Friday, June 7, 2019

FFB: Wishes Limited - W. A. Darlington

THE STORY: A little bit of Cinderella, a dash of Kafka, and a whole lot of lampooning the publishing world await you in Wishes Limited (1922). The novel begins as a bizarre fairy tale, tosses in a ludicrous parody of "The Metamorph-osis", but turns out to be an often hilarious satire about the creation, publication and public reception of a ribald bestselling novel.

THE CHARACTERS:  John Benstead, burgeoning novelist whose only work so far have been stories and vignettes, is eager to marry Beth, his longtime girlfriend.  To his shock she refuses his ardent proposal. She much prefers to wait until both have enough money to live on.  After some cajoling and begging Beth somewhat begrudgingly agrees to a pact with John -- she will leave him alone for one month and if he can write his first novel, get it published and make enough money she vows to accept his marriage proposal. John immediately sets to work, struggling with ideas for a comic romance modeled on his own failed engagement.  After multiple starts and stops and mountains of crumpled and torn up paper he wishes for help and poof -- or rather CRASH! -- his fairy godmother Florinelle appears direct from the ceiling.

Florinelle is far from your average fairy godmother.  For one she's looks about sixteen years old, much younger than 27 year-old John. She arrives costumed stylishly -- a short yellow flapper dress "cut low at the neck," "extremely high heeled shoes, a floppy black hat" and carries instead of a magic wand "a brilliant sunshade." For another she's plagued with labor problems. It seems that the fairy world has been overrun with union rules and the djinns and other fairy creatures who do all the real magical work are unhappy and are threatening to strike. She has been hard at work trying to appease them. But she heard John's plea for help and will do her best to fulfill his dreams. Then she begins to outline the rules: only one wish every 30 days, wishes are limited to twelve words and no more ("Oh! like a telegram, " says John), and Rule 7 (one of the least favorite mortals like to hear) no wishes for money or jewels. She needs John to make his wish soon as she's on the Conciliation Committee and they're very busy and she needs to get back to avert the impending strike. And so John carefully words his wish to be a bestselling novelist and Florinelle waves her sunshade and it's done. John finds it hard to believe it was so instantaneous, but keeps his mouth shut.

Possible colleague of Florinelle? John's fairy
has blond plaits and shuns cigarettes
(illustration by Lewis Baumer)
As she is about to leave Florinelle lets John know that she had to turn his next door neighbor into a black beetle because he frightened her as she appeared through the wall of his apartment on the way into John's home. John is concerned and pleads with her to turn him back into a man. But she reminds him of Rule 19 - one wish per 30 days -- and says he'll have to wait until next month. Then as abruptly as she arrived Florinelle vanishes. We don't hear from her again for many pages. Upon her exit havoc ensues.

The novel Hidden Souls appears in bookstores overnight, becomes all the rage but for all the wrong reasons. Instead of the harmless comic romance John planned on the book is a tawdry potboiler, with several racy scenes, and lots of shocking language. It horrifies John that his name is on the front cover.  As if that isn't enough to deal with he finds himself entrusted with the care of Mr. Spalding (now a black beetle) and he carries his neighbor everywhere in a small box, always looking for a safe place to stow him and spending too much time consulting with his friends on the proper diet for a black beetle.  Needless to say his friends and relatives don't think much of John's sudden transformation into a "modern" writer indulging in eccentricities like taking up with strange insect pets. John somehow manages to keep Mr. Spalding safe from harm despite many close calls with insecticide, household pets and overfeeding with grease and bad greens.

The whole novel has a raucous Wodehousian feel, the humor is both witty and ridiculous. John has an aristocratic male confidante, there are old biddies and matriarchs on nearly every page expressing their outrage about Hidden Souls, saucy servants talk back, a couple of ivy-covered professors including a confused entomologist pontificate, and Beth who wants to believe John's outrageous tale grows impatient with his excuses for why she must wait a full month for genuine proof of magical events. Darlington balances all his farcical elements with some trenchant attacks on the world of bestsellers, the hazards of becoming an instant sensation, and the wild fancies of rabid fans of pop lit.

