Monday, June 18, 2007

A Wodehouse a Week #8: Big Money

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A couple weeks ago I got an email from Florence Craye. Hmmmm, sez I, who do I know named Florence Craye? The name was right at the tip of my tongue, so I stuck it out very far to see if I could read it. After I bit it a little too hard and ran around the apartment yelling and crying for a while, I sat on the couch to have a really good think and then it suddenly hit my little stuffed brain: Florence Craye! Bertie Wooster's ex-fianceé from Joy in the Morning, one of the finest Wodehouse books! Hmmm, why would she be emailing me? And more important, where did she get an internet connection at the stately home of Totleigh Towers?

Well, it turns out that Florence Craye is actually the nom de internet of a fine member of the Yahoo "Blandings" group. Florence had seen my posts and invited me to join the group. Well, I would never want to not belong to a group that would have me for a member, so off I trotted to take their tricksy initiation test and mild hazing and soon I was in as a proud and honored new member of a very large, very busy, very intelligent and entertaining group of Wodehouse fans. As I'm new to the group I haven't fully dived into the posts and conversations yet to avoid looking a piker, but I have been lurking to see what's what and how to proceed when I want to start posting. Yes, the internet is conspiring to have me spend even more time in front of it!

Every month the Blandings Group choose a Wodehouse book for all the members to read and discuss, and this month of sunny June, the book is Big Money (1931). What better time, then for me to pluck that very same volume off the Bully Bookshelf and read it along with them? It's like a big happy and jolly book club. Truth in advertising department: to avoid unintentional copying of other people's comments, I have not looked at any of the Big Money discussion points posted in the group. (I'll check 'em out later, guys!)

Check that date above—1931. It's important. Wodehouse had arrived in Hollywood to work for MGM in 1930, and while the west coast movie industry was more resilient than many others, America (and the world) was heavily feeling the aftereffects of the 1929 stock market crash. It can't, therefore, be coincidence that Big Money concerns itself with Berry Conway, a young man who has inherited a pile of worthless stocks (including a tapped-out copper mine) and that the first scene (taking place in the Drones Club, firmly establishing this book in the Woosterverse) is a conversation about the lack of money between him and old school chum Godfrey, Lord Biskerton, better known throughout the entire rest of the novel as the Biscuit. Wodehouse's heroes are often scrambling for a bit of the ready to go off and have a grand tourist adventure or to marry the woman they love, but it seems more keenly distinct in Big Money, whose opening chapter includes a discussion of the poverty of modern aristocracy that's not unlike today's manor house estates falling into crumbling disrepair because the Lords can't pay to have them refitted...or even the brilliant BBC-TV comedy To the Manor Born.
'But I always thought of you as rolling in money, Biscuit. You've got that enormous place in Sussex—?'

'That's just what's wrong with it. Too enormous,. Eats up all the family revenues, old boy. Oh, I know how you can to be misled. The error is a common one. You see a photograph in Country Life of an Earl standing in a negligent attitude outside the north-east piazza of his seat in Loamshire, and you say to yourself, "Lucky devil!" I'll make that bird's acquaintance and touch him." Little knowing that even as the camera clicked the poor old deadbeat was wondering where on earth the money was coming from to give the piazza the lick of paint it so badly needed. What with the Land Tax and the Income Tax and the Super Tax and all the rest of the little Taxes, there's no so much in the family sock these days, old boy. It all comes down to this," said the Biscuit, summing up, 'If England wants a happy, well-fed aristocracy, she mustn't have wars. She can't have it both ways.'
Wodehouse doesn't "do" politics often, and when he does it's with a whimsical satirical edge—Roderick Spode in the Jeeves books, who forms his own fascist group called the "Black Shorts" (because all the different colored shirts had been taken by other political causes). You might also remember Bingo's Bolshevist luncheon in The Inimitable Jeeves to woo Charlotte Corday Rowbotham. But it's seldom Wodehouse actually comes out with a political, social, and economic statement so bold and bald as the one before, and it caused me to sit up and scratch my head and take a little notice. The language is pure Wodehouse, of course. But the sentiment is, as far as I can recall, rare for him to express so clearly. If I find other examples in further books, I'll discuss as I read 'em, especially his infamous War Talks for German radio.

