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Rumpole and the Constant Reader

May, 2005
By Charles E. Gould, Jr.

In my long tenure at Kent School one of my duties, for a time, was to arrange for an annual lecture on a subject related to Judaism. Kent is essentially an Episcopal school, but an alumnus endowed a fund to support this lecture series, and on one particular occasion it fell to me to entertain a rabbi for an afternoon prior to his evening presentation. This was a pleasant task—he enjoyed his pipe and his glass of gin; but what I remember best is that in the course of looking over my bookshelves he remarked that probably I had read a lot of these books more than once. True enough: an occupational hazard and pleasure of being an English teacher, and I might well have added that there were a great many more books that I had not read at all and probably never would. He, in turn, confided that he had never reread a book—never read the same book twice.

At some point in his fourteen volumes of memoir’s, John Mortimer’s Rumpole of the Bailey remarks that he never reads anything he hasn’t read before, chiefly The Oxford Book of English Verse (the Arthur Quiller-Couch edition) and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. I am a reader after his heart. I reread Dickens and Wodehouse and a few others cyclically; and, though of course a new John Updike is a treat, I am never happier (as Wodehouse’s film stars claim) than among my books, especially the ones I think of myself as knowing almost by heart. Among those are the chronicles of Horace Rumpole. During the winter as I neared completion of the Rumpole cycle once more, I was wishing that perhaps Sir John Mortimer might add another volume to those remarkable memoirs,

at the same time thinking that such might not be very likely. After all, Sir John was born in 1923, and, as Rumpole is fond of quoting, “Love itself must rest.”

Imagine my delight, then, to receive a call from my local bookseller informing me that there was a new one (one thing I rarely read is a newspaper, relying on my bookseller for book news). You double my imagined delight when you recognize, in light of what I’ve said already, that I anticipated reading in the new one something I’d read already! For, indeed, part of the delight in the Rumpole stories is that—in the manner of genius, not in the manner of mindless repetition—they’re all pretty much the same story while each is at the same time brilliantly new. As The New York Times Book Review put it, “Like a sonnet or a concerto, the routine parts of the form only heighten one’s admiration for the variations within it.” The same is true of the Jeeves and Bertie stories and, perhaps to a lesser extent, of the Sherlock Holmes stories; and Rumpole is rightly ranked by several commentators, among them P.D. James, as worthy of being included in that unspeckled band. Jeeves and Holmes and Rumpole always (well, almost always) win. In the Jeeves stories there is often a kind of sub-plot, involving an article of apparel or, in one instance, a moustache, of which Jeeves disapproves and which, as the main plot unfolds itself under Jeeves’s god-like machinations Bertie must sacrifice at his altar. In the Rumpole stories there is usually an analogous sub-plot, often involving some domestic squabble or misunderstanding with his wife, Hilda, known only to Rumpole as “She who must be obeyed,” in their mansion flat, Froxbury Court in the Gloucester Road—some controversy that is resolved along more or less the same thematic lines as whatever crime Rumpole is defending down the Bailey or in the Uxbridge Magistrates’ Court. Bertie yields the purple socks, the white mess jacket, the Old Etonian Spats, the moustache and, among other things, a prized vase, while Rumpole is driven to purchase a Crock-A-Gleam dishwasher, dancing lessons, a new hearth rug, and “a hatch.” The list is marvelously long, and the cleverness with which Sir Pelham and Sir John contrive these witty yet humanly not inconsequential parallels simply cannot be over-praised…and I don’t know where, if anywhere outside of Shakespeare, it is equaled. (And inside of Shakespeare, as Groucho Marx would say, it’s too dark to read.)

The reliability of the settings of these stories is something else they have in common. We always know where we are, because we’ve been there before: Sherlock Holmes’s 221b Baker Street flat, Bertie’s Mayfair (occasionally Manhattan) and country houses, especially Brinkley Manor. Rumpole goes as far from home as Norfolk, Germany, and Florida; but home to him, in roughly ascending order of importance, is Froxbury Court, Gloucester Road; the Tastee-Bite in Fleet Street (for the bacon, sausage, and egg on a fried slice); his Chambers, 4 Equity Court; Pommeroy’s Wine Bar (formerly Vernon’s, now Jack’s); and—his true spiritual home: The Old Bailey. This reliability of setting affords us what one forgotten critic (though I’ve remembered his phrase) terms the “holiday from vulnerability” that Shakespeare’s comedies afford us. Once Shakespeare puts us on Prospero’s isle or in the Forest of Arden, there we are, happily, for two hours’ traffic on the stage, forgetful of the traffic outside on Broadway or Shaftesbury Avenue.