I was especially pleased when Darlington added a final twist in the climax involving the magical transformation of Mr. Spalding's return to human form. John's ingenious plan backfires and he is accused of a crime leading to a farcical courtroom scene that British writers always seem to excel in.

QUOTES:  Rose, the second housemaid, appeared in the doorway. She was a rural product, with robust health and limitless amiability which accompany complete lack of brain.

He felt an outcast. He would have felt a pariah, if he had been quite certain how to pronounce it.

"Please!" she said, putting her whole soul and about seventeen E's into the word.

It is not easy to know how to begin a conversation with a lady upon whom, last time you saw her, you committed assault and battery. The books of etiquette, which overflow with advice on How to Eat Asparagus and Remain a Gentleman, What to Do with Your Cherry-stones, or the Correct Form of Address to the Wife of a Rural Dean, are silent upon such problems of everyday life as this.

THINGS I LEARNED: When John misplaces Mr. Spalding early in the book he asks his landlady if she has seen any black beetles around.  She replies that there is one but "he's that artful you wouldn't believe." She puts down Keating's everywhere but the bug "goes around it as clever as a Christian."  I figured this was some form of insecticide. And it was. A very popular one as it turns out with some hysterical looking advertisements like the one shown at right.

John takes Beth to Coldstream for their honeymoon. "You know, where the Guards come from." John's noted to have been a former rugby player back in his university days and I thought he meant the Coldstream Guards were an athletic team. But no, he means "the oldest regiment in the British Regular Army in continuous active service" as the Guards state on their own website. The group date back to the days of Cromwell when it was known as Monck's Regiment and was based in Coldstream, Scotland. Only after George Monck's death did the Regiment become known as Coldstream Guards.

W. A. Darlington by Lafayette (14 August 1928)
courtesy of National Portrait Gallery website
THE AUTHOR: William Aubrey Cecil Darlington (1890-1979) was primarily known for being the leading theater critic for Daily Telegraph during the 1920s.  He also served a stint as London Drama Corespondent for the New York Times. In addition to his criticism and theater writing he penned four comic fantasy novels, the most successful being Alf's Button (1919) which tells the story of a soldier who inadvertently releases a genie (or djinn as Darlington prefers) when he rubs one of his uniform buttons. He later discovers the button was manufactured from scrap metal that originally was an ancient Arabian lamp. Alf's Button was subsequently turned into a hit stage play and was filmed three separate times in 1920, 1930 and 1938, this last version starred Alistair Sim as the Genie and a group of comedians known as "the Crazy Gang" as the soldiers. Thanks to those extremely popular adaptations the book remained in print for close to four decades. The latest edition I uncovered was dated 1956. A less popular sequel appeared in 1928 called Alf's Carpet which I will be reviewing later this year.

Among Darlington's extensive non-fiction works are The Actor and His Audience (1949) and Through the Fourth Wall (1920), a collection of essays on theater, performance, and remembrances on actors and actresses of the early 20th century, all of which first appeared in Daily Telegraph. He also wrote biographies of Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1933) #15 in Great Lives; J. M. Barrie (1938) and Laurence Olivier (1968), more an appreciation of Olivier's movie acting, published as part of "Great Contemporaries", and only 92 pages.

EASY TO FIND? As of this writing there are exactly four copies of Wishes Limited offered for sale. There is only one hardcover edition and no other English language edition at all. None of the copies offered come with a dust jacket which frustrates me because the other DJs of Darlington's works are attractively designed and illustrated (see photo at right). Like many of Herbert Jenkins' books the front board is stamped with a cartoon illustration. In this case it appears to be a gigantic version of Mr. Spalding in beetle form chasing poor John. But such a scene never occurs in the book. The beetle remains regular sized throughout the story.


  1. This sounds right up my street but - ouch - it's quite expensive. I hope to stumble across a cheaper copy in a second hand bookshop - eventually.

    1. I anticipate that WISHES LIMITED will appear in a POD copy by the end of this year. This usually happens when I unearth a delightful book and original copies are scarce. Would you like to take bets how soon it will turn up? :^)

    2. No! I'm too sure that you are correct.