The sudden sob of Miss Postlethwaite, the barmaid at the Angler’s Rest, interrupts the silence of the pub. She has been moved to tears by the novel she is reading, explaining that a man has just gone to India and left his beloved alone outside a moonlit manor. Her anguish attracts the attention of Mr. Mulliner, a regular at the Angler’s Rest, who recognizes the novel and asks what Miss Postlethwaite thinks of it. She says it “lays the soul of Woman bare as with a scalpel.” In fact, she says, the book—which is a sequel of sorts—is even better than its predecessor.
The scene Miss Postlethwaite describes is a cliché of romantic novels, and her reaction is comically emotional. Miss Postlethwaite is a stand-in for the reading public, and the implication is that popular lowbrow tastes are trite and sentimental. Miss Postlethwaite also explicitly links her sentimentality to her gender, bolstering a stereotype that will be reasserted throughout the story—that is, that women as sensitive and dramatic. Finally, that she’s reading the novel’s sequel suggests she’s actually reading words penned by Egbert, not Evangeline,
Mr. Mulliner notes that he has a particular interest in the novel’s author, Evangeline Pembury, who is his niece by marriage. He offers to tell the story of how Evangeline came to be married to his nephew Egbert.
Mr. Mulliner’s interest in the novel shows that he cares about his nephew and niece enough to follow their achievements, indicating that his mockery of their silliness is good-natured rather than viciously satirical.
Mr. Mulliner’s narration begins with Egbert and Evangeline standing on a pier in the moonlight. A breathless Egbert is preparing to ask an important question that he has tried and failed to broach many times before. The night is still, and across the water the couple can hear a band nearby playing the Star of Eve song from the opera Tannhauser. One of the trombone players has gotten his sheet music confused, however, and is playing the “The Wedding of the Painted Doll.”
The moonlit setting is a romantic cliché that echoes the novel Miss Postlethwaite had earlier been reading. Wagner’s Tannhäuser is an opera about romantic love, which further enhances the mood. Egbert’s trepidation makes it seem that he is about to propose. The incongruent trombone humorously undercuts the lovers’ conversation, highlighting the silliness of the way love is portrayed in popular culture.
Egbert had recently come to this seaside village in order to recover from poor health brought on by the strains of his profession as an assistant editor—a well-recognized “Dangerous Trade.” Egbert frequently interviews female novelists, all of whom want to talk about “Art and their Ideals” and how much they love dogs and flowers. This task would take “its toll on the physique of all but the very hardiest” and caused Egbert to have a nervous breakdown. A specialist prescribed rest in order to “augment the red corpuscles.” During his recovery, Egbert met Evangeline at a picnic. He fell in love with her the moment he saw her.
The sentimentality and clichés of women novelists—as symbolized by the image of dogs and flowers—has taken a toll on Egbert’s health. Even though the tone suggests that Egbert’s suffering is overwrought, his doctor takes his illness seriously. The story thus depicts a world in which men take their own feelings seriously while dismissing women for supposedly being excessively emotional—a hypocrisy that adds to the tale’s comedic tone.
On the pier, Egbert does not immediately propose but instead asks with some trepidation whether Evangeline has ever written a novel; his “pet aversion” is a distinct dislike for female novelists. A surprised Evangeline assures him that she has not—nor, she says in response to his subsequent questions, has she written a short story or poems. A newly joyous Egbert professes his love and proposes, and she accepts.
The bait-and-switch from the serious question of marriage to the trivial question of whether Evangeline has written a novel makes the conventions of romantic love seem all the more ridiculous. Egbert’s absurd “aversion” further demonstrates his sexist views about female novelists.
Evangeline, inspired by her feelings for Egbert, writes a novel titled Parted Ways. The next time she and Egbert are together, she reveals what she has done, not realizing how he will react. He manages to hide his horror as she reads her work to him. The book is awful—he considers it “a horrid, indecent production.” Even worse, it’s autobiographical, and Egbert finds that his proposal has been included verbatim. As he hears her read it, he can’t believe that he ever uttered “such frightful horse-radish.” For a moment, Egbert consoles himself with the thought that Evangeline may not be able to find a publisher, but then she announces that she plans to pay the cost of publication herself.
Evangeline’s novel is clichéd and sentimental in exactly the ways Egbert despises. However, the fact that Egbert’s own words are “frightful horse-radish” makes it clear that this kind of silliness is not a specifically female trait—Egbert is just as sentimental as the female novelists he derides. In fact, his hatred of female novelists may be based on his fear that he himself is sentimental and unoriginal. The mention of the cost of publishing, meanwhile, introduces the idea that commercial concerns dictate which novels reach the public.
Evangeline’s publisher is focusing its marketing efforts on a different book titled Offal. As part of this promotion, the publisher has arranged for a series of newspaper articles titled “The Growing Menace of the Sex Motive in Fiction.” However, these marketing efforts fall flat due to a sudden change in popular taste. Up until now, readers have wanted “scarlet tales of Men Who Did and Women Who Shouldn’t Have Done but Who Took a Pop at It.” But now it seems they want wholesome love rather than sexual passion. The fickleness of readers makes “powerful young novelists rush round to the wholesale grocery firms to ask if the berth of junior clerk is still open.” As a result of the public’s newfound interest in wholesome romances, Evangeline’s novel is a massive commercial success. There is speculation in the press about it being adapted into “a play, a musical comedy, and a talking picture.”
