Monday, December 10, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #33: Eggs, Beans and Crumpets

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Eggs, Beans, and Crumpets. It's more than just a 1940 collection of Wodehouse short stories, it's a cheering and heartening meal that fills in all the corners and leaves you fortified for an entire day of adventure, excitement, romance, and chasing down stolen Pekes. I've written earlier of my grand fondness for the quintessential English breakfast of egg bacon chips & beans—well, now here's the Wodehouse variety, and I'm starving. Let's tuck in, shall we?

Oh! Except turn to the first page of P.G.'s platter and we quickly discover that the yummy eggs and savory beans are not for eating, but shorthand for members of the Drones Club, defined by their late breakfasts, no doubt, in the same way that the patrons of the Anglers Rest in the Mr Mulliner stories are defined by their drinks. For example:
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 Scot!' he cried, breaking off. 'There he goes again!'

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 back. Only yesterday he can 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.
All's well with Bingo, obviously, and all's well with Wodehouse in this collection. Like a hearty breakfast buffet, there's a variety and heaps of it: four Bingo Little stories, a Mr Mulliner tale, a short non-series romance, and three Ukridge stories. Despite the menu consisting of the non-gourmet members of the Wodehouse world—there's no Jeeves and Bertie, no Lord Emsworth in here—this is a joyous and cheerful collection, and like the best frozen orange juice, concentrated for intense taste and freshness. I'm rambled on before on how Wodehouse is as skillful with a short story as he is with an extended novel so I won't repeat my argument, but I'll wager that while there's enough plot in each of these tales that he certainly could have expanded them each to a novel, in their short story form they're 'just right' with the minimum daily requirement of chuckles and guffaws.

I'm especially fond of Bingo Little stories wherever they pop up. As an ancillary character in the early Bertie Wooster stories you might argue that reading about Bingo Little instead of Jeeves might be a bit like an Inspector Lestrade mystery when all you want is another Sherlock Holmes adventure, but Wodehouse wisely does not repeat the formula of the Bertie stories for his best pal. In fact, it's an entire different sort of plot, one that owes more to Wodehouse's early Psmith and Ukridge stories—Bingo's never-ending quest to make a quick quid—but with a difference, and a very vital one at that: Bingo's married. To the beautiful and clever Rosie M. Banks, romance novelist, and their union has been blessed by perhaps the only recurring baby character in Wodehouse's canon, the potato-faced infant Algernon. Bingo as a married man through these stories is an interesting twist Wodehouse seldom explores elsewhere, as most of his love stories end with an engagement; we never see the wedding, much less the marriage.

Bingo's married life is different, but this doesn't put the kibosh on a good story. Sure, Rosie may be sweet, but she's firm and lays down the law in her household: no gambling for Bingo. This, of course, does not stop Bingo, who sneaks out to have a flutter on the ponies whenever Rosie is on an out-of-town book tour or at a charity luncheon or otherwise has her back turned for more than ten seconds. Prone to accepting dreams and omens as signs of sure sporting winners , Bingo has the usual luck when he bets:
'And my friend, Mr Little,' said Oofy in conclusion, 'wants a tenner on Spotted Dog for the Prix Honoré Sauvan.'

And Bingo was just about to shake his head and say that he didn't think his wife would like him to bet, when the glorious Riviera sunshine, streaming in through the window by which they sat, lit up Oofy's face and he saw that it was a perfect mass of spots. A moment later, he perceived that the bookie had a pink spot on his nose and the waiter, who was not bringing the bill, a bountifully spotted forehead. A thrill shot through him. These things, he knew, are sent to us for a purpose.

'Right ho,' he said. 'A tenner at the current odds.'

