Egbert Mulliner, the protagonist of “Best Seller,” has one “pet aversion”: female novelists. As an assistant editor at The Weekly Booklover, Mulliner has to interview the female authors of best-selling novels, a task that drains and humiliates him because he sees literary women as vain, haughty, and delusional, and he considers their work unworthy. Mulliner would like to believe that his condescending attitude is the result of his superior taste, but as the story progresses, readers begin to see that Mulliner himself is imposing his own stereotypes on the female writers he interviews. Furthermore, Mulliner is a failed novelist who possesses all of the negative qualities that he ascribes to female authors (namely, vanity and delusional ambitions to seek literary fame with no real talent), so his ideas about female novelists seem actually to have little to do with women—instead, they hold a mirror to his own flaws and his threatened ego, showing his insecurity.
At the story’s beginning, Mulliner’s health is suffering, apparently due to the toll that interviewing silly female novelists has taken. He claims that their relentless sentimentality and clichés (listening to them discuss their “Art and their Ideals” and seeing them in “the cozy corners of boudoirs, being kind to dogs and happiest among flowers”) have nearly driven him to an early death. In describing this, the narrator’s tone is tongue-in-cheek (“The strain of interviewing female novelists takes a toll on the physique of all but the very hardiest”), but the other characters do not mock Mulliner’s fragility—his coworkers and even his doctor take his “illness” seriously, prescribing rest in a seaside town to “augment the red corpuscles” in Mulliner’s bloodstream. Therefore, even as the narrator’s tone presents Mulliner’s suffering as silly and overwrought, the story depicts a world in which men take themselves and their feelings quite seriously while dismissing successful women for allegedly being overly attuned to emotion.
Wodehouse deepens the hypocrisy of his male characters by suggesting that the alleged sentimentality of female novelists (the same sentimentality that wounds the men so deeply) is actually a stereotype projected onto women by male writers like Mulliner. This is clearest at the end of the story when Mulliner interviews his ex-fiancée, Evangeline Pembury, the writer of a best-selling romance novel. Instead of asking about her writing (questions to which she might have interesting or unexpected responses), he asks pointed and trite personal questions—“Are you fond of dogs?” or “You are happiest among your flowers, no doubt?”—to which Evangeline responds with nonchalance. While Mulliner accuses female novelists of thinking only in clichés, this moment makes clear that it’s Mulliner himself who lacks the imagination to ask Evangeline a question that might invite an original response.
Further suggesting that female novelists are unfairly maligned for their alleged sentimentality, Wodehouse alludes periodically to the fact that the public wants sentimentality: after all, it’s the public that makes sentimental novels best sellers. The effect of public demand is clear when Mulliner claims that his publication’s readers want a picture of Evangeline with a dog (a sentimental and clichéd way to photograph a female novelist). It’s not Evangeline herself, then, who loves dogs enough to want to be pictured with them; instead, she must fulfill the expectations of the public in order to please them and continue to profit from her book.
While Evangeline is clearly not the sentimental, silly person that literary men believe her to be, Wodehouse suggests that this characterization might fit the same literary men who dismiss her. For example, Mulliner’s marriage proposal to Evangeline appears verbatim in her novel and, upon reading it, Mulliner is mortified that he ever “polluted the air with such frightful horse-radish.” Clearly Mulliner’s own words are right at home in the types of novels he despises. Furthermore, the end of the story reveals that Mulliner himself wrote a few sentimental novels that he tried and failed to publish. This suggests that his highbrow literary taste disguises his lackluster capabilities as a writer, and also that the best-selling, lowbrow novels that the public sees as being the province of silly women are also written by men. Ironically, it’s not until Mulliner tries to publish the novels under his famous fiancée’s name that he finds success. The story therefore inverts the centuries-old phenomenon of a woman seeking literary recognition by publishing under a man’s name; here, a failed male author uses his fiancée’s name to achieve his once inaccessible dream of becoming a published author.
While Wodehouse generally punctures the male literary delusion that female authors are silly and a drain on literature, he himself sometimes seems to believe his male characters’ own misogynistic ideas. After all, the story ends with Mulliner saving Evangeline from writer’s block by giving her his unpublished manuscripts—the implication being that Evangeline would have been ruined had she not been able to pass off Mulliner’s talents as her own. Furthermore, the barmaid at the beginning of the story, Miss Postlethwaite, is reading the sequel to Evangeline’s novel (which Mulliner wrote and published under Evangeline’s name), and she claims that this novel (Mulliner’s) is even better than the first (Evangeline’s). “It lays the soul of Woman bare as with a scalpel,” she says, which seems to be a female fan affirming that Mulliner’s condescending and silly ideas about women actually reflect the truth.
The Portrayal of Women ThemeTracker
The Portrayal of Women Quotes in Best Seller
“’Slovely,” said Miss Postlethwaite. “It lays the soul of Woman bare as with a scalpel.”
For six months, week in and week out, Egbert Mulliner had been listening to female novelists talking about Art and their Ideals. He had seen them in cosy corners in their boudoirs, had watched them being kind to dogs and happiest when among their flowers. And one morning the proprietor of The Booklover, finding the young man sitting at his desk with little flecks of foam about his mouth and muttering over and over again in a dull, toneless voice the words, “Aurelia McGoggin, she draws her inspiration from the scent of white lilies!” had taken him straight off to a specialist.
Everyone has his pet aversion. Some dislike slugs, others cockroaches. Egbert Mulliner disliked female novelists.
As for his proposal, that was inserted verbatim; and, as he listened, Egbert shuddered to think that he could have polluted the air with such frightful horse-radish.
“Am I a serf?” demanded Evangeline.
“A what?” said Egbert.
“A serf. A slave. A peon. A creature subservient to your lightest whim.”
Ebert considered the point.
“No,” he said. “I shouldn’t think so.”
“No,” said Evangeline. “I am not. And I refuse to allow you to dictate to me in the choice of my friends.”
When a column on “Myrtle Bootle Among Her Books” was required, it was Egbert whom he sent to the No Man’s Land of Bloomsbury. When young Eustace Johnson, a novice who ought never to have been entrusted with such a dangerous commission, was found walking round in circles and bumping his head against the railings of Regent’s Park after twenty minutes with Laura La Motte Grindlay, the great sex novelist, it was Egbert who was flung into the breach.
“Oh, quite,” said Evangeline. “I will send out for a dog. I love dogs—and flowers.”
“You are happiest among your flowers, no doubt?”
“On the whole, yes.”
“You sometimes think they are the souls of little children who have died in their innocence?”