Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Mammon & Co.

Fiction ~ novel
Published 1899
Approx. 102,000 words
(First read 10/09/2013)

In his first decade as a professional writer (1893-1903), E F Benson produced no fewer than 16 [sixteen] novels.  Mammon & Co. is the ninth of them.  It falls into the category, now sadly neglected, of 'society (melo)drama set against a backdrop of stock-market stuff'.
The novel tells the story of five people ... no, six people ... no, seven people ... well, it tells the story of a bunch of people, most of them titled, who, to borrow and adapt a well-loved phrase, swirl about in a rich cesspool of their own making.  Jack and Kit, AKA Lord and Lady Conybeare¹ are a couple who have long since done with living beyond their own incomes and now live beyond other people's ~ and, my dears, they are perfect rotters: all their energies are devoted to their own amusement, at the psychological and financial expense of others.  Still, they make a good living out of it: house at a swanky London address, complete with maids, footmen, etc.; holidays-from-doing-nothing; balls; gambling; the usual.
Into their lives comes the somewhat enigmatic Mr Alington, a commoner of rather dubious origins, who lives and breathes the fetid atmosphere of the stock market.  He persuades Jack to join him in his new cunning plan which involves an Australian ~ literal ~ goldmine.
One evening Kit and one of her snot-nosed pals believe they catch Mr A in that most horribly scandalous of 19th-century crimes, viz cheating at cards.  (Reader, I literally almost got up from my chair to make a cup of tea.)  They plan to blackmail him accordingly ... or something ... I nodded off a bit during this storyline.  Before they're able to do so, Mr A sees Kit apparently doing exactly the same thing ~ a basic knowledge of baccarat would've come in handy here.  To cut a long story mercifully short, nothing comes of all this. [sigh]
Jack, meanwhile, has a brother, Toby, who, despite being kind-of-unattractive-in-a-large-muscular-way, is an utter brick, good egg, and the closest we get to a hero.  He falls for a stereotypical Bensonian heroine (i.e. a cypher) whose one claim to originality is that she's the daughter of an American ... well, two Americans, in fact.  Oh but it's allright, don't worry ~ she was brought up in England and is, consequently, as sublimely perfect an angel as it's possible to be without being employed directly by God.  Her mother, Mrs Murchison, provides the sole comic relief in this farrago of twaddle.  Mrs M is a latterday Mrs Malaprop: she can't open her mouth without producing 'octogeranium' or 'Sir George Eliot' ~ I can guarantee you will be convulsed with tedium at her amusing slips-of-the-tongue.  Listening to EFB describe how 'killing' people find them is far funnier.²
Meanwhile (again), Kit takes her harmless flirtation with a certain Lord Ted Comber just the eentsiest bit too far by permitting him to ~ ahem! ~ boff her, with consequences tragic both to herself and to the cause of English literature.
Mr A reappears and is just about to pull off the greatest coup in the history of insider dealing when ...
But enough plot.  Suffice it to say that a surprising amount of stuff happens in Mammon & Co.  Admittedly none of it is particularly exciting, but it's as eventful as an average non-supernatural (or supernatural, come to that) E. F. Benson.  Its main failing isn't so much an overabundance of dislikeable characters as a lack of focus for our distaste: Jack is cold and slimy; Kit is ... well, Kit is Dodo but, if anything, worse: at one point EFB makes mention of her 'worthless little soul'; Ted is a proto-Georgie Pilson but 50 times worse ~ EFB is utterly venomous about him; Mr A is devious, dishonest, and as slippery as an eel's rectum ...
Ach, what am I doing?! ~ I'm giving the impression I didn't enjoy Mammon & Co.  I did.  It's so full of loathsomeness ~ what's not to like?
But it is twaddle.

¹ No, I haven't made this name up. 
² At one point in her 'comical' drivel, EFB commits the fairly-unpardonable-IMHO sin of self-reference.  He has Mrs M say: '[...] what a wonderful dress she had on this evening!  She made me feel quite a dodo ~ I should say a dowdy.']

On the subject of Mammon & Co., Mr Brian Masters has this to say in his excellent biography of Benson (1991):

With the next book, Mammon & Co, Fred returned to a society theme, with happier results [than in The Vintage and Capsina]Lady Conybeare is a frivolous and heartless beast of the kind he would perfect in his more mature fiction, while Lord Comber is the first portrait of that vain and vapid male sub-hero who would achieve his finest incarnation in Georgie Pillson of the Lucia series twenty to thirty years later.  Comber repairs to the lavatory of his club to apply a little rouge to his make-up and considers the mirror his only uncritical friend.  Here at least Fred is relying upon observation for his characterisation, and one can only speculate which of his friends might have been used as model. 

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