Don't be afeared, gentle reader; we are not in for 240 pages of Berry and the Biscuit huddled around a table smoking clove cigarettes and plotting the overthrow of the proles. They're much more interested in getting a spot of the ready money to rub together instead. The Biscuit suggests that it would be easy to unload Berry's worthless inheritance of a dried-out copper mine to some chump with more money than sense, and for a moment at this idea it looks like the book might swing into a caper novel, with our heroes becoming actual rogue con men. Wodehouse doesn't have that up his sleeve, either—as usual, he's got something much more complicated. Enter a girl...and don't they always?...named Ann Moon, who in the space of a few dozen places of gay madcap flashback whirls is readily engaged to the Biscuit, much to the delight of the Biscuit's ever-mooching father, eager to see what Miss Moon has to add to the family finances through her dowry and family fortune. In the meantime, Berry spies an attractive girl in a restaurant and is so taken by her that he tells her he is a Secret Service agent. What girl wouldn't swoon over a Secret Service agent rather than the secretary Berry really is? It should come as absolutely no surprise to you that the girl the Biscuit is engaged to and the girl Berry is in love with are one and the same. And meanwhile, that copper mine may just be a wee bit more valuable than Berry though...

One of the cheerful delights of Wodehouse's love stories is that nobody really gets hurt. Bertie is engaged to a passel of pretties, but when Jeeves extracts him from the encroaching nuptial bells, there's never any crying jags or angry stalking retaliations, breach of promise suits or angered fathers hustling bridegrooms towards a shotgun wedding. Monty Bodkin spends several books working to make himself worthy of marrying Gertrude Butterwick, only to fall in love with someone else completely different in his final book. That's the same light touch with which the overlapping love stories in Big Money are handled: Biscuit and Ann are engaged, Berry and Biscuit fall in love, Biscuit falls in love with another woman and gets engaged to her too, Berry and Ann get engaged, Biscuit and Ann cheerfully dis-engage, and neither one of the two friends beat each other to a pulp in jealousy. It's a very music hall approach to romance, and perhaps more than doddering uncles and brilliant valets this is Wodehouse's most fantastic theme: love affairs can be intense and romantic but if you spy somebody else even better, it's okay to switch partners, since the girl usually has found a better match on her own anyway. There's never the hint of sex in any of these romances—pecks on the cheek and deep embraces is about as far as it gets—but aside from the occasional fiancé of one of Bertie's ex-girlfriends threatening to wallop him up the conk if he gets too close again to that precious daisy of a girl, the realities of love don't intrude on the Wodehouse world. What a lovely, if unrealistic, world.

It's also one of Wodehouse's handful of novels in which a good deal of the action takes place in the suburbs. The vast majority are city or country novels, London or baronial estate, but much of Big Money takes place in the cottages and lanes of the London suburb of Valley Fields. This is quite another sign of the times for Wodehouse: he's writing during the heyday of Metro-land, the booming growth of London suburb homes affordable to the middle class which still allowed their London jobs to easily reachable by train or tube. (Berry confesses to the Biscuit he's living in the suburbs because he can't quite afford London anymore). The suburban setting allows the characters to pop in and out of each other's houses and gardens and for the Biscuit, hiding out from London creditors (after a false start of disguising himself with a fake beard) to meet the girl in the garden next door, the lovely Kitchie Valentine (what a name!), much more suited for his arm than the adventurous Ann. Because of the whimsical light nature of his characters and settings, many of Wodehouse's novels defy dating unless you flip to the copyright page, but upon careful reading of Big Money it's very much a book for its era: the between the wars, struggling for money, movement to the suburbs times.

It's not one of Wodehouse's grandest novels, but as I like to say, any Wodehouse is a delight. The plot rambles along a little less tightly than his masterpieces and at least one meeting relies on absolute outrageous coincidence rather than the carefully constructed series of events and character connections that usually make meetings at least somewhat logical. A handful of important characters are mentioned by name more than once and never actually appear in the book: Kitchie's fiancé (pre-Biscuit), actor Merwyn Flock, gets a handful of namedrops but never steps foot on the stage. More careful Wodehouse would have woven him intricately into the plot. There's a false ending about forty pages from the end in which all appears well for all the lovers, and then suddenly a tacked-on denouement featuring gangsters with guns intrudes, and for a while it seems entirely to be another novel for a while.

