Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #34: Meet Mr Mulliner

A Wodehouse a Week banner

Christmas CookiesIt's the most wonderful time of the year...for Christmas cookies! Don't you just love it when they're piping hot and fresh out of the oven so that...ow ow ow ow ow! That's too hot! (blowing on my little tender hooves) Okay, maybe we'd better wait until they cool down a little. Still, you can't beat a delicious tray of yummy Christmas sugar cookies, in all shapes ad colors and sizes, frosted merrily and delightful to crunch between your teeth. M-m-m, I can hardly wait. Speaking of M-M-M, that's sort of the treat that Mister Wodehouse has in store for us this week with Meet Mr Mulliner (1927), a delightful china plate full of nine assorted delicious cookies stories featuring his teller-of-tall-family-tales, Mr Mulliner himself. These go down best with a big tall glass of ice cold milk...let's pour one now...oo! Oooh! Ooooh! That's too c-c-c-c-cold! Well, let me set those both aside for the moment and let's look at Meet Mr Mulliner, shall we?

This is the first of the Mulliner collections but there's no more introduction to the character and the placid setting of the rest: simply, here's Mulliner sitting in the bar of the Anglers' Rest, and these is no conversation he cannot turn to the subject of one of his many varied relatives. Just like a plate of varied delicious Christmas cookies (see above...runs off to test to make certain they're cool enough...returns sucking on my hoof), the basic set-up is usual the same (Mulliner relative is in unrequited love) but the plots spin in as many different directions as those little candy silver beaded nonpareils skitter across the floor when you're decorating cookies. (Looks wistfully at the steaming cookies).

Mulliner Family ArmsThere's George Mulliner, the stutterer, who must learn to overcome his verbal handicap fast or lose the lass he loves (say that three times, not you, George)...Albert Mulliner, the founder of the vast Mulliner Cosmetics fortune...his hapless nephew Augustine, who uses his uncle's patented Mulliner's Buck-U-Uppo to gain the love of his life as well as a promotion...poet Lancelot Mulliner, who can't keep a job...William Mulliner, who discovers the joys of drowning his sorrows over a woman in American alcohol...there's Frederick (with the nanny) and Clarence (with the camera) and James (with the close call with ghosts)...Mulliners all, through and through, and don't even bother trying to draw a family tree: you'll wear down your crayon long before you're finished. (Trust me.) I happen to know at least one real-life guy named Mulliner, (hi, Rob!) and I certainly would like Wodehouse to tell his story someday. But I doubt Mr Mulliner will ever run out of relatives to spin his tales.

And just like biting into the soft creamy Hershey's kiss at the center of a peanut blossom, or the gooey jam in the middle of a Jammy Dodger, there's sweet delights of prose to be found in the adventures of the relatives in love, every man Mulliner of them:
The conversation in the bar-parlour of the Anglers' Rest had drifted round to the subject of the Arts: and somebody asked if that film-serial, The Vicissitudes of Vera, which they were showing down at the Bijou Dream, was worth seeing.

'It's very good,' said Miss Postlethwaite, our courteous and efficient barmaid, who is a prominent first-nighter. 'It's about this mad professor who gets this girl into his toils and tries to turn her into a lobster.'

'Tries to turn her into a lobster?' echoed we, surprised.

'Yes, sir. Into a lobster. It seems he collected thousands and thousands of lobsters and mashed them up and boiled down the juice from their glands and was just going to inject it into this Vera Dalrymple's spinal column when Jack Frobisher broke into the house and stopped him.'

'Why did he do that?'

'Because he didn't want the girl he loved to be turned into a lobster.'

'What we mean,' said we, 'is why did the professor want to turn the girl into a lobster?'

'He had a grudge against her.'

This seemed plausible, and we thought it over for a while.
There's a wonderful literary accounting of exclamations in this bit, in which headmasters and bishops try to nail down who vandalized a school statue:
...'Run away, my boy, run away, run away. Can't you see we're busy?'

'But, sir, please, sir, it's about the statue.'

'What about the statue? What about it? What about it?'

'Sir, please, sir, it was me.'

'What! What! What! What! What!'