To magnify his brilliant powers of deduction, Holmes has his Watson—a self-deprecating chronicler whose obtuseness, however legendary, is deliberately exaggerated. Similarly, to magnify his brilliant powers of manipulation (often employed simply to get his own way), Jeeves has his Bertie—another self-deprecating chronicler who, as a story-teller at least, is nowhere near as “mentally negligible” as he would allow us to suppose. Rumpole, however, stands alone and without any steady side-kick to make him look good. To magnify his brilliance—which I think is essentially a sense of justice and the brain to see that justice is done—Rumpole has a whole battery of snobs, hypocrites, autocrats, fanatics, fops, and fools: Guthrie Featherstone, “Soapy Sam” Ballard, Hilda and Judge Bullingham, and (God bless him) Hilda’s father, C.H. Wyston. Rumpole usually stays on pretty good terms with almost everybody; but with most of the criminals he defends he is far more sui generis than he is with the lot I have just listed. And that is why he has our respect and love. In the sixties I sneered at lapel pins reading “Question Authority,” but I was young and foolish in the sixties. Now, in my sixties, I am wiser, partly thanks to Rumpole and his great progenitor, both of whose strength to question authority I hold in high esteem.

I have said elsewhere, perhaps to the dismay of some of my former colleagues, that Wodehouse contains as much truth about human nature as Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, or even Homer. I say here that the same is even more incontrovertibly true of Mortimer. He has an oxymoronically unsettling perception of the simultaneity of right and wrong, good and evil in the human breast—or beast—that ultimately is not unsettling but comforting: he sees it and, better yet, he can write it. And we are the better for it. In “In Memoriam Sherlock Holmes,” his Preface to The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Doubleday, 1930), Christopher Morley refers to Conan Doyle as an “infracaninophile”—the helper of the underdog. Christopher Morley coined this “blessed” (as Dorothy Sayers would call it) complex word to define Sir Arthur: “Big in every way, his virtues had always something of the fresh vigor of the amateur, keen, open-minded, flexible, imaginative.” Just as these words apply to his creator, they apply to Holmes himself; and I hope it is not presumptuous to think they apply also to Sir John. Certainly they apply to Rumpole, whose Golden Thread is the Presumption of Innocence, whose motto is “Never Plead Guilty,” who always Defends (on the one rare occasion that he Prosecutes he succeeds in exculpating the defendant), and whose darkest fear is that he himself may some day be “banged up” in the “nick” with his own chamber pot. More than once we hear him mutter, “There but for the grace of God goes Rumpole.” These essential features of his character distinguish him from the large cast of judges (“The Mad Bull” Bullingham, “Mr. Injustice” Graves, known also as “The Gravestone,” and many others) who tend hugely to assume guilt and help the Prosecution. These features strengthen him in his domestic dealings with She Who Must and, in the Penge Bungalow murders, in his professional dealings with his future father-in-law, C.H. Wystan, a barrister of monumental incompetence not only when it comes to bloodstains but, more importantly, when it comes to defending a man who eventually, thanks to Rumpole, is wholly exonerated. Morley’s words apply also, perhaps, to Sir Pelham, and certainly to his monumental creation, Jeeves. Though in every respect professional, these three writers do indeed bespeak that “fresh vigor of the amateur,” and their great creations are “keen, open-minded, flexible, imaginative.” You may well point out here that Jeeves is not open-minded or flexible regarding Bertie’s wardrobe; but when Bertie or one of his feckless pals is in trouble, Jeeves—like Holmes and Rumpole—is the infracaninophile without peer.