And then they all went off to the races. The Prix Honoré Sauvan was the three o'clock. A horse called Lilium won it. Kerry second, Maubourget third, Ironside fourth, Irresistible fifth, Sweet and Lovely sixth, Spotted Dog seventh. Seven ran.
More often than not Bingo has complicated the situation by betting the tenner Rosie had given him to buy baby Algernon a present, or hocking a brooch of Rosie's in order to bet, or (in extreme circumstances) heisting a neighbor's Pekinese dog to replace one of Rosie's he's inadvertently lost. It's the sort of scheme that Psmith and Ukridge constantly get into, with wild and comic consequences. Yet here's the difference. Bingo always wins at the end. It's always by sheer luck or coincidence or happenstance rather than by planning or skill, but just as he's taken to the edge of despair and discovery and probably divorce, the fates pour down salvation and Bingo's pockets are filled again. Forget the luck of the Bodkins...there's no luckier man in the Wodehouse world than Bingo Little. And yet does he learn his lesson and avoid temptation in each subsequent story? To our delight, he does not.

I'd like to think that Bingo inadvertently wins where others in similar stories good-naturedly lose simply because of the good fate he has in being married. We seldom see any married Wodehouse heroes (one early Ukridge novel, Love Among the Chickens, covers his post-marriage life, but that's a rare bird indeed). That the one who is married persistently and consistently comes up on top can't be a simple fact, Bingo's salvation comes again and again because he is married. Rosie confesses a weakness by gambling at the tables herself, diverting attention away from Bingo's initial losses; her persistence in getting him a job brings him into contact with a potential employer who's trying to keep his own weaknesses a secret from his wife, and so on—sure, Bingo would be in hot water single or married, but the solution to his troubles usually comes because of a connection to his wife. Sure, Wodehouse wrote to formula, and he could have just as well have made a single hero the beneficiary of the Little luck. But despite her firmness, Rosie is no shrew, and she genuinely and happily loves and supports her sometimes gormless man. And that's a very telling thing indeed: the love that drives so many Wodehouse comedy-romances can and does persist after the wedding breakfast, and whether she's knowing of the situation or not, the love of a good woman often saves a good man from his own foibles:
'Bingo,' said Mrs Bingo, 'we always tell each other everything, don't we?'

'Do we? Oh, yes. Yes.'

'Because when we got married, we decided that that was the only way. I remember your saying so on the honeymoon.'

'Yes,' said Bingo, licking his lips and marveling at the depths of fatheadedness to which men can sink on their honeymoons.
The four Bingo stories are top-notch and my favorite in the collection, but there's great stuff spread out all across the whole buffet. From "Romance at Droitgate Spa," the saga of Freddy Fitch-Fitch, who's fallen in love with a magician's assistant:
'So you are Mr Fitch? So you are Mr Fitch? Ha! Fiend!'


'I am not mistaken. You are Frederick Fitch?'

'Frederick Fitch-Fitch.'

'I beg your pardon. In that case, I should have said "Fiend! Fiend!"'
Here's clever, clever Ukridge solving the problem of needing to impress his fiancée Mabel and get into Ascot, even though he doesn't have the proper suit jacket or top hat:
'I say,' I said, 'I think you've got something on the back of your coat.'

'Eh?' said the bloke, trying to squint round and look between his shoulder-blades—silly ass.

'It's a squashed tomato or something.'

'A squashed tomato?'

'Or something.'

'How would I get a squashed tomato on my coat?'

'Ah!' I said, giving him to understand with a wave of the hand that these were deep matters.

'Very curious,' said the bloke.

'Very,' I said. 'Slip off your hat and let's have a look at it.'

He slid out of the coat, and I was on it like a knife. You have to move quick on these occasions, and I moved quick. I had the coat out of his hand and the top-hat off the table where he had put it, and was out of the door and dashing down the stairs before he could utter a yip.

I put on the coat, and it fitted like a glove. I slapped the top-hat on to my head, and it might have been made for me. And then I went out into the sunshine, as natty a specimen as ever paced down Piccadilly.
Naturally, as is par for Ukridge's course, the wheel of fate turns full around when he later discovers the chappie he pinched the hat and coat off was not an anonymous victim but in fact Mabel's father. The romance is, of course, off; the engagement broken. Unlike Bingo, therefore, Ukridge loses. But at least he gets a natty hat and jacket out of the adventure.

