre.
” ‘I say, Bertie,’ he said, after a pause of about an hour and a quarter.
‘Do you like the name Mabel?’
‘You don’t think there’s a kind of music in the word, like the wind rustling gently through the tree-tops?’
He seemed disappointed for a moment; then cheered up.
‘Of course, you wouldn’t. You always were a fat-headed worm without any soul, weren’t you?’ ”
The Inimitable Jeeves
Wodehouse does break the rule of never using alternatives to said: “‘Croquet!’ He gulped” in The Clicking of Cuthbert; “ ‘Am I a serf?’ demanded Evangeline” in Mulliner Nights; ” ‘Go away, boy!’ he boomed” (the Duke of Dunstable) in Service with a Smile. But such transgressions are rare.
4 “Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”.”
According to the rules for writing fiction: ‘”To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.” Again, Wodehouse breaks the rule of never using an adverb in his dialogue, but examples are hard to come by:”‘I suppose you know who did it, hey?’ he said satirically” (Service with a Smile). This is the Duke of Dunstable again. What was it about Dunstable, arguably Wodehouse’s foulest creation, that caused such reckless use of verbs and adverbs?
5 “Keep your exclamation points under control.”
The incorrect use of exclamation marks is a modern misdemeanour that we would not expect Wodehouse to commit. Nor does he. Mostly we find them in his dialogue: an occasional ‘Darling!’ here, a justified ‘What ho!’ there. Every so often, he throws caution to the wind and has a character exclaim: ‘Am I mortified! I’m as mad as a wet hen.’ Or: ‘Lord-love-a-duck!’ (both from Money in the Bank).
Regarding the use of exclamation marks, the rule is: “You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose.” Wodehouse certainly exceeds this quota. It’s only natural that, when his plots reach their feverish high points, his characters feel the urge to exclaim things. But Wodehouse never misuses or overuses exclamations, and they fit seamlessly into the text. How sad that this perfectly useful punctuation mark has come to be considered a hallmark of poor writing.
6 “Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”.”
Of course Wodehouse breaks this rule. As a writer of over ninety published works, I would be exceedingly surprised if he had never employed this useful word on occasion. Consider this example, from one of the finest short stories ever written in the English language:
“As Cuthbert, for it was he who had so nearly reduced the muster-roll of rising novelists by one, hopped down from the table after his stroke, he was suddenly aware that a beautiful girl was looking at him intently. As a matter of fact, everyone in the room was looking at him intently, none more so than Raymond Parsloe Devine, but none of the others were beautiful girls. Long as the members of Wood Hills Literary Society were on brain, they were short on looks, and, to Cuthbert’s excited eye, Adeline Smethurst stood out like a jewel in a pile of coke.”
The Clicking of Cuthbert
Does the word suddenly leap out at you in that passage? Does it make the editor in you itch for your red pen? Is it poor writing? I’ve no doubt the many commas and sub-clauses will make our more sluggish-minded readers’ eyes water. It’s just lack of practice. Too much Hemingway in your diet. Not enough Wodehouse.
7 “Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.”
Wodehouse breaks this rule often, from the slang of the Drones Club to his gangs of New York. Some of these attempts are more successful than others.
“Why, den dis kid’s in bad for fair, ‘cos der ain’t nobody to pungle de bones.”
“Pungle de what, Comrade Maloney?”
“De bones. De stuff. Dat’s right. De dollars. He’s all alone, dis kid, so when de rent-guy blows in, who’s to slip him over de simoleons?”
Wodehouse’s technique develops from this early effort, in 1909, and by the time he writes Piccadilly Jim (1917), the patois is a little more refined:
“Chicago Ed’s my monaker.”
“I don’t remember any Chicago Ed.”
“Well, you will after dis!” said Mr. Crocker, happily inspired.
Ogden was eyeing him with sudden suspicion.
“Take that mask off and let’s have a look at you.”
Wodehouse continues to use this particular dialect throughout his writing career, and many of the examples defy ‘the rules’.
8 “Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.”
This is a rule inspired by Hemingway, who apparently felt it only necessary to mention whether or not his character wore a hat. Why Hemingway’s preference should be considered a rule for all writers is unclear. Wodehouse frequently devotes a sentence or two in drawing up the external specifications of his characters, especially when there is comedic value in it. In The Mating Season, for example, he describes the Rev. Sidney Pirbright as:
“A tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist…”
His central characters usually get a few more inches of description. In The Mating Season, he devotes a paragraph to the beautiful ‘Corky’ Pirbright: “The general effect is of an angel who eats lots of yeast.” Her love interest, Esmond Haddock, gets a full two paragraphs:
“He was a fine, upstanding – sitting at the moment, of course, but you know what I mean – broad-shouldered bozo of about thirty, with one of those faces which I believe , though I should have to check up with Jeeves, are known as Byronic. He looked like a combination of a poet and an all-in wrestler.”
None of these are detailed descriptions – Wodehouse drew his characters lightly – but it’s fair to say that he goes beyond the cursory mention of head-wear, so admired by the Hemingway school.
9 “Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.”
Avoid description. Avoid adverbs. Is this advice for novel-writers or twitter users? According to ‘the rules’: “You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.” It’s all about action. I pity the reader who turns to modern literature as an escape from the stress and anxiety of modern life, when we writers seem intent on keeping them in this state of tension.
Wodehouse doesn’t avoid description. Nor does he encumber us with dull pages of the stuff. His descriptive passages are, as we’d expect from a humourous writer, entertaining. The opening paragraph from Piccadilly Jim is a good example:
“The residence of Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, on Riverside Drive is one the leading eyesores of that breezy and expensive boulevard. As you pass by in your limousine, or while enjoying ten cents worth of fresh air on top of a green omnibus, it jumps out and bites at you. Architects, confronted by it, reel and throw up their hands defensively, and even the lay observer has a sense of shock. The place resembles in almost equal proportions a cathedral, a suburban villa, a hotel and a Chinese pagoda. Many of its windows are of stained glass, and above the porch stand two terra-cotta lions, considerably more repulsive even than the complacent animals which guard New York’s Public Library. It is a house which is impossible to overlook: and it was probably for this reason that Mrs. Pett insisted on her husband buying it, for she was a woman who liked to be noticed.”
A fine beginning, an enjoyable description – no mention of the weather. It isn’t clear from ‘the rules’ how much description is too much, but Wodehouse judges this for himself and gets it just right for his audience and purpose.
10 Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
Which reader would that be? ‘The rules’ say: “Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them.”
In my case, I would begin by skipping the complete works of Hemingway.
But where does this leave our assessment of Wodehouse, according to the modern rules? The answer is, of course, that it hardly matters. Wodehouse is an acknowledged master of his craft and has nothing to prove, in spite of changing fashions about what constitutes ‘good writing’.
On reflection, my argument has is less to do with Wodehouse than ‘the rules’ themselves. If Wodehouse, one of our great writers who remains well-loved more than a century after he began writing, doesn’t fit the modern rule book, are editors, publishers and critics closing their minds to other potentially great writers who don’t fit them either?
I’m not talking about myself, but… as it happens I am working on a novel at present and it does happen to begin with the weather, followed by quite a lot of backstory. So I guess it’s back to the drawing board for me. At the very least I shall have to scrap that first sentence:
“My parents died in a thunderstorm!” she cried suddenly.