The bishop, the general, and the headmaster had spoken simultaneously: and the 'Whats' has been distributed as follows:

The Bishop 1
The General 3
The Headmaster 1

making five in all. Having uttered these ejaculations, they sat staring at the boy, who turned a brighter vermillion.
What makes it funny? That in truth the bishop and the general are the paint-happy culprits, having been riled up the previous night with a liberal dose of "Mulliner's Buck-U-Uppo," that miracle patented medicine which gives you the bravery and nerve for difficult deeds. What makes it funnier? That the boy confessing is young Mulliner, nephew of the bishop's curate, who put the boy up to the confession to save his job. What makes it funniest? Mulliner's Buck-U-Uppo is actually an elephant tonic, with enough strength to keep those mighty pachyderms from shying and startling while on hunts in the Indian jungle.

I love this grey description of a spooky estate Wilfred Mulliner is dispatched to:
Externally, ffinch Hall was one of those gloomy, somber country-houses which seem to exist only for the purpose of having horrid crimes committed in them. Even in his brief visit to the grounds, Wilfred has noticed fully half a dozen places which seemed incomplete without a cross indicating spot where body was found by the police. It was the sort of house where ravens croak in the front garden just before the death of the heir, and shrieks ring out from behind barred windows in the night.
In truth, the only fiend there is the suspicious guardian of his love Angela:
'Sir Jasper Finch-Farrowmere?' said Wilfred.

'ffinch-ffarrowmere,' corrected the visitor, his sensitive ear detecting the capital letters.

'Ah, yes. You spell it with two small f's.'

'Four small f's.'
ffinch-ffarrowmere is trying to steal Angela away for himself, which gives Wilfred cause to rant:
'Pooh to you!" said Wilfred. 'And, if you want to know what I think, you poor ffish, I believe your name is spelled with a capital F, like anybody else's.'

Stung to the quick, the baronet turned on his heel and left the room without another word.
But the ffinishing stroke is this:
He shook a menacing finger at the baronet. 'You little thought, Sir Jasper ffinch-ffarrowmere, when you embarked on this dastardly scheme, that Wilfred Mulliner was watching your every move. I guessed your plans from the start. And now is the moment when I checkmate them. Give me that key, you Fiend.'

'ffiend,' corrected Sir Jasper, automatically.
But in between the moments of chuckling comedy, Wodehouse is as always skilled at turning a lyric and sentimental scene that touches the heart:
It was as he was passing the Houses of Parliament that the realization came to him that strange bubbly sensation that seemed to start from just above the lower left side-pocket of his waistcoat was not, as he had first supposed, dyspepsia, but love. Yes, love had come at long last to Clarence Mulliner; and for all the good it might just as well have been the dyspepsia for which he had mistaken it. He loved a girl whom he would probably never see again. He did not know her name or where she lived or anything about her. All he knew was that he would cherish her image in his heart for ever, and that the thought of going on with the old dreary round of photographing lovely women with coy yet roguish smiles was almost more than he could bear.
After reading that bit, you may think that Wodehouse has no bearing on our everyday lives, that he has nothing to tell the youth of today, that the sentiments he writes about aren't popular today. You think so, huh?:
Hey Mister Blunt, Mister Wodehouse called, and he wants his share of the royalties.

I've got three different editions of Meet Mr Mulliner (which is almost as good as having three different plates of cookies!): a mass market paperback edition from Pennyfarthing Press (a nice man named Mister Six gave it to me and told me he'd be seeing me), an old but well-loved sixth printing of the Herbert Jenkins UK hardcover, and the recent Everyman/Overlook Complete Wodehouse edition.

And as I mentioned before when reviewing Mr Mulliner Speaking, Mulliner media is marketed by the multitude! You can pick up the excellent BBC full-cast audio plays of the Mulliner series, and I especially recommend the 1970s TV adaptations on Wodehouse Playhouse starring the amazing John Alderton and the cute-as-a-cookie Pauline Collins. Oh, say, that reminds me! Those cookies and milk ought to be ready just about now, so here I go!

(happily trots out to the kitchen)

(startled and disappointed exclamation)

(slowly trudges back out to the living room)

The cat's eaten it. Sigh.

A Wodehouse a Week Index.

No comments: