Review by George Simmers:
This collection of short stories features several familiar Wodehouse characters.
Four centre on Bingo Little, familiar from stories in The Inimitable Jeeves (1923). That book’s stories showed him madly in love with a succession of girls, with Bertie Wooster roped in to help him. In the last of the stories he married Rosie M. Banks, the romantic novelist, and the stories in this collection are about the married life of Bingo and ‘Mrs Bingo’. She rules him strictly, especially when it comes to money, which he mostly needs so that he can gamble. An incurable optimist, Bingo always thinks that the next horse-race will bring him riches; usually it doesn’t.
The couple actually love each other very much, but their relationship is very different from the slushiness of Rosie M. Banks’s novels. She is the author of A Red, Red Summer Rose; Only a Factory Girl; ‘Twas Once in May; and A Kiss at Twilight and similar works. The M. in Rosie M. Banks is, of course, a nod to two the best-selling novelists well-known to the reading group, Ruby M. Ayres and Ethel M. Dell.
Mrs Bingo is sometimes referred to as ‘the head of the house’, and she keeps Bingo under tight control, especially financially. When she does send him ten pounds, it is to open their child’s savings account, Bingo inevitably puts it on a hopeless horse. He is tempted to pretend that he never received it, but reflects:
‘Mrs Bingo was a woman who wrote novels about girls who wanted to be loved for themselves alone, but she was not lacking in astuteness.’ (110)
The contrast between life and literature is most pointed in the story ‘Sonny Boy’. Rosie M. Banks has just (in June) written ‘Tiny Fingers’, her special story for a magazine’s Christmas issue.
‘[S]he goes in pretty wholeheartedly for the fruitily sentimental. This is so even at ordinary times, and for a Christmas number, of course, she naturally makes a special effort. In ‘Tiny Fingers’ she had chucked off the wraps completely. Scooping up snow and holly and robin redbreasts and carol-singing villagers in both hands, she had let herself go and given her public the works.’ (119)
In ‘Tiny Fingers’ a hard-hearted godfather has rejected his god-daughter and her child – but the sight of the baby at Christmas melts his heart, and he writes out a large cheque to the mother. Bingo decides to see whether the same stratagem will work on Oofy Prosser, the Drones Club millionaire, who is his own child’s godfather. When he looks objectively at his baby, though, he is struck by the child’s ugliness. Young Algernon Aubrey’s appearance is variously compared with ‘some mass-assassin who has been blackballed by the Devil’s Island Social and Outing Club as unfit to associate with its members’ (120), and with ‘a homicidal fried egg’.
The three Ukridge stories are from the 1920s. In each of them Ukridge tries to make money by schemes of dubious honesty. In ‘Buttercup Day’, for instance, he realises that ‘any given man, confronted by a pretty girl with a tray of flags will automatically and without inquiry shove a coin into her box.’ When he gives a girl a tray of paper buttercups in the hope of collecting the profit, though, but finds himself outsmarted by people even less honest than he is himself. The same happens in ‘Ukridge and the Old Stepper’, when he meets his late step-mother’s step-sister’s husband, who proves to have all of Ukridge’s talent for scrounging and petty theft, to a much greater degree.
These stories have fun with the ethics of selfishness and so, even more cleverly, does the volume’s one Mulliner story, ‘Ambrose Gets his Chance’. Mr Mulliner tells the patrons of the Angler’s Rest about his cousin Rupert’s younger son, Anselm, an ambitious young curate. Anselm is secretly engaged to Myrtle Jellaby, the niece of Sir Leopold, a millionaire stamp-collector. Anselm is bequeathed his recently deceased godfather’s stamp collection, which is insured for five thousand pounds. He and Myrtle offer it to Sir Leopold, the uncle, who, hearing the sum of five thousand pounds mentioned:
‘shook from stern to stern like a cat that has received half a brick in the short ribs. All his life the suggestion that he should part with large sums of money had shocked him.’
Sir Leopold tells them that unfortunately the collection is worth only five pounds, but offers ten as a gesture of goodwill.
The pair are disheartened, but Myrtle forms a plan – get Joe Beamish, the local thief, to steal it, and claim five thousand on the insurance. Anselm protests: ‘ Myrtle! I beg you desist. You shock me inexpressibly.’ (138) She pursues the plan without him knowing.
Wodehouse clearly enjoys the contrast between Anselm’s prissily pious language and Myrtle’s, which reflects a much more realistic attitude to life:
‘And I have got to take a few pints of soup to the deserving poor. [….] Amazing the way these bimbos absorb soup. Like sponges.’ (139). The linguistic mix is made richer by the vicar, who quotes the Bible, with chapter and verse references, to make his points.
When the stamps are stolen, Anselm is faced with a dilemma. Can he honestly claim five thousand pounds on the insurance if the stamps are worthless? Myrtle says that since his godfather paid the premiums, he can. She convinces him, but unfortunately the vicar falls ill, so Anselm gets the chance to give his very best sermon, on Brotherly Love, with special reference to the Hittites and the Hivites. This performance so affects the burglar that he repents, and comes close to creating a catastrophe.
All works out happily, but not before Wodehouse has had brilliant fun by contrasting various ethical attitudes and the languages in which they are expressed, from the clergyman’s piety, to the realism of Myrtle and from the repentant sinner’s melodramatic declaration to the hypocrisy of Sir Leonard (because the stamp collection was, of course, worth at least five thousand). It’s a wonderfully funny confection, but as with all the best of Wodehouse, there is a sharp and clear-eyed dissection of values underneath the surface fun.
What a wonderful title – yum!
I’ve never had eggs and beans with my crumpets but it sounds nice!
In American diners, they sometimes offer you an egg with an ‘English muffin’ – which to us English would actually be a crumpet. I haven’t tried the dish.
Wodehouse’s title comes from the Drones Club, where they address each other as ‘Old Bean’, ‘Old Egg’, and even ‘Old Crumpet’ (though to my ears the latter expression sounds more like a very disrespectful way of referring not to a chap but to a lady).
A yummy post!