My favorite segment of this whole book, however, is not in a Bingo Little story but at the end of that same Ukridge story, a lovely little O. Henryesque twist that had me—had everyone reading the story, I imagine—flipping back twenty pages to the beginning of the story to check out something they no doubt saw but didn't register on them. And when it does, you will, as I did, laugh out loud. Here's the end of the story, where Ukridge advises his Watson, writer James Corcoran, to turn his narrated adventure into a short story:
'You might make a story out of that, Corky,' said Ukridge.

'I might,' I said.

'All profits to be shared on a strictly fifty-fifty basis, of course.'

'Of course.'

Ukridge brooded.

'Though it really wants a bigger man to do it justice and tell it properly, bringing out all the fine shades of the tragedy. It wants somebody like Thomas Hardy or Kipling, or somebody.'

'Better let me have a shot at it.'

'All right,' said Ukridge. 'And, as regards a title, I should call it "His Lost Romance," or something like that. Or would you suggest something terse and telling, like "Fate" or "Destiny"?'

'I'll think of a title,' I said.
And thus the story ends. So flip back 15 pages to page 130 and see what the story has been titled, and you'll come across this on the top of the page:

"A Bit of Luck for Mabel"

I challenge your Updikes, your T. Coraghessan Boyles, you Dave Eggerseses to come up with quite such a lovely and mirthful self-referential title.

Mmmmmm, Eggerseses. As usual, if you want to buy Eggs, Beans and Crumpets, I'll make it easy for you: simply click on the usual link below:

Oh, wait. Those will feed your tummy but not your need for a fine Wodehouse book. Instead, try the link to the right. Or better yet...also, try the link to the right. Get yourself a book, have yourself a proper fry up, and snuggle in for a lovely breakfast. And if you have the food but not the book? Well, I have a couple copies of Eggs, Beans and Crumpets (a Penguin paperback and the Everyman/Overlook hardcover), so here's a deal for you: you come by with the food and make breakfast, and I'll let you read one of my copies over breakfast. Can't say fairer than that, can you? Don't forget the butter.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.


Anonymous said...

Dash it, Bully, now I'm hungry.

Bingo Little's solo adventures I found took a while to grow on me. After reading four or five in a row I couldn't help feeling he needed to be in a twelve step program or something.

Also: an Inspector Lestrade mystery would rock.

Bully said...

H-Guy, if an Inspector Lestrade mystery would rock, what would a whole series of them do?

I deliberately didn't mention them in my post for fear of ruining the joke, but M. J. Trow has written an extensive series of Lestrade mysteries—16 according to the linked page. A lot of them are available on Amazon and probably can be found in used paperback bookstores. I've read a couple of the early ones and they're quite neat. I prefer the two John Gardner Professor Moriarty books for non-Holmes pastiches, but the Lestrade books are clever and well-written.

SallyP said...

Delightful as usual, Bully. I can't help but wish that Joe Quesada was a Wodehouse fan.


Michael Strauss said...

$17.52 for a can of beans?

I guess I never realized how fortunate I am to have a section of imported English foods at my local grocery.

And I guess I'll be making eggs, bacon, chips and beans this weekend.

Bully said...

It's actually $17.52 for six large cans of beans. But I still remember eating beans when they were 19 1/2 p a can in London in 1983, so that's still pricey for beans!

Anonymous said...

Awesome, thanks Bully!

Oh, and I had eggs, beans and crumpets for dinner last night, because of this.

Unknown said...

Thanks to your recommendation, I've just finished reading this, or rather, listening to it read by Jonathan Cecil. Perhaps for this reason, I think my favorite in the collection was "Romance at Droitgate Spa"; Cecil's voice for Mortimer Rackstraw, the dastardly magician, is laugh-out-loud funny. And once I suspected (not too far in advance) how the introduction of Uncle Joe Boffin was likely to be resolved, I cackled softly through the rest of the story as it unfolded. I enjoyed the Bingo stories too, and although I took longer to warm up to Ukridge, I did appreciate him getting a taste of his own medicine from "the Stepper." All in all, a delightful experience, and I wouldn't have found it without your recommendation, so thanks!