Ostensibly, the series of newspaper articles is a serious criticism of lowbrow novels like Offal, but in fact it is intended to boost sales: even apparently intellectual writing is part of a profit-driven industry. Using capital letters to describe the plots of popular novels emphasizes that they are formulaic, and the sudden change in popular taste shows that readers are guided by their whims rather than any sophisticated sense of artistic merit. Publishers cater to the public’s poor and unpredictable taste in order to sell books. Consequently, it is impossible for highbrow art—the work of “powerful young novelists”—to succeed.
Egbert is distressed that Evangeline’s success seems to be changing her. She is unsure of herself at first, but she quickly grows to like talking to the press, and she says her writing is “rhythmical rather than architectural” and claims that she inclines “to the school of the surrealists.” She no longer wants to spend time with Egbert; instead, she writes letters to her fans and gives lectures.
Evangeline’s use of highbrow jargon to describe her poorly-written, unoriginal novel satirizes the pretentiousness of some so-called serious authors. As a comedic writer, Wodehouse himself was used to the literary elite not taking him seriously, so it’s not surprising that he retaliates here by mocking them.
To make matters worse, Evangeline now has a literary agent, Jno. Henderson Banks, who is handsome, snappily dressed, and excessively referential toward his female clients. Egbert is jealous of Banks and demands that Evangeline stop seeing him. She becomes angry and asks if Egbert thinks she is “a subservient creature.” He drops his imperious tone and pleads with her, but she feels insulted and breaks off their engagement with a bitter laugh.
Egbert is heartbroken. To cope with his grief, he throws himself into his work. His experiences have hardened him, and his health now can withstand interviews with female novelists. He impresses his boss by taking on particularly difficult tasks, such as visiting “the No Man’s Land of Bloomsbury” and interviewing a novelist who reduced one of Egbert’s colleagues to “walking round in circles and bumping his head against the railings of Regent’s Park.”
Bloomsbury was the home of a group of artists including the avant-garde novelist Virginia Woolf. It also was the location of Faber & Faber, a publisher known for printing highbrow poetry and criticism. Wodehouse places these highbrow writers on the same level as popular novelists, as columns about both are published in the same magazine, to show that highbrow and lowbrow literature are part of the same industry. The comically exaggerated dangers of Egbert’s profession again show that men take their own feelings seriously while dismissing the allegedly excessive emotions of women.
Egbert is assigned to interview none other than his ex-fiancée, Evangeline Pembury. Arriving in her sitting-room, he feels a pang of emotion, but he hides it. Egbert and Evangeline greet each another formally, as if they are strangers. Egbert notices that she seems “drawn” and “care-worn” but doesn’t mention it. He begins his interview with a series of standard questions: “Are you fond of dogs, Miss Pembury?” “You are happiest among your flowers, no doubt?” She provides the expected answers without seeming very interested, and she offers to “send out for a dog” so that Egbert can take her picture with it.
Egbert and Evangeline’s misery elicits sympathy: the reader is supposed to root for these characters despite their silliness, which is typical of Wodehouse’s good-natured humor. This time, it is Egbert who brings up dogs and flowers. Evangeline’s rote responses suggest that she doesn’t actually care about these sentimental questions, which makes it clear that Egbert himself is the one projecting the stereotype of sentimentality onto female novelists.
Evangeline’s answers continue to be perfunctory until Egbert asks how her novel’s sequel is progressing. In response, she breaks into tears and flings herself onto the sofa, where she chews a cushion “in an ecstasy of grief” and gulps “like a bull-pup swallowing a chunk of steak.” Egbert is deeply moved by this display and goes to comfort her.
Evangeline explains that Jno. Henderson Banks has arranged for her to publish serials and short stories in numerous magazines. She has been paid in advance, but she doesn’t think she will be able to meet her contractual obligations, because she has decided that she hates writing and doesn’t know what to write about. Egbert advises her to cash the checks and spend the money anyway. (In an aside, the narrator, Mr. Mulliner, wryly observes, “It is not the being paid money in advance that jars the sensitive artist: it is the having to work.”)
Although Evangeline was happy to play the public role of a successful novelist, she doesn’t like writing and isn’t very good at it. The narrator’s remark about “sensitive artists” skewers authors who like to be seen as inspired artists (and certainly like to be paid) but are not actually capable of creating high art.
Egbert has a solution to Evangeline’s predicament: he tells her that she doesn’t have to write anymore, because he himself is a failed author who used to write the same kind of “stearine bilge.” He has three novels and twenty stories for which he never found a publisher, and after Egbert and Evangeline are married, she will be free to pass them off as her own. Egbert and Evangeline once again declare their love, sighing rapturously and saying one another’s names.
Egbert’s own writing is just as sentimental and unoriginal as that of the female novelists he claims to despise. Ironically, his novels are only successful once he publishes them under Evangeline’s name, inverting the common historical practice of women writing under men’s names so that their work will be taken seriously. At the same time, the fact that Egbert has to rescue Evangeline from her writer’s block suggests that Wodehouse may share some of his characters’ misogynistic ideas. The story’s happy ending again shows that Wodehouse’s mockery is relatively gentle, as the characters’ silliness is ultimately a minor flaw without any long-term consequences.