This is the second in an occasional series about Wodehouse works which might be less familiar than the Jeeves and Wooster stories.
WE are in the bar parlour of the Anglers’ Rest, an idyllic little inn on the banks of the Severn in Worcestershire, where a short, stout, comfortable man of middle age is drinking hot Scotch and lemon courteously ordered from, and courteously served by, the barmaid Miss Postlethwaite. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Mr Mulliner.
Like the Oldest Member in Wodehouse’s golf stories, our hero dominates his captive audience with a range of anecdotes and once in full flow will brook no interruption.
As the Wodehouse scholar Richard Usborne observed, the Mulliner tales ‘are almost always about his nephews, and he has one in almost every profession – the Church, photography, Hollywood scriptwriting, detection, poetry, to name a few. Since the locale of his tales can change from Mayfair to Malibu, his audience can check on his statements even less than the Oldest Member’s audience can check on his. So Mr Mulliner tells “stretchers”.
‘He was Wodehouse’s favourite mouthpiece for the really tall story. He tells his “stretchers” with determination, grace, ease and solemnity. He has a vocabulary of phrase and situation dredged almost wholesale from popular bilge literature.
‘Some of his characters have lives in stories other than his. Roberta (Bobbie) Wickham made her first appearance in a Mulliner story, later played lead in Mr Potter Takes a Rest Cure and later came into Bertie Wooster’s orbit, for two short stories and a whole novel. Wodehouse saw saga possibilities in her and let her cause trouble for a succession of young men. Bertie thought he was in love with her and tried to push it along. By the end of Jeeves in the Offing, Bobbie seemed destined for the altar with “Kipper” Herring.’
There are 40 Mulliner stories, to be found in the books Meet Mr Mulliner (1927), Mr Mulliner Speaking (1929) and Mulliner Nights (1933), plus sporadic appearances in six other volumes from Blandings Castle in 1936 to Plum Pie in 1966. These are all collected in The World of Mr Mulliner, published in 1972.
In his exhaustive A Wodehouse Handbook, the indefatigable N T P Murphy tells how PG ‘once wrote that he was anxious to break away from the stereotyped introduction of so many short stories in magazines of the time. I realised what he meant when I read my way through dozens of stories in the Strand, Windsor, Piccadilly and other magazines which all seemed to have the same beginning.
‘The narrator always says he was “in the club one night with the Colonel, Pritchett the QC, Jack Carruthers back on leave from India and a couple of other chaps”. Someone asks about some absent friend in the Sudan, which prompts Carruthers to say: “Did I ever tell you chaps about a dashed rum thing that happened to me in the Sudan years ago?” and out comes the story of the Balliol man who had gone wrong, or the chap who shot the sacred crocodile by mistake or offended the ju-ju man, whatever it was. By using Mr Mulliner’s nephews and cousins and their various professions, Wodehouse narrated stories covering a far wider field. While the Oldest Member introduced Wodehouse’s golf stories, Mr Mulliner’s vast family enabled Wodehouse to write stories about anything he liked.’
Among the Mulliner brood were his cousin John San Francisco Earthquake Mulliner; Montrose Mulliner, Assistant Director of the Perfecto-Zizzbaum Motion Picture Corp of Hollywood; Augustine Mulliner, a meek curate who eventually becomes a married vicar thanks to the Buck-U-Uppo tonic created by the chemist and investor Wilfred Mulliner; Archibald Mulliner, a member of the Drones Club, son of Sir Sholto and Lady Wilhelmina, who does a masterful impression of a hen laying an egg and is a sock collector. Plus many, many more.
Apparently Wodehouse got the idea for Mr Mulliner in 1926 while waiting at London Victoria for a train to Dulwich, where he would watch the college rugger team. He saw a ‘short, stout, comfortable man of middle age, whose eyes held such childlike candour that you would have bought oil stock from him without a tremor’. The name came from a gardener in Stableford, Shropshire, where the author lived at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
One of my favourites in the series is The Smile That Wins from Mulliner Nights. It opens with the Anglers’ Rest regulars deploring the low standards of behaviour among the nobility. Mr Mulliner sighs and says: ‘Reluctant though one may be to admit it, the entire British aristocracy is seamed and honeycombed with immorality.’ He then tells the story of the young private detective Adrian Mulliner, who falls in love with an earl’s daughter. When her father forbids her union with a penniless gumshoe, Adrian has a bad attack of dyspepsia and a doctor tells him that the best cure for the condition is to smile. Adrian, who hasn’t smiled since he was twelve (‘I saw the butler trip on a spaniel and upset the melted butter all over Aunt Elizabeth’), develops a sinister smirk which suggests ‘I know all’ and causes much nervousness amongst people with something to hide.
These include kleptomaniac baronets and peers who embezzle public funds. Armed only with his smile, he persuades the guilty nobs to hand over enough dosh to make him an attractive bridegroom and win the blessing of the earl to marry his daughter – after Adrian grins while the old man is cheating at cards.
N T P Murphy writes: ‘The 1931 story was extremely topical. Just as everybody in 1938 recognised Roderick Spode as a satire on the English Fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts, so every 1931 reader realised Wodehouse had in mind the case of Lord Kylsant.’ Owen Cosby Philipps, 1st Baron Kylsant, was a businessman and politician found guilty that year of producing a document with intent to deceive. He served ten months in Wormwood Scrubs.
If this visit to the Anglers’ Rest has whetted your appetite, here is the first volume of the Mulliner Chronicles. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Old jokes’ home
One cow says to another: ‘Have you heard about the mad cow disease that’s going around?’
‘Yeah,’ the other one says. ‘Makes me glad I’m a penguin.’
A PS from PG
Jeeves lugged my purple socks out of the drawer as if he were a vegetarian fishing a caterpillar out of his salad.
PG Wodehouse: The Inimitable Jeeves