Vain Tale—No. DCXLII.
THE PECULIAR CASE OF FLATHERWICK.
By P. G. Wodehouse.
Vanity Fair (UK), March 19, 1903
MY friend Flatherwick was at one time a most brilliant and prolific novelist, noted for his extraordinary versatility. Ask him why he never sets pen to paper now, and he will shudder, and change the subject. I alone know the true reason. This story will reveal it.
. . . . “Well, Flatherwick,” I said, “how is the novel progressing?”
I had not seen him for some time, but I knew that he was engaged on a realistic story of life in the East-End of London. I expected a favourable bulletin—for Flatherwick was one of those men who are always satisfied with their work—but I was certainly not prepared for the manner in which he delivered it. “S’elp me, ole pal,” he said, “it’s a bloomin’ knock-aht.” I omit some of his adjectives, and soften down others.
“My dear Flatherwick!” I gasped.
“Wodger mean?” said he, aggressively; “wodger mean with yer bloomin’ dear Flatherwicks? Cawn’t yer understan’ a man wot’s torkin’ pline English? Wot yer wants is a thick ear. Yus.”
I retreated nimbly behind an arm-chair.
“I know you’re only joking, old man,” I said; “but I wish you wouldn’t, really. Do stop talking in that extraordinary way.”
To my amazement he covered his face with his hands, and burst into tears.
“Blimey,” he sobbed, “it is hard on a cove, strike me if it ain’t. Wuddus, ole pal, I cawn’t deceive yer. I cawn’t ’elp torkin’ like this—strite I cawn’t. It’s thet there bloomin’ novel wot I’m a writing of. Some’ow I’ve bin a-thinkin’ so long of them there bloomin’ kerikters in it wot orl torks this way, and blimey if I ain’t bin an’ cort it from them. I ’ave. Yus.”
There was silence, broken only by his sobs.
“But, Flatherwick,” I said, “this is terrible.”
I thought of all it meant. Flatherwick in his normal state was a man of almost pedantic purity of speech. His present condition must be causing him agonies. And then the horrible disadvantages of the change! As a successful novelist, he was always a good deal in request at dinners, “at homes,” and other social functions. Suppose he were to go, for example, to the Duchess of Moatygrangeshire’s, and address her Grace as “ ’Ria” or “Ole gal,” and the Duke as “matey.” It was an appalling thought, and apparently it had occurred to Flatherwick, for he began again in a broken voice:
“Blimey, yer know, it is ’ard on a cove. ’Ar can I go aht to these yer bloomin’ Dooks and Duchesses and their swarries an’ beanos, me torkin’ like this? Why, I ain’t bin aht o’ doors excep’ this evenin’ for a ’ole munf, strite I ain’t. And ’ere am I gettin’ letters every powst from my donah, Lidy Hermyntrude Battleaxe, yer know, arskin’ why I ain’t bin to see ’er. Oo er! Well, the book’s finished nar, so p’reps thet’ll chinge fings. Goo’ nart, mitey.”
And he retired. I sat far into the night, pondering over his “pineful kise,” as he would have called it. Unless he gave up writing altogether, I did not see how he was to cure himself. And he could not do that, for he depended entirely on his writings for his living. I had to confess that the matter was beyond me.
About a month later the bell of my outer door rang. I was living in a flat then. I heard the servant open the door.
“Say,” said a voice, “Is Mr. Wuddus in?”
I recognised the voice. It was Flatherwick’s.
A moment later he entered the room where I was sitting.
“Crimes,” he observed, with a strong nasal twang, “if you aren’t jest the feller I want to see. You sit down, sirree, and let me have the floor while I speak my piece.”
“But, Flatherwick—” I began.
“Your voice! Your accent! Why are you talking like this?”
“Wal, it’s this way. I com-pleted that East-End novel, and found that I still talked like a low-down tough, so I surmised that the slicker I started another novel the better. So I got a wiggle on—”
“Flatherwick,” I interrupted, “what do you mean by getting a wiggle on?”
“Why, I guess I mean I humped myself—that’s what I mean. Wal, I worked a blue streak, and now I’m half through with the most all-wool, three-ply, copper-bottomed novel of life in the U-nited States that ever entered the brain of man. A perfect sinch. That’s the sort of man I am.”
“What is a sinch?” I inquired, patiently.
“Why, a good thing. What did you think it was?”
“And do you enjoy life now? Do you prefer this to your East-End rôle?”
Flatherwick’s cheerful face clouded over.
“Wal,” he said, “I guess there’s drawbacks. It’s better than the down East tough; but if anyone’s sorry when it’s all over, it won’t be John B. Flatherwick. No, Sir.”
“And how does Lady Ermyntrude—?” I began.
“Ah,” said Flatherwick, dejectedly. “I guess that’s where the business slips up. Lady Ermyntrude W. Battleaxe don’t seem to kinder cotton to Amurricans. I tell you, sirree, I shall be glad when it’s all over.”
The American edition of Flatherwick continued for nearly a year, and then, without the slightest warning, he developed a burr such as I had never before heard off the stage. His s’s became z’s, and his f’s v’s; and, in short, he was now that mixture of Wessex-Cornish-Westmoreland-Shropshire yokel which novelists call “Zummerzet.” It appeared on inquiry that he was writing a book of the pastoral type.
This went on for several months, and then he took a long rest, and for a time appeared to have recovered. Then came a fearful relapse. He began to write a Kailyard novel. I will pass over this stage of his illness: there are some things too painful to be dwelt upon. Suffice it to say that on one occasion he addressed Lady Alethea Sangazure as a “bonnie braw wee lassie, ye ken, what eferthe noo,” publicly; and her Ladyship cuts him dead to this day.
The Kailyard stage was followed by the historical, when he called people “coz” and “varlet,” and then one bright, sunny morning he came to me to tell me that he was cured.
“Wuddus,” he said, “congratulate me.”
I was so amazed at the fact that he was speaking like his ordinary self that I could not say a word. But I grasped his hand, and shook it fervently. I could see that he was moved, for the tears started to his eyes, and he muttered words which were evidently words of emotion. This, however, may have been due to the fact that I got his four fingers in a row, and squeezed them hard.
Then he explained.
“I saw,” he said, “that this state of things could not go on, so I determined to give up novel-writing altogether. To enable me to do this I had to find some other means of living. A lucky thought pointed out the way. I entered for a competition in Scrappy Ravings. I won it. The prize, £10,000 cash down, £1000 a week for life, a motor-car, three houses in Park Lane, an Irish terrier (license for the first year already paid), four doughnuts and a pennyworth of chocolate creams will keep me in affluence for the remainder of my existence. I marry Lady Ermyntrude to-morrow month, and if ever I write another book may I—”
Here words failed him. He kept his vow, and since that day has led a life of unruffled peace. The only moments when he is not thoroughly happy are when tactless friends ask him when he is going to write another novel.
Wuddus: This is the earliest use yet found of this slurred version of Wodehouse’s name in first-person narratives; see the footnote to “Dudley Jones, Bore-Hunter” for more.
Printer’s errors corrected above:
Magazine omitted opening quote before “And how does Lady E...” and comma after “varlet”.