Without prying into the lives of their creators, we can’t help noticing that these men of strength and virtue are, in the best sense of the word, strikingly epicene. We know that for Holmes there was once and for all time “The Woman,” Irene Adler, but we don’t know much about that at all, even by Victorian standards. Watson sets it aside: “It is not that he felt any emotion akin to love.” (That, I think, is typically hyperbolic Watsonian nonsense.) We know that Jeeves once had “an understanding,” but that came to naught, even while Bertie and Bingo were engaged to so many girls that if laid end to end they would reach from Piccadilly Circus to Hyde Park Corner—not very likely, of course, and I don’t know whether Wodehouse or Dorothy Parker made that joke first. And of Rumpole’s love life we know but little more. In the current novel we hear of his brief and youthful fling with Daisy Sampson. Since the war he has sustained a crush—maybe a deep love—for Bobbie O’Dougherty, who married “Three-Fingers” O’Dougherty (we are even now not sure, given conflicting accounts, whether he was called “Three-Fingers” because he lost two in combat or because three fingers measured his drop of whisky). In “Rumpole and the Younger Generation,” Rumpole falls in love with Kathy Trelawny—but whatever such love means to him (probably but a dream) is blasted like a withered ear by her decision (for political reasons) to plead guilty in defiance of his defense of her. I think we are meant to perceive that for Miss Phillida Trant (initially “The Portia of our Chambers,” latterly Dame Phillida Erskine-Brown, on the Bench and married to one of the most brilliantly-conceived jerks in the repertoire, whom Rumpole characteristically refuses actually to dislike) Rumpole retains feelings deeper and warmer (in Wodehousean phrase) than those of ordinary friendship. But he is faithful to Hilda—despite her occasional mad supposings, aided by her school-chum Dodo MacIntosh who, when she is not knocking Rumpole, does watercolors of Lamorna Cove in the rain; and all his loves are pale beside his love of being “down the Bailey.” We can’t be sure—don’t need to be sure—how old or viagragational these men are, especially because their creators to some extent lock them in time, however long they keep them going. I think of Holmes and Jeeves as being about forty, but probably Jeeves and maybe Holmes originally were conceived as younger than that. (Well, of course they were so conceived, but you know what I mean.) Rumpole hasn’t aged as fast as I have, but he’s older, and as I turn sixty-one I may be catching up. No matter. It is a pleasure these days to read stories in which sex lurks but doesn’t lurch or lunge but merely lunches. Sir John and Rumpole handle these distinctions with great distinction.

Long awaited, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders is a literary achievement of magnitude. Unlike the untold Sherlock Holmes stories with which Watson entices us—the shocking affair of the Dutch steamship Friesland, the case of Wilson the notorious canary trainer, the repulsive story of the red leech, the story of the Giant Rat of Sumatra “for which the world is not yet prepared,” the singular affair of the aluminum crutch, the curious experience of the Patterson family on the island of Uffa, the story of the politician, the lighthouse, and the trained cormorant—it tells, by means of seamlessly ingenious flashbacks, the story to which Rumpole has alluded for years in almost every other story, the story in which he wins a capital murder case “alone and without a leader.” As the Junior, new and keen and not as yet altogether fearless, he wins the case by virtue, vigor, and an absolute disregard for the prejudice against the Defendant of his Senior (soon to become father-in-law) and the Judge alike. The story turns on Rumpole’s understanding of bloodstains and bullet-paths, but its true literary genius is the retrospective presentation of his relentless humanity and faith in The Presumption of Innocence.

Rumpole defends…. He defends us all. Like Holmes and Jeeves, he sets himself (as so few of us do, really, even after a glance at Pommeroy’s plonk) in defense of the “decent criminal,” the foolish, unfortunate, feckless, and faithful—like so many of us—represented in the stories by that large Timson family thriving south of the Thames or in Brixton Prison, who even as they steal are clean, loving, well-dressed, and civil, as opposed to the Molloys (not sui generis) who are violent liars. Rumpole understands—Sir John may be suggesting—that there’s a little Timson in everyone. Perhaps, with luck, not much Molloy. Rumpole replies with the voice of justice and sanity, the voice of humor and of the precious London rain on the Fleet Street tube station. He is the voice of a marvelous trio of writers, the latest of whom is Sir John Mortimer. Dorothy Parker used to write book reviews under the name “Constant Reader.” (“Tonstant weader frew up” she said of a book of A.A. Milnes’s Christopher Robin poems.) “Constant” means steady and continuous. It also means loyal. In every sense of the word, I am Rumpole’s constant reader.

Recently I heard on NPR part of an interview with Sir John Mortimer’s daughter Emily, the actress, in which she described herself as having appeared naked on stage clad only in custard. In “Rumpole and the New Year’s Resolutions,” Sam Ballard (“Soapy Sam” or “Bollard” in Rumpole’s address book), Head of Chambers, by mistake forwards to Luci Gribble (newly the Director of Marketing and Administration in 4 Equity Court) an e-mail about wanting to undress a woman and cover her with custard and ketchup. It is of course from the obscenity brief he’s doing, and of course he didn’t mean to send it to her, being no more computer-literate than I. It rattles her a bit…though, oddly, as it seems to me, she is not altogether displeased. I’d have been shocked, had I not learned from Sir Arthur, Sir Pelham, and Sir John—and, better yet, from Holmes, Jeeves, and Rumpole—that nothing is shocking if you look at it just right. A little infracaninophilia goes a long way in a wicked world.

Charles E. Gould, Jr., retired from the English department at Kent School, is an antiquarian bookseller and P.G. Wodehouse specialist. He lives in Kennebunkport, Maine.