But none of these minor items—obvious only in comparison to Wodehouse's greatest books—detracts from the fun of it all. You've gotta adore a book that begins as a search for money ends as an adventure in love. That's the nicest turn of all. I'm especially fond of a clever conceit that Wodehouse works in which I haven't seen in the other books I've just re-read and don't remember from the others: the running commentary of Ann's Conscience, nattering away in her brain for a half-page or paragraph, giving the reader an internal monologue of Sensible Advice for the Young Woman—which Ann then gleefully ignores in the next sentence.

By far my favorite section of the book, however, is a single sentence. Wodehouse divides his chapters into small numbered subchapters, usually to accompany a scene change. Chapter Six consists of three scenes. 1: the Biscuit's father Lord Hoddesdon is sent by Lady Vera, his autocratic sister to Valley Fields to beard the Biscuit in his lair and get the young man out of the suburbs. 2: Lord Hoddeson does so, with antic and madcap results: chased by a laborer and his son because he is wearing a posh hat, leaping through windows, stealing a bowler hat to replace his own lost chapeau, being caught by the cottage owner, chased back out into the street—all that's missing is the saxophone honk of "Yakety Sax" and you've got a Benny Hill chase segment here. And that is followed up with the very final scene of the chapter, 3, which I reproduce in its absolute entirety:
'I knew you would bungle it,' said Lady Vera.
Finally, there's a lovely running gag concerning Berry's boss T. Paterson Frisby, who frequently gets out his anger and aggressions at others by scribbling mal mots on his detachable shirt cuffs. I think it's a sad, sad world we live in these days—we may have iPods and McNuggets and FedEx, but long gone are the days men used to take notes on their cardboard cuffs as in Dickens, or in this scene:
For some moments after the tumult and shouting had died, Mr Frisby sat brooding and inactive. Then he reach out a hand to where a pair of detachable cuffs stood stacked beside the inkpot. A sloppy dresser, who aimed at comfort rather than elegance, he was in the habit of removing these before settling down to the day's work. And, as always happened with him in times of mental stress, their glistening surface invited literary composition. What his tablets are to the poet, his cuffs were to T. Paterson Frisby.

He picked up one of the horrible objects, and in a scrawling hand wrote the following penseé:

Josephine is a pest

The contemplation of this seemed to soothe him somewhat. And he was not altogether satisfied. He licked his pencil, and between the words 'a' and 'pest' inserted the addendum:


It made the thing ever so much better. Stronger. More striking. A writer's prose may come from the heart, but it is seldom that he does not need to polish, to touch up, to heighten the colour.
Yes, folks...T. Paterson Frisby has just invented Twitter.

I've re-read Big Money in—as I often do in the Wodehouse a Week project—the Penguin paperback edition from the 1980s, featuring a vibrant and antic Ionicus illustration of a barmaid impatiently tearing the Biscuit's false beard off just as Berry walks into the pub. At first glance the offending bit of fake hair looks a bit like a dead rat, which probably isn't that far off from what Wodehouse had in mind in the first place. I also have a beaten and battered (but to my button eyes, berry berry beautiful) US first edition from Doubleday Doran. I don't actively seek out Wodehouse first editions; I'm usually just more interested in finding interesting-looking volumes. This one was affordable (as they seldom are) because of its broken spine, heavy foxing, well-worn condition and missing dust jacket. But I love it just the same. Since we're all as frugal as Berry and the Biscuit with our pounds and pence, you can pick up an affordable paperback edition of Big Money by clicking on the box to the right to buy the current Penguin paperback edition. That's fatcat T. Paterson Frisby sitting behind the desk on the cover, but hey! His cuffs are attached and there's no writing on them! Re-do that cover, Penguin! There's also a nice hardcover edition—only just released last month—of the Overlook Press Collector's Wodehouse hardcover edition.It's the best purchase you'll ever make that combines finances and fianceés in the same delightful book.


Anonymous said...

Glad you could join us, Bully :-)

viscount said...

That was a good 'un on Big Money, old Bully! Carry on!


--- Viscount Bosham
[The SUN and heir of Blandings]

SallyP said...

The world of Wodehouse may be fictional, but oh, who wouldn't want to live there?

Anonymous said...

A book club where all you read is Wodehouse! Puts my wife's